WASHINGTON — The Coast Guard will step up operations in the increasingly contested Arctic region, crack down on illegal fishing and forced labor, and improve response to oil spills under legislation approved Wednesday by a Senate committee wary of competition from Russia and China.
Members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee said the Coast Guard’s mission grows in importance as melting ice in the Arctic creates a new frontier for economic and shipping opportunities. Russia and China are developing a robust military presence in the region, with Russia having the largest icebreaker fleet in the world and China planning to build the largest icebreaker.
To address this emerging threat, lawmakers want to authorize $841 million for a third Polar Security Cutter icebreaker vessel for the Coast Guard and $20 million to establish an Arctic Security Cutter program office, which will begin work on the next generation of medium icebreakers.
“We’re not just talking about the Arctic in theory, but we’re making real investments,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, Marine Corps Reserve colonel and committee member.
Service members, or “Coasties,” should also see more options for child care, better access to affordable housing, and expanded opportunities for medical care and education as they fulfill their mission to protect ports and waterways and secure the maritime economy, according to the Coast Guard Authorization Act for fiscal years 2022 and 2023.
The bill would authorize $14.94 billion for the service for fiscal year 2023, which begins Oct. 1. That would equate to a 21.5% budget increase over fiscal year 2021. The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee overwhelmingly advanced the legislation Wednesday.
“In my opinion, the Coast Guard is often overlooked on many issues – funding, support, retirement…I am pleased to say that this bill makes good progress in a few areas that will bring the Coast Guard to what the other service in the military,” Sullivan said.
The Coast Guard is the only military branch that falls outside the jurisdiction of the Department of Defense and instead operates in peacetime under the Department of Homeland Security. In wartime, it may be transferred to the Navy by order of the President or Congress.
Lawmakers said they were also prioritizing efforts to end illegal fishing and forced labor on the high seas, acts largely committed by China. The bill calls for new enforcement and coordination to catch illegal fishermen and provides new training for Coast Guard personnel to identify instances of oppressive child labor in the international fishing industry.
Another top priority is to improve the Coast Guard’s response to oil spills across the country, said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., chair of the committee. The legislation requires the creation of a new program to improve response operations and a national study of regional and local oil spill response plans and their effectiveness.
The size of the Coast Guard will remain the same as in previous years, with an active force of 44,500 people, according to the bill.
Service members are set to see several new benefits under the legislation.
The Coast Guard’s Child Care Grant Program will receive a 56% funding increase, giving families more help paying for nannies or other types of child care. A new pilot program would help families with fertility treatments while another will allow members to request a transfer to accommodation near fertility treatment facilities.
Lawmakers are pushing the Coast Guard to improve access to affordable housing, pointing to skyrocketing costs in coastal communities where units are often based. The national housing shortage, aging Coast Guard housing and short-term vacation rentals have left many families with no choice, the senators said, and the Coast Guard must study and develop a workable plan to address the problem. .
The Coast Guard would also be required to develop a 10-year strategy to increase diversity within its ranks and establish a partnership program with an institution serving underrepresented communities, according to the bill. A study last year found that the representation of women and minorities decreased as rank rose.
“These demographics are largely the cumulative effect of the department’s personnel system in which the pool of potential senior leaders shrinks at each stage of the career lifecycle, as well as the number of applicants from underrepresented groups. “, according to Rand Corp., the study of the study. author.
Further legislative measures are planned to improve military access to medical care and training. The bill establishes a behavioral health policy for the Coast Guard and authorizes research into expanding telemedicine to remote stations such as Cape Disappointment in Washington state.
Another provision increases limits on the number of members who can enroll in postgraduate programs, in an effort to increase the number of Coast Guard members who train in the medical field.
The senators said they are also seeking to crack down on sexual assault, within the Coast Guard and the shipping industry. Their bill would expand penalties for failing to report sexual assault and harassment at sea and give the Coast Guard the power to revoke the credentials of sailors who have committed certain sex crimes.
An additional provision establishes a process for mariners to report crimes to the Coast Guard.
“Despite the lack of resources, our men and women of the Coast Guard continue to fulfill their mission of saving American lives, protecting our homeland and ensuring the safety of maritime transport,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss . “This bill would provide substantial support to these men and women.
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