Many of us, both in Alaska and across the country, have seen the Coast Guard coming out of the sky to rescue our fellow Americans when they are in trouble on the seas. I’ve heard them aptly described as angels in helicopters. When they show up, you’ll witness America at its very best.
But the brave men and women of the Coast Guard do so much more than save people on the seas. They help in natural disasters. They perform drug interdictions — in the last two years, they’ve interdicted more than 900,000 pounds of cocaine, more than the efforts of all of the U.S. law enforcement entities combined. Their mission also includes ice-breaking, marine environmental protection, port security, and international crisis response. They are serving on the frontline on all seven continents and in more than 100 countries. They are deployed in the Middle East. Right now, they are in the Persian Gulf — serving side-by-side with the Marines — again, risking their lives for our national security.
On Kodiak Island, we have the crown jewel of Coast Guard bases, and we’re also home to the largest district in the country, which is one of the reasons I fought to be on the Commerce Committee, where I chair the subcommittee in charge of the Coast Guard. In an average month in our state, the Coast Guard saves 22 lives. It also combats illegal fishing in waters surrounding our state—which is vital to our fishing industry. Further, the Coast Guard is taking an increasingly important role in a changing Arctic environment that is becoming a growing area of strategic importance.
Because of all of its many missions and its importance to Alaska and to the rest of the country, I was surprised when I came into office to see the Coast Guard planning to cut its assets in Alaska as part of its recapitalization effort. Had I been in office when that decision was being made, I would have done everything I could to stop it. Instead, with the support of many community leaders in our state — along with a well-timed confirmation hearing of the new Coast Guard Commandant — we did everything we could to reverse the decision. And we were successful.
Last April, the Commandant announced the Coast Guard’s new force laydown for Alaska: four more fast response cutters are being built and slated for Alaska. Two of the FRCs will be home-ported in Kodiak, one in Seward, one in Sitka, and two previously commissioned FRCs will remain stationed in Ketchikan. Additionally, Petersburg and Juneau will be receiving additional large Coast Guard patrol boats. In the coming years, Kodiak will also be receiving two Offshore Patrol Cutters (OPCs) and is receiving three more C-130Js in addition to two that are already here.
Earlier this year, Congress appropriated $53 million for the infrastructure to support these new vessels, giving many of our Southeast communities significant investments in infrastructure and local housing. Twenty-two million dollars of that investment will be for Kodiak to build the shoreside infrastructure necessary to support the arrival of the FRCs and OPCs.
Further, we are at long last making real progress on icebreakers. In the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, I secured a provision that authorized the scheduled purchase of six Polar-class icebreakers. Earlier this year, Senator Murkowski played a key role in the appropriation of close to $700 million for the building of what will be the first of many of these polar security cutters.
As other nations, like Russia and China, are ramping up activity in the Arctic, these icebreakers will be a critical component to our increasing investment in assets capable of exerting influence and responding to contingencies in the Arctic.
We’ve come a long way and we are far from done. Just as we’ve beefed up assets and personnel in the other branches of the service — which were cut 25 percent from 2010 to 2015 — we will continue to work to get more Coast Guard resources to the men and women who need them to continue to protect our citizens and our national security.
Finally, we are currently working on another Coast Guard Reauthorization Act, which will support the Coast Guard in carrying out vessel capitalization and infrastructure development, and continue to support its full range of critical missions to save lives, protect our waterways and coastlines, protect the marine environment, and block illegal traffickers and smugglers. The bill will authorize the Coast Guard for Fiscal Years 2020 through 2021.
During the most recent government shutdown, I introduced legislation to ensure that the men and women of the Coast Guard — just like the members of all of the other service branches — get paid while the government was shut down. It was wrong that members of the Coast Guard, who were putting their lives on the line every day, weren’t receiving a paycheck. I’m trying to ensure that this situation doesn’t happen again. In the bill that we’re currently debating, we included a provision to ensure that Coast Guardsmen will receive normal pay and allowances during a lapse in appropriations. This will prevent the unacceptable situation that occurred earlier this year.
In closing, I want to thank all of the brave members of our Coast Guard, and their families, for all they do for us. With the Coast Guard “always ready,” our country is in a position of tremendous strength. We owe you a profound debt of gratitude for what you do for our great state and country. And to the family members who are by your side: know that you, too, are serving our country.