From 1790 to 1798, our fledgling nation had no Navy. Revenue cutters were the only armed, seagoing federal vessels, charged with protecting the coast, trade, and maritime interests of the new republic. In the early years, those cutters also took on other missions, such as charting U.S. coastlines, carrying supplies to lighthouses, and assisting mariners in distress.
At the outset of the War of 1812, America’s naval fleet consisted of a mere six Navy frigates and 14 revenue cutters. During the war, as it did throughout its history, the Revenue Cutter Service demonstrated remarkable bravery, spirit and resourcefulness.
Cutters and their crews earned a reputation as a small but valiant group—the very reputation that the modern-day Coast Guard embodies. They could lie alongside an enemy, fight on the decks in hand-to-hand combat, and spill blood with the greatest naval force of the time. In addition to protecting American commerce and fighting beside the Navy, revenue cutters served as law-enforcement assets in ports and along our coasts, provided valuable maritime intelligence, transported precious government cargos, dignitaries, and diplomats, and delivered vital dispatches.
The Coast Guard has a rich heritage of providing and fostering American prosperity by ensuring the free flow of maritime commerce, and we are proud to be the nation’s oldest continuously operating sea service. Today, the Coast Guard is a strategic national asset, equipped with the mandates, legal authorities, and capabilities to fight new maritime threats. The availability of cutters to patrol the transit zones, and new cutters designed to patrol far offshore, remain critical to protecting America.
Operations Then and Now
Operational accounts from the War of 1812 read much like today’s—a skilled and loyal force carrying out diverse and valorous actions. It was a cutter, the Thomas Jefferson , that made the first capture of a British vessel, a schooner. The cutter Gallatin intercepted the British brig General Blake , sailing from London to Amelia Island, Florida, carrying illegal cargo, including African slaves. The cutter Diligence rescued survivors of the American brig Defiance when she capsized in a storm.
Two centuries later we have cutters taking to sea as proud namesakes of our 1812 fleet. The cutters Vigilant (WMEC-621), Gallatin (WHEC-721), and Diligence (WMEC-616) patrol the nation’s coasts and the high seas, ensuring safety, security, and the free flow of commerce.
The War of 1812 not only firmly established the protection of the nation’s coasts and littorals as one of the Coast Guard’s most important and enduring missions, it also created new missions, such as intelligence-collection and naval support.
Today cutters specialize and continue to serve in littoral-combat operations, carry out boardings and seizures, and rescue those in peril on the sea. Currently six of our 110-foot Island-class patrol boats serve under U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, Commander 5th Fleet. Those boats provide maritime infrastructure protection for oil platforms in the Persian Gulf, working with Coalition forces to promote regional security and stability in support of theater objectives. Additionally they support nation-building operations, providing training and interoperability. The Coast Guard is well suited for such American outreach efforts—as part of a “whole of government” effort—because the vast majority of the world’s navies are actually coast guards, with missions, requirements, and challenges similar to ours.
During the War of 1812, revenue cutters did not operate under the direction of the Navy, as they had during the Quasi-War with France. Instead, the cutters took their orders from the Department of Treasury. That meant the wartime cutter officers—much like Coast Guard officers today—had to be well versed in trade laws, naval warfare, and port and coastal security.
The cutter Gallatin , based in Charleston, South Carolina, patrolled the coastal waters between Charleston and Savannah, Georgia, conducting security, law enforcement and intelligence-gathering. In October 1812, the Gallatin detained the English vessels Active and Georgiana , both carrying illegal cargoes of British goods. In March 1813, the Gallatin arrived back in Charleston after a patrol and reported the location of Royal Navy warships sailing off Port Royal.
The modern namesake high-endurance cutter Gallatin was commissioned in the late 1960s, and underwent major overhauls in 2009 to extend her operational life. The Gallatin lost more than two years of patrol time as a result, yet immediately proved her worth to U.S. security by extending the rule of law to the sea. In just two patrols, her crew seized more than 11,000 pounds of cocaine and marijuana. The removal of those narcotics—having a street value of more than $100 million—from criminals, ensured they would never make it into the hands of our nation’s youth. Cutters with long sea legs, allowing the interdiction of threats far offshore, are a critical component in a layered security approach.
Meeting New Threats
Today, many of our cutters carry out missions long in tradition despite ever-changing and emerging threats. The first recorded narcotics seizure occurred more than a half- century after the War of 1812, in 1890, when the cutter Wolcott , stationed in the Strait of Juan de Fuca of Washington state, boarded the U.S.-flagged steamer George E. Starr and discovered a quantity of undeclared opium. The cutter crew seized both the vessel and the opium. Interestingly, that first seizure was made not because of anti-narcotics laws, but because the opium was undeclared, in violation of customs laws. Since then, drug laws and smuggling threats have changed drastically, with transnational crime organizations (TCOs) using varying tactics and techniques—including go-fast boats and semisubmersibles— to smuggle drugs into the United States. The Coast Guard’s resolve to thwart those illegal activities has not wavered. Today, the Coast Guard annually stops the flow of more than 47 metric tons of illegal drugs.
Combating transnational crime at sea presents unique challenges for the Coast Guard, as TCOs develop new tactics. President Barack Obama noted that, “criminal networks are not only expanding their operations, but they are also diversifying their activities, resulting in a convergence of transnational threats that has evolved to become more complex, volatile, and destabilizing.”
Today, most drugs departing source-countries are shipped by sea—covered by tarps on the decks of small speedboats, hidden belowdecks on fishing vessels, or concealed in secret compartments on board commercial vessels. Beyond those conventional methods, a new threat has emerged, particularly in the Caribbean littorals and the eastern Pacific, whereby TCOs use self-propelled semisubmersible vessels (SPSSs)—or drug subs. Criminals design these drug subs for one purpose only—delivery of multi-ton loads of pure cocaine bound for our shores, streets, and schools.
Authorities have documented drug subs in the eastern Pacific since 2006, but Coast Guard assets working with multiagency partners recently have encountered SPSSs in the western Caribbean, increasing the homeland-security threat and the implications for counterdrug operations. Drug subs are not high-tech, but they are proving effective since they are so difficult to detect. The Coast Guard has had some recent success working with the U.S. Navy and partner agencies to find and interdict these vessels, but a layered security approach is critical in detection and interdiction in the littoral transit zones. The Coast Guard has interdicted 33 SPSSs in both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea, seizing 200 metric tons of cocaine.
TCOs construct drug subs in clandestine, often makeshift boatyards in the jungles of South America. The SPSS is designed to carry large payloads and evade radar; operating mostly below the surface, it has a minimal visual signature. Each generation of SPSS becomes increasingly more sophisticated, incorporating external camouflage, self-cooling exhaust systems, and other features making detection by ship or air difficult. Most are approximately 40 to 80 feet long and are exceptionally quiet, making them incredibly difficult to detect in littoral waters. Although drug subs cost nearly $1 million each to produce, the TCOs generally destroy them after a successful delivery—a tactic that is cost-effective because of the staggeringly high value of the payload. With each smuggling venture, TCOs learn more about routes, design, and evasion tactics. But as the criminal networks refine their practices, so does the Coast Guard.
The most effective countermeasure is the layered approach that includes cutters, aircraft, multi-agency partnerships and legislative authorities. Beyond detection and interdiction, the final case-prosecution is critical to ensure maximum disruption to future TCO smuggling ventures. In many cases, drug smugglers will scuttle their SPSS if detected, sending the criminal evidence to the ocean floor. Initially, that technique presented a unique challenge, as the Coast Guard was left recovering nothing more than water-treading smugglers.
While the Coast Guard and its federal partners wrestled with ways to overcome that tactic, lawmakers provided a new tool. In July 2008, Congress passed the Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act (H.R. 6295), which makes it a felony for those who knowingly or intentionally operate or embark in an unflagged SPSS.
This new tool is powerful, but effective only if the Coast Guard is able to detect and stop those vessels at sea. The current fleet of Coast Guard cutters ranges from 30 to 45 years old, constituting one of the oldest fleets in the world that at the same time is one of the world’s busiest. Legacy cutters continue to be an effective tool, but a new and more capable cutter fleet will be vital to the Coast Guard’s ability to continue to provide front-line operations.
In 2011, the crew of the cutter Mohawk (WMEC-913), a legacy medium-endurance cutter, interdicted a drug sub and prevented seven tons of cocaine ($180 million wholesale value) from reaching our nation. That particular chase ensued after the crew of a maritime patrol aircraft spotted a suspicious vessel and notified the Mohawk . Proceeding to the last known position, she launched her helicopter and small boat and successfully interdicted the sub. Before being taken into custody the smugglers managed to sink their SPSS and her payload. The water depth was relatively shallow, however, allowing the cutter Cypress (WLB-210), a 225-foot buoy tender, to search with the FBI Laboratory’s Technical Dive Team and locate the sub.
The tactics of TCOs will continue to evolve and present new challenges to the men and women of the Coast Guard. Where Coast Guard crews patrol, safety, national security, and the rule of law follows. But new and more capable cutters to monitor the transit zones and littorals, along with large cutters to patrol far offshore, are critical to protecting America from maritime threats of all types.
The Case for Recapitalization
After the War of 1812 the Revenue Cutter Service aggressively recapitalized its cutter fleet, replacing 15 vessels between 1815 and 1818. Two centuries later the service faces the critically important task of modernizing assets to ensure front-line operations. Our high-endurance cutter fleet is obsolete, logging more than 40 years of service. Our medium-endurance fleet is now reaching 30 years of sustained service
The 2010 earthquake in Haiti provides a stark illustration of the challenges that declining fleet conditions present. The Coast Guard responded to the 7.0-magnitude quake that killed an estimated 220,000 people and injured more than 300,000 others. Our response—which included cutters on patrol in the region quickly being repurposed—was a classic example of what we do.
Yet, during those relief operations, 10 of our 12 assigned cutters—83 percent—suffered significant mechanical problems, impeding their ability to respond. Three had to suspend relief activities and leave the area for extensive repairs, which included sending one ship to emergency drydock.
Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Robert Papp Jr. is unequivocal about the significance of such occurrences to the service: “Recapitalization is vital to improve mission readiness by replacing aged, obsolete, and unreliable assets. Investment in Coast Guard recapitalization is the service’s top budget priority and is essential to mission execution.” Demand for Coast Guard services is greater than at any time in history, and that demand requires the acquisition of new assets and upgrades for some aging platforms, replacing obsolete and costly-to-maintain cutters and aircraft. That kind of investment will help ensure sustainable readiness to support operational forces in the field. Our cutters, aircraft, and mission systems are at the forefront of a multilayered, multimission strategy focused on maritime homeland security, law enforcement, public safety, national defense, and natural-resource protection. The Coast Guard protects citizens from the sea, protects the nation from sea-borne threats, and protects the sea itself. It is a military, maritime, and multimission service. Modern assets will improve border and transportation security, increase inoperability with the Navy and Department of Homeland Security, improve law enforcement response and coordination, and guard critical maritime infrastructure.
Despite their age, our legacy cutters continue to deliver great value to the American people, but a new and more capable fleet will be vital to our ability to continue our mission. Where we have started to recapitalize, the positive effects already are being realized in the field. The Richard Etheridge , the second vessel in the Sentinel-class fast-response cutter (FRC) recapitalization project, was officially delivered to the Coast Guard on 26 May in Key West, Florida, after transiting from Lockport, Louisiana. She will be commissioned in Port Everglades, Florida, on 3 August and homeported alongside the lead FRC, the Bernard C. Webber (WPC-1101), in Miami.
The Sentinel-class cutter is representative of the Coast Guard’s disciplined approach to rebuild its surface fleet. The fast-response cutter uses a proven, in-service parent-craft design based on the Dutch-design Damen Stan Patrol Boat 4708. It has proven seakeeping ability and a flank speed of 28 knots and a 2,500-hours-per-year operational employment target. It uses state-of-the-market command, control, communications, and computer technology that is interoperable with the Coast Guard’s existing and future assets, as well as Department of Homeland Security and Department of Defense assets. The Coast Guard plans to acquire 58 FRCs to replace the service’s 110-foot Island-class fleet, whose cutters range in age from 20 to 27 years old.
Two hundred years after the War of 1812, we remain Semper Paratus—Always Ready. This year’s commemoration offers a reminder of the significant role our service has played in securing American freedom, protecting U.S. national interests and facilitating safe and secure domestic commerce and international trade. Coast Guard missions and capabilities support the investment security, innovation, and resiliency that are the foundations of a growing economy. Indeed, the Coast Guard has been a sound investment in homeland security for more than two centuries.
Lieutenant Commander Frederick is the Atlantic Area public affairs officer.
Dr. DiRenzo is the Atlantic Area chief, Operations Analysis.