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High fuel costs ground some US military flights

The US services, especially the US Coast Guard's training, life-saving, and antismuggling operations, are feeling the world fuel pinch more and more keenly.

The nation's 11 US Coast Guard districts have been warned that unless Congress can cover the 100 percent or higher fuel price hikes since last year, they must cut by 75 percent their offshore patrols against drug smugglers and foreign ships fishing in US waters.

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Air Force, Navy, and Army commanders report they are permitting fewer training flights than they would like to.

Precious fuel -- like that for jet aircraft, which has doubled in price since January -- is now shifted to the two-aircraft carrier US task foce in the Arabian SEa off Iran.

OPEC members are due to consult in early May on new price hikes. Algeria and Libya are already talking seriously of cutting oil to "friends of Israel" (mainly the US). The Defense Department is asking Congress for $5.4 billion more than it asked in January to cover fuel and transportation costs for fiscal 1980 and 1981.

The US Navy has been able to purchase high-grade JP-5 jet aviation fuel locally in Kuwait and several other emirates of the Persian Gulf for its nearby carrier operations. However, officials realize, an emergency involving some kind of US action against Iran might quickly dry up these sources.

The fuel crunch affects NATO allies, too. Belgium announced it would withdraw a squadron of its jet fighters from a scheduled NATO exercise in Turkey next September because it could not afford fuel costs.

"We've simplified our procurement procedures, and made it easier for contractors to supply us. We used ito procure on a one-year basis, but we've stopped that and have cut down the paper work," one top Pentagon officer who asked not to be identified said.

The Coast Guard, whose peacetime budget and command structure depend on the Transportation Department, not the Pentagon, is hardest hit, partly because it does depend on Pentagon sources for some of its fuel. In wartime, the Coast Guard comes under Navy command.

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"Normally," says Coast Guard spokesman Tom Philpot, "we draw 60 percent of our fuel from the [Pentagon's] DFSC, and 40 percent from private contractors. There's a shortage of fuel from Defense, and we're expecting new price hikes from contractors."

Flight training already has been cut in several Coast Guard districts and may have to be halted. Coast Guard "refresher" training with the US Navy at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where Coast Guard cutters go once a year for maneuvers, would also stop.

Coast Guard flights over areas of oil-pollution danger, like Chesapeake Bay on the East Coast, may stop. Some search-and-rescue stations are slated for closing. Boating-safety programs may be turned over to state bodies.

Prices the Coast Guard must pay for diesel fuel rose from 61 cents a gallon in August 1979 to $1.29 last month, and new increases are expected.

The Coast Guard began fiscal 1980 last Oct. 1 with an estimated fuel budget of $53.7 million for the year. Mr. Philpot said. The latest estimate for the same amount of fuel is nearly $84 million and climbing.

Steaming of Navy ships in rear areas has been cut back to meet the higher operational tempo of the Sixth and Seventh Fleets, actively deployed in the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean forward crisis areas, say high US Defense officials.

Uniformed advocates of building more of the Navy's Nimitz-class nuclear-propelled aircraft carriers and other nuclear-powered ships now argue that the continued upward trend of world oil prices and US dependence on foreign oil sources "makes nuclear fuel look cheaper, and more and more attractive."

In a recent report the Association of the US Army gloomily predicted extensive cutbacks in Armyu training by next year. Army commanders recently interviewed at Ft. Bragg, N.C., Macdill Air Force Base, Fla., and Ft. Hood, Texas, denied that any cutbacks had been necessary, but expressed exasperation at the rapidly rising fuel costs.


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