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 December 2007 

Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell, Jr., USAF (Ret)Coast Guard’s Innovative Spirit Needed By All

December 2007

by Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell, Jr., USAF (Ret)

Innovation is one of those great leadership challenges that is not easy to define but is obviously a necessity of every successful organization.

That brings me to the Coast Guard’s just concluded technology exhibition in New Orleans, where the theme of innovation not only applied to the maritime systems on display but also more broadly to the current debate about the future of our nation’s security.

Like the larger military services, the Coast Guard is very much focused on technological improvements and the revitalization of its aging equipment, despite ongoing challenges in its Deepwater modernization program. But the Coast Guard, maybe more than other military organizations, has recognized the need to couple the advances in technology with non-material improvements that result in better value for the taxpayer dollar.

The message to industry and government attendees at the conference was clear: a culture of innovation is key not only to the Coast Guard’s ability to carry out its mission but also to the broader challenges facing the United States. One of the highlights of the event was a candid government-industry exchange hosted by Commandant Vice Adm. Thad Allen.

The Honorable Jay Cohen, the Department of Homeland Security’s undersecretary for science and technology, outlined the agency’s ambitious goals — rapid development of “game changing” technologies for maritime and cargo security, counter shoulder-fired missiles, persistent surveillance, storm surge mitigation, levee strengthening and repairs, countering improvised explosive devices and assisting first responders.

Cohen’s enthusiasm about the power of technology to change the world also is a reminder that there is never enough money and resources to address every possible challenge.

This is where innovation truly becomes a necessity, especially as the nation confronts what could be a dire financial future.

That sobering economic forecast came from the Honorable David Walker, comptroller general of the United States, who addressed the 700 attendees at the conference.

Walker’s eye-opening presentation should be a mandatory briefing for every American citizen, and especially for the leaders of our defense and security industries.

His message is not at all difficult to comprehend — the U.S. government is heading for a financial collapse unless it can figure out how to fund ballooning obligations in entitlement programs. This situation going forward will affect every economic sector in the United States. It will especially be felt by defense and homeland security. Walker points out that 40 years ago, only 1 percent of the budget was devoted to Medicare and Medicaid, while today they account for 19 percent. A larger number of government agencies now compete for a shrinking piece of the discretionary pie. The discretionary portion of the budget is now only 38 percent. The rest of the budget, 62 percent, constitutes mandatory entitlement spending, or as Walker puts it, spending that is on “autopilot.”

The baby boomers will begin to become eligible for Social Security on Jan. 1, 2008 and for Medicare on Jan. 1, 2011.

This will unleash a “tsunami of spending,” cautions Walker. And the structural imbalance will grow worse every year. The unfunded liability in healthcare alone is now $53 trillion and growing at the rate of $2 trillion per year.

Adding to the financial woes is the projection that the United States may be losing its traditional advantages — skilled workers and knowledge — that historically have made the United States the most innovative land in the world. Walker points out that at the junior high and high school levels, the United States is not in the top 20 nations in science and math.

Walker’s dire warnings about the possibility that our innovative edge may be eroding brings me back to the Coast Guard and its determination to excel even as resources become tighter.

The setting for the expo, New Orleans, was most appropriate because it serves as a reminder of the Coast Guard’s courageous performance two years ago during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In addition to having learned valuable lessons from those disasters, the Coast Guard is taking steps to expand its footprint globally. It has created “deployable operations groups” to respond more rapidly and more effectively to emergencies.

All this gives special importance and urgency to the Coast Guard’s approach to innovation. This is a path that should be more fully endorsed and adopted by the Defense Department and the military services if they are to avert the financial debacle predicted by the comptroller general.

The hard choices — which are not yet fully appreciated — cannot be postponed for much longer. The time is now to get on board with the Coast Guard’s spirit of innovation.

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