The U.S. Coast Guard experienced another exceptionally busy year. There was a change in senior leadership, an ever-increasing set of mission requirements conducted by an aging asset inventory, and an overall reduction in the total force. The service commissioned its fourth national security cutter (NSC), the USCGC Hamilton (WMSL 753), and released two key strategies—one focused on the Arctic and the other on the Western Hemisphere—that will shape the service’s strategic direction and operational art for years to come.
In May 2014 then–Vice Admiral Paul Zukunft relieved Admiral Robert Papp Jr., who completed four years at the service’s helm. Zukunft had three previous afloat commands, the most recent as the Coast Guard Pacific Area commander. During his change-of-command speech, Admiral Zukunft praised the outgoing Commandant: “Admiral Papp’s leadership and resolve have left an indelible mark on the service. The Coast Guard is more proficient, more capable and more resilient due to his contributions, and I wish him fair winds and following seas.”
Admiral Zukunft, the service’s 25th commandant, immediately released his “Commandant’s Direction 2014,” which provided a guidepost for the priorities he holds and his vision for the service. In a message to all hands, the admiral noted, “This document is intended to guide the service during the next four years. It is founded on our core values of ‘Honor, Respect, and Devotion to Duty,’ and is guided by the principles of service to nation, duty to people, and commitment to excellence.”
The Coast Guard’s law-enforcement missions, from interdicting illegal fishing and narcotics to stopping immigrant smuggling and turning drunk boaters over to local law enforcement, continue to be part of the service’s focus.
One of the many activities that garnered special attention was the sustained actions of the USCGC Boutwell (WHEC-719), homeported in San Diego, California. Under the command of Captain Ed Westfall, the cutter offloaded to agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency over 12,700 kilograms of cocaine worth more than $423 million wholesale. “The success of the crew of cutter Boutwell, and of all our U.S. forces deployed throughout the Eastern Pacific Ocean, showcase the resolve of the Coast Guard, our interagency partners, and the international community to combat transnational organized crime networks operating in the Western Hemisphere,” said Vice Admiral Charles W. Ray, the commander of Coast Guard Pacific Area, who flew aboard and presented the crew with a Meritorious Unit Commendation.
The Boutwell’s success was a key part of Operation Martillo, a U.S., European, and Western Hemisphere effort to target illicit trafficking routes in coastal waters of the Central American isthmus. During the operation, the USS Vandegrift (FFG-48), with a Coast Guard law enforcement detachment (LEDET) aboard, interdicted two smuggling vessels on their transit north. The USS Ingraham (FFG-61) and its embarked LEDET interdicted a total of 5,500 kilograms during the deployment, including a shipment of approximately 336 kilograms of cocaine about 115 miles southwest of the Panama-Colombia border. In this incident the crew recovered 36 kilograms, while approximately 300 kilograms sank with the vessel. The Ingraham also interdicted a self-propelled semisubmersible vessel. This case was especially significant, not just because of the $107 million in cocaine that was interdicted, but because with a low freeboard, the design of these vessels makes them difficult to detect.
Additionally, in April, the USCGC Legare (WMEC-912) unloaded from the Caribbean more than 3.5 tons of cocaine with a street value of $350 million. This yield included the 97 bales of cocaine that were found floating in the water off the coast of Panama when a fishing boat believed to be carrying drugs caught fire and sank after law-enforcement teams boarded and searched the vessel.
Following President Barack Obama’s announcement of a thawing in relations with Cuba, the Coast Guard saw a marked increase in Cuban immigration into Southern Florida. In late September, Coast Guard crews handled more than 80 Cuban immigrants in a four-day period, with CNN documenting two at-sea interdictions, including one of a vessel taking on water with 29 immigrants on board. Flying above the scene, an HC-144 marine patrol aircraft filmed the actions of over-the-horizon rigid-hull small boat, fast-response cutters, and another HC-144. CNN reported on the Coast Guard’s professionalism, flexibility, and specifically the compassion of the crew members and the humanitarian aspect of migrant interdiction. This endeavor would not have been possible without the flexibility and support of the entire Seventh Coast Guard District team and supporting units.
