New London - Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr. said this is the "worst fiscal mess" he has seen in his 38 years in the Coast Guard.
The fiscal cliff was not solved, it was "kicked down the road a bit," Papp, the Coast Guard commandant, said. Four months into the fiscal year, the government is operating under a continuing resolution instead of a new budget and Congress still has to make a decision on the debt ceiling.
"That, my friends, in sailors' terms, is the 'perfect storm,'" he said.
Papp, who graduated from the academy in 1975, gave his annual leadership address at the Coast Guard Academy Wednesday and explained his theory on proficiency to the corps of cadets, telling them they need to be highly competent in their craft and as leaders.
He also asked for their help in confronting problems such as alcohol abuse, sexual assault and inappropriate relationships. Seven graduates of the Class of 2011 were not promoted to lieutenant junior grade on time because of their involvement in an alcohol incident or an inappropriate relationship, Papp said.
"These activities have no place in our Coast Guard," he said. "I have faith in our ability to deal with these issues as we go forward because there's simply no higher responsibility we have as leaders than to make sure everyone is safe, secure and well taken care of."
Cadets who spoke in the question-and-answer session all wanted to know how the looming budget cuts and downsizing of the military would affect the Coast Guard and their school. The "fiscal cliff" deal signed by the president this month put off the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration until March 1.
If sequestration does occur, Papp said, he will try to keep the same number of people in the Coast Guard. Military pay would not be affected. Rather, the cuts would come from operational discretionary funding - the accounts that include money for training and getting ships under way, he said.
The Coast Guard is working on contingency plans and already prioritizing its missions because even today, Papp said, there are not enough resources and people to complete all missions all of the time.
"You probably have heard the expression, 'they're making us do more with less.' 'We all have to do more with less.' I'm trying to dispel that rumor," Papp said. "… If you decrease the resources of the Coast Guard, you can expect less Coast Guard services."
This summer when the Coast Guard sent ships, aircraft and personnel to the Arctic because Shell Oil was drilling there, Papp said, he did not send ships to participate in Navy exercises in th e Pacific for the first time in many years, and the Coast Guard spent less time interdicting drugs and intercepting fishing boats using illegal drift nets.
Hayley Smith, a freshman cadet who had asked about the fiscal cliff, said she and her classmates are worried about the future. Her class, which started this summer with 248 students, is the smallest in more than a decade. A typical class starts with close to 300 students.
"We've been told the classes coming in are getting smaller and smaller, and it's such a small organization already," she said. "It's hard enough just to get into the academy, so there is concern about how this will affect our future careers. Is it going to be harder to get certain positions within the Coast Guard?"
Papp told cadets there may be smaller classes at the academy in the future. But he didn't say how small, since he doesn't know yet how many new officers the Coast Guard will need - and be able to pay for - in the coming years. Junior officers will notice less of an impact, but fewer senior officers are being promoted, he said. Last year, one out of every two captains had to retire.
Papp said that despite the challenges ahead, he was optimistic that lawmakers in Washington would solve the fiscal crisis.
"You have a future to look forward to," he told the cadets. "There will be a United States Coast Guard. It may be in a different form but there will be a United States Coast Guard and we'll continue to need proficiency in leadership and craft."
Richard Etheridge, who was been born into slavery and became the first black man ever appointed keeper of a U.S. Lifesaving Station, is a perfect example of proficiency, Papp said. Etheridge was given the position, on Pea Island on the Outer Banks in North Carolina, in 1880, despite the racism of the time, because the service needed skilled professionals like Etheridge, Papp said. A Coast Guard cutter is now named after Etheridge.
Proficiency is the key to success in the Coast Guard, Papp said.
"It's what the oath you took requires, what the service requires and what the American people expect of us."
Before returning to Washington, D.C., Papp will meet with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy today in Hartford to discuss plans for the National Coast Guard Museum in New London. Papp said the National Coast Guard Museum Association will show him a model and engineering plans next month and an announcement of the site could follow soon thereafter.