The Coast Guard in Review

By Vice Admiral Howard B. Thorsen, U.S. Coast Guard (Retired)

Indeed, the rash of recent accidents is not significantly beyond the overall norm, which has been relatively constant over the past decade. Forced to rely on voluntary programs, the Coast Guard has very little authority to require even the most elementary competence in vessel handling, stability, and emergency procedures that could save lives each year.

A fire on board the passenger ship Ecstasy as she left Miami on 20 July 1998 was visible from shore. It engendered a huge amount of media coverage—more often than not with an eye toward the dramatic and unencumbered by expertise in shipboard firefighting techniques and procedures. Investigation of the incident showed that the Ecstasy complied with the latest fire safety measures, which contributed significantly to preventing fire spread from the "open deck" containing mooring lines (the primary source of the smoke) to passenger spaces forward. As the U.S. representative to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the Coast Guard has been a leader in initiatives regarding Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) regulations. Actual tests of various full-scale fire scenarios are conducted by the Coast Guard's Research and Development Center at their Fire and Safety Test Detachment in Mobile, Alabama—the only such facility in the United States.

Undoubtedly the core competency and unchanging first priority of the Coast Guard remains its proud tradition of saving and helping those in peril on the sea. Despite continuing programs aimed at reducing the dangers of both casual and professional users of our nation's waterways through education as well as regulation, too many lives end prematurely in accidents on the water. Coast Guard units responded to more than 50,000 calls for help, saving more than 5,000 lives. Rescue swimmers dropped from helicopters—in sea conditions incomprehensible to most—to physically assist hundreds of fishermen and boaters who could not save themselves. Boat crews operating from nearly 200 stations contributed 60% of the responses in a typical year for search and rescue (SAR). A long-overdue program to update, modernize, and standardize the 1,700 boats has just begun with the introduction of the 47-foot motor life boat.

One portion of the SAR system has come under fire, and rightly so. The National Distress System is a Coast Guard operated VHF-FM radio network that provides distress, safety, and command and control communications along the shore and out to 20 or more miles at sea. Long recognized as having obsolete equipment, with numerous "dead spots" in coverage and virtually no capability to determine electronically the location of a caller in distress, program managers are aggressively pushing the National Distress and Response System Modernization Project, which would have an initial operating capability in 2001.

Law Enforcement

Smuggling has been a law-enforcement problem since our nation's beginning; Alexander Hamilton established the Revenue Cutter Service in 1790, primarily to stop the smuggling of goods into the new republic. As the only U.S. agency with authority to enforce U.S. laws both on the high seas and on inland waters, today's Coast Guard anti-smuggling operations are aimed at two targets: drugs and undocumented migrants.

The war on drugs continues; little has changed in the cat-and-mouse scenarios' basic challenge—how to stop, reduce, or deter the trafficking in marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. The Coast Guard's long-range counter-drug strategic plan, Steel Web, aims to deny the maritime smuggling routes through interdiction, including joint operations with other U.S. agencies and combined operations with forces from other countries.

As part of the strategy, Law Enforcement Detachments (LEDETs) routinely deploy on board U.S. Navy ships, as well as military vessels of several foreign nations. The LEDETs provide boarding and searching expertise, and carry the full law-enforcement authority of the Coast Guard with them. On 12 January 1999, a Coast Guard C-130 aircraft located the M/V Cannes , a 581-foot bulk freighter flying the Panamanian flag, in the Caribbean south of Jamaica. Intelligence information indicated there was a large quantity of cocaine on board, hidden somewhere in the cargo of 26,000 metric tons of iron ore pellets. The USS Whirlwind (PC-11), a U.S. Navy 170-foot patrol craft with a LEDET embarked, intercepted the Cannes . The boarding team used long probes to check deep within the bulk cargo, and found white powder that tested positive for cocaine.

With the concurrence of the Panamanian government, the Cannes was taken to Houston, Texas, where 10,500 pounds of cocaine, with a street value of more than $350 million, were seized—one of the ten largest seizures in Coast Guard history. At a press conference, U.S. Representative Gene Green (D-Texas) said the seizure "proves that with a little more funding and the ability to search more ships, the Coast Guard might be able to cut down even more on the nation's drug supply."

