The U.S. Coast Guard in Review

By Vice Admiral Howard B. Thorsen, U.S. Coast Gaurd (Retired)
  • Conducts 142 search-and-rescue (SAR) missions
  • Saves 12 lives-one every two hours
  • Seizes illegal drugs with a street value of more than $8.4 million
  • Interdicts 22 illegal migrants
  • Responds to 334 oil or hazardous chemical spills

Admiral Kramek undoubtedly would agree that his three years as Commandant have been a wild ride between the ecstasy of seeing truly outstanding performance by his "Team Coast Guard" and the onerous mandate he must carry out: to cut their numbers and reduce the cost of doing business (12% reduction in personnel and operating funds), while remaining the provider of services to the nation at equal or greater levels than before.

The mechanical aspect of his streamlining plan is essentially complete. The final step was the near-total reorganization of the headquarters staff; the transfer of 300 military billets or civilian positions and the outright elimination of another 300-25% of the former total. Structural changes resulted in consolidation of some programs under four new Directorates, each headed by an Assistant Commandant who reports to the Commandant through the Chief of Staff. Not all program elements transferred cleanly as a package, so there is still some shaking out among the staffs. And not all responsibilities have been formalized yet, so there has been a significant increase in workload for almost everyone, lowering morale to a level that will not be acceptable as a steady-state condition.

Maritime Safety and the Environment

The Marine Safety Directorate is charged with ensuring the safe design and operation of domestic and foreign vessels that engage in commercial and scientific activity, enhancing safety of crews and protection of the marine environment. As a result of outstanding leadership, a new era of cooperation between the Coast Guard and major players in the maritime industry has been established. As part of the Prevention Through People initiative, partnership agreements have been signed with the American Waterways operators, the Passenger Vessel Association, and the American Petroleum Institute. Borrowing from the Total Quality Management culture, teams with members from both the regulators and the regulated meet and work together to focus on existing problems that may be resolved without the need for additional regulations. Examples include reducing the number of deaths in the towing industry and sharing improved procedures within the oil industry to reduce the chronic oil spills that occur primarily during transfer of product. A new spirit of openness, and an emphasis on respecting the needs of the mariner at the deck-plate level, portend continued success in this area.

Logistics, Engineering, and IRM

The Systems Directorate now includes Information and Technology plus command, control, communications, and computers, in addition to the Logistics and Engineering Directorates. A core logistics capability in vessel and aircraft support has long been available at the Coast Guard Yard, Baltimore, Maryland, and the Aircraft Repair and Supply Center, Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Although not very large by Defense Department standards, both facilities have a long history of expertise in unique Coast Guard capital hardware maintenance with proven flexibility and efficiency. Retaining this capability is critical in providing adequate support to an organization renowned for operating equipment far beyond its normal expected life, at a high state of readiness, and with precious few spares.


The most visible Coast Guard activities take place in mission areas encompassed by the Operations Directorate, and its scope was expanded even more in the past year. Search and rescue (SAR), migrant interdiction, drug interdiction, preservation and protection of living marine resources, maintenance of aids to navigation, domestic and polar icebreaking, the warning of transoceanic shipping of icebergs in the North Atlantic, and defense operations-primarily in support of and alongside the U.S. Navy-comprise a full plate of routine operations.

Search and Rescue

The crash of TWA Flight 800 on 17 July was one of the most widely reported stories in 1996, and the Coast Guard was in the thick of response efforts. The Adak, a 110-foot patrol boat, was conducting a fisheries patrol south of Long Island, New York, when crewmembers saw the fire ball and the ship immediately proceeded to the crash scene. The Coast Guard Group at East Moriches, Long Island, received word of the crash and dispatched small boats, and Air Station Brooklyn launched its HH-65A helicopters from Floyd Bennett Field. The next day, the Coast Guard's newest ship, the 225-foot buoy tender Juniper (WLB-201), arrived from Newport, Rhode Island, and began picking up tons of debris. Commissioned less than two weeks earlier, the Juniper's state-of-the-art navigation and maneuvering capabilities quickly proved their worth. More than 1,000 reservists, members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, and active-duty personnel took part in the early stages of what ultimately proved to be the recovery of floating debris and bodies. During the first week, 14 cutters, 28 small boats, and dozens of aircraft from air stations at Cape Cod, Massachusetts; Cape May, New Jersey; and Elizabeth City, North Carolina, combed a search area that grew to be twice the size of Rhode Island.

