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Pacific area Coast Guard boss says service needs more money for global operations

Vice Adm. Fred M. Midgette

U.S. COAST GUARD

By CARL PRINE | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: April 18, 2018

SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — He commands U.S. Coast Guard forces from the shores of East Africa to the Rocky Mountains, rescuing mariners at sea, enforcing fishing laws, interdicting smugglers and protecting America’s ports, and Vice Adm. Fred M. Midgette says his Coasties need more money.

In a Wednesday morning speech laying out the state of the nation’s smallest military force, the commander of Coast Guard Pacific Area said at the San Diego Military Affairs Council meeting at Naval Base Point Loma that Congress could chip in more to fund global maritime operations.

“We have a rich man, poor man story that’s going on right now,” Midgette said.

The Coast Guard runs on about a $10 billion annual budget, and staffing is 60 percent of that. While Congress has increased spending on capital projects such as building new cutters and a heavy icebreaker, Midgette said lawmakers have skimped on what he calls the “lubrication that makes the gears work” — the $3 billion earmarked for funding sea and air operations worldwide.

“That’s been squeezed hard,” he said. “And it’s been squeezed hard for four, five, six years now, even below the sequestration cuts that came out on federal spending. The Coast Guard was operating even below those.”

Over the past decade, Congress paid the military's bills with a series of continuing resolutions, with fewer funds flowing to the armed forces due to spending caps enacted in 2011's so-called “sequestration” legislation.

That deal between Capitol Hill and the White House forestalled a federal debt default but it cut deeply into the military’s spending on readiness and some operations.

The Coast Guard draws funding from both the Department of Defense and Homeland Security, the agency that controls it, and saw reductions in both budgets.

Midgette knows something about operations. He’s the 14th “Gold Ancient Mariner of the Coast Guard,” an honor bestowed on the officer with more than a decade of accumulated time at sea and who has worn the service’s “cutterman” insignia the longest.

A Virginia native, Midgette, 57, has commanded four cutters and served aboard the Taney, Point Ledge, Point Winslow, Katmai Bay, Harriet Lane and Forward, plus the Coast Guard’s barque Eagle and the Navy destroyer Fife.

Today, his Alameda-based command covers half the earth’s waters and he eyes resurgent Pacific powers such as China and Russia launching their own coast guard fleets to challenge American might in hot spots such as the Arctic Ocean and the South China Sea.

Midgette’s Coast Guard is the only armed American maritime presence in the Arctic, where melting sea ice continues to open up new shipping routes and natural resources coveted by other nations, eight of which border the polar region.

“That’s really the gateway to the United States from the top of the world,” he said. “And there are folks really going gangbusters building in that part of the world right now.”

To exploit the Arctic and other frigid waterways, the Russians have 44 icebreakers, with 10 more under construction and three new vessels planned.

The U.S. Coast Guard has two, although Congress budgeted $750 million this year to build a new one.

“You can have a paper presence, which we have a good time of the year, when we talk about how we ‘own the Arctic.’ Or you can be up there in force and claim your sovereignty that way,” Midgette said.

Midgette’s mariners have long regulated the $6 billion fishing industry in Alaska but his patrols increasingly target the central and west Pacific Ocean to combat illegal and unreported floating factories that stay at sea for years, offloading their catch to other vessels to try to circumvent international laws.

He calls it “money laundering but with fish” and it’s a national security issue for Oceania island nations. Up to 80 percent of their gross domestic product stems from fishing, which they also rely on for food.

The U.S. Coast Guard has been the ringleader in a pact of Pacific nations that includes Japan, South Korea and China — countries that often squabble but united to enforce fishing rules so that the global catch doesn’t collapse.

“It’s a bright spot in an area where there’s otherwise a lot of friction,” Midgette said.

It hasn’t been so bright on another front. Although the Coast Guard continues to set annual records for the amount of cocaine interdicted at sea, smuggling operations have shifted away from the Caribbean Sea to a vast six million mile stretch of the Pacific Ocean.

Midgette estimates that his cutters intercept only about one out of every five boats trying to get narcotics to North America.

The narco-syndicates behind the shipments are destabilizing several Central American countries with corruption, chaos and crime.

“When you end up with 60,000 kids on your southwest border and you wonder what’s going on, I’ll tell you that maybe some of that has to do with the place they used to live is so violent that people are leaving it. There are many reasons, I understand that, but violence is certainly one of them.

“You don’t have to go to the Middle East or Afghanistan to find the highest homicide rates in the world, they’re right here in El Salvador and Guatemala. And it’s all being driven by drugs,” he said.

cprine@sduniontribune.com

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