Success in interdiction is impossible to measure, as the exact amount of drugs actually shipped versus the amount successfully delivered is not known. But in the case of Operation Frontier Shield, aimed at denying maritime trafficking into Puerto Rico in 1997-98, the documented effects were impressive by any standard. Statistics show actual interdiction and deterrence of delivery of nearly 117,000 pounds of cocaine, 41 vessels seized, and 128 people arrested; the combined street value of the drugs was more than $4 billion. The disruption caused an estimated reduction of more than 50% in the amount of cocaine shipped to Puerto Rico. Much more notable, however, was the effect on the people of Puerto Rico. Drug-related crimes fell 37% in 1997. At a recent Caribbean Regional Drug Control Conference in Miami, Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Rosello said, "The island saw a 49% decrease in violent crimes . . . as well as a 33% drop in major felonies . . . and there were 106 fewer killings in 1998 than 1997."

Smugglers have the advantage, devising methods to escape detection and to avoid being caught. The latest method of delivering cocaine to the shores of islands and nations bordering the Caribbean and to Mexico's Pacific coast is a throwback to that used in the 1980s along the east coast of Florida—using small boats that easily can outrun law-enforcement assets. A typical "go-fast" boat is less than 40 feet long, powered by two 250-horsepower engines, manned by two or three men, and can carry as much as a ton of cocaine at 40 knots or more. Navigating by hand-held global positioning system receivers and using cellular phones to communicate with lookouts on shore, they transit the waters of the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific with near impunity. When spotted by helicopters from Navy or Coast Guard ships, they merely give a "smuggler's salute" to the helo crews, secure that the only weapon the helicopter can use is a radio to report their location and direction to a ship that seldom can intercept.

That will change soon, as the Coast Guard fields new assets expected to tilt the scales in their favor. Deployable pursuit boats—more than a match for the fastest smuggler in both speed and seaworthiness—will operate from converted ex-Navy TAGOS ships that will provide mobile logistics and communications support. In a major policy change, the Commandant authorized a proof of concept featuring two MH-90 Enforcer armed helicopters, also capable of using nonlethal force, deploying from ships in the Caribbean. With the ability and the authority to use warning shots and, if necessary, disabling fire, there will finally be an end-game for the go-fast threat.

In August 1998, a Coast Guard C-130 aircraft sighted the F/V Chih Yung 150 miles southwest of Baja California, which was suspicious because there did not appear to be any fishing gear on the deck of the 180-foot vessel. The 378-foot cutter Munro (WHEC-724) was sent to investigate, and found 172 Chinese migrants crammed in the fish hold. The Chih Yung had been under way for 78 days; there was little food remaining, and sanitary conditions in the rat-infested vessel were abysmal. While negotiations took place among the United States, China, and Mexico, more than 40,000 pounds of food, water, blankets, clothing, medical supplies, and other basic need items were transported by the Coast Guard to the Chih Yung before the boat was brought into San Diego more than three weeks later.

In fiscal year 1998, more than 3,600 illegal migrants were interdicted. There were substantial increases in the number of Cubans (903) and Haitians (1,369), while the number of Dominicans remained nearly level (1,097). Migrants used markedly different methods and modes of transportation, including increased use of the Bahamas as a waypoint and making the final transit to the United States shoreline via high-speed boats. Although the number of interdictions of Chinese (242) remained essentially constant, intelligence sources agree that the largest number of illegal migrants entering the Western Hemisphere by sea originate in China, and most of these estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Chinese ultimately are destined for the United States. Increasingly, they are using Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands as gateways to the mainland.

Environmental Response

On 4 February 1999, the Panamanian flagged New Carissa went aground in the surf line, one mile north of Coos Bay, Oregon. The 639-foot merchant vessel was carrying 359,000 gallons of intermediate fuel oil and 37,400 gallons of diesel fuel. Frequent severe weather systems—winds greater than 50 knots and seas of more than 35 feet—battered the ship throughout the more than five-weeklong environmental response operation.

