The Demise of the Cutterman

By Lieutenant Commander Brian Smicklas, U.S. Coast Guard

Career Cuttermen Need Not Apply

Following the 9/11 attacks and the transition to the Department of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard reorganized and combined its shoreside Marine Safety (now termed Prevention) offices and Group (now Response) structures into sectors to improve efficiency and effectiveness. Some sectors were colocated with air stations (necessarily including aviators to assist in daily operations, henceforth enabling the aviation community to benefit from the sector restructuring). As a testament to the effectivess of the restructuring in some sectors, nearly all Coast Guard missions including offshore law enforcement and drug interdiction can be performed and administered under the sector command. Furthermore, sectors have become fluent in the Incident Command System disaster-response protocols, a requirement for selection as a federal on-scene coordinator and other positions of increased visibility and responsibility. All told, sectors have become so functional, some have questioned the need for additional bureaucracy at the district and area levels.

Noticeably absent has been the integration of career cuttermen. Interestingly, major cutters can find themselves under the tactical control of sectors and smaller cutters are homeported at sectors, further obfuscating any justification for the exclusion of career cuttermen from sector leadership billets. The Coast Guard could immediately improve prospective career cuttermen motivation and career progression by formalizing their inclusion into sector command leadership roles. This was apparently the idea when the concept was introduced on 9 January 2004, when then-Commandant Admiral Thomas Collins released an ALCOAST on the formation of sectors:

I will ensure robust career opportunities, challenging operational leadership positions and the preservation—and in fact, within the new structure, our HR processes (promotion boards, screening panels, assignment panels, etc.) will be adjusted accordingly. Sector commander and sector deputy billets will be designated as general leadership billets. 1

For officers inside the sector framework, the ability to conduct both prevention and response missions at the field level offers unrivaled “career broadening” experiences, a term used by current Commandant Admiral Paul Zukunft in his guidance to promotion boards. 2

The Coast Guard has fully developed 37 sector commands, and their assignment processes have matured into organizational common law. Initial officer assignment to a sector will not likely occur above the O-2/O-3 level, although nearly all enlisted rates and ranks are eligible for sector assignments throughout their careers and can readily rotate between sectors and cutters. Despite the leadership billets being coded as Admiral Collins had outlined, most career cuttermen are ineligible for assignment to sector leadership positions. However, as a result of much standardization over the past decade, all afloat assets, including those at sectors, are using similar boats; protective equipment; tactics, techniques, and procedures; and organizational doctrine. Given these similarities, the current exclusion of career cuttermen is simply nonsensical.

Sectors are considered operational commands, and cuttermen are quintessential operators. Including career cuttermen in the sector construct could produce tremendous diversity, improve organizational standardization, and create an outstanding career path for afloat-oriented JOs. Also, because cutters now frequently receive a significant proportion of enlisted shipmates from sectors, it would benefit all to have more career cuttermen involved, mentoring future shipmates with their professional development. Taking it a step further, because most cuttermen are screened for command eligibility at nearly every level from O-2 to O-6, assigning a post-command cutterman to a sector “follow-on tour” could ensure a robust pool of successfully screened candidates for future sector command-cadre positions.

Put the ‘Force’ Back in Enforcement

In addition to improving the motivation by providing a more palatable and promotable path for JOs by including career cuttermen at sectors, the Coast Guard should promptly address the methods and missions currently employed by cutters 110 feet and larger. The decades-long “War on Drugs” has been valiantly fought off the coasts of Central and South America with laudable success. However, due to absurdly ineffective radars and woefully inadequate communications gear, at-sea boardings are at historical lows, now averaging far less than just seven boardings per deployment. Meanwhile, drug-trafficking organizations have gotten smarter, faster, and stealthier. The Coast Guard can only interdict what can be detected, and the lack of detection has demoralized and demotivated cutter crews for years, leading to an unhealthy dependence on sparse, intelligence-fed opportunities. Much like the U.S. taxpayer, the JO must strongly squint to see that a cutter conducting a couple boardings over a three-month patrol to South America is a worthy return on investment in time or training. To be blunt, law enforcement keeps cutters relevant, and cutters should conduct more at-sea boardings in all areas of operations and Coast Guard missions. However, at-sea boardings have become a potential mission for latent maritime-security teams, thereby reducing the need for cutters shoreward of the territorial sea line.