In the early morning hours of 12 February 1997, four Coast Guardsmen at Station Quillayute, Washington, manned their 44-foot motor lifeboat and set out in heavy seas, responding to a distress call from a dismasted sailboat. This crew was experienced and well qualified, but something went wrong. Broached in the huge surf, the lifeboat rolled over several times, and three of the four were swept away and drowned. This was a tragic reminder that those who put their lives on the line daily in the Coast Guard's time-honored dedication to rescuing those in peril, are themselves not always the masters of the sea.

Many people owe their lives to the Coast Guard-not only to its heroic actions, but also to a Coast Guard program working behind the scenes. Last April, a 770-foot container ship of the China Ocean Shipping Company was diverted during its trans-Pacific journey to rescue a retired U.S. Navy captain from his disabled sailing vessel, foundering in 18foot seas 870nm west of San Francisco.. The Gao He, one of the first "test ships" of the Chinese national fleet to participate in the Coast Guard's automated mutual-assistance vessel rescue (AMVER) system, responded to a request from the Coast Guard Rescue Coordination Center in Long Beach, California. Merchant ships from approximately 150 nations participate voluntarily in this Coast Guard system, which receives individual ship transit information and maintains a real time computer "plot" of their position. With data provided at the time of vessel registry in the AMVER data base, the Coast Guard is able to identify vessels that might be in position and have a capability to aid mariners in distress.

Drug Interdiction

Small detachments of highly trained Coast Guardsmen regularly embark on Navy ships to provide expertise in boarding and the legal authority to stop, search, and-when indicated-seize vessels on the high seas when they are found to be transporting illegal drugs. The value of these operations was typified by the Law Enforcement Team (LeDet) on board the Sides (FFG-14), home-ported in Long Beach, California, but deployed off the west coast of Columbia in October. The 110-foot fishing vessel Oyster, with an eight-man Colombian crew, was boarded and found to be carrying an unusually large amount of water, food, and fuel. The Sides escorted the Oyster to Naval Station Rodman, Panama, where all the fuel, water, cargo, and fish were removed from the vessel. A thorough search by the LeDet found a hidden compartment inside one of the main fuel tanks below decks, with an unknown amount of cocaine stowed there. The crew was arrested and flown by a U.S. Coast Guard aircraft to Miami for prosecution. The LeDet then became the prize crew for the seized Oyster for the voyage through the Panama Canal and on to Miami, where a thorough search found more than 5,000 pounds of cocaine.

Embarkation of LeDets on warships of other countries provides another resource for interception of illegal drugs. A LeDet embarked on a Dutch warship seized a 34-foot "go-fast" boat 85 miles northeast of Curacao, with 1,230 pounds of cocaine. A LeDet on board HMS Argyll (F-231) came upon the sailing vessel Obsession, British registry, 31 miles west of Anquilla. A search located 289 kilos of cocaine, and the vessel was taken to the British Virgin Islands for prosecution. Three weeks later, operating under the U.S./Belize bilateral agreement, the same team boarded the Belizean motor vessel Caytrans Caribe found 3.4 kilos of cocaine, and escorted the vessel to Puerto Rico, where it was turned over to U.S. Customs.

