AP PHOTO/TASNIM NEWS
The U.S. Coast Guard had another record-setting 12 months in several mission areas, harnessing the collective capability of all 41,000 active, 6,500 reserve, 8,500 civilian, and nearly 30,000 auxiliary members. The past year was a busy one for the service and included drug interdiction and marine safety missions, migrant interdiction, response to Hurricane Matthew, dramatic search-and-rescue missions, and continued operations in the unforgiving waters around the globe.
The past year also was important in securing the service’s future, with selection of Eastern Shipbuilding Group for phase 2 of the offshore patrol cutter (OPC) acquisition, which includes detail design and options for construction of up to nine craft. These ships will feature state-of-the-market technology and will replace the service’s aging 270-foot and 210-foot medium endurance cutters, some of which are more than 50 years old. The first OPC is scheduled for delivery in fiscal year (FY) 2021
In his annual State of the Coast Guard address, Commandant Admiral Paul Zukunft called the OPC “the largest and most critical acquisition in Coast Guard history dating back to our fledgling fleet of 10 revenue cutters in 1790” and “an integral part of the service’s future.”
The Coast Guard responded to several natural disasters in 2016, including flooding on 15 August in areas of Baton Rouge and St. Amant, Louisiana. In Baton Rouge, more than ten rivers reached moderate, major, or record flood stage. NBC News reported that 40,000 homes were affected, and according to ABC News, “In 24 hours, 21 inches of rain fell in Livingston Parish.” Coast Guard crews rescued more than 219 people, assisted more than 3,000 individuals in distress, and rescued 57 pets. California and Washington state also experienced record flooding, with relentless rainstorms following several years of drought.
The 2016 Atlantic hurricane season proved to be an active and costly one that produced 15 named storms.
Hurricane Matthew was the first storm since 2007 to achieve Category 5 status, with peak observed winds of 157 miles per hour. It produced massive rainfalls that had devastating effects on Haiti and the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic United States. Members of the Coast Guard and U.S. Northern Command’s Joint Task Force for Search and Rescue provided helicopter and boat transportation support to the areas of Haiti ravaged by the storm. A Coast Guard air crew from the USCGC Hamilton (WMSL-753) provided the first overflight opportunity for provisional Haiti President Jocelerme Privert to assess the damage to the nation’s infrastructure. The cutters Elm (WLB-204), Harriet Lane (WMEC-903), and Thetis (WMEC-910) provided additional support to assess damages to port facilities and the marine transportation system’s aids to navigation.
Hurricane Matthew also caused major damage in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia. U.S. Coast Guard units from all over the country played instrumental roles in restoring affected ports and waterways while conducting inland search and rescue to areas affected by severe flooding.
In June 2016, the Coast Guard joined with other federal, state, and local authorities to conduct the multiagency, multilevel Exercise Cascadia Rising, which featured a fictional earthquake and resulting tsunami in Seattle. This joint effort included units and personnel from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Western Region, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area, and the U.S. Coast Guard 13th District. NOAA officials noted, “The Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ) earthquake and tsunami is one of the most complex disaster scenarios that emergency management and public safety officials face in the Pacific Northwest.”
Drugs and Migrants
In 16 February 2017 testimony before the House Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee, Vice Admiral Charlie Ray, Deputy Commandant for Operations, explained:
One of the goals of the U.S. Coast Guard’s drug interdiction program is to interdict illicit traffic as close to the source zone as possible. This helps to stem the flow of drugs from reaching Central America, Mexico, and the United States. Over the past five years, Coast Guard cutters and aircraft have removed more than 630 metric tons of high-purity cocaine from the high seas, with a wholesale value of nearly 18 billion dollars.1
The Coast Guard’s annual seizures at sea amount to more than three times the quantity of cocaine seized at the borders and within the United States combined. For FY2016, the service removed 443,000 pounds of cocaine valued at more than $5.6 billion, topping its previous record of 367,000 pounds seized in FY2008. In addition, the service apprehended a record 585 suspected drug smugglers. Then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson noted, “This impressive record not only reflects the extraordinary accomplishments of the men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard, but the continued threat our nation faces from transnational criminal organizations determined to move drugs into our country by any means necessary.”2
Vice Admiral Fred Midgette, Commander, U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area, added, “From 2002 to 2011, information obtained from suspects apprehended by the U.S. Coast Guard contributed to the arrest and extradition of [several] drug kingpins.”3
During 2016, multiple drug busts received national attention. Just 27 days into the new fiscal year, the crew of the USCGC Waesche (WMSL-751) transferred nearly 20 tons of seized cocaine to authorities in San Diego. The Waesche also had a bust on 6 September 2016 involving a self-propelled semisubmersible (SPSS), an exceptionally difficult target to detect. SPSSs operate at or just below the water line and are painted to be hard to spot. The sophistication of the threat continues to evolve as technology advances. In partnership with the Key West–based Joint Interagency Task Force South and patrol aircraft from the U.S. Navy, the team seized 5,600 pounds of cocaine valued at $73 million.
