The past 12 months for the U.S. Coast Guard were marked by significant success and some tragedy. The year also demonstrated that the service has moved beyond merely fraying at the edges and has begun to unravel, particularly with regard to its aging fleet. Nevertheless, through their initiative, innovation, and sheer determination, the men and women of the Coast Guard continued to perform superbly to ensure the service met its mission.
The question is, how long can they continue to keep the ship afloat with the proverbial "bailing wire and chewing gum?" This question is particularly apt as the service faces substantial budget cuts over the next few years, which are forcing it to decommission five major cutters and five maritime safety-and-security teams (MSSTs) and to cut nearly 800 billets.
The Year in Brief
During 2009 Coast Guard cutters suffered several serious mechanical setbacks resulting in lost operational days. The most significant of these hit three of the service's 40-year-old 378-foot high-endurance cutters. The USCGC Boutwell (WHEC-719), while deployed to the Persian Gulf with a Navy amphibious group, suffered an engine room fire so widespread that one of her two gas turbines was damaged beyond repair and had to be replaced before the deployment could continue. Both the USCGC Gallatin (WHEC-721), fresh from a deployment supporting counter-narcotic operations, and the USCGC Dallas (WHEC-716), recently returned from a deployment in support of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, had to receive emergency dry docks and multimillion-dollar overhauls, which took them off-line for most of the year.
The fleet's deteriorating condition was front-and-center as Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen testified on 17 March before the Homeland Security Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee. In his testimony, Allen noted that there had been 18 engine-room fires during the previous 12 months on board cutters.
Nevertheless, the Coast Guard, under the determined leadership of Allen, who completes his fourth and final year at the service's helm on 27 May 2010, continued to meet its domestic responsibilities in 2009, while expanding its role in international partnering and theater-security operations. Domestically, the service enjoyed one of its most successful counter-drug years, interdicting more than $5 billion in illegal drugs. Internationally, it actively supported all of DOD's combatant commanders, fighting terrorism and piracy while strengthening ties with foreign governments.
Despite its mission success, the service was involved in several tragic events. On 3 January 2009, the fishing vessel Patriot sank off Gloucester, Massachusetts, taking both crewmembers with her. Although an investigation concluded that the crew was lost before the Coast Guard became aware of the distress, Vice Admiral Robert J. Papp Jr., Commander Coast Guard Atlantic Area, also determined that the service was "slow to launch search-and-rescue assets because of poor collection and analysis of information." Papp, who has been nominated to become the Coast Guard's 24th commandant, initiated remedial actions.
On 29 October 2009, a Coast Guard C-130 on a search-and-rescue mission and a Marine Corps Super Cobra helicopter on a training mission collided in midair. The collision occurred about 50 miles off San Diego, California. Seven Guardsmen and two Marines were killed. The accident remains under investigation. On 21 December 2009, a Coast Guard vessel and a recreational boat collided in San Diego harbor. An eight-year-old boy was killed, and five other people were injured. This accident also remains under investigation. For a service dedicated to saving lives, such tragic events are deeply felt indeed.
The Coast Guard also made national news when a training exercise on the Potomac River on 11 September 2009 spawned a brief media frenzy following erroneous reports of gunfire on the river. In fact, a reporter listening to radio traffic had overheard a Coast Guard member stating, "Bang! Bang!" over an open radio during an exercise. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs remarked in a statement, "My only caution would be that before we report things like this, checking it out would be good." Vice Admiral Papp, however, meticulously reviewed the event, and noted, "Station Washington's decision to conduct training on that morning in the selected training area was ill-advised." He has ordered several changes to address the issue, including improving contact with the media and renewing efforts to share training calendars with local law-enforcement groups.
International and Defense Operations
During 2009 the Coast Guard increased its role in the international arena, supporting various combatant commanders in their theater-security operations. The Boutwell deployed in January to support both the Fifth and Sixth Fleets. This included antipiracy operations, participating in Pakistan's "Aman (Peace) 09," one of that nation's largest multinational exercises, and taking part in other theater-security cooperative missions as well. In April, the cutter responded to a distress call from the Polish-built cargo ship MV Skaftafell, which was under attack by pirates off of Somalia. The cutter launched her helicopter and eventually intercepted the pirate vessel, causing it to break off her attack. A small boat from the Boutwell eventually intercepted the suspect boat, but by then there was insufficient evidence of piracy left on board, and the Skaftafell's crew would not agree to testify in court.
