The Coast Guard's Starboard/Port Mission

HAVING failed to live up to its motto - Semper Paratus (Always Ready) - the Coast Guard is sure to take its share of blame for a slow response after the Exxon Valdez grounding. But before assailing the Coast Guard, Congress should pause a moment and review how its own actions helped set the stage for this disaster. Since the Coast Guard's creation in 1915, Congress has insisted that the service remain a ready armed force at all times, not just during wartime. During the 1970s, however, Congress inundated the Coast Guard with new environmental regulatory duties, including responsibility for the safe movement of vessels in United States waters and efficient oil-spill cleanup plans when trouble strikes.

This armed-force, civil-regulator combination has resulted in a kind of organizational schizophrenia, with the Coast Guard's self-image and attention span seesawing back and forth between the two.

Environmental concerns dominated the 1970s. Even the Coast Guard's recruiting ads highlighted its humanitarian purposes. Then Congress became alarmed over the Coast Guard's dwindling military capabilities.

In 1981, the commandant told Congress that 90 percent of his budget went for nondefense activities and that only 4 percent of his most combat-capable ships were fully ready to carry out their wartime duties. Congress's response: ``Semi-Paratus: The US Coast Guard,'' a report encouraging the service to cooperate more with the Department of Defense to improve its military preparedness.

So the 1980s became a period of military renaissance for the Coast Guard. The agency's energies focused on the war against drugs and the preparation of plans to protect our ports and coasts from covert and overt Soviet threats. Each year dozens of Coast Guard war games involving tens of thousands of man-hours were held to test these war plans.

Unfortunately, just as the preparation against hostile foreign threats were taking shape, an enemy from within struck on March 24, releasing 240,000 barrels of oil along the Alaskan coastline.

Ironically, after the failure of both Exxon's and the Coast Guard's oil-spill contingency plans, a desperate Coast Guard gladly accepted help - with Exxon paying the bill - from none other than a Soviet oil-skimming vessel.

As long as Congress continues to insist that the Coast Guard be ready at all times for war and, at the same time, ensure that the environment is protected from the maritime industry, the agency will be prone to wild swings in its ability to carry out both tasks simultaneously.

Resource and ethical pressures within the Coast Guard have generated a hawk-and-dove atmosphere. Those favoring protection of the environment (the majority) are at odds with those favoring military preparedness. The two tasks simply don't mix well.

What is needed now is balance, not more conflict. The danger is that an emotional aftershock of the Exxon Valdez incident will signal another 1970s-like swing of the pendulum toward environmental protection and leave in its wake a trail of military rot. To prevent this from happening, Congress should carefully weigh the service's future military and regulatory duties - and then provide the resources to perform both tasks well.

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