On 1 October 1996, the 270-foot cutter Seneca (WMEC-906) stopped the Honduran motor vessel Limerick a short distance south of Cuban territorial waters. The boarding team found that the crew had begun scuttling the vessel to keep it out of the reach of law enforcement. Unable to stop the flooding, the boarding party and crew were removed and Seneca stood by to await the sinking. However, although nearly awash, Limerick did not sink, but drifted into Cuban territorial waters. Not surprisingly, the Seneca was denied permission to enter Cuba's waters, and the Limerick ultimately ran aground. The Cuban Border Guard refloated and towed Limerick to Santiago where, acting on specific information given to them by the Coast Guard, they searched and found two tons of cocaine in hidden compartments. Then, in a profound change from their previous positions, the Cuban government invited a team of U.S. Coast Guard and Drug Enforcement Agency personnel to participate in a more exhaustive search, which located more than 13,000 pounds of cocaine, which the DEA transported to Miami as evidence.

On 1 October 1996, the Coast Guard began what may be the largest sustained counternarcotics operation in its history.

Operation Frontier Shield committed an unusually large number of vessels and aircraft to blanket known trafficking routes through the Greater and Lesser Antilles. In less than six months, 11 vessels, carrying a total of more than 20,000 pounds of cocaine and 40 pounds of heroin, have been seized. An additional 17,000 pounds of cocaine was jettisoned by smugglers fearful of being apprehended. Well-proven measures of effectiveness indicate that the success rate of the smugglers has been reduced by onethird because of this operation. Considering the published estimate that nearly 40% of all cocaine entering the United States passes through that region, the results seem to be well worth the cost.

Alien Migrant Interdiction

Coast Guard assets involved in Operation Frontier Shield also carry out another mission that requires similar expertise and authority-alien migrant interdiction operations (AMIO). In the 12 months ending in March 1997, 6,910 migrants were prevented from illegally entering the United States. The most significant threat, and highest concern to the Coast Guard, does not originate in the Caribbean, but begins in The People's Republic of China. More than 50,000 Chinese are estimated to enter the United States or Canada illegally each year, and 20,000 of them arrive by sea. Of the 231 Chinese interdicted at sea in the past 12 months, 109 were found when the Reliance (WTR-615) intercepted the 211-foot motor vessel Xing Da some 200 miles northeast of Bermuda. Conditions on board were described as abominable. The four-month voyage around Cape Hope was a long nightmare for those who had paid handsomely for the passage, in large part because of the inhumane treatment by enforcers known as "snakeheads" employed by the Chinese Mafia to ensure total control. Despite the horrendous conditions, as one Coast Guard officer said: "One alien equals 40 kilos of cocaine." Interdictions such as the Xing Da deter similar attempts direct from China to North America, but the more traveled routes now include stops in Mexico, Central America, and South America. Prevention is made much more difficult by an absence of laws against such smuggling in most of those countries.

Sovereignty has long been firmly recognized by the Coast Guard as an overarching consideration in enlisting cooperation for combined operations, and also in being allowed to conduct certain law-enforcement activities, such as "hot pursuit" of suspicious vessels or aircraft that begins on or over international waters. Recognizing the deleterious effect on national security of illegal smuggling activity taking place through their land or territorial waters, 17 countries have signed cooperative agreements with the United States, allowing Coast Guard personnel to take specific pre-approved actions such as over flights, boarding-at-sea, and entry-to-investigate.

Defense Operations

The Gallatin (WMEC-721) left Governors Island, New York, on 24 May 1996 to begin a four-month out-of-hemisphere deployment to the Baltic, Mediterranean, and Black Seas under the auspices of the Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Naval Forces Europe (CinCUSNavEur) and the Commander, U.S. Sixth Fleet (ComSixthFlt). The Gallatin became the first U.S. Coast Guard Cutter to participate in the annual U.S. Navy sponsored Baltic Operations (BaltOps '96) and, later, the Bulgarian invitational Exercise Briz. One of the primary objectives was to support CinCEur's goals of promoting stability through "engaging in peacetime" to enhance cooperation and interaction between littoral nations. In the Baltic and Black Sea operations, the Gallatin's multimission capabilities were put to good use in multinational maritime exercises such as sanctions enforcement, humanitarian assistance and rapid disaster response. Her voyage included 15 port visits, the majority of which were for the sole purpose of military-to-military exchanges with the host nations' military and law enforcement agencies.