Led by a Coast Guard Federal On Scene Coordinator (FOSC), a Unified Command response organization quickly formed. A tested Incident Response System was used to direct and coordinate the efforts of salvage, oil recovery, beach cleanup, and wildlife teams along the pristine shoreline. When it became apparent that the ship was a constructive total loss, with a strong possibility that it would break up and release most of its oil, authorities decided to employ insitu burning, never before used in a potential spill of this magnitude. Coordination was smooth and a large amount of the oil was consumed in the fires, with no discernible environmental effect. Finally, the 420-foot bow section of the broken-apart New Carissa , with 140,000 gallons of oil still on board, was towed more than 280 miles offshore. On 12 March, explosive charges, gunfire from the USS David R. Ray (DD-971), and a torpedo from the USS Bremerton (SSN-698) finally sent the bow section to the care of Davey Jones. The near freezing temperature at the 11,000-foot depth will ensure no oil release.

A concerned nation had watched as the specter of a "mini" Exxon Valdez disaster hovered over the site. But unlike the situation in Alaska almost exactly ten years earlier, there was no disagreement on how to best proceed. The unmitigated success of this operation clearly proved the value of the money spent (by the oil industry and federal government) to procure equipment and then conduct Spill of National Significance (SONS) exercises, required by legislation. Ironically, the most recent SONS exercise had been conducted in mid-September in Prince William Sound, Alaska. It is regret table—at least to the working Coasties and everyone who participated—that their nearly flawless performance in handling the New Carissa challenge was, for the most part, taken for granted.

In another environmental challenge, a black patch of oil, nearly ten miles long and as much as four miles wide, was spotted in early fall 1998 by aircraft and boaters in the shipping southern traffic lane just outside San Francisco Bay. The Coast Guard's Vessel Traffic Service record of ships transiting south quickly identified 30 possible sources of the pollution. Samples of the oil were collected and sent for gas chromatography/mass spectrometry analysis at their Research and Development Center's Oil Lab; samples also were sent to State of California labs for verification. Using this technique, perfected by the Research and Development Center several decades ago, a "fingerprint" is found that is specific to the nature and characteristics of oils transported in individual containers. The analyses showed a match with routine oil samples taken some four days earlier by Coast Guard personnel responding to a minor spill that occurred during loading of the tanker ship Command from an oil barge in San Francisco Bay.

T/S Command was located by Coast Guard aircraft, trailing oil on the high seas, nearing her destination of Balboa, Panama. With the permission of the Command's flag state, Liberia, to investigate for violations of international maritime pollution laws, the 378-foot cutter Boutwell (WHEC-719) was diverted from antidrug operations in the Eastern Pacific to accomplish the intercept. Boarding team members gathered additional evidence from ship's records, which indicated a discrepancy of nearly 54,000 gallons of bunker fuel, and the Boutwell escorted the Command to Panama for further investigation. Legal and diplomatic considerations have complicated the efforts to bring this episode to conclusion, but the master and chief engineer surrendered to Coast Guard agents in response to federal warrants issued in San Francisco. A court date is pending.

More than 95% of all U.S. overseas trade and 13% of intercity domestic trade moves by water. Growth is forecast to be 200% to 300% over the next two decades, and U.S. ports and waterways already are crowded. Recognizing the imperative to better manage the Marine Transportation System (MTS) that includes our waterways, ports, and all intermodal connections, the Coast Guard partners with the Maritime Administration to lead a broad range of federal, state, and local government agencies to work with industry, labor, environmental interests, and user groups. A congressionally mandated task force soon will report their recommendations for a strategic action plan.

The Maritime Differential Global Positioning System (DGPS), which allows accuracy within 5 meters for position finding within 200 miles of the coast, reached full operational capability on 15 March. The benefits of the low-cost system developed by the Coast Guard are available to all modes of transportation, inland as well as on or near the water. A national system, simply using more of the same DGPS units, soon will be established.

That same position-finding feature is integral to another initiative aimed at facilitating the flow and improving the safety of maritime commerce. The Automatic Identification System is a lowcost solution to many of the requirements for maritime traffic management, including collision avoidance with little or no voice communications between ships or Vessel Traffic System control centers during routine circumstances.

The Coast Guard prides itself on being a good steward of the public money it receives. Recently established programs allow full cost reimbursement for some services the Coast Guard provides, such as marine environmental responses, certification of merchant ships, and the licensing and documentation of merchant marine personnel. All accounting and financial software has been tested for Y2K compliance ahead of the Office of Management and Budget deadline. The Systems Directorate aggressively pursues a broad array of new communications and information systems, often working with the Department of Defense services to augment interoperability and efficiency. Chronically underfunded, long-known problems must be added to a list of wants.

