Improvisation has its limits, but shooting from the hip in some situations gives the Coast Guard the flexibility needed to accomplish today's rapidly changing missions, where the ability to plan on the go is key.
During the last few years, the Coast Guard has been a major player in a number of significant joint operations with the Navy and other Department of Defense services. In each case, the mission was accomplished—even when it changed drastically after the operation was under way, The Coast Guard's role in these missions was planned largely on the fly, and the command elements were ad hoc collections of operational types. The time-honored tradition of operational improvisation is one of the Coast Guard's great strengths. In fact, it is often the best way to do things in this small service, and is an important skill the Coast Guard brings to the joint table.
The recent stand-up of the Western Hemisphere Group, with full-time Coast Guard participation from the outset, gives the National Command Authorities a new and permanent structure for conducting joint operations other than war, using both Department of Defense and Coast Guard resources. As the excellent U.S. Coast Guard-Department of Defense working relationship is refined and formalized, the Coast Guard must not give up its ability to improvise. To the contrary, the Department of Defense must recognize and capitalize on the Coast Guard's capability for action, when faced with low-threat but high-tempo littoral crisis situations that have become that service's forte.
Shooting from the hip—to one degree or another—in running multiunit operations is a Coast Guard tradition in the modern era. Operation Market Time in Vietnam, the 1980 Mariel boat lift, and the 1991 Haitian mass migration are examples of operational improvisation. The events of 1994, often referred to as "Haiti-Cuba-Haiti," best illustrate the value—and limitations—of improvisation.
Improvisation in Action
Haiti-Cuba-Haiti began in the summer of 1994 with a mass migration in the Windward Passage. The response, Operation Able Manner (Operation Sea Signal for Department of Defense participants), was a combination of Coast Guard and Defense forces rescuing migrants—as many as 3,200 in a single July day—in the Windward Passage. In all, nearly 21,000 Haitians were interdicted in June and July of 1994. A change in U.S. policy on 5 July stemmed the migrant flow from Haiti, but the welcome calm was short lived.
The number of Cuban balseros appearing just around the corner in the Straits of Florida had been growing steadily since 1991. By June, monthly totals neared 1,200. Many Coast Guard and Defense forces released from Able Manner were redeployed north of Havana, rescuing Cubans in what soon became Operation Able Vigil. Over a period of four weeks in August and September, more than 29,000 Cubans were plucked from the sea and transported to Guantanamo Bay. At its peak, this joint operation employed more than 50 surface units.
When negotiations between the United States and Cuba brought the signing of an immigration agreement on 9 September, the Castro government stopped virtually all rafter departures. By then, many of the rescue forces were returning to the waters off Haiti, preparing for the intervention (Operation Uphold/Restore Democracy) that took place 19 September. President Aristide returned to power and a multinational peacekeeping force was put in place.
All in all, "Haiti-Cuba-Haiti" was a resounding success. It garnered praise from the highest levels for all involved. In particular, the Coast Guard's role highlighted the remarkable surge capability of the nation's relatively small fifth armed service. A significant percentage of the entire Coast Guard was involved in one way or another at some point as people, cutters, and aircraft from every district got in on the action.
To many, the successes were even more impressive as two of the three operations were Coast Guard-led—and led by hastily assembled staffs. Operations Able Manner and Able Vigil each were directed by a temporarily assigned Coast Guard captain and a small temporary additional duty staff embarked in Coast Guard Hamilton-class high-endurance cutters.
Further, many of the operational details were planned essentially at the last minute, without the benefit of any professional planners. Instead of having a J-5 shop toiling away on planning orders for months or years in advance, Able Manner and Able Vigil were largely "planas-you-go" operations with operational orders written literally the night before they were needed. The ability to operate this way, appropriate only in certain circumstances, gives the Coast Guard a unique capability of great value in accomplishing the nation's objectives.
