U.S. Coast Guard in Review

By Joe DiRenzo III and Chris Doane

Admiral Papp’s statement on the Coast Guard’s situation was acknowledged by Congressman Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) during a Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee meeting when he stated,

Findings by the GAO and others over the years have accurately shown the rapid decline of legacy assets is causing the Coast Guard to fall short of its operational targets, forcing the service to spend too much of its tight budget on maintenance, and undermining the success of its critical safety and security mission. . . . This is a serious problem that has me deeply concerned.

The seriousness of the Coast Guard’s position was also supported by Lawrence Korb, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, who noted in a Baltimore Sun op-ed, “If we want the Coast Guard to continue living up to its motto of semper paratus , Congress must reassess its commitment to ensuring the service can also remain semper potens —always able.”

There can be little doubt that the Coast Guard will cut into the bone in the years to come. In doing so, the service will have to be careful not to “hollow” itself as it did in the 1990s when it cut too deeply its support capabilities to avoid direct cuts to operations. To avoid repeating this misstep, the service will be forced to prioritize its missions and operations, making significant reductions in many areas.

Despite the budget woes forcing the service to do less with less, the men and women of the Coast Guard continued to perform superbly in 2012. With great resilience and determination, they successfully met every challenge, from Hurricane Sandy and historic low water levels in the Mississippi River to the increased emphasis in the Arctic. In recapping the past year, there is no doubt that the service’s greatest resource is its men and women whose dedication to serving the nation drives them to innovate, adapt, and overcome even personal disaster to get the job done.


The service faces its share of challenges but not all is dark, as the Coast Guard continued its major asset recapitalization program. Another 418-foot national security cutter, the CGC Stratton (WMSL-752) was added to the fleet while the 51-year-old 378-foot high endurance cutter CGC Jarvis (WHEC-725) was decommissioned. The service added two 154-foot fast response cutters with the commissioning of the CGC Richard Etheridge (WPC-1102) and the CGC William Flores (WPC-1103). The service also took delivery of the CGC Robert Yered (WPC-1104). Finally, the Coast Guard released the delivery schedule for the offshore patrol craft (OPC), the follow-on to its fleet of 16 210-foot and 13 270-foot medium endurance cutters. At this writing 11 OPCs are planned, but the Coast Guard would like to acquire 25.

Hurricane Sandy

Without a doubt, the Coast Guard’s response to Hurricane Sandy was the defining operational event of the year. Starting south of Cuba, the storm wreaked havoc in Guantanamo Bay, along the Mid-Atlantic coast, and into New York and New Jersey with a final path of destruction through the Great Lakes. Despite significant damage to its own response infrastructure and the displacement of many Coast Guard families, the men and women of the Coast Guard executed their missions with ingenuity and grit, saving 35 lives and working tirelessly to reopen the vital ports of New York and New Jersey. One of the service’s more unusual contributions was provided by the National Strike Force (NSF). NSF members, expert in dewatering stricken vessels, played a key role in developing and executing a scheme for sequencing pumps to dewater the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel (a.k.a. the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel). Their actions allowed this critical commuter artery to resume operations, which was crucial to the resumption of commerce in New York City.

As in other such natural disasters, Coast Guard first responders to the storm were also its victims. Their stations were ravaged, their homes flooded, and their families displaced. Coastal facilities from Virginia to Connecticut suffered significant damage. Stations Wachapreague, Virginia; Crisfield, Maryland; Sandy Hook, Manasquan Inlet, and Atlantic City, New Jersey, were flooded to at least three to four feet above ground level submerging heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, power systems, and command and control systems. These stations, as well as stations New London, Connecticut; New York City, Jones Beach, Moriches, and Fire Island, New York; Marine Safety Detachment Lewes, Delaware; and Aids to Navigation Team New York also had their waterfront facilities, piers, docks, floats, and boat fueling systems destroyed. The damage at Sandy Hook forced the cutters Bainbridge Island (WPB-1343) and Sailfish (WPB-87356) to relocate their homeport to Bayonne, New Jersey. In addition to the damage to operating facilities, family housing units and private homes at these locations were flooded and made uninhabitable, displacing a large number of Coast Guard families. Despite such devastation, Coast Guard men and women stayed focused on their mission, adapting and developing innovative workarounds. Their perseverance and devotion to duty and country honor the finest traditions of the service.