A supplemental addition to the Coast Guard's fiscal year 1999 budget, earmarked for increased antidrug smuggling efforts, was allocated quickly and soon will bear results. For example, three HU25 Falcon aircraft have been pulled from storage and will be operational in the fourth quarter, with three more to join the fleet within 12 months. Sensor upgrades for HU-25s and HC-130s are under way, and satellite communications capability for all aircraft has been funded.

Looking Overseas

International Training and Technical Assistance Division (ITD) Teams visited more than 50 countries in fiscal year 1998—including Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Nicaragua, Columbia, Trinidad & Tobago, Curacao, the Marshall Islands—and helped to plan and conduct UNITAS. Longer-term programs and hands-on assistance in developing maritime forces and local infrastructure continue in Haiti, Bolivia, Panama, Peru, and Antigua. Resident training brings more than 300 students from 75 countries to Coast Guard schools in the United States for training. Of particular note is the International Maritime Officers Course, open only to midlevel officers from around the world who study the organization and operations of a multimission maritime force. For the many small countries that do not aspire to influence projection beyond their sovereign waters, the Coast Guard provides a working, real life model.

In addition to other aspects of maritime security such as humanitarian operations, law enforcement, and outreach to other countries in support of U.S. foreign policy, the need for the Coast Guard in military and defense operations continues to grow. With the downsizing of the Navy, both the specialized (port security units and harbor defense command elements) and more general (major cutters participating in joint operations) capabilities of the service are sought by theater commanders-in-chief. The 378-foot cutter Munro will sail in June with a Navy battle group—not as an "addition," but as a replacement for a Navy surface combatant during the six-month deployment.

Personnel Issues

During the past 12 months, the Coast Guard was stretched almost to the breaking point, as it faced ever-increasing tasks with the smallest number of people since 1967. Having inadvertently downsized by more than the planned 10% during the previous four years, the Coast Guard faces the difficult situation of recruiting not just for sustenance of the workforce, but to overcome a shortfall of nearly 1,000 men and women in the 28,126 authorized enlisted billets. Historically, the Coast Guard has been an employer of choice, and meeting boot camp quotas was not a large problem. Unaccustomed to the current need for aggressive recruiting, the Coast Guard has taken bold steps to compete with the four Department of Defense services for the shrinking pool of potential candidates. Recruiting is now among the highest priorities. Though still minuscule compared with those of any of the other services, the recruiting budget has increased greatly, and the number and quality of recruiters have grown markedly. The results have been gratifying; projections are for reaching the target of 4,150 inductees, which will close the vacancy gap by 50% at the end of the fiscal year. Recruiters are doing a good job in screening potential enlistees, as evidenced by the 96% graduation rate from boot camp at Cape May, New Jersey. First-term reenlistment rates were nearly 60%, and subsequent reenlistment was 86% in 1998. This was nothing out of the ordinary, but who can forecast the effects of an ever-increasing workload?

Officer retention statistics reflect the experiences of the other four services. The computer and electronics specialists in the junior officer ranks are in short supply and high demand. While the retention of rotary-wing aviators is high, the exodus of fixed-wing aviators after their second-tour point mirrors the experience of the Navy and Air Force. Old hands leaving are being replaced by "nuggets"; shortages of experienced, duty-standing pilots for the C-130 and HU-25 air stations border on the acute. Required by law to pay Aviation Career Incentive Pay to its aviators, Coast Guard policy has been not to pay bonuses to aviators. That may have to change.

The Coast Guard Reserve has been integrated totally as a member of Team Coast Guard for several years. Roughly 85% of the selected reservists are assigned to active-duty commands, and spend 80% of their time in productive work. They now comprise six port security units, and have begun providing aviation support for the first time in many years. Reservists contributed more than 1,400 days in support of Space Shuttle operations at Cape Canaveral, and under Operation Summerstock, reservists from all over the country augment a dozen search-and-rescue boat stations on the Great Lakes. Reservists provided more than 300,000 days of duty in all mission areas, including 95% of the waterside Coast Guard port security capability requested by the commanders-in-chief in 1998. The recruiting budget has been increased to $2 million from $35,000, including ten full-time Reserve recruiting billets funded from the program, and in a first-ever (by a reserve component) move, the Reserves now offers a tuition assistance program. These initiatives are paying off, and the Coast Guard Reserve force is expected to reach its authorized level of 8,000 by the end of 1999.