During this interdiction, the Waesche launched two pursuit small boats and the embarked armed helicopter from the Coast Guard Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron (HITRON) to apprehend the vessel, drugs, and five smugglers. The key strength of the HITRON is its highly skilled Coast Guard sharpshooter crew, who can disable the engines of a fleeing vessel. Stopping the vessel helps prevent smugglers from sinking their own ships, which makes recovery of contraband dangerous and difficult and can prevent collection of evidence. Fortunately, after the SPSS was disabled, two Waesche boarding team members were able to get on board and, using damage-control training, dewater enough of the vessel to secure the evidence.
In December, on the opposite coast, a joint effort between Canadian partners and the crew of the Hamilton offloaded 26.5 tons of cocaine in Port Everglades, Florida. This historic offload, with an estimated wholesale value of $715 million, represented 27 separate interdictions involving the Royal Canadian Navy, U.S. Coast Guard Tactical Law Enforcement Teams, six Coast Guard cutters, and HITRON.
Vice Admiral Karl Shultz, Commander, U.S. Coast Guard Atlantic Area, emphasized that the Hamilton’s offload not only showcased the continued threat posed by transnational criminal networks, but also highlighted the sustained commitment of the Coast Guard and its interagency partners to detect, interdict, investigate, and prosecute operatives of these networks.
As the year ticked into 2017, the final enforcement seizures from 2016 were brought into Naval Base San Diego by the USCGC Midgett (WHEC-726). Totaling 13 tons of cocaine from multiple interdictions in the eastern Pacific Ocean, the drugs were interdicted by a team of cutters including the Midgett, Diligence (WMEC-616), Mellon (WHEC-717), Sherman (WHEC-720), and Tahoma (WMEC-908).
Despite these successes, transnational criminal organization networks continue to operate throughout Central America, vying for power through violence and corruption of government officials. “In fact, eight out of the world’s ten countries with the highest per capita rates of homicide are along the cocaine trafficking routes in the Western Hemisphere,” Admiral Ray told Congress. To help combat this threat, the service is increasing the number of assets in these locations as part of its Western Hemisphere Strategy.4
Besides narcotics interdictions, the Coast Guard has seen a dramatic rise in migrant interdictions, with the number of Cubans attempting illegal entry reaching the highest level in a decade. The service interdicted 7,361 Cubans, a 60 percent increase over 2015 and one of the most dramatic rises, by percentage, since the start of illegal migration from the communist nation.
Illegal fishing also continued to be an issue along the U.S.-Mexican border in 2016, affecting not only permitted fishermen and the economy, but also the sustainability of the marine biomass. The Coast Guard used organic and partner agency assets and capabilities to detect, deter, and interdict individuals involved in illegal fishing in the U.S. exclusive economic zone. Through partnerships and active engagement with the maritime community, units in the Coast Guard Eighth District area of responsibility in the Gulf of Mexico were able to interdict 45 launches and seize and release nearly 1,500 red snapper and sharks that were being harvested by illegal fishing.
Prevention and Waterways Management
The service’s maritime prevention mission continued to shine over the past 12 months, conducting activities aimed at preventing personnel casualties and property losses, minimizing security risks, and protecting the marine environment. The Coast Guard prevention program is the primary developer and enforcer of federal marine safety, security, and environmental regulations.
Prevention staffs review and approve maritime facility and vessel security plans, conduct security and safety inspections, and enforce Transportation Worker Identification Credential regulations. The program conducts domestic and international port security assessments, analyzes maritime security risk nationwide to identify high-risk targets and support risk reduction measures, and supports administration of port security grant funding. With more than 370 ports in the United States and shared waterways, such as the Straits of Juan De Fuca and the Saint Lawrence Seaway, the mission set is wide ranging. The port state control mission is one area where the service is directly involved in the regulation and security of the Maritime Transportation System.