Farther north, along the shared border with Canada, “Shiprider,” the First, Ninth, and Thirteenth Districts’ continued integrated cross-border maritime law-enforcement operation, saw its first successful cross-border interdiction this year. A binational partnership initiated in June 2013, Shiprider removes the international maritime boundary as a barrier to law enforcement and enables law-enforcement personnel from both countries to conduct combined vessel patrols across the international border to prevent, detect, and investigate criminal activities on shared waterways. Last summer, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) vessel with embarked Coast Guard law-enforcement officers from Coast Guard Station St. Clair Shores interdicted a suspect vessel inside Canadian waters under the tactical direction of Sector Detroit’s enforcement division. The boarding initiated a RCMP customs exam of nearby vehicles registered to the operator of the vessel, which found 1,521 pounds of water-pipe tobacco—amounting to over $200,000 in tax evasion—and led to the arrest of the smugglers. Canada is expected to expand its Shiprider capability to include units near Coast Guard Station Niagara and Coast Guard Station Alexandria Bay in 2015.
Additionally, the Ninth Coast Guard District Legal Office referred 30 criminal cases to the Department of Justice for federal prosecution in 2014, resulting in safer boating conditions on the Great Lakes. In the cases where local or state law-enforcement officials were unable or declined criminal prosecution of criminal activity on the lakes, Coast Guard staff from the Ninth District Legal Office served as Special Assistant U.S. Attorneys. These efforts resulted in 14 convictions of boating under the influence and grossly negligent operation of a vessel, which resulted in $13,470 in fines. In four of those cases, federal magistrates ordered defendants to complete pretrial substance-abuse treatment programs as part of the adjudication of their cases.
Prosecution efforts against environmental crimes also made headlines last year, with criminal sentences totaling over $15.7 million in fines. Violations of the Clean Water Act and the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships resulted in over $650,000 in community service funds and the mandatory institution of environmental compliance plans. Across all Coast Guard districts, there were 14 criminal cases referred to the Department of Justice for allegations including the illegal discharge of oily water, the failure to maintain accurate Oil Record Books, and the dumping of plastics overboard, among others.
The increase of human activities in the Arctic, such as oil and mineral resource exploration, ecotourism, and activism, increase the threat of marine casualties. From 2008 to 2012, more than one million tons of cargo transited the Arctic route, and traffic in the Bering Strait increased 118 percent. Major cutters, particularly NSCs, enable the Coast Guard to provide offshore presence, command-and-control, and helicopter and boat capabilities during the ice-free season in the Arctic. These are critical resources given the lack of shore infrastructure, expense of building permanent infrastructure, and uncertainty of evolving Arctic requirements.
The Coast Guard continued operations in the Arctic, notably Operation Arctic Shield, which focused upon Alaska’s western coast and included the deployment of the USCGC Healy (WAGB-20) for a 130-day patrol. The operation conducted projects such as Arctic craft improvements, communications testing, navigation-safety evaluation, and oil-in-ice recovery technology. The patrol also included a team of 52 scientists, who performed a technology evaluation to improve Coast Guard capabilities in the Arctic.
The USCGC Polar Star’s (WAGB-10) Operation Deep Freeze resumed the service’s more traditional support to McMurdo Station in Antarctica. After a $90 million overhaul, the Polar Star gained ten more years of service life and set out on a mission that demonstrated her heavy-ice capability, transiting regions with ice ridges up to 16 feet thick. This cutter’s return to service restored the United States’ heavy icebreaking capability for the first time since 2007 and signaled the end of reliance on foreign-flagged icebreakers to supply the main U.S. Antarctic research base.
Prevention and Marine Safety
There were numerous ship collisions and oil spills in U.S. waters throughout the year, largely as a result of the booming energy industry. The Eighth Coast Guard District in particular had some challenging incidents.
In March, a collision in the Houston Ship Channel caused the largest oil spill in Texas in two decades. The Miss Susan and Summer Wind collided at a dangerous intersection, known as the Texas City “Y,” leading to 168,000 gallons of bunker oil spilling into the channel. The cleanup involved more than 500 personnel and 27 response vessels. The Port of Houston was closed along with Texas City, resulting in substantial backups: 46 outbound vessels and 47 inbound vessels were in the queue for transit in the Port of Houston, and 5 inbound and 3 outbound vessels were awaiting transit into Texas City.