Well-thought-out operations, permanently assigned squadron and joint task force staffs, and professional planners do have their place. Operation Uphold/Restore Democracy is an example of a situation where with the threat level, nature of the mission, and sheer size of the force involved, a lack of detailed planning or a hastily assembled command structure could have been disastrous. When Should We Improvise?
The criteria for situations where operational improvisation is appropriate are narrow. The organization must already be involved in the mission and operational area (such as the Coast Guard in migrant operations), and the scope must be within the organization's command and control communications capability (for example, keeping in mind that more than 50,000 migrants were rescued by Coast Guard-led operations in 1994). In those cases, the Coast Guard has a well-honed ability to assemble a focused command element that can get the job done without the cost of excessive overhead or wasted time.
Operational improvisation depends on two additional factors for success: operationally relevant people in the command staff, and task elements able to operate with only minimal specific guidance. Crucial among these is having people at the top who are up to date on the mission at hand. In both Able Manner and Able Vigil, the commanders and staffs came from positions where they were already involved in the mission. They knew the background, constraints, and resources involved as well as the political sensitivities of the decisions they would make.
Being up to date on the situation was especially important when the Cuban mass migration exploded in August. Operation Able Vigil grew from a two- to three-ship operation to a 50-plus-ship task unit, in a matter of days. This transition from independent operations to tactical control of an embarked staff was accomplished almost overnight with seamless continuity of command, because the new commodore was already intimately involved in control of the mission. On Friday he was the chief of operations for the Seventh District Commander in Miami (the first level of the shoreside operational chain of command); Monday he was Commander, Task Unit (CTU) 44.7.9 embarked. There was no lost time or effort while a green commodore and staff learned the ropes—they simply got on with the business of saving lives.
The balance of the Able Vigil CTU staff was filled out by a mixture of people from the district staff and individuals borrowed from the host cutter as seemed appropriate. Because the staff had been working with each other and with the Alien Migrant Interdiction Operations mission prior to deploying, they were effective from day one, foreseeing problems and finding solutions.
Able Manner, the Haitian migrant operation, was a similar story. In fact, it was stood up and then stood down again several times as an "embarked staff" operation, as the threat of a mass migration fluctuated with changes in U.S. immigration policy. There too, the key to success was the use of operationally current people as staff. This will be the most difficult element to retain for similar operations run under the Western Hemisphere Group.
Another important element in successful operational improvisation is the cultural willingness to launch a major operation without benefit of a detailed plan or operating guidance. This is exactly what the Coast Guard did in Able Manner and Able Vigil—and it worked well, as it has many times in the past. There were operational plans written ahead of time, but they neither provided the level of detailed guidance found in Department of Defense operations, nor did they anticipate the major changes in direction that occurred after the operation started. This was not an indication of a lack of professionalism, but a recognition that some shooting from the hip is often the best approach for the jobs at which the Coast Guard excels.
Naval warfare doctrine draws a distinction between deliberate and crisis-action planning. Often, the Coast Guard does not follow the strict regimen called for in the joint planning publications, but it is very good at crisis-action planning. It fits the character of the Coast Guard—a lean organization made up of generalists. Also, with our many and diverse missions, there are far too many contingencies to prepare plans—to the Department of Defense level of detail—for even the few most likely to occur.
The ever-changing nature of many missions also encourages operational improvisation. The policy on Haitian migrants is one example of where even the best-laid plans soon would have become obsolete. For some time before the summer of 1994, the Coast Guard had directly repatriated rescued migrants to Haiti, thereby deterring departures. In June, policy changed to allow migrants to be screened for entry into the United States at hastily established processing centers. Migrant sailings skyrocketed. Delivery points changed quickly as migrant processing centers opened, filled up, and opened elsewhere. Within a month, screening was ended, and migrants received only safe haven, with no chance of entry into the United States. Once again, migrant numbers plummeted.
These unforeseeable changes drastically affected the details of resource employment and in-theater procedures. The Coast Guard was able to accommodate each new twist because of its culture of adaptability and reliance on general mission expertise at the individual unit level, rather than strict adherence to detailed plans.
