U.S. Coast Guard in Review

By Joe DiRenzo III and Chris Doane

The initial response also included the aircrew of a Coast Guard H-60 Jayhawk helicopter, which medically evacuated four critically injured U.S. citizens from the U.S. Embassy less than 24 hours after the event, and a second helicopter, which transported five more people 12 hours later to the U.S. Naval Hospital in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The helicopters and crews were from Coast Guard units deployed to the Turks and Caicos Islands for counter-narcotics operations.

To help coordinate the U.S. response, the Department of Homeland Security Task Force–Southeast under the command of Coast Guard Seventh District Commander Rear Admiral Steve Branham was activated in Miami. The task force was responsible for supporting U.S. Agency for International Development relief efforts. The Coast Guard Reserve also responded as the humanitarian effort unfolded, led by Port Security Unit 307 out of Clearwater, Florida.

Although the Coast Guard response to the crisis in Haiti went well, the massive effort underscored what the service wrestles with daily: that the Fleet is old and must be recapitalized. Among the 12 major cutters that responded, ten (83 percent) suffered significant equipment casualties, and the remaining two were forced to return to port for emergency repairs, including an emergency dry-dock.

Deepwater Horizon

On 20 April, just as the service was recovering from the crisis in Haiti, Transocean’s Deepwater Horizon mobile offshore drilling unit exploded approximately 52 miles southeast of Venice, Louisiana. Coast Guard rescue units rushed to the scene, unaware that the nation was about to face the largest offshore oil spill in its history. Once again, the country’s smallest military service was thrust to the forefront, leading an unprecedented oil-spill response and cleanup effort.

During the initial search-and-rescue phase, the Coast Guard saved 115 of Deepwater’s 126 crewmembers. Meanwhile, a mile below the surface, an uncontrolled leak was pumping oil into the gulf. The Coast Guard led a unified national response to minimize the economic and environmental impacts that threatened the shorelines of multiple states, the entire Gulf of Mexico ecosystem, and the economic viability of bordering states.

The degree of organization required was equally unprecedented. Multiple federal, state, and local agencies were involved, along with private-sector groups, nongovernmental organizations, public-sector volunteers, and eventually international agencies. The Coast Guard deployed 46 cutters, 22 aircraft, and more than 7,000 personnel to combat the spill. This included 40 percent of the service’s buoy-tender fleet drawing from Rhode Island, California, Alaska, and Hawaii.

Much has been written over the past six months about the Coast Guard’s performance and its effect on the service. Pundits both in and outside the government have praised and vilified the collective effort. What many overlook, however, is that as this article is being written, the service is still on-scene in the gulf. Approximately 200 Coast Guard active-duty and reserve members are serving in a variety of capacities.

This is a long commitment for a small service whose métier is rapid response. Typically, the Coast Guard responds rapidly to maritime events, minimizes consequences to the best of its ability, and then relies on other agencies to assume the roles of recovery and remediation so that it can regain readiness for the next event while continuing day-to-day operations. It does not have garrison forces to surge to a crisis. So each day the service leaves members on-scene to respond to one event, its ability to respond to the next event—and ordinary duties—is degraded.

The New Commandant

On 25 May, in the midst of that urgent challenge, the service ushered in a new era of leadership, when Admiral Robert J. Papp Jr. relieved Admiral Thad Allen. In his change-of-command speech, Papp introduced four guiding principles as a framework for his tenure:

• Steady the service;

• Honor our profession;

• Strengthen our partnerships; and

• Respect our shipmates.

He reinforced these four principles with “shipmate” messages providing more depth and context to each.

While no longer the Commandant, the service and the nation were not quite ready to let Allen retire. He had been designated the National Incident Commander of the Deepwater Horizon response on 1 May by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Allen continued to fill this role after the change of command, providing national-level oversight to the response. He worked closely with Rear Admiral Mary Landry, the Coast Guard District 8 Commander who was the initial federal on-scene coordinator. On 1 October Allen finally left public service and was replaced by Rear Admiral Paul Zukunft.

In addition to responding to significant natural disasters, the Coast Guard continued to perform its 11 missions in support of the nation.