Under the command of Captain Kevin Cavanaugh, the Boutwell's voyage had a number of other highlights, including becoming the first U.S. warship to visit Libya in more than 40 years, when she visited Tubruq for a three-day port call. She also had the rare opportunity to circumnavigate the globe.
The 270-foot medium-endurance cutter USCGC Legare (WMEC-912), under the command of Commander Scott Bauby, deployed for three months to West Africa under the Navy's Sixth Fleet. In August, working with Sierra Leone's Armed Forces Maritime Wing, the Office of National Security and the Fisheries Ministry, a joint Coast Guard-Sierra Leone team boarded the Taiwanese-flagged fishing vessel Yu Feng, which was trawling illegally in Sierra Leone's territorial seas. The Legare escorted the vessel to Freetown, where the crew and vessel were taken into custody. The seizure was the largest in Sierra Leone's history.
The cutter also worked with the countries of Morocco, Senegal, and Cape Verde, sharing best practices in maritime security and safety operations. The Legare's crew conducted two community-service projects, painting classrooms at the Children's Emergency Center at Praia, Cape Verde, and at the N'Diaye School in Dakar, Senegal.
In May, while embarked on board the USS Gettysburg (CG-64), Coast Guard Law-Enforcement Detachment (LEDET) 409 and members of the Gettysburg's board, search, and seizure team, boarded a suspected pirate "mother ship" off the coast of Somalia. They uncovered weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles. Coast Guard units also exercised their counter-drug skills when a LEDET on board the USS Anzio (CG-68) in the Gulf of Aden intercepted a vessel carrying four tons of hashish.
In November, the USCGC Rush (WHEC-723), under the command of Captain Robert Tarantino, visited China to collaborate on a search-and-rescue demonstration with Chinese vessels. While in port in Shanghai, the Rush's crew also participated in seamanship competitions and professional information exchanges.
The Coast Guard continued to support security operations as 83 members of the Fort Eustis, Virginia-based Port Security Unit (PSU) 305 deployed to support detainee security operations in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for six months. Their deployment concluded in May 2009. Members of Maritime Safety and Security Team Seattle 91101 relieved PSU 305, allowing them to return home after a job well done.
Between 4 and 18 March, the Coast Guard participated in the U.S. Southern Command's 2009 Tradewinds exercise, which included 16 nations from the Caribbean and Central America. Its purpose was to enhance each nation's ability to interdict illicit trafficking and to improve interoperability and cooperation among partner nations. Training extended throughout the Caribbean. For its part, the Coast Guard's Tactical Law Enforcement Detachment South provided boarding-officer fundamentals to the Royal Bahamas Defense Force. Training included everything from steps in the use of force to interdicting a non-compliant vessel.
The Coast Guard also participated in the 50th iteration of UNITAS Gold, the U.S. Navy's longest-running annual multilateral exercise with South American countries. The exercise took place off of Jacksonville, Florida, from 20 April to 7 May. Participants from more than 11 countries improved their skills in multinational task-force operations, enhancing interoperability while strengthening relations.
The USCGC Chase (WHEC-718) conducted law-enforcement training with the Peruvian Coast Guard in October. Boarding officers from the Chase taught the Peruvians counter-drug detection and how to use tactical equipment. The cutter's crew also sought to strengthen information-sharing between the two nations' maritime security services.
In September, the 225-foot oceangoing buoy tender USCGC Sycamore (WLB-209), home-ported in Cordova, Alaska, conducted a three-day port call to Vladivostok, Russia. The goodwill visit included receptions, sporting events, informal interactions with the Russian Border Guard, and operational discussions. These activities were intended to strengthen professional bonds and improve multinational cooperation to defeat transnational criminal activity.
These events emphasize the key role the Coast Guard plays in international relations and in the success of operations. Many foreign navies function more like the U.S. Coast Guard than they do the U.S. Navy, making this service the natural choice for cross-training. In turn, as transnational maritime criminal activities multiply and threaten the security and economies of all nations, the Coast Guard depends on the maritime forces of partner nations to assist it through coordinated law-enforcement and security operations.
This continues to be a core Coast Guard mission. The service began the year by introducing its new Maritime Enforcement Specialist rating, which officially entered the service on 1 January 2010. The new rate is slated to encompass 1,040 active-duty members and 1,186 reserve billets.