The month before, a collision occurred near Vacherie, Louisiana, in which 31,500 gallons of light crude oil were discharged from the E2MS 303 tank barge and the motor vessel Lindsey Ann Erickson. Coast Guard Sector New Orleans established a unified command that included Louisiana’s Oil Spill Coordinator’s Office, Environmental Safety & Health, and Forefront Emergency Management.
The collective efforts in spill response underscore the more significant issues resulting from increased American energy production. In October, speaking before the American Pilots Association, Admiral Zukunft noted,
One development that I’m paying close attention to is the American energy renaissance. Just a year ago, who would have guessed that the United States would be ahead of Saudi Arabia and Russia for oil production today? The United States now produces 14 percent of the world’s hydrocarbon liquids—oil, condensate, and natural gas liquids—and, we produce 20 percent of the world’s natural gas. According to estimates, we’re producing roughly two million barrels of oil a day more than we were a year ago. As you know, this is especially significant for the United States, where 90 percent of our energy moves by water, and we’re producing and transporting nearly twice as much energy as we were a decade ago. I look at this as a capacity issue for the Coast Guard.
A Coast Guard energy effort that flew under the public’s radar was Operation Reliable Energy for Northeast Winters (OP RENEW). OP RENEW was the First District’s region-wide effort to ensure Northeast communities had the security, supplies, energy, and emergency resources they needed throughout the winter by breaking ice in the shipping lanes. It was no easy task considering the extremely cold winter the Northeast experienced in 2014.
Search and Rescue
The First Coast Guard District executed a transAtlantic search-and-rescue (SAR) case for the crew of the sailing vessel Cheekirafiki, a 40-foot Beneteau performance racer and cruiser. At 1230 on 16 May, watchstanders at the First Coast Guard District Command Center learned of a sailing vessel in distress and immediately began coordinating efforts by air and sea to locate the vessel. The emergency locator beacons activated by the crew indicated they were in a position 1,000 miles east of Massachusetts as of that morning. Conditions were difficult: Seas were 15 feet, winds surpassed 50 knots, the air temperature was 59 degrees, and the water 60 degrees. Upon arriving onscene Coast Guard air crews located a small debris field but there were no signs of a life raft. They also located what was presumed to be the capsized boat, but there were no signs of survivors. Based on the extreme conditions at sea, but assuming best-case emergency equipment, the estimated survival time past the time of distress was approximately 20 hours. Crews searched for 53 hours.
Coast Guard and Canadian air crews searched an area of more than 4,000 square miles and worked with commercial liners who volunteered to assist from the sea. At around noon on 17 May, the crew from the 1,000-foot motor vessel Maersk Kure located an overturned hull that matched the description of the Cheekirafiki, but could not find any sign of the sailors, nor was it positively identified as the vessel in question. Air and sea crews continued to search throughout the afternoon and night and into the next morning for any small indication of debris or search objects.
On 18 May at approximately 0500, after more than two days of search efforts and no indication of surviving crew members, the U.S. Coast Guard suspended the international search for the crew of the Cheekirafiki. The suspension of the search led to international media interest from U.K. and U.S. media outlets, public scrutiny, political discussions, social media campaigns, and a Change.org petition that amassed more than 232,000 signatures. At the request of the British government, the Coast Guard resumed search efforts for the sailors at 0738 on 20 May.
On 23 May a Navy warship located the overturned hull of the Cheekirafiki. A Navy surface swimmer was able to confirm the name on the hull; unfortunately, upon inspection there was no indication of any surviving crew members. Use of a handheld camera also revealed the presence of the life raft in the aft portion of the hull. The service’s press release announcing the located hull was issued shortly after briefing the British government via phone. The case was once again suspended.