The introduction of “deployable” law-enforcement boarding teams has added to cutter mission atrophy, and the sense of importance necessary to retain high-quality JOs. The Marine Safety and Security Teams (MSSTs) and their pumped-up relative, the Maritime Security Response Team (MSRT), have directly breached cutter primacy. MSSTs and MSRTs are shore-based but deployable, and desire to be considered a DHS maritime equivalent to the DOD special-warfare community. However, after a decade of training and command-sponsored gym-time, these 16 100-plus person teams, currently outfitted with the same over-the-horizon small boats that cutters use, remain expensively unproven. As such, due to the infrequency of utilization for the counterterrorism mission, some MSSTs and MSRTs have demonstrated great proficiency utilizing their over-the-horizon platforms to conduct coastal law enforcement in the same operational areas in which cutters strive to maintain basic law-enforcement capabilities.

During this time, surviving on reduced funding reallocated to shape the MSST and MSRT communities, cutters have valiantly held the line in the War on Drugs, stemmed the flow of illegal immigration from Haiti and Cuba, and conducted joint operations with the U.S. Navy and nearly every coastal country in the Western Hemisphere. Sadly, while the MSSTs and MSRTs have SEALed themselves “tactical” gear well beyond the scope of Coast Guard uniform regulations, JOs on cutters have commonly had to share body armor and beg for tactical coxswain-training quotas. Putting salt into these wounds, some cutters have recently been directed to forego their own offshore law-enforcement operations and remain in the harbor assisting MSRTs with “tactical hook and climb” training (a ship-boarding technique inexplicably not afforded to cutters). From the JO perspective, observing a team of superfunded, face-painted SEAL lookalikes, superciliously directing the movement of a major cutter to conduct MSRT training, can easily give the impression of how the Coast Guard currently prioritizes its communities.

The Coast Guard should quickly reassess maritime law-enforcement operations with an eye toward strengthening cutter programs to at least an on-par level with deployable law-enforcement teams. After all, a cutter regularly deploys with a law-enforcement team, yet only since the introduction of deployable teams have cutters been perceived as less actionable. All offshore enforcement tactics, techniques, and procedures ought to be concurrently provided to cutters, and the Maritime Enforcement rating is a ready conduit for effecting this improvement. A cutter at sea requires no logistical miracles to deliver a law-enforcement team that can very effectively respond to nearly every scenario, usually with more stamina, efficiency, and accountability. High-risk boardings originated on cutters decades ago; it is time to strengthen cutter law-enforcement programs and standardize the enhanced enforcement capabilities across all deployable forces, especially major cutters. Strengthening the law-enforcement capabilities of the cutter fleet would improve the overall capability of the Coast Guard and the stature and motivation of cuttermen.

Admiral Zukunft’s recently released Coast Guard Western Hemisphere Strategy states the immediate need for U.S. Economic Zone protection, much like Alexander Hamilton recommended in 1789. 3 Currently, that space receives meager support due to cutters busily patrolling in the far-southern drug-transit zones, stemming the flow of illegal immigration in the Florida Straits, or guarding major biomass areas such as the Bering Sea and the Grand Banks. Although the Office of National Drug Control Policy directs the Coast Guard to interdict contraband far away from U.S. shores, in the age of an unknown number of ISIS terrorists with U.S. visas and an Ebola virus with a transatlantic incubation period, a return to Alexander Hamilton’s vision of cutters off major ports, dedicated to patrolling U.S. waters offshore, is justifiably overdue. In some cases, if properly prepared as advocated above, it may well be the cutter offshore, or even in home port, that presents the best option for a specialized maritime counterterrorism response or law-enforcement operations.