The Coast Guard experienced a dramatic decrease in Cuban migrant interdictions in the Florida Straits. In fact, its numbers have dropped by half. These are the lowest numbers in a decade. From October 2008 through July 2009, the Coast Guard intercepted 72 Cubans each month. Compare this figure with the 183 per month in the previous 12-month period. The last time such a dramatic drop occurred was after 9/11. There are many possible reasons for this change, such as the U.S. recession; increased maritime enforcement by the United States and Cuba; and the Obama administration's decision to permit greater freedom for travel and funds transfers. Whatever the reason, the reduction in Cuban migrants is a welcome easing of the operational tempo for an over-stressed service.
The Coast Guard had several successful self-propelled semi-submersible (SPSS) seizures in 2009, including one by the USCGC Jarvis (WHEC-725), under the command of Captain Aaron Davenport. The Jarvis, home-ported in Honolulu, intercepted an SPSS containing 4,500 kilograms of cocaine off the coast of Guatemala. The cutter was later visited by Guatemala's president, Álvaro Colom, while in Puerto Quetzal. This seizure demonstrated the interagency cooperation that is making the maritime counter-drug effort successful, as a customs and border patrol aircraft first spotted the SPSS and vectored the Jarvis in for the intercept.
The multimission capabilities of the service's medium-endurance cutters were underscored by the St. Petersburg-based USCGC Venturous (WMEC-625), which stopped drugs-107 bales of marijuana (worth $1.6 million)-and 142 illegal Haitian immigrants during the same 54-day patrol. The USCGC Valiant (WMEC-621) also was busy, collecting five tons of cocaine worth $127 million from four different Caribbean drug busts. The USCGC Dependable (WMEC-626) was equally impressive, with four marijuana busts and one cocaine interdiction during late-summer patrols.
Interagency cooperation is not the only factor that has improved counter-drug success; international cooperation also has played its part. The Coast Guard's longstanding efforts with Britain's Royal Navy continued to increase narcotics interdictions. HMS Iron Duke, a Type-23 frigate, with USCG Law Enforcement Detachment 406 on board, stopped a narcotics-laden go-fast off of Venezuela in July. Thirty-six bales of cocaine were seized, worth about $55 million. And four suspected smugglers were taken into custody.
Venezuela's Justice Minister praised the Coast Guard after the USCGC Bear (WMEC-901) seized the Venezuela fishing vessel Don Andres, carrying 2,500 pounds of cocaine 500 miles northeast of Brazil. Venezuela gave permission to board the vessel and the justice minister praised the cooperation between the two countries that resulted in the interdiction.
While most counter-drug activity occurs in the Caribbean and eastern Pacific, the U.S. northern border is not immune from the drug trade. In August 2009, the Coast Guard interdicted 60,000 Ecstasy tablets from a 21-foot vessel that had departed from Vancouver Island near Neah Bay, Washington. The drugs had a street value of more than $700,000.
As a final example of interagency cooperation, the USS Hawaii (SSN-776) became the second submarine in U.S. history to receive a Coast Guard Meritorious Unit Citation. The Groton-based Virginia-class fast-attack submarine received the award for "highly professional tracking of suspected drug trafficking and aggressively gathering intelligence on shipping throughout the area of operations."
All told, in 2009 the Coast Guard seized more than $5 billion worth of illegal drugs and made 322 arrests, making it a very successful year for maritime drug interdiction.
The year was another active one for Coast Guard search and rescue. The service responded to 23,555 emergencies and saved nearly 4,750 lives. An exemplary response was conducted by the USCGC Escanaba (WMEC-907) under the command of Commander Edward Westfall. In December, the fishing vessel Michael and Kristen out of Gloucester, Massachusetts, became disabled 200 miles off of that coast with five people on board. The 77-foot craft was being buffeted in 15-foot seas and 40-mile-an-hour winds. Another fishing vessel, the Rachel Leah, took the Michael and Kristen in tow, but the towline parted. By then the Escanaba had arrived and taken the Michael and Kristen in tow. While setting up the tow, the Escanaba experienced rolls of up to 50 degrees. The tow itself was an endurance challenge, as the Escanaba with its tow could make only four knots. In many ways, this was a routine successful search-and-rescue case for the Coast Guard, a brief period of heroic effort followed by hours of boredom.
The service was frequently involved in disaster response during 2009. In March it responded to many cases resulting from the Red River and Sheyenne River floods. The Coast Guard used air boats, small utility boats, and helicopters to support these rescues. In September the service responded quickly to the earthquake and tsunami on American Samoa. Coast Guard personnel transported aid and response personnel, provided humanitarian assistance, and worked to reopen the ports. At this writing, the service is heavily involved in the response to the earthquake in Haiti (see p. 92 sidebar).
The Coast Guard's Marine Safety field took another major step forward in establishing several National Centers of Expertise in 2009. These included the Liquefied Gas Carrier National Center in Port Arthur, Texas; the Investigation National Center in New Orleans, Louisiana; and the Outer Continental Shelf National Center in Morgan City, Louisiana. These centers capture best practices from around the nation and incorporate them into training and assisting working units. They are located where industry will best benefit from concentrated maritime activity.
The International Ice Patrol continued to ensure that elements of the International Maritime Transportation System were warned of icebergs and their positions. Flying C-130s with upgraded detection systems from Air Station Elizabeth City, the patrol tracked more than 1,200 icebergs that had drifted into the trans-Atlantic/North-Atlantic area.
Marking the end of an era, on 28 October, President Obama signed the 2010 Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, which permitted the termination of Loran-C on 8 February 2010. Allen certified that the termination would not affect the safety of maritime navigation until that date. The Department of Homeland Security also certified that the Loran-C infrastructure is not needed to back up GPS. The decision to terminate transmission reflects the President's pledge to eliminate unnecessary federal programs.
The Coast Guard continued to modernize, but thus far has not received congressional authorization to complete its plans to reorganize. Nevertheless, in 2009 four important steps were taken. First, the stand up of Force Readiness Command in August, and second, the decommissioning of the two maintenance-and-logistics commands, which were replaced with five regional logistics service centers. Third, the service's second National Security Cutter Waesche (WMSL-751) completed builders acceptance trials and its Navy Board of Inspection and Survey in October; and finally, a $141 million contract was awarded to Bollinger Shipyard for the first three fast-response cutters, known as the Sentinel class, to replace the aging 110-foot Island class. The new cutters will be 153 feet long with cruising speeds of more than 28 knots. They will be armed with a 25-mm chain gun and four .50-caliber machine guns, carry a crew of 22, and be capable of conducting up to five days of continuous patrol.
In 2009 First Lady Michelle Obama became the sponsor of the service's third National Security cutter, the USCGC Stratton. She is the only first lady in U.S. history to have done so. The ship is named after Dorothy C. Stratton, the first female commissioned officer in U.S. Coast Guard history. Stratton also directed the service's Women's Reserve during World War II. The Coast Guard Women's Reservists were nicknamed "SPARS," a tag that combined the service's motto, Semper Paratus and its English translation, "Always Ready." The Stratton is slated to be commissioned in 2011.
Admiral Allen continued a push to preserve the nation's current polar icebreaker fleet while waiting for a national policy decision to inform future icebreaking requirements. At present, the United States has only three such icebreakers. Compare this with Canada's 13 polar-capable icebreakers and its Arctic operations ship under construction. To make matters worse, one of the three U.S. polar icebreakers, the USCGC Polar Star (WAGB-10) has not operated since 2006 and needs significant repair and upgrades to be mission-ready. Testifying before the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and the Coast Guard, the commandant noted, "Our icebreaker fleet is atrophying, and we run the risk of losing our national capability."
During a 1 September "DODLive" blogger session, Allen wrote, "The two most problematic things in my mind are a large search-and-rescue case or a large mass-disaster response." He added, "You can have an incident at sea and evacuate everyone from a sinking ship, but then you're sitting 700 miles north of Alaska, and you don't know what to do for people in lifeboats."
As part of its effort to understand Arctic operations, the Coast Guard conducted "Arctic Crossroads 2009," which deployed medical personnel for both humans and animals to the far reaches of the area of responsibility. The service also used this opportunity to test four different types of small boats and how they react to the Arctic's maritime characteristics.
Despite its many highs and lows, the service also experienced some wonderful milestones and events in 2009. The Coast Guard's 30,000-member civilian auxiliary celebrated its 70th anniversary this year. First Class Petty Officer Lavelas Luckey made national news in USA Weekend magazine for rescuing a five-year-old girl from a burning car near Glen Burnie, Maryland, and was awarded the Coast Guard Medal. At the Coast Guard Academy, history was made by the class of 2010 when Jacqueline Fitch was named the first female African-American regimental commander, the highest-ranking cadet at the school.
The Coast Guard's year could best be summarized by Vice Admiral Papp, when he remarked that 2009 "was one of the busiest and most dramatic years for not only Coast Guard Atlantic Area, but the Coast Guard as an organization. It was a year filled with tremendous success and some shared tragedy. During a period of increasing demands on our service and an ever-present risk within our maritime transportation system, our personnel have once again risen to the challenge. Our service will continue to selflessly serve our country and perform our duties in a manner that secures the trust and confidence of mariners and citizens alike. It is a very exciting time to be part of our service."