On 25 September, two weeks after the Gallatin arrived in her new home port of Charleston, South Carolina, the Morganthau (WHEC-722), transited the Strait of Hormuz as the senior ship in company with the Valley Forge (CG-50), O'Brian (DD-965), Jarrett (FFG-33), and Supply (AOE-6). In addition to serving as plane guard for the Enterprise (CVN65), the Morganthau served the majority of her tenure in the Arabian Gulf conducting maritime interdiction operations in support of United Nations' sanctions against Iraq. She conducted eight boardings in three weeks, turning the Atlantic Rescuer back to Iraq to offload illegal cargo. The Morganthau participated in bilateral exchanges with the coast guards of India, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain, centered around law enforcement and search-and-rescue. After leaving the Arabian Gulf, the Morganthau assisted a disabled Indian fishing vessel that had been adrift for 27 days. The Morganthau took the vessel under tow and proceeded toward India, until relieved of the tow by the Indian Navy ship Investigator. The international SAR case was prophetic, because the Morganthau's last major activity during her deployment was participation in the International SAR Exercise held in Hong Kong in early December. Disembarking her HH-65A helicopter to Naval Air Station Barber's Point, Hawaii, the Morganthau returned home to Alameda, California, on Christmas Day.

The success of the Gallatin's and the Morganthau's efforts and the value added to out-of-hemisphere operations by having U.S. Coast Guard ships participate are indicated by the upcoming deployments of the Legare (WMEC-912) for BaltOps 97 and the Chase (WHEC-718) to CARAT-97 (Malaysia/Indonesia/Thailand).

International Training

In the field of international affairs, the Coast Guard's role continues to expand as the developing nations around the world become more aware of the necessity for and the benefits derived from better control and management of their ports, harbors, waterways, and coastal regions. In 1996, an international training and technical assistance division was formed from four smaller groups that previously had been involved in training on such specific Coast Guard areas of expertise as maritime law enforcement, and port security. The division has 43 deployable trainers, capable of both short- and long term training in all core Coast Guard mission areas. In FY96, they trained more than 2,000 people in 53 countries, plus another 260 who came from 26 other countries to attend Coast Guard schools in the United States.

The Coast Guard has been active in riverine law-enforcement training in Bolivia for many years, and is today working with the U.S. Marine Corps in similar training in Peru. Along with the U.S. Customs Service, they assisted Brazil in port security primarily related to crime prevention. A delegation from Vietnam visited Coast Guard headquarters in late February to discuss assistance in developing a coast-guard-like entity, the Sea Police. Efforts are just beginning toward the development of a regional counternarcotics training strategy for Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia.

Viewed as an emerging success story and an excellent example of coordinated cooperation, the Haitian Coast Guard has been formed and is being trained through the combined efforts of the Canadian and U.S. Coast Guards. The Haitians operate four 25-foot Boston Whalers and are redeveloping a base in Port-Au-Prince, through the U.S. Foreign Military Sales program and Canadian funding. The fledgling organization has already participated with the USCG during two drug interdictions in their waters.


The service is facing a huge "bowwave" of funding requirements, which are necessary to replace capital equipment that grows older and more expensive to maintain each year. The acquisition, construction, and improvement portion of the 1998 budget request is only $379 million-just slightly more than a 1% increase over 1997! The 5-year average of $341.7 million is approximately half of what has long been identified as the amount necessary to recapitalize in a businesslike manner, and the time of reckoning grows shorter each day.

There are some success stories, to be sure. The nation's first icebreaker to be built in more than two decades capable of operations in the Arctic and Antarctic, named the Healy, after the first black commanding officer of a U.S. Coast Guard vessel, is under construction with a scheduled launch date in the fourth quarter of 1998, and delivery a year later. Ironically, the $339 million for construction was not provided to the Coast Guard, which will own and operate it, but was included in the Navy's budget. The Coast Guard project officer for the Healy works within the NavSea organization. The Coast Guard does contribute $30 million for outfitting.