According to the service’s latest Port State Control Report, “In 2015, a total of 8,925 individual vessels, from 81 different flag administrations, made 73,752 port calls to the United States. The Coast Guard conducted 9,265 [safety of life at sea] exams and 8,655 [International Ship and Port Facility Security] exams on these vessels. The total number of ships detained in 2015 for environmental protection and safety related deficiencies increased from 143 to 202. The total number of ships detained in 2015 for security related deficiencies slightly increased from 10 to 11.”
One huge area within this mission set that has not received much notice is recreational boating safety. This mission has exploded: In 1960 there were 2.45 million registered boats. In 2016 there were nearly 12 million.
Also within the prevention mission and as part of a larger realignment and streamlining of capabilities, the U.S. Coast Guard shut down nine Nationwide Differential Global Positioning System (NDGPS) sites in August 2016. In 2015, the Coast Guard, Department of Transportation, and Army Corps of Engineers proposed decommissioning 62 of the then-existing 84 NDGPS sites. After reviewing comments from two Federal Register notices, the number of closures was reduced to 37 sites, including nine Coast Guard maritime sites. The Coast Guard continues to push forward with a number of initiatives involving positioning systems and electronic navigation.
The Coast Guard continued its dedicated and close working relationship with the Department of Defense (DOD), honing its defense mission capabilities. There were several notable activities in this mission area. Perhaps the most notable was the participation of the USCGC Stratton (WMSL-752) in the 2016 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise. RIMPAC is the world’s largest international maritime exercise, hosted by U.S. Pacific Fleet and conducted in and around the Hawaiian Islands and Southern California. RIMPAC 2016 included 26 nations, more than 40 ships and submarines, 200 aircraft, and 25,000 personnel—more countries and personnel than in any of the previous 24 years. Participants exercised capabilities ranging from disaster relief and maritime security operations to sea control and complex warfighting exercises, including a mass casualty drill, replenishments at sea, submarine search and rescue, and aircraft refueling.
The Stratton and her crew demonstrated the service’s internationally recognized strength in vessel boarding and search-and-rescue coordination. Capitalizing on the national security cutter’s command-and-control capabilities, the Stratton was selected as Commander Task Force 175 and led a force composed of ten ships from the United States, China, France, and Indonesia. The Stratton deployed for the entire RIMPAC exercise with an embarked Navy H-60 Seahawk and aviation detachment. Successfully completing this deployment was a significant milestone. It was the first extended Navy aviation deployment on board a U.S. Coast Guard cutter and provides proof that when our services combine surface and aviation capabilities, both operational commanders benefit.
The Stratton demonstrated positive interaction with the People’s Republic of China. During RIMPAC, the Stratton executed a wide range of maritime interdiction, rescue and assistance, and tactical maneuvering exercises with a multinational force that included four Chinese vessels. The exercises involved large caliber gunnery exercises and numerous practice law enforcement and counterpiracy boardings. It was a rare opportunity to engage with China and highlighted the strong ties of maritime professionals, despite cultural differences.
Vice Admiral Nora Tyson, Commander, U.S. Third Fleet, called RIMPAC 2016 an unqualified success:
The collaboration and cohesiveness between participants proved that we can operate effectively with our partner nations and that we will be ready in the Pacific if or when we’re called upon. We operated as an effective team while simultaneously strengthening the skills of each and every participant. To safely and effectively execute an exercise of this scale and scope is a tribute to the leadership and skill of every participating unit.5
The U.S. Coast Guard Reserve continued its long-time presence as a maritime security force at the Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in support of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. Coast Guard Port Security Unit (PSU) 305, homeported in Ft. Eustis, Virginia, started the nine-month deployment to Cuba in 2016, coincident with a “relief in place/transfer of authority” as the Maritime Security Detachment with PSU 307, based out of Clearwater, Florida. The deployed PSU supports Joint Task Force-Guantanamo Bay’s antiterrorism–force protection waterside mission. Coast Guard PSUs are unique commands composed of 95 percent reserve members. PSU 305 is one of eight units based around the country.
Arctic and Antarctic
The service continues to face a difficult challenge in the Arctic. Despite the acknowledgment that the United States is an Arctic nation, U.S. icebreaking capability is, at best, minimal. Since 1965, the Coast Guard has been the sole operator and custodian of the nation’s polar icebreaking, operating in the harsh conditions of both the Arctic and Antarctic regions.
