Coast Guard lacks funds to chase drugs, maintain fleet, commandant says

Coast Guard budget

Last Updated Jul 26, 2017 10:45 PM EDT

CHESAPEAKE BAY, Md. --  Congress got an SOS Tuesday from Adm. Paul Zukunft, the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard. 

He said the Coast Guard is busier than ever chasing drug runners, but that it can't do the job without more money.

CBS News was aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf in 2015 after it seized tons of drugs from fast boats and makeshift submarines. Correspondent Carter Evans got a look at $800 million worth of cocaine that the Coast Guard picked up.

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Adm. Paul Zukunft, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard CBS News

Zukunft says that now, the drugs keep coming, and last year, the Coast Guard couldn't even chase hundreds of shipments it knew about.

"There were over 500 events that literally eluded us," Zukunft said. "We knew they were out there. This really came down to we didn't have enough planes, we didn't have enough ships."

He says much of his fleet is decades past retirement age. And the Coast Guard needs $1.5 billion just to catch up on maintenance.

Chief Warrant Officer Bill Hantzmon is captain of the 55-year-old Sledge.

"This ship is 11 years older than you!" Evans said.

"It is," Hantzmon replied.

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Coast Guardsman makes a repair aboard the Sledge CBS News

He and his crew spend their days maintaining buoys and navigational aids, but sometimes, they're forced to jury-rig parts for their own ship because they aren't made anymore.

"They can put you out of commission?" Evans asked.

"Absolutely. It can keep us from where we are about to do our mission and we have to stay at the pier," Hantzmon said.

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Chief Warrant Officer Bill Hantzmon, center. CBS News

When the Sledge was in port for repair this winter, its age really showed. Repairs were only supposed to take about six weeks, but the ship ended up being dry-docked for six months. Parts of the hull were rusted and had to be cut away and replaced.

Fifty-five is old for a ship, but the Sledge is not the oldest.

"Our oldest is 72 years old," Zukunft said.

He says the last thing he'll cut back on are rescues and security patrols. So for now, old ships are being rebuilt as the political fight over dollars and cents plays out.