Two of the most successful programs are the 225-foot Juniper-class (WLBoceangoing) and the 175-foot Ida Lewisclass (WLM-domestic) buoy tenders. The Juniper will be joined by the Willow and the Kukui before the end of the year, and two more are under construction. A production contract soon will be advertised for an additional 11 ships, with the anticipation of ordering two in FY 1998. The third WLM hull was launched of on 5 April 1996, and the option for construction of six more was recently exercised. Marinette Marine has been the sole builder of both classes, to date.

A contract has been let for construction of the new 87-foot Coastal Patrol Boat (WPB) to replace the old fleet of 82-foot boats. Bollinger, builder of the Coast Guard fleet of 110 footers, will deliver the first of the new class in December. The design incorporates the launch and recovery of the small boat through a ramp opening in the stem, with far greater safety and rough-water capability. As many as 51 may be procured, at the rate of eight or more per year.

After an exhaustive evaluation of six prototypes, the 47-foot Motor Surfboat (MSB) has moved to production. Textron was awarded a contract to build between 20 to 30 MSBs per year, with upwards of 100 envisioned as a total.

The much-heralded VTS 2000, a system of sensors and navigational enhancements together with watch standing personnel to monitor and, if necessary, direct waterborne traffic at most major ports in the United States was terminated by Congress. Instead, an advisory group from waterways users will assist the Coast Guard in developing a safety baseline for vessel traffic service requirements, which will lead to an initial installation for the port of New Orleans with funds requested in fiscal year 1998. With the sole tasking of safety, additional desires regarding traffic management in a particular port would require local funding.

Human Resources

The Human Resource Directorate has been dealt the real challenge of both attaining and maintaining a diversified workforce. Diversity in new accessions is not just a goal to mirror the general populace, it is recognized as a necessity to ensuring that an adequate number of qualified men and women will be available for the high-tech challenges of the future. In competition with each of the military services as well as private industry, the relatively few Coast Guard recruiters are stretched thin; they must see at least 100 potential candidates for each actual enlistee-even more for minorities and women. The situation is described as "not too bad-yet" and, unlike the Defense Department, the Coast Guard has not had to reduce entrance standards so far, but the outlook is not exactly comfortable. This year's goal-attracting 3,900 new recruits, 400 more than the average requirement-is necessary to fill the number of vacant billets created during the expedited downsizing evolution. In some respects, there are real advantages to being small and military in structure and organization-but to a great extent engaged daily in humanitarian actions with a direct impact on making the world a better place to live. Retention rates run 40% for the first enlistment and 80% or more for subsequent ones. The dramatic negative effect on both retention and promotion opportunities during the past three years may have peaked. The recovery will be slow, however, and strong leadership will be needed to reverse a now-prevalent feeling among juniors that there is no future for anyone who makes even one visible mistake or voices other than total support for policies espoused by seniors.

The Coast Guard strives mightily to improve the quality of life for its workforce and families. To that end, no item has received more attention than the Workforce Cultural Audit, a comprehensive (319 questions) survey completed in the summer of 1996 by 3,800 members, representing the full range of Team Coast Guard. Tasked to identify strengths and weaknesses in specific areas:

  • Career development; allowing people to achieve their full potential
  • Diversity management
  • Communications within the Coast Guard, about the Coast Guard

Analysis of the data is ongoing, but there is great enthusiasm regarding the value of the audit, not only the current tasking but as a baseline for future monitoring of progress toward meeting organizational goals. Several things emerged that are most gratifying to senior management. Most respondents are clearly proud of being part of the Coast Guard, citing not only work-related satisfaction but also pride in being part of an organization with a recognized strong sense of social responsibility. And the data also show a homogeneous feeling regarding membership in the Coast Guard.

The work-life program is a positive force on Team Coast Guard, as verified by the recently concluded Workforce Cultural Audit. A suicide prevention program has been instituted and appears to be making a difference. A particularly effective program called "critical incident stress debriefing" sends experienced teams of counselors to the sites of incidents that are considered to have the potential of inflicting lingering mental trauma on Coast Guard members and their families, as in the case of the men and women who spent many hours in the morbid task of gathering human remains from the water after the TWA Flight 800 explosion.

Safety in the workplace receives much attention. Aviation has maintained a low, almost-impossible-to-reduce level in major aircraft accidents, and aviation safety concepts have been translated to the surface operators, who have embraced it. Cockpit voice recorders and flight data recorders have been installed in all Coast Guard helicopters, and all fixed wing aircraft will be outfitted within the next two years. In addition, traffic collision avoidance system equipment soon will be installed on all aircraft, making the Coast Guard the first military service to have the same warning devices mandated for commercial airliners.

The Coast Guard Reserve and the Auxiliary are two components of Team Coast Guard that spread across almost all tasks and missions. There has been a seamless melding of the 7,600 members of the Reserve into the day-to-day activities of the Coast Guard. Reservists annually account for nearly 500 man-days in the operations at small SAR boat stations on the Great Lakes under Operation Summerstock, and routinely volunteer for recall to augment Coast Guard units during planned (e.g., summer Olympics) and such emergency operations as the TWA Flight 800 tragedy.

In direct support of defense operations, there are three port security units, located at Cleveland, Long Beach, and Ft. Eustis, each with more than 100 reservists and a small cadre of active-duty personnel, forming part of a Navy Composite Naval Coastal Warfare Unit under a Harbor Defense Command to provide both defense and port control during out-of-Con US operations under various CinCs. Although the need for as many as 12 of the port security units have been identified by the CinCs, and none of the three would be available unless the President authorized Reserve recall, there is only one PSU ready for immediate deployment with active-duty manning. The Secretary of Transportation, on the other hand, as head of the department in which the Coast Guard resides, used his unique authority for Reserve component involuntary recalls for domestic emergencies six times in 1996, recalling nearly 250 individuals in six separate incidents, including major oil spills, floods, hurricanes, and TWA Flight 800.

The Coast Guard Auxiliary consists of 35,000 men and women who volunteer their time and, in many cases, operate their privately owned boats and airplanes to assist in carrying out the majority of Coast Guard missions. Hands-on law enforcement, ice breaking, and defense operations are not included in their repertoire, but most other routine tasks are. Although one of their most treasured missions, aiding fellow boaters disabled or in non-life-threatening situations, was significantly reduced in the early 1980s, opportunities for meaningful service alongside their fellow Team members are growing and portend great benefits to the American people.

The Future?

The enumeration of Coast Guard missions and operating programs is impressive, but even more so when they are considered in light of the numbers: 35,649 military and 4,483 full-time civilian employees in fiscal year 1997. For fiscal year 1998, each of those numbers is actually reduced by a handful. Operating expense is the portion of the total budget that funds all major programs: Aids to Navigation, Search and Rescue, Defense Readiness, Migrant Interdiction, Drug Interdiction, Marine Safety, and Environmental Protection. The value of property loss prevented by Coast Guard actions essentially is equal to the $2.6 billion enacted in fiscal year 1997, and the $2.74 billion requested in the fiscal year 1998 budget hardly seems adequate. The number of lives actually saved, rescued by Coast Guardsmen each year, is greater than the number of its civilian employees.

The Coast Guard can-and should take immense pride in becoming the world's premier maritime service. To his great credit, Admiral Kramek has unequivocally stated to Congress and the American public that he has taken the service to its absolute bare-bones level, saluting and following the administration's orders. In so doing, despite senior leadership's best efforts and genuine concern for the health and future of the men and women who are Team Coast Guard, the rank and file have been "run hard and put away wet." There are no more people or dollars to cut unless there is an upfront determination and declaration of what services the American people will no longer expect to receive. That would be an interesting discussion.


Vice Admiral Thorsen, a naval aviator, retired as Commander Atlantic Area in 1991. He is a senior fellow at the Center for Naval Analysis.

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