Law Enforcement

The United States has the world’s largest exclusive economic zone (EEZ)—3.4 million square miles of ocean along 90,000 miles of coastline. The Coast Guard patrols those waters to protect the nation’s fish stocks as part of its Living Marine Resources mission. In the Gulf of Mexico the service is battling the threat posed by Mexican fishermen in lanchas , small boats, entering U.S. waters to fish illegally. There was a dramatic increase in these incursions in 2010. Coast Guard Sector Corpus Christi Commanding Officer Captain John R. Pasch commented to KRIS-TV, “Almost every two or three days our folks are going out and finding something.”

The Living Marine Resources mission extends beyond the U.S. EEZ. The 378-foot high-endurance cutter Rush (WHEC-723), with an embarked helicopter from Air Station Barbers Point, deployed in support of USCG District 14’s “Fight for Fish” campaign plan patrolling the Pacific, including the Cook Islands, Marshall Islands, and Kiribati. The Rush also participated in the Forum Fisheries Agency-led multinational Operation Kurukuru. Joining with eight ships from other nations, the task force sighted 195 vessels, investigated 35, and conducted 38 boardings, revealing 14 violations. As many Pacific nations depend on fishing for survival, the Coast Guard’s participation in this partnership is an important element of our nation’s international diplomacy.

Drug Enforcement

The service’s counternarcotic mission remained at full throttle, particularly along the southeast and southwest maritime borders. In the Caribbean a new Coast Guard 45-foot response boat-medium (RB-M) from Station San Juan conducted its first major drug interdiction. A U.S. Customs and Border Protection Caribbean Air and Marine Branch surveillance aircraft and CGC Matinicus (WPB-1315) detected an 18-foot yola (fishing boat) traveling toward Puerto Rico without navigation lights. The RB-M was first on-scene. As she approached the suspect vessel the two Dominican nationals on board threw the cargo overboard. A first-light search recovered two suitcases with 95 bricks that tested positive for cocaine.

Official Coast Guard statistics for 2010 note 122 narcotics interdictions, 56 vessels seized, and 229 smugglers arrested. A total of 36,739 pounds of marijuana and 202,402 pounds of cocaine were interdicted. Forty of those interdictions occurred in the Eastern Pacific under the operational control of the Coast Guard District 11 Commander in Alameda, California.

While overall coordination of surveillance and intelligence for counterdrug operations in the Eastern Pacific and Western Caribbean is handled by the Joint Interagency Task Force South, in Key West, Florida, the law-enforcement phase requires the Coast Guard’s authority. In the past five years, some 75 percent of cocaine seized or disrupted by U.S. authorities at sea was stopped in the Eastern Pacific.

As a reminder of the counterdrug mission’s inherent dangers, a small boat from CGC Escanaba (WMEC-907) was fired on by a go-fast it was pursuing off the coast of Nicaragua. No one was injured, and the boat and cutter were not damaged.

Illegal Immigration

Coast Guard illegal immigrant interdiction remained an important part of the service’s law-enforcement mission. In 2010 the service interdicted 2,088 illegal immigrants, including 1,377 Haitians and 422 Cubans. The service’s ongoing effort in this mission was underscored recently by CGC Nantucket (WPB-1316), which, during a 19-day patrol in the Florida Straits in January 2011, interdicted 25 undocumented Cuban immigrants and two suspected smugglers during three incidents.

On 16 January 2011, the crew interdicted a go-fast vessel with two suspected smugglers and six Cuban immigrants on board approximately 45 miles south of Key West. The Nantucket further assisted the CGC Sawfish (WPB-87357) interdict two rustic vessels on 21 January, one with seven Cuban immigrants on board, approximately 60 miles south of Marquesas, Florida, and one with eight Cuban immigrants on board, 34 miles south of Key West.

One tool that has been especially effective in this mission is the Coast Guard’s Biometrics at Sea System, which identified 143 felons and repeat offenders attempting to enter the country illegally. Fifty-four were prosecuted by the U.S. District Attorney’s Office.

The Ports, Waterways, and Coastal Security

This mission continues to grow, with the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General’s annual performance review showing that 56 percent of the service’s resource hours are dedicated to the department’s requirement. The mission took the largest portion of this percentage, with 16,926 security boardings of small vessels, 2,018 waterborne security patrols projecting presence near maritime critical infrastructure and key resources, 847 escorts of vessels carrying dangerous cargoes, 3,168 escorts and boardings of high-capacity passenger vessels, and 1,399 escorts of high-value naval vessels, such as aircraft carriers, transiting U.S. waterways. The service is now focused on implementing the nation’s small-vessel security strategy in coordination with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and local agencies.