As the Coast Guard continues to expand its collective presence and operations in the Arctic and the Great Lakes, the National Ice Rescue School in Saginaw, Michigan, offers important, accessible test sites to develop tactics, techniques, and procedures. The “curse of seasonality” places significant burden on many of the 39 permanently manned multipurpose Coast Guard stations to shift the way they perform rescues on “open” or “soft” water to “hard” water—ice. After the 45- and 25-foot response boats are stowed for the harshest winter months, airboats and ice-skiffs serve as the primary rescue platforms. Coast Guard stations on the Great Lakes average more than 100 ice rescue cases annually, saving lives in one of the most difficult environments in which the Coast Guard operates.
On the night of 16 February a snowmobiler went through the ice over Saginaw Bay. Crew members from Station Saginaw River launched a 20-foot airboat, and once on scene, the ice rescue crew launched six parachute flares to illuminate the area and searched on foot, breaking through the ice several times. They found the man 300 feet away and pulled him from the freezing water and back to shore in a rescue sling and back to shore. Despite severe hypothermia, a weak pulse, and a large laceration, the man’s life was saved. Only a week later, another snowmobiler on Saginaw Bay flipped his snowmobile and broke his leg. His two riding partners reported him missing. Coast Guard search-and-rescue coordinators managed to find the man’s position by pinging his cellphone, which enabled a prompt rescue by a crew from Station Saginaw River.
The Coast Guard also continues to pursue hoax rescue calls. One example occurred in June 2014 when a Norfolk, Virginia, man reported a ship taking on water in the Severn River. A press release from the U.S Attorney’s Office Eastern District noted that in response, “multiple rescue vehicles from the Abingdon Volunteer Fire and Rescue Squad, Gloucester Fire Department, York County Fire Department, Mathews Fire Department, and the United States Coast Guard” were dispatched to locate and aid the foundering vessel. After a two-hour search costing more than $82,000 it was determined that the call was a hoax. According to the U.S. attorney’s office, the culprit received six months of home detention, five years of probation, and was ordered to pay $82,764 in restitution. Other hoax prosecutions underscored the serious nature of this issue. In August, an Ohio man was ordered by the court to pay $489,000 in restitution. NBC news further reported that in a 2-1 ruling, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Cincinnati, Ohio, found that a lower court properly ordered 21-year-old Danik Kumar to pay these costs for his hoax call in 2012 on Lake Erie, which resulted in 27 hours of searching by U.S. and Canadian assets.
In May 2014, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson directed the development of the “U.S. Southern Border and Approaches (SBA) Campaign Plan.” This comprehensive plan is a whole-of-government approach set forth by the DHS with all homeland security agencies working as a team. To implement the plan, the Coast Guard has become a key component in the establishment and operation of three joint task forces (JTF) announced by Johnson—JTF-East, JTF-West, and JTF-Investigations—which will bring together members of several DHS components to work side by side.
The plan leverages unity of effort to treat threats in a holistic and systemwide approach. Operations will be intelligence-driven under all domain awareness, including cyber threats. The plan also brings together coordination of assets and personnel from the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and other agencies.
According to the SBA campaign website, the intent of this plan is effective enforcement and interdiction across land, sea, and air; to degrade transnational criminal organizations—all while still facilitating the flow of lawful trade, travel, and commerce across our borders. Coast Guard Vice Admiral William “Dean” Lee took command of JTF-East in addition to commanding the Atlantic Area, one of the service’s two operational-level commands.
In September, the Commandant approved the Coast Guard Western Hemisphere Strategy (West-Hem). This strategy works off three principles: combating networks, securing borders, and safeguarding commerce. One of the document’s strategy priorities asserts, “It takes a network to take down a network.” The key is shared situational awareness and unity of effort. Identifying adversary networks requires refining collection plans and including nontraditional tools such as social media. The second West-Hem principle is border security through improved awareness, prioritized threats, and effective interdiction. Improved awareness requires better all-source collection and fusion and as well as networking with fellow agencies and international partners. The final West-Hem principle aims to safeguard the $1 trillion maritime-commerce industry through saving lives; creating a safe, secure, and resilient maritime transportation system; preserving the marine environment; and effective incident management.