Search and Rescue

Along with homeland security, search and rescue remains a core mission of the Coast Guard. While several cases made national news in 2012, none was more dramatic than the rescue of the crew of HMS Bounty off North Carolina. The 180-foot square rigger, a replica of the ship made famous in the book and movie Mutiny on the Bounty, foundered in heavy seas churned up by Hurricane Sandy. By the time two Coast Guard helicopters from Air Station Elizabeth City arrived on scene, the Bounty was on the verge of sinking and the crew had abandoned the vessel, some into life rafts, others floating in survival suits. Through the use of Coast Guard rescue swimmers who were lowered into the 20-foot seas, 14 of the 16 crew members were saved.

One unforgettable moment of the rescue came when Coast Guard rescue swimmer Petty Officer 3rd Class Dan Todd swam to one of the rafts and said to the survivors, “Hi, I’m Dan, I heard you guys need a ride.” A calming and comforting way of telling the survivors, “Remain calm, you will be all right. The Coast Guard is here.” Tragically, the Bounty ’s master, Captain Robin Walbridge, and crew member Claudene Christian, a descendant of the legendary Bounty mutineer Fletcher Christian, were lost. Ms. Christian’s body was recovered from the water, but despite an exhaustive 90-hour search that covered 12,000 square miles, Captain Walbridge was never located.

Law Enforcement

While search and rescue is the heart and soul of the Coast Guard, law enforcement remains its day-to-day work. A stark reminder of the increasing dangers of these missions came with the loss of one of its own during a law enforcement operation off Santa Cruz Island. Senior Chief Terrell Horne II was killed when the Mexican panga he was pursuing rammed his rigid-hull inflatable boat. The 34-year-old Horne was the executive petty officer of the 87-foot patrol boat CGC Halibut (WPB-87340). The two Mexican smugglers on the panga were captured and charged with second degree manslaughter and assaulting a federal law enforcement officer with a deadly weapon. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Admiral Papp attended the memorial service for the 14-year Coast Guard veteran. Napolitano eulogized that, “Senior Chief Horne devoted his life (to) serving the most notable of causes, the protection of our nation, the defense of our freedoms, and the rescue of those in distress.” Senior Chief Horne left behind a wife and three sons.

The maritime component of the war on drugs continued to demonstrate the value of joint, interagency, and coalition operations, as smuggling on the U.S. Southwest maritime border from Mexico to Santa Barbara, California is fast becoming a major line of operations for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). From a maritime perspective it is perhaps the most dangerous. From 2009 through 2011, the Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) experienced a steady increase in interdictions from 11,000 pounds to 23,000 pounds seized, most of which was marijuana. In 2012, this volume exploded to 120,000 pounds. The sophistication of the smuggling effort has also grown, transitioning from mostly single-engine, tiller-controlled pangas in 2010 to four-engine, center-console pangas in 2012. This increase in maritime smuggling appears to be a result of increased success by CBP along the land border.

In support of Joint Interagency Task Force (JIATF) South’s Operation Martillo (Spanish for hammer) in the Western Caribbean and Eastern Pacific, Coast Guard law enforcement detachments (LEDETs) operating from U.S. Navy combatants interdicted tons of cocaine. On 30 November 2012, the LEDET on board the USS Carr (FFG-52) interdicted 1.5 tons of cocaine with a street value of $114.1 million.

In a similar case, a LEDET on board the San Diego-based guided missile frigate USS Curts (FFG-38), in a joint operation with the CGC Morgenthau (WHEC-722), seized more than 752 pounds of cocaine worth about $9 million from a vessel west of Colombia. The interdiction started when the Morgenthau ’s HH-65 helicopter spotted a go-fast boat that was later picked up by an SH-60 helicopter from the Curts . Upon detecting the helicopters, crew members on the suspect vessel started tossing bales over the side. Aerial marksmen on the Coast Guard helicopter fired disabling shots into the vessel’s engines, ending the pursuit.

In December, a trio of drug busts netted over $100 million in cocaine in less than two weeks. The first bust was by the CGC Tampa (WMEC-902) off Florida. The smuggling vessel was initially detected by Canadian aircraft, and the Tampa was vectored in, resulting in 5,000 pounds of cocaine seized. The second and third busts were by the CGC Decisive (WMEC-629) off the Dominican Republic, resulting in 3,967 pounds of cocaine seized. Both of the Decisive ’s busts were conducted under Operation Unified Resolve, a Department of Homeland Security multi-agency law enforcement operation to deter, detect, and disrupt maritime smuggling around Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The danger to Coast Guard and CBP law enforcement officers is a very real concern. In its more traditional counter drug operations, the Coast Guard conducts its boardings with a major cutter and often an armed helicopter as backup. In the Southwest, Coast Guard and CBP officers typically operate from shore-based small boats. With the border so close, there is an increased likelihood that smugglers will elect to resist a law enforcement boarding and flee before backup can arrive. DHS has recognized this new threat and is supporting increased joint Coast Guard and CBP operations along the Southwest maritime border.

Marine Safety and Waterways Management

Marine safety and waterways management are also part of the daily life of the Coast Guard. The importance of these missions was brought into sharp focus as the Coast Guard, in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, struggled to keep commerce flowing along the normally mighty Mississippi River. Severe drought in the Midwest caused water levels to drop to historic lows threatening the viability of one of the nation’s most important maritime arteries. To overcome this threat, the Coast Guard, including members from sectors Upper Mississippi and Ohio Valley, formed a unified command with the Army Corps of Engineers to keep waterborne commerce moving.

For its part, the Coast Guard maintained three areas of focus. Waterways management: Ensured that aids to navigation accurately mark the ever-changing safe channel; in support of this the service assigned six inland river buoy tenders to the Unified Command. Response: Worked with partner agencies to quickly react to any collisions, allisions, or groundings due to the low water to minimize consequences. And recovery: In the event of a collision, allision, or grounding remove any pollutants and restore navigability as rapidly as possible. While commerce was significantly reduced, at times causing economic harm, the Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers were successful in preventing a complete stoppage that would have had far more serious economic consequences.

International Operations

The Coast Guard reached a substantial milestone in its development of international partnerships when the Chinese Maritime Safety Administration ship Haixun 31 arrived in Honolulu Harbor in September. The Haixun 31 , a 3,000-ton patrol vessel, was escorted into port by a parade of ships that included the CGC Galveston Island (WPB-1349). The Coast Guard and the Chinese Maritime Safety Administration have been cooperating since 1987 on many maritime issues, and they used this visit to conduct joint search-and-rescue exercises. Rear Admiral Charles Ray, commander of the Coast Guard’s Fourteenth District in Honolulu, framed the importance of this visit stating, “This historic engagement further improves the coordination of search and rescue operations at sea. . . . This is the first visit to the United States by the Haixun 31 and is an opportunity to strengthen our relationship on a number of common maritime missions.” The exercises culminated eight miles south of Oahu where the Haixun 31 , the Galveston Island , and Coast Guard Air Station Barbers Point conducted a coordinated rescue simulation.

Defense Operations

The Coast Guard continued to support every geographic combatant commander in 2012. In the Persian Gulf, Port Clinton-based Coast Guard Reserve Port Security Unit 309 deployed for three months in Operation Enduring Freedom, supporting Task Group 56.5. The unit operated jointly with the Navy’s Maritime Expeditionary Squadron to provide port security along the northern Persian Gulf. Six of the service’s 110-foot patrol boats remained in the gulf conducting maritime-interdiction operations and protecting critical maritime infrastructure in support of the 5th Fleet. The Coast Guard’s redeployment assistance inspection detachments continued to operate in Iraq and Afghanistan, facilitating the redeployment of DOD units.

In the Pacific, the CGC Waesche (WMSL-751) participated in the 2012 Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) operations as part of its 161-day, 30,000-nautical mile deployment. CARAT involves a wide range of foreign navies and coast guards including the Royal Singapore Coast Guard, the Malaysian and Philippine Navies and Coast Guards, the Indonesian Navy, and the Royal Thai Navy. These services participated in a variety of activities including damage control, maritime law enforcement, visual communications, navigation, shipboard flight operations, and medical procedures. The value of these interactions in strengthening international partnerships vital to the nation’s theater security plans is tremendous.