In 2016, speaking at The Brookings Institute, Admiral Zukunft underscored what has become a desperate situation regarding the service’s icebreaking capabilities.6 The admiral, who previously served as the Pacific Area Commander with responsibility for the Arctic, noted that the service had seven ice breakers when he entered the service. In contrast, it today is down to two: the 40-year old heavy icebreaker USCGC Polar Star (WAGB-10) and the 16-year old medium icebreaker USCGC Healy (WAGB-20).
During the same visit the Commandant said the nation requires, at a minimum, three heavy and three medium icebreakers.
A significant icebreaker requirement is the need to execute the annual Operation Deep Freeze in support of the National Science Foundation (NSF)-led U.S. Antarctic Program. Since her reactivation in 2012, the Polar Star deploys each holiday season, timing the operation with Antarctica’s summer, when the ice is at its lowest level. “A 2005 report to [NSF] stated that the annual resupply effort is ‘a single point of failure for the U.S. Antarctic program,’” explained Captain Michael Davanzo, commanding officer of the Polar Star. “We are here to help ensure that failure does not happen. We are here to clear a pathway through the ice so a year’s worth of supplies and fuel can safely reach NSF’s research stations.”7
Deep Freeze is a multiservice operation that includes active, guard, and reserve personnel from the U.S. Coast Guard, Air Force, and Navy.
The medium icebreaker Healy engaged in a five-month patrol in support of Arctic efforts and research along the extended continental shelf. She conducted mapping operations using extensive 3D modeling, which is imperative to understanding this vast emerging and uncharted area. The modeling provided information on the seafloor, including thickness of sediment and the nature of rock formations. The various scientists on board collected samples that will be provided to the U.S. Geological Survey for follow-on analysis.
Polar icebreakers are critical elements of national power projection in the Arctic. Contrast the U.S. fleet with those of other countries: Russia has more than 40 icebreakers, Sweden 7, Finland 7, Canada 6, Denmark 4, and even China, a non-Arctic nation, has one, the Xu? Lóng or “Snow Dragon.” In June 2016, Russia launched the world’s largest and most powerful icebreaker, the Arktika, which is 568 feet long and powered by two nuclear reactors.
In a 21 February 2017 article, the Washington Examiner highlighted significant congressional interest, led by Representative Duncan Hunter (R- CA), in supporting growth in the Coast Guard’s icebreaking capability:
The California Republican wrote in a letter to Trump that the U.S. Coast Guard was “severely underfunded” under the Obama administration, and lacks capabilities in the Arctic to compete with other countries with claims in the region, like Russia. . . . Not only have we not built a new icebreaker since the late 1970s, the U.S. Coast Guard is being forced to order parts online and cannibalize older vessels to maintain a minimum level of operability—just to operate a single heavy icebreaker, Hunter wrote.
In his 2016 State of the Coast Guard address, Admiral Zukunft explained:
I recently hosted the Arctic Coast Guard Forum in New London, Connecticut, and signed the general agreement to establish this important international body that includes every Arctic nation, including Russia. I am committed to the safety, security, and environmental stewardship of the Arctic, and I will continue to lead this effort at the international level. Collectively, we are ensuring that shared responsibilities for mass search and rescue, pollution response, and safe navigation remain paramount among Arctic nations.
In addition, the need for sustained reliable communications is imperative. In 2016, the U.S. Coast Guard Research and Development Center, working with the Coast Guard’s 17th District, DOD’s Alaska Command, and the state of Alaska, conducted extensive experimentation.
The service continued to be a significant force multiplier in 2016. For example, 22 Coast Guardsmen serve in Saudi Arabia as that nation works to develop a maritime border guard similar to the U.S. Coast Guard. In addition, in his State of the Coast Guard speech, the Commandant noted that 36 senior enlisted members were in the United Kingdom serving three-year tours in the Royal Navy. Why? A number of years ago, fiscal constraints forced the Royal Navy to curtail its hiring. This gap in its recruitment pool manifests itself today in a shortage of senior enlisted technicians and leaders in Her Majesty’s Navy.
In addition, Coast Guard international port security liaison officers (IPSLOs) continue to engage internationally across a range of activities promoting best practices and enhancing interoperability. The IPSLO program was developed to implement the International Maritime Organizations’ International Ship and Port Security Code. To that end, the U.S. Congress passed the Maritime Transportation and Security Act, which required the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to learn about the antiterrorism measures in foreign ports. The International Port Security (IPS) Program is dedicated to supporting nations that show a commitment to improving their port security.