Search-and-Rescue Operations

Americans most often equate these missions with the Coast Guard’s 220 years of service. During 2010 the service responded 22,220 times to distress calls, saving 4,329 lives and preserving about $86 million in property. It also continued expanding Rescue 21, modernizing its computing, communications, and command-and-control network. The system now covers 26 major coastal areas and more than 35,000 miles of coastline.

Although every Coast Guard district was engaged in search-and-rescue, two missions were unique and highlight the services’ efforts:

In Coast Guard District 9 (comprising the Great Lakes) the service responded to a report that four snowmobilers had fallen through the ice in February 2011. Three crawled up onto ice that was connected to shore. However, the fourth man, a Canadian national, climbed onto what the Detroit Free Press reported as “a football-field size piece of ice that began to float out into the lake.” Initially District Nine was going to respond with a helicopter, but weather conditions were exceptionally poor. Enter the CGC Morro Bay (WTGB-106), a 140-foot icebreaking tug that, after searching for eight hours, found and rescued the stranded snowmobiler who was later transferred to the Canadian coast guard ship Samuel Risley .

The second case occurred in November 2010 and made national headlines as the cruise ship Carnival Splendor caught fire and lost all power off the coast of Baja California, Mexico. The District 11 command center coordinated an immediate and substantial response involving aircraft and ships from the Coast Guard as well as the United States and Mexican navies, the port of San Diego, the cruise line, and others. The Splendor ’s crew extinguished the fire, and, although passengers endured several days without power and enjoyed some creative menu options, everyone arrived safely in San Diego after the ship was towed to port under the Coast Guard’s watchful eye.

The service also aggressively pursued Mayday hoax callers. In March 2010 a Holly Ridge, North Carolina, man agreed to pay $234,000 in restitution for costs associated with the Coast Guard District 5’s response to his hoax calls. Two other individuals were charged in the case with jail time and fines still pending against all three.

Marine Safety and Prevention

Perhaps the Coast Guard’s real unsung heroes are those who attempt to forestall maritime mishaps in the first place, performing the service’s marine safety and prevention missions. In 2010, these service members:

• Investigated 4,650 marine casualties, including two marine boards of investigation;

• Conducted more than 11,000 inspections on U.S. flag vessels and 9,000 port state control safety and environmental exams on foreign vessels;

• Completed over 40,000 U.S. commercial vessel inspections;

• In conjunction with state law enforcement groups, conducted more than 1.5 million recreational vessel boardings, yielding more than 113,000 citations and 300,000 warnings to reduce safety and security risks;

• Completed at least 24,400 container inspections, identifying more than 4,100 deficiencies that led to 750 cargo or container shipments being placed on hold until dangerous conditions were corrected;

• Performed more than 14,800 inspections at facilities, identifying more than 5,400 deficient conditions with safety, security, and environmental protection regulations;

• Conducted 1,400 transfer monitors of oil and hazardous substances to ensure compliance with environmental protection regulations and operating procedures; and

• Provided 8,398 voluntary dockside commercial fishing vessel safety examinations.

Coast Guard prevention specialists also helped prompt action from the International Maritime Organization to bring into effect the wider Caribbean Region Special Area. This ecologically and economically important area, which includes much of the Gulf of Mexico, will be subject to stringent rules regarding the overboard discharge of shipboard-generated garbage, greatly improving water quality and marine habitats.

Aids to Navigation (ATON) and Icebreaking

In addition to maintaining the tens of thousands of ATON marking safe channels along the nation’s ports and waterways, in 2010 Coast Guard vessel transit system operators managed nearly 1.4 million commercial vessel transits in 12 of the nation’s highest traffic ports. ATON Coast Guard experts also deployed the 225-foot buoy tender Oak (WLB-211) to Port-au-Prince after the earthquake to conduct waterway assessments and reopen the port.

An era of ATON came to an end in 2010 when the Coast Guard, on congressional authority, decommissioned its long-range aids to navigation (LORAN) infrastructure. LORAN-C began in 1960 and is now replaced by the satellite-based global positioning system (GPS).