‘Lack of Due Regard’

The risk-to-reward ratio of choosing to serve afloat is unbalanced and needs immediate action. Yet these risks are going unrecognized in the Coast Guard assignment and promotion process because the Officer Evaluation System completely fails to accurately assess the unique perils of afloat leadership positions, essentially equalizing the risks of a commanding officer of a cutter with those of a Coast Guard Academy math instructor. The risks of serving at sea have been diluted by an emerging common belief that nearly everyone in the Coast Guard is operational. Either by training, funding, sustaining, or administrating, the service is small and the connection is short between those ashore and those at sea. However, a deep difference exists that has become alarmingly unrecognizable, as evidenced by recent results of competitive promotion boards and selection panels in which cuttermen, including current commanding officers of major cutters, have not fared well.

Although fewer and fewer have seen it firsthand, everyone in the Coast Guard knows the sea is unforgiving. Cutters have been falling apart for decades. Sadly, the missions, methods, and motivation to serve on cutters have deteriorated even faster than the cutters themselves. Furthermore, niceties such as “sea pay” (which has not increased, interestingly, since the advent of sectors) are outweighed by the continuation of aviation career-incentive pay and the inexplicable difficulty career cuttermen face while attempting to obtain commercial certification (from a Coast Guard–staffed regional exam center!). It does not go unnoticed by the JO that the Coast Guard has attempted to emulate the Navy SEALS with millions spent on highly trained MSRTs, rather than implementing the Navy’s recent 25 percent sea-pay increase or adopting the $75,000 critical-skill retention bonuses for afloat Navy officers. 4

No doubt some, perhaps many, will scoff at the aforementioned observations and recommendations. After all, the previous two Coast Guard Commandants have been cuttermen. However, one must look beyond the immediately perceptible truths to see the demise of cutterman leadership within the service. The observations noted here have only recently taken place, mostly over the past decade. The wave of discontent has yet to crest. What is irrefutable to the observant JO is the scent of unfairness and the sensation that cutters are not the future foundation of the Coast Guard. Shoreside commands, such as sectors, now provide the most fertile ground for cultivating Coast Guard admirals. This trend is pointedly proven by the nine district commanders, among whom only one rear admiral has the lineage of a career cutterman, while four have previously served as sector commanders. In addition, of the two area commanders, neither served at sea following an initial JO tour.

In today’s Coast Guard, a great many can go home every night. However, the cutters are away from home port nearly 200 days per year. The cuttermen continue to serve in the most historical and foundational billets of a proud service. But worthy acknowledgment of the efforts and sacrifices of a cutterman have fallen from the service that readily enjoys the fine reputation cuttermen helped to build. This lack of due regard is most noticed by the Coast Guard’s most important assets—its future leaders. It has never been more imperative to revisit Admiral Collins’ 2004 ALCOAST for sectors and apply it to cutters with similar direction for more “robust career opportunities” and “the enhancement of key competencies.”

The Coast Guard stands on the foundation of success historically gained by our conduct on the water. The incorporation of simple changes to officer assignments and cutter capabilities can help overcome the sacrifices of choosing an afloat career path and restore equilibrium to the risk-to-reward ratio for serving and commanding at sea.

1. Office of the Commandant of the Coast Guard, “Commandant’s Direction: Readiness, People, Stewardship: Establishing Coast Guard Sectors,” .

2. Office of the Commandant of the Coast Guard, “Commandant’s Guide for Promotion Year 2014 to Boards and Panels,” .

3. United States Coast Guard Western Hemisphere Strategy (Washington, DC: U.S. Coast Guard, September 2014), 30, .

4. Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, “FY 12 Revisions to Surface Warfare Officer Critical Skills Retention Bonus and Surface Warfare Officer Continuation Pay Programs,” .

Lieutenant Commander Smicklas is a 2000 graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and a career cutterman with more than ten years’ sea time. He has served as commanding officer of the USCGC Key Biscayne (WPB-1339) and as the Coast Guard’s drug-interdiction specialist in Havana.


Conferences and Events

View All

From the Press

23 February - Seminar

Sat, 2019-02-23

David F. Winkler

3 March - Lecture

Sun, 2019-03-03

Stephen A. Bourque

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

As an independent forum for over 140 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