The mission for the Cuban rescue operation (Able Vigil) changed in midstream even more dramatically. For years, Cubans rescued in the Straits were simply landed in Florida, making the mechanics of the operation relatively simple, even when migrant numbers soared. On 19 August, with little warning at the operational level, national policy changed so that all further rescuees would be transported by sea almost 600 miles to Guantanamo Bay. This greatly increased the assets required, and literally every surface platform available to either the Coast Guard or the U.S. Atlantic Command was dedicated to the effort.
While the Coast Guard and other government agencies had mass-migration plans in place, they all focused on handling migrants after landing in the United States. None adequately addressed the complexities of interdiction, transfer, and transport to Guantanamo Bay of thousands of rafters per day, which suddenly had become the mission. The ad hoc task force staff had to address complex issues of command-and-control communications, tactics, force sustainment, migrant care, and more—all while in the midst of the operation. They were successful only through the Coast Guard tradition of taking what guidance is given and improvising the rest to get the job done.
There are differences in culture between the Coast Guard and its Department of Defense counterparts when it comes to such improvisation, and there were some interesting manifestations of these differences during Haiti-Cuba-Haiti. One naval combatant joined us early in Able Vigil and was assigned as a sector commander, directing several smaller units within a given area. After about a half day (and hundreds of migrants rescued), he called the flagship and sheepishly admitted that he did not have the current operational task instruction for his sector commander duties. The response was that there was no OpTask, and that he was simply to use his units to pick up rafters, and when they were full, deliver them to the transport ship. After a moment's hesitation, he responded, "I can do that, and hey! I like working for you guys!"
In another case, a grey hull had been extended on station a couple of times, and crew members asked about the procedures for replenishment at sea. Of course, there weren't any. It turned out that what they needed was milk and eggs. It took an overnight delivery from Miami to Key West to obtain enough milk and eggs (one truck load of each), and all the dry ice in the Keys to keep them cool during transport—but before long, "omelets for 400" were delivered by a Coast Guard patrol boat.
Navy ships got with the spirit of improvisation too. One dock landing ship, tasked with transporting rafters to Guantanamo Bay, was faced with a number of migrants accompanied by household pets, mostly dogs. No problem. A kennel was constructed from pallets and dunnage on the weather deck, and the dog pound at Guantanamo was persuaded to accept the animals upon arrival. We even scrounged up some dog food—problem solved; no "OpTask Dog" needed. As the operation wore on, medical professionals from the migrant population were invited to remain on board ships to help with migrant health care.
The Coast Guard is being drawn into ever closer alignment with its sister services. In these post-drawdown times, the Department of Defense is focusing more on littoral missions, many of which used to be largely the Coast Guard's domain. Additionally, the Coast Guard continues through a number of initiatives to refine our compatibility in terms of command and control communications, training, commonality of experience and terminology, and more. Also, with the move of the Atlantic Area Commander from New York to Tidewater Virginia, day-to-day coordination with the U.S. Atlantic Command and subordinate commands is sure to increase and improve.
The Western Hemisphere Group will present a challenge as the likely command of choice to run the next Haiti-Cuba-Haiti-type operation. It is important and good that the Coast Guard is a full participant in the Group from the start, but we must guard against losing our unique capabilities by total assimilation. We should be interoperable with our Defense counterparts, not indistinguishable from them. Again, improvisation requires mission currency at the top and shoot-from-the-hip initiative at the deckplates. How can we maintain those within the context of the WHG? I'm not sure, but we need to try. Perhaps we should plan to augment the WHG staff with temporary additional duty, mission-current officers in a few key positions should a crisis occur. Maybe we should also conduct periodic nonemergency Coast Guard operations under WHG tactical control, for familiarity. Whatever we do, if we lose our special skill we will be much less valuable as an instrument of national policy in the next century.
Commander Luke, who will begin a year at the Naval War College in August, has commanded the cutter Valiant since June 1996. He has served as the assistant law enforcement branch chief at the Seventh District Staff in Miami. Commander Luke is a 1976 graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.