LOS ANGELES (AP) — Strapped with an aging fleet, the U.S. Coast Guard is about to award a contract for a much-needed new icebreaker to help compete against Russia and China for a presence in the Arctic, but the service needs more funding for operations and infrastructure, its commandant said Thursday.
Adm. Karl Schultz also outlined the Coast Guard's plans to improve conditions for women and minorities in an annual address to personnel at the Port of Los Angeles, which combined with nearby Long Beach harbor form the world's eighth-largest port complex.
Schultz said he appreciated the resources in the federal budget, but "to be an absolutely ready, relevant and responsive service, requires a 5 percent annual increase in operating and support funding."
"As Congress makes tough final decisions and looks to the best ways to spend the nation's precious resources, there's not a better return on investment in government than your United States Coast Guard," he said.
Funding for operational support has been flat for the past eight years, resulting in deferred maintenance, a strained and undersized workforce, antiquated information systems and a backlog in shore infrastructure needs that now exceeds $1.7 billion, he said.
Besides the backlog, Schultz said the Coast Guard needs modern infrastructure at home ports for its newest ships, including those sent to the North and South poles.
The admiral said he was greatly concerned about the nation's limited icebreaking capability in the resource-laden, geo-strategically important polar regions while countries such as Russia and China are expanding icebreaker fleets, bases and, as a result, their influence in the region.
The Coast Guard has only two icebreakers, one medium and one heavy polar-class ship. The latter is 43 years old and well past its service life, Schultz said. The USCGC Polar Star's crew recently had to devise repairs to damage that caused flooding while the ship was heading back to its port in Seattle after delivering supplies to Antarctica.
There is funding for one new icebreaker and materials for a second, he said, but added that the Coast Guard needs a total of six icebreakers.
The Coast Guard's top officer said personnel did vital work while not being paid during this year's partial government shutdown and outlined initiatives to address issues facing female and minority service members.
The service has been under fire for its handling of sexual harassment and racial discrimination at its academy in New London, Connecticut.
A report last year from the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general found the Coast Guard failed to adequately respond to a female faculty member's complaints of sexual harassment in 2015 and 2016 and subjected her to additional harassment after she made them.
The report recommended extra training for supervisors and managers on discrimination, harassment and bullying policies. The academy was already the subject of a congressional investigation for harassment, bullying and discrimination against minority cadets.
"My vision for the Coast Guard is that every member of our team has the right and the expectation to come to a safe workplace, to be part of a service that values them as an individual, free from threats and discrimination," Schultz said.
He said he was committed to real change on issues including child care and housing.
A study commissioned last year to determine why women stay on the job at a disproportionately lower rate than men will be released next week, and a task force will find ways to implement recommendations, Schultz said.
He announced a policy to use surge staffing from the reserve corps to backfill positions when service members are on leave as well as for new parents.
"Now our truly dedicated women can better focus on their families and their well-being without worrying about the impacts of their absence on their workplace and their colleagues," Schultz said.
A similar study will be undertaken this spring to look at recruitment and retention of underrepresented minorities to make the service more reflective of the nation, he said.
Senior leaders will consider changes including easing tattoo policies, removing single-parent disqualifiers and revising outdated wage standards, he said.
Watson reported from San Diego.