There are nearly 6,100 Coast Guard positions for civilians, primarily in technical and administrative positions. Some of the most ardent supporters of their service, they provide expertise and needed continuity in nearly all areas of operations, support, logistics, and budget formulation and execution. Having experienced the same "overshoot" in downsizing, there were 500 vacancies at the start of fiscal year 1999, all expected to be filled by the end of the year.

The Coast Guard Auxiliary remains the most unique part of the Coast Guard team, because its nearly 33,000 members are total volunteers who became auxiliarists because of an interest in boating safety. That interest continues to expand in response to the growing list of activities that auxiliarists can participate in, and today, the Auxiliary is augmenting Coast Guard units actively in carrying out essentially every mission other than direct law-enforcement and military operations. While the more traditional actions, such as search and rescue (saving 445 lives in 1998), regatta patrols, safety patrols, education for novice boaters, and courtesy examinations of personal boats for safety equipment occupy the majority of time, auxiliarists are used in unique roles as surrogates for active-duty Coastguardsmen. For example, they are serving as interpreters during official visits to other countries for discussions on international agreements. In the Northeast, auxiliarists are specially trained to conduct voluntary dockside safety examinations for fishing vessels and emergency drills for their crews. When the F/V Shelagh capsized because of stability problems, all four crewmen credited their survival to the safety training they had received from an auxiliarist.

Deepwater—the Coast Guard's Future

The range of Coast Guard operations is incredibly broad: from the Arctic to the Antarctic; the Great Lakes and western rivers; U.S. East Coast to the Baltic Sea; West Coast to the Indian Ocean. The U.S. public and their representatives in Congress routinely hear and read of the outstanding results of Coast Guard men and women in action, whether it be a rescue at sea or environmental response close to shore. But having no single mission assets, the flexibility of near spontaneous force allocation encourages the perception of a modern, state-of-the-art organization—the "Guardian of the Sea." But in truth, a replacement plan is imperative for ships that already have exceeded, or are soon to reach, the end of their cost-effective lives; aircraft that are mid-1970s design, at best; command-and-control systems that have been pieced together over decades and are personnel intensive (expensive) throughout.

Rather than replacing individual ships and aircraft "in kind," the "Deepwater" modernization project has described the fundamental requirements for an integrated system of ships, aircraft, and command, control, communications, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets that will meet the Coast Guard's needs during the next half-century. In August 1998, three consortiums began preparing integrated design concepts for a "system of systems." Responding to the concerns of the General Accounting Office, the contracting strategy and Phase I schedule were changed to allow incorporation of updated legacy asset data and any revised mission requirements that may result from the recommendations of a Presidential Advisory Council on Roles and Missions (CORM), affording more informed fiscal planning and selection decisions.

The Coast Guard motto "Always Ready" is ingrained in those who wear the uniform. While the exemplary accomplishments of everyday operations continue to add luster to that motto, the Commandant recently highlighted a possible downside. In a January 1999, speech entitled "The Curse of Semper Paratus ," Admiral Loy said:

Semper paratus has inculcated such a "can do" spirit within the Coast Guard that we refuse to accept any operational outcome other than success. Our missions grow and new ones are added without a proper matching of increased resources to the resultant mission profile. . . once you've been called semper paratus and have taken pride in being semper paratus , there's really no graceful way to say, "No, thank you. I can't do that job," when someone asks you to take on a new mission. Even as traditional missions grow and new ones are piled on, the semper paratus mental block doesn't let us acknowledge our limits or even submit a bill for the real cost of our services. Reflexively, the Coast Guard salutes smartly, tightens the belt another notch, and plugs away.

It is with that background that the Commandant must describe and defend to the CORM, the administration, and the Congress the urgent need to do what is so obvious to the men and women of the Coast Guard. Admiral Loy's confidence that his efforts—backed by the continuing stellar performance of his Coasties—will prevail brings to mind an old saying: "When facing a difficult task, act as though it's impossible to fail. If you're going after Moby Dick, take along the tartar sauce."

Semper paratus!

Before retiring in 1991, Admiral Thorsen was Commander, Coast Guard Atlantic Area, and Commander, U.S. Maritime Defense Zone Atlantic. He is a consultant, serves on the boards of several business and nonprofit organizations, and is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Naval Analyses. 


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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