Another example of interagency coordination is the service’s engagement during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. Coast Guard leaders established a Coast Guard Ebola crisis action team in October that worked closely with partner agencies throughout the crisis. The team conducted a comprehensive review of Coast Guard policy and capability related to a virus threat and then rapidly disseminated planning, response- and force-protection guidance to field units at ports throughout the country. Working in concert with federal, state, and local partner agencies, the Coast Guard Ebola team ensured the safe arrival of passengers and crews from more than 200 vessels into U.S. ports from Ebola-affected countries. These efforts helped preserve the public health without jeopardizing the smooth flow of maritime commerce on which our nation’s economy depends.
Additionally, the Coast Guard deployed 20 medical personnel to augment Customs and Border Protection’s airport screening efforts at Washington Dulles, John F. Kennedy, Newark Liberty, Chicago O’Hare, and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta airports. These international gateways process over 94 percent of passengers arriving into the United States from West Africa, and Coast Guard members provided medical evaluations and monitoring for more than 4,500 passengers per month during the height of the Ebola outbreak.
Finally, Coast Guard assets worked alongside federal, state, and local agencies in a joint effort to provide critical contributions toward the success of the Super Bowl in the New York/New Jersey area. Due to events occurring on both sides of the water in New York as well as New Jersey, there were major impacts and heavy traffic on city transportation systems such as bridges, tunnels, and ferries. The mission of district assets was simple: provide security in case of an incident. They contributed to waterside and shore side protection, port security, security zone enforcement, increased waterside patrol presence in critical areas, and ensured the port was cleared of ice to allow easier transit. In addition to the monumental task of providing Super Bowl security, the First Coast Guard District also had to keep more than 50,000 runners safe during the New York City Marathon.
The Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2014, a multinational maritime exercise including 22 countries, provided a challenging and rewarding experience for the USCGC Waesche (WMSL-751) as the combined task-force commander of the coalition’s multinational task force. The exercises included single- and multi-unit boardings of vessels during a simulated United Nations embargo. The Chinese, Brunei, Mexican, and U.S. units boarded provided real-life scenarios for the multinational forces. Additionally, the Waesche’s crew conducted operations and deck landings of helicopters from China, Chile, Japan, and Australia. The experiences and shared knowledge will help the Coast Guard with U.S. Navy interoperability and helped share best practices with multiple partner nations in the Pacific.
In addition, a small boat from the USCGC Monomoy (WPB-1326) made international news in August when her crew fired a single shot after an Iranian fishing vessel trained a machine gun on the cutter, which was under way in the Persian Gulf operating under the 5th fleet. Both sides were quick to downplay the incident. “It wasn’t a clash but a single shot in the air . . . there was no clash between Iranian and American forces,” Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, told the Associated Press on 29 August.
The winter of 2014 delivered the heaviest ice cover that Great Lakes mariners had encountered in 30 years. With talks of the polar vortex funneling frigid Arctic air into the Midwest, our cutter crews knew they were in for a busy icebreaking season. The daunting work was vital for keeping homes warm, factories humming, and rivers below flood stage.
During the 160 days of Operation Taconite and 128 days of Operation Coal Shovel, Ninth Coast Guard District units worked around the clock alongside Canadian partners to facilitate safe and timely navigation for cargo shipments vital to two nations. Icebreaking operations enabled movement of $1.3 billion of cargo across the Great Lakes.
In addition to heavy ice breaking, the USCGC Neah Bay (WTGB-105) opened channels to icebound communities around Lake Erie for flood relief, preventing property damage and loss of life during the spring thaw. The USCGC Morro Bay (WTGB-106) and the USCGC Katmai Bay (WTGB-101) broke through to Marquette, Michigan, allowing a convoy carrying coal to resupply power facilities days away from running out of fuel. The Coast Guard fleet of cutters contributed a record 11,718 hours of domestic icebreaking operations over five brutal months to keep heating oil and the lifeblood of industry moving across the frozen Great Lakes.
Finally, the Ninth Coast Guard District converted Station and Aids to Navigation Team Portage, Saginaw River, and St. Ignace into standard stations and established an independent aids-to-navigation team at Saginaw River. These changes ensure more focused leadership, training requirements, and support systems for our crews in the field.
While the past year was a demanding one for the service, 2015 will likely shape up to be just as challenging, if not more so.