The Coast Guard’s IPS Program had a positive impact in protecting the maritime security of the United States. Through liaison efforts, security assessments, and capacity-building missions, the program identified risk in the maritime realm, enabling Coast Guard operations to mitigate that risk before it threatened U.S. ports. In 2016, Coast Guard members visited more than 60 countries, executed 220 port facility security assessments, conducted 30 capacity-building missions in more than 10 countries, and hosted 12 nations during reciprocal visits to the United States.
The U.S. Coast Guard Ninth District was busy with the Great Lakes 2016 Tall Ships Challenge, which involved nine tall ships from around the world and the world’s largest rubber duck! U.S. Coast Guard Sector Buffalo and its stations Fairport and Erie partnered with 31 other agencies for the event, which saw approximately 90,000 attendees and 30 volunteer escort vessels. Sector Buffalo hosted extensive planning meetings and a pre-event tabletop exercise to ensure response readiness, safety zones, shoreside and waterside security enforcement, and logistical support.
In addition, U.S. Coast Guard Sector Lake Michigan partnered with multiagency law enforcement operations during Tall Ships America events in Chicago, Sturgeon Bay, and Green Bay. The reserve component supported both landside and waterside operations that safeguarded nearly 1.5 million spectators during this high-visibility event.
The tall ship events continued in the district as a dozen federal, state, and local agencies partnered for the four-day Tall Ships Duluth. The unified command coordinated the safety and security of 350,000 visitors to Duluth and nine domestic and foreign tall ships.
Other Items of Note
For the first time in the service’s history the vice commandant is a four-star admiral. Previously only the commandant held the rank of admiral, but the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2015 elevated the statutory rank for the vice commandant. The promotion aligns the leadership structure of the U.S. Coast Guard with that of the other U.S. armed forces and recognizes the important role of the vice service chief at the strategic level.
The U.S. Coast Guard Reserve celebrated its 75th birthday on 19 February 2016. From the beaches of France and Iwo Jima in World War II to the shores of the Gulf Coast for Deepwater Horizon, the reserve has always been ready. Although the number of reservists is decreasing, the demands on the reserve have not. For the nearly 6,500 men and women who currently serve, it is a heritage they fully embrace.
The service continues to commission new 154-foot fast response cutters (FRCs), the Sentinel class. Named after Coast Guard enlisted heroes, the FRCs are replacing the aging Island-class 110-foot patrol boats. In February 2017, the service accepted delivery of the 22nd unit, the Bailey Barco (WPC-1122), in Key West, Florida. FRCs currently are in service in Miami; Key West; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Cape May, New Jersey.
Finally, the service celebrated the Boston Light lighthouse’s 300th year of operation in September. Located on Little Brewster Island, it has been a presence at the entrance to Boston Harbor since it was first lit on 14 September 1716. Boston Light has been continually manned as a navigational aid by a succession of keepers for three centuries. No other light station in the United States can claim such an extraordinary distinction.
1. “Testimony of Vice Admiral Charles W. Ray, Deputy Commandant for Operations before the House Committee on Homeland Security Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee,” 16 February 2017.
2. U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area, “Coast Guard marks the end of a record year in counterdrug operations,” news release, 27 October 2016.
4. Coast Guard Compass, “Coast Guard marks the end of a record year in counterdrug operations,” blog post, 27 October 2016.
5. Lieutenant Miranda Williams, “Exercise Rim of the Pacific 2016 concludes,” RIMPAC Public Affairs, 4 August 2016, www.cpf.navy.mil/news.aspx/110096.
6. “A Conversation with Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Paul F. Zukunft,” The Brookings Institution, 29 November 2016.
7. Chief Petty Officer David Mosley, USCG, “Below Zero: Overview of Operation Deep Freeze 2017,” Coast Guard Compass blog post, 30 January 2017.
Named for Heroes
The stories of the enlisted heroes for whom the Sentinel-class fast response cutters are named are examples of the Coast Guard’s exceptional enlisted force. Take for example, the seaman first class for whom the USCGC Rollin A. Fritch (WPC-1119) is named. During a Japanese kamikaze attack near Luzon in the Philippine Islands during World War II, Fritch manned his gun while enemy airplanes attacked his cutter. He continued at his station, firing weapons to help save his shipmates, until a kamikaze plane collided with his position, taking his life. Seaman First Class Fritch was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for his incredible actions in the face of danger.