Even as 60-knot winds persisted throughout the region, Coast Guard forces began descending on the devastated city of New Orleans and Mississippi coastal communities as the first wave of what would become the largest rescue mission in the service's history. Coast Guard crews began immediately saving lives, assessing environmental damage, and restoring ports and waterways. It was an all-hands effort that has been widely praised.
But why did the Coast Guard succeed when so many other parts of the federal, state and local response was inadequate? More importantly, will the Coast Guard be able to learn from its success, and failures, to lead the way toward an enhanced national response capacity?
Keys to Success
First, the value of a military, maritime, and multi-mission Coast Guard was proven once again. With unique authorities spanning the defense and civil law enforcement operational spectrums, the Coast Guard can operate with Department of Defense elements (e.g., U.S. Northern Command, Joint Task Force Katrina) and state and local first responders. As the debate rages over the proper role for the military in domestic response operations, the Coast Guard stands out as a unique instrument of national and homeland security.
Second, Coast Guard operational readiness is fundamental to mission success. The well-known readiness decline of the Coast Guard fleet over the last decade adds urgency to ongoing recapitalization efforts. There can be little doubt as to the value of a Coast Guard that is "always ready." As a nationwide federal first responder, Coast Guard readiness is a national priority that requires continued investment.
Lastly, the Coast Guard is built around an operational culture described by the "Principles of Coast Guard Operations." It was the execution of these doctrinal principles anchored by the Coast Guard's core values of honor, respect, and devotion to duty that empowered Coast Guard crews to overcome any obstacle and press on despite a punishing environment and operations tempo. Together, these principles and values contribute to an operational ethos that facilitates action. Aviation commanders summarized it well in their message to the troops; "If you turn highly trained and properly equipped Coasties loose on an objective, they will tackle it, and let you know when it is done."
Following through on Success
Cataloguing success is necessary but not sufficient. The Coast Guard must not be seduced by the accolades and shy away from critical self-examination. As a military, multi-mission service with a unique national readiness posture and experienced operational culture, the Coast Guard has the responsibility and opportunity to learn and lead.
The Coast Guard should not convince itself that everything went right. Learning is required and lessons must be studied such that appropriate changes can be made to doctrine, training, and planning. This is not a traditional strong suit of the Coast Guard, particularly compared to our sister services. It was notable that within a week of Hurricane Katrina coming ashore the Department of Defense had stoodup a dedicated staff to record and analyze lessons learned on a near real-time basis. The Coast Guard has taken some positive steps including the stand-up of an archival and historical record team. But archiving and documenting must be reinforced by dedicated analysis and learning. As a service the Coast Guard should be proud of its response and eager to do the research and study to improve.
With what it knows and learns, the Coast Guard should be a leader in the national debate. Already faced with a Herculean mission, the cavalcade of criticism in recent months has been a body blow to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). But from failures, reform is borne. The pre-eminence of DoD operations today owes much of its lineage to reforms brought forth from operational challenges of the mid-1980s. Katrina was not our last national crisis, so leaders must step forward to correct what went wrong and build upon what went right. As a major element of DHS and a primary provider of its operational capacity, the Coast Guard should help lead the way by bringing forth bold, innovative ideas for enhancing DHS and national response capacity. A window of opportunity is open but will close without sustained leadership. The Coast Guard must help DHS embrace its operational role and assist the department's secretary, currently Michael Chertoff, in leading DHS where it must go-an enabler of national domestic response and rapid delivery of operational capability to save lives, secure property, and restore services.
Lieutenant Commander White, a member of the Naval Institute's Editorial Board, is a 1994 graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and holds a Masters in Public Administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.