Commandant Thad Allen on the future of the Coast Guard

By Hope Katz Gibbs
The Wire / National Press Club

At his annual State of the Union address today at the National Press Club, Adm. Thad W. Allen, commandant of the Coast Guard, said he is concerned about the cuts in the agency’s 2011 budget proposed by President Obama.

Funding is expected to drop by 3% to $10.1 billion, and active-duty personnel would decrease by up to 1,100, to approximately 41,984, he explained, noting that the budget contains nearly $1.4 billion to replacing aging ships and equipment, especially high endurance cutters. Of 12 cutters assigned to the relief efforts in Haiti, he said 10 have broken down and three were forced to return to port or dry dock due to propeller or propeller-shaft problems.

Getting those ships repaired or replaced is one of his top priorities before he retires in May, he insisted.

Questions from the audience

When asked whether climate change has increased the Coast Guard’s job in the region around Alaska, Allen said: “When it comes to whether global warming is a reality, I’m agnostic on the matter. But what I do know is that there is more water in the region, and it’s my job to protect it. Some say it is mission creep and not our responsibility. I say it is, and we need to have more conversations about what to do about it.”

Why can’t the Coast Guard put an end to piracy? “There are not a lot of consequences for the pirates wreaking havoc on international waters,” Allen said. “Ships that are low and slow are more vulnerable. We do regular security checks, but until there are legal sanctions put into place in many countries, we won’t be able to control this problem.”

Would Allen like to reverse the don’t ask, don’t tell policy that prohibits gay sevice members from publicly acknowledging their sexuality? “I couldn’t if I wanted to,” he said. “It’s part of the law, and a review is underway. But I can say that we seek diversity in the Coast Guard because when you have people working with you from different religions, races and varying points of view, you have cognitive diversity. Better decisions can be made, and we welcome that.”

The future of the Coast Guard

As for how the Coast Guard will change in coming years, Allen was insistent that some things should not change — such as the dedication of the Coast Guard to uphold its 11 missions (to protect the ports, waterways and coastal security, perform drug interdiction, be an aid to navigation, perform search and rescue missions, provide living marine resources and marine safety, defense readiness, migrant interdiction, marine environmental protection, ice operations, and other law enforcement).

Allen said he embraces the technological changes that are certain to come, such as improvements to machinery and equipment such as the ailing cutters, as well as other resources the Coast Guard uses to conduct business.

During his tenure, the Coast Guard took significant steps toward embracing social media. It now manages eight websites, two blogs and has a presence on YouTube, in addition to a Facebook page and Twitter and Flicker accounts.

“For several years, there was information out there about the Coast Guard that wasn’t correct,” he said. “You can let it stand and suffer, or you can fill the space with your own information. We chose to fill the space.”

On a personal note

Regarding what he will he do when he retires on May 26, Allen said that is likely going to follow in the footsteps of many of his predecessors.

“The smartest admirals I ever met are retired,” he said. “And, no, I don’t intend on buying a boat.”