The Coast Guard’s all-volunteer civilian Auxiliary also made valuable contributions to the Department of Defense. The Auxiliary’s Interpreter Corps, a component of the Auxiliary’s International Affairs Department, is a pool of Auxiliarists who are certified interpreters. In 2012, two members, Rande Wilson and Jean-Miguel Bariteau, deployed on board the Navy’s HSV Swift in Senegal. The Auxiliarists supported the U.S. team training the Senegalese Navy. The deployment of the Swift is part of the Africa Partnership Station conducted by the 6th Fleet in support of U.S. Africa Command. The purpose is to improve maritime-security preparedness among coastal African nations while building interoperability.

The Arctic

In 2012 the Coast Guard continued to redirect forces to the Arctic as the sea ice there fell to its lowest level on record. During a U.S. Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee field hearing on Kodiak Island, Alaska, Admiral Papp summarized the Coast Guard’s Arctic capability. Papp stated that, “For right now we are well prepared because, like we always do traditionally, we have multi-mission assets that we can deploy, that are very capable, and that are sufficient for the level of human activity that’s going on this summer and perhaps for the next three or four summers.”

Admiral Papp’s remarks were delivered as the Coast Guard started Operation Arctic Shield, which examined the service’s ability to conduct search-and-rescue operations, oil spill response, humanitarian operations to remote Alaskan villages, and maritime safety enforcement. In the operation’s initial phase, the Coast Guard deployed two cutters, two smaller vessels, and two helicopters to Barrow, Alaska.

One of the centerpieces of Arctic Shield was the participation of the CGC Bertholf (WMSL-750), the first of the service’s new class of national security cutters. The ship arrived for the operation following exercises in Hawaii, Panama, and the Aleutian Islands. By the time she completed her role in Arctic Shield and transited home to Alameda, California, the cutter had aptly demonstrated her endurance, having spent a total of 144 days away from home port.

Another noteworthy step forward in the Coast Guard’s capability to perform Arctic operations was the completion of a major overhaul of the heavy icebreaker CGC Polar Star (WGAB-10). Commissioned in 1976, the Polar Star was placed in caretaker status in 2006, and the ship should start sea trials in 2013.

Arctic operations were also conducted from the Atlantic. The 225-foot buoy tender CGC Juniper (WLB-201) departed from Newport, Rhode Island, and traveled over 2,300 miles to the northernmost region of the high Arctic as part of Operation Nanook. It was conducted to enhance interoperability with international forces and develop experience working in the Arctic environment. As part of this joint effort, the Juniper operated with assets from Canada and Denmark.

Other Noteworthy Events

In other service news, the CGC Bramble , which was decommissioned in 2003 and was the first vessel to successfully circumnavigate the North American continent via the Northwest Passage, was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The cutter is now moored in Port Huron, Michigan.

Starting in August, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) began to train its officer candidates at the Coast Guard’s Officer Candidate School co-located with the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. Prior to this change NOAA had trained its officers at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York. The NOAA officer candidates will sail aboard CGC Eagle (WIX-327) with their Coast Guard officer candidate counterparts.

The Puget Sound-based 175-foot CGC Henry Blake (WLM-563) conducted operations on biofuel made of a 50/50 mix of algae and diesel—a first for the cutter fleet.

The tempo of operations for the Coast Guard in 2012 remained high, and its men and women performed magnificently. Looking ahead, the service will be challenged even more just to hold the line on domestic and Caribbean operations in the face of an apparent intensification in natural disasters, maritime smuggling, and legitimate use of the sea. On top of this the Coast Guard must pivot to the Pacific, pivot to the Southwest border, and pivot to the Arctic to face the new challenges of our rapidly changing world. It must do all this in a period of declining budgets with decaying infrastructure and aging assets; while its operating and sustainment costs are growing almost exponentially, its available funds are declining. As a result, the service will have to raise its management of risk to a whole new level. In doing so, it is hard to imagine that this is possible without also raising the bar on acceptable risk.

Dr. DiRenzo and Mr. Doane are employed as Coast Guard civilians at Coast Guard Atlantic Area where Dr. DiRenzo is the Chief of Operations Analysis and Mr. Doane is the Executive Secretariat. They are retired Coast Guard officers and long time contributors to Proceedings . Dr. DiRenzo is the Coast Guard Chair at the Joint Forces Staff College where Mr. Doane is a Senior Fellow. Dr DiRenzo also teaches for American Military University’s Graduate Intelligence Studies program.


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