The Coast Guard Responds to Haiti
Just after 1700 on 12 January 2010 a 7.0 earthquake struck Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The earth shook violently, buildings collapsed, victims cried out for help, and the U.S. Coast Guard responded. On the morning of the 13th, the 270-foot Coast Guard Cutter Forward (WMEC-911) was the first U.S. asset to arrive on-scene in Haiti. The Forward immediately began providing air-traffic management for Port-au-Prince airport. The ship also sent personnel ashore to assess the airport and its fuel supply and to render public assistance. In addition to the Forward, a Coast Guard C-130 conducted an over-flight to provide the first comprehensive damage assessment. Before the first full day was over, the Coast Guard had diverted four more cutters to assist: the USCG cutters Valiant (WMEC-621), Tahoma (WMEC-908), Mohawk (WMEC-913), and Oak (WLB-211).
By day two the Coast Guard was in full gear. C-130s and a C-144 (the newest addition to the Coast Guard air fleet) conducted over-flights to assess damage. Coast Guard HH-60 helicopters transported 13 critically injured U.S. Embassy personnel to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A Coast Guard HH-65 helicopter transported the United Nations Force Commander General Floriano Peixoto to Haiti. Coast Guard C-130s evacuated 109 U.S. citizens. And the Mohawk and Tahoma arrived in Port-au-Prince, sending crewmembers ashore to provide medical and humanitarian assistance.
To demonstrate the service's humanitarian efforts, crewmembers from those cutters set up a makeshift clinic at the destroyed Haitian Coast Guard base in Port-au-Prince. Medical corpsmen from the two ships not only treated hundreds of severely injured Haitians; they also provided on-the-job training in first aid and basic medical procedures to other crewmembers. They then worked long hours under terrible conditions, using the limited on-board medical supplies and whatever they could scavenge to save hundreds, and possibly thousands, of lives.
By 1 February the Coast Guard had evacuated 1,164 U.S. citizens; medically evacuated 249 critically injured personnel; deployed more than 750 Coast Guard personnel to Haiti; and deployed 14 ships to conduct support-and-prevention missions. As Commandant Admiral Thad Allen said,
The state of the Coast Guard can be defined in two words: ready and resilient. We demonstrated that in the first hours and days following the Haitian earthquake. We were there first because our operational forces and command-and-control structure are agile and flexible. Authority to move forces is delegated outside our headquarters, so our field commanders can act immediately. This is why we are so valuable to the American public and the global maritime community.
-Chris Doane and Joe DiRenzo III
Two Innovative Training Methods
The Coast Guard has prided itself on the way its crews are trained, and the service uses new technology to support that goal. For example, the Coast Guard Academy, based in New London, Connecticut, has a new secure classroom that will allow future ensigns to be taught using classified documents. The classroom has a Secure Internet Protocol Router Network, which is the Internet for classified material. The classroom supports the school's intelligence studies, under the leadership of Lieutenant Commander Mike Bennett. Since its launch, first- and second-class cadets have viewed classified presentations, discussed threat vectors, and heard from visiting scholars, including the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, George Tenet. Cadets are now routinely exposed to lively discussions on a wide range of maritime threats and potential countermeasures.
By opening a classroom that can be used for classified discussions, the academy has continued to reinforce the commandant's strategic vision for the school: "The academy must take great care and be committed to offering cadets a major in a specific discipline that contributes most effectively to the current and future needs of the Coast Guard." The secure classroom is just another step forward for the service that did not officially become a member of the intelligence community until 2001, when the National Security Act of 1947 was amended.
Coast Guard training outside the formal classroom also increased in 2007. As the number of maritime users increases, the amount of water space in which to conduct mounted automatic weapon live-fire training for Coast Guard small-boat crews shrinks. Compounding the problem is the tremendous pace of operations, which limits Coast Guard personnel from traveling from their home units for training. This has forced the service to seek alternative training methods.
The Mobile Weapons Simulator is mounted on a trailer in which boat crews are exposed to maritime security scenarios that enable them to practice coordination, use-of-force decision-making, and weapon operation for boat-on-boat engagements. The real value of the system is deployment to the stations so that training can occur with the minimum loss of crew. Currently mounted in a trailer, the simulator already has visited two Coast Guard districts, with more to follow.