Icebreaking remained a critical mission in sustaining the marine transportation system. In the Great Lakes, U.S. and Canadian icebreakers collaborated to assist more than 200 vessel transits and shipped more than $2 billion in raw materials to support U.S. manufacturing. In Coast Guard District 1 icebreaking allowed safe winter shipping of at least 12 million barrels of petroleum products valued at more than $1.5 billion in New England and New York.

As the potential for increased Arctic operations due to climate change looms, the Coast Guard continued to train for those operations. On 10 July 2010, the CGC Alder (WLB-216), a 225 buoy tender, departed Duluth, Minnesota, on a historic trip that took her crew near the top of the Canadian Arctic. The Alder participated in Operation Nanook, an international exercise conducted by U.S., Canadian, and Danish forces. It showcased the Coast Guard’s multimission capabilities while helping the other nations involved better understand the realities of responding to regional emergencies.

Defense Operations

The Coast Guard maintained its role as the fifth member of the armed services. It continued to deploy six patrol boats protecting Iraqi offshore oil platforms; deployed a port security unit and law-enforcement detachment to Combined Task Force 151 conducting boardings and training with Navy visit, board, search, and seizure teams in the Gulf of Aden; and offered redeployment assistance and inspection detachments supporting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The high-endurance cutter Mellon (WHEC-717) deployed for five months to Southeast Asia in support of U.S. Pacific Command’s cooperative afloat readiness and training security cooperation exercises. During the deployment, the cutter conducted exercises with Brunei, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia. The cutter’s crew conducted law-enforcement training, small-boat operations, and community-service projects.

The Mohawk also deployed for more than three months to West Africa to support U.S. Africa Command’s African Maritime Law-Enforcement Partnership conducting joint maritime training operations with West African naval forces.

Community Outreach

In spite of such heavy demands, Coast Guard members continue to find time to volunteer their services to communities. For example, Sector Baltimore broke a food-packing record at the Maryland Food Bank in 2010, and the CGC Vigilant (WMEC-617) assisted the Brevard County, Florida, Habitat for Humanity in building a house. Despite its basis as a federal agency, the Coast Guard continues to function as a member of the local community, both as a first-response agency and as a good neighbor to those in need.

In 2010 the Coast Guard tragically lost four of its members. In July, the Jayhawk helicopter CG6017 crashed along the coast near La Push, Washington, killing three of the four crewmembers and severely injuring the fourth. In October, Maritime Enforcement Specialist 3rd Class Shaun Lin, age 23, a member of Maritime Safety and Security Team New York, died during a training event in Hampton Roads, Virginia, while attempting to transfer from a 25-foot boat to the CGC Frank Drew .

The ‘Sailing Plan’

In 2010 the Coast Guard continued to give the American taxpayer an excellent return on its investment. The passage of the long-awaited Coast Guard Authorization Bill sets forth several new challenges for the service. In his Commandant’s Direction, Admiral Papp has established his “sailing plan,” establishing four priorities to keep the service focused on pursuing his four principles. The priorities are:

• Sustain mission excellence;

• Recapitalize and build capacity;

• Enhance crisis response and management; and

• Prepare for the future.

The christening of the third National Security Cutter Stratton (WMSL-752) by first lady Michelle Obama, and the arrival of the first delta version of the H-65 Dolphin helicopter, marked continued progress toward recapitalizing the Fleet. But achieving these priorities in a tight economic climate will prove a significant leadership challenge. In the coming months the Coast Guard will have to make tough choices and tradeoffs that may well influence the nature of the service for years beyond Admiral Papp’s tenure.

Dr. DiRenzo and Mr. Doane are retired Coast Guard officers working for Coast Guard Atlantic Area Command. Both have written extensively on maritime security and transportation issues. Mr. Doane is a visiting senior fellow at the Joint Forces Staff College, where Dr. DiRenzo holds the Coast Guard Chair. They are frequent contributors to Proceedings .

More by this Author

None found for this author.

Events and Conferences

None found for this author.


Conferences and Events

Maritime Security Dialogue

Mon, 2016-06-13

You are cordially invited to: U.S. Coast Guard Update A discussion with: Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, USCG25th Commandant of the U.S...

2016 Naval History Conference

View All

From the Press

Guest Speaker & Book Signing

Fri, 2016-05-27

Keynote Speaker & Book Signing

Mon, 2016-05-30

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership