Talk about a year. A record hurricane season, renewed focus on the Arctic and counternarcotics, vessel construction, even greater emphasis on professional development, COVID-19, and a continued focus on diversity efforts—the U.S. Coast Guard saw a little bit of everything in 2020. In it all, the common denominator was people. The Coast Guard would not have been able to continually answer the call if not for its service men and women. It has always understood the power of a diverse workforce—in race, gender, experience, education, and opinion—and it leverages those differences to be the world’s best coast guard.
Information & Technology
The COVID-19 pandemic demanded a shortened timeline to complete a planned revision to the service’s communications and information technology (IT) systems. The new Tech Revolution Road Map, unveiled in February by Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Karl Schultz during his State of the Coast Guard address, is a five-pronged strategy addressing cutter connectivity, C5I infrastructure modernization, cyber readiness, software, mobility and cloud, and data for decisions.1 According to the Commandant, the roadmap is “a whole-of-service effort to ensure our dedicated people are supported by an information system that is reliable and mobile.” This type of integration will be critical, as data, mobility, and the need for an enhanced IT capability continue to grow exponentially.
As 2020 rolled in, the 44-year-old heavy icebreaker Polar Star (WAGB-10) continued with Operation Deep Freeze 2020. The Polar Star created an ice channel to McMurdo Station, escorting three critical supply ships, and conducted three Antarctic Treaty inspections over four days in February. The icebreaker embarked a joint inspection team consisting of personnel from the U.S. Department of State, National Science Foundation, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This was the 15th U.S. inspection since the Antarctic Treaty entered into force in 1961 and the first since December 2012. The inspections helped ensure foreign compliance with the treaty.
Shifting to the Northern Hemisphere, the Polar Star began an Arctic deployment in November 2020, reaching a historic winter latitude. On Christmas Day, she navigated to a latitude of 72°11’N, the farthest north any U.S. surface ship has traveled in the Arctic winter.
The Polar Star crew conducted various scientific research initiatives throughout the deployment, including deploying four ice buoys in support of a scientific partnership with the University of Washington and the Office of Naval Research. They also launched multiple sensors to examine Arctic waters in support of the National Science Foundation and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
In July, the Atlantic Area’s cutters Tahoma (WMEC-908) and Campbell (WMEC-909), both homeported in Kittery, Maine, participated in Operation Nanook-Tuugaalik, a defense readiness event led by the Canadian Armed Forces. In 2020, it included participation from the U.S., Dutch, and French Navies. During the operation, the Tahoma became the first Famous-class cutter to cross the Arctic Circle, earning each crewmember the highly revered “Blue Nose” honor.
The Campbell and Tahoma also participated in Argus, a follow-on search-and-rescue exercise hosted by Denmark’s Joint Arctic Command on the west coast of Greenland. Alongside the U.S. cutters were the Danish Navy’s Knud Rasmussen and Triton and the French Navy’s Rhone. The movements were a success, and all countries involved gained critical insights from each other.
Following Argus, the Campbell remained in the area for another five weeks conducting joint exchanges with the Danish Navy and testing communication equipment and new technology from the Coast Guard Research and Development Center. The Campbell operated north of the Arctic Circle for more than 21 consecutive days, earning her crew the “Blue Nose” honor and the Arctic Service Medal—a first for an Atlantic Area medium-endurance cutter. The Campbell’s operations took her as far as 72°N latitude, the farthest north a medium-endurance cutter has ever operated.
But perhaps the most notable Arctic engagement of the year occurred when the Campbell was pierside in Nuuk, Greenland. In a diner, Seaman Katlin Kilroy noticed a gentleman sitting alone and bought him dinner. The stranger turned out to be Greenland’s premier, Kim Kielsen. A conversation followed, and in the coming days, Kielsen visited the Campbell and gave her commanding officer, Captain Thomas Crane, a tour of Nuuk. Nation-to-nation engagement took on a new dimension with Kilroy’s act of kindness.
In 2020, as part of the Western Hemisphere Strategy, the service participated in an “Enhanced Counter Narcotics” operation surge to disrupt the flow of drugs. The USCGC Vigilant (WMEC-617) is one of the many success stories.
The Vigilant crew’s first interdiction, off Limon, Costa Rica, recovered 77 bales (approximately 4,200 pounds) of cocaine from the water and detained four suspected drug traffickers. Following that interdiction, the Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron crew and a separate cutter boarding team were vectored to another go-fast vessel with five people on board. After the helicopter crew disabled the go-fast, a Vigilant boarding team arrived on scene and recovered 45 additional bales (approximately 2,600 pounds) of cocaine and detained five more suspects.
The 122 bales recovered during the two interdictions had an estimated wholesale value of approximately $118.3 million. The nine people involved will be prosecuted by a U.S. court, and the seized contraband transferred to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
“Every high-speed interdiction of drug-laden vessels presents unique challenges, so for us to simultaneously interdict two overpowered go-fast vessels in the middle of the night is extraordinary,” said Commander Fred Bertsch, commanding officer of the Vigilant. “I am very proud of our crew and could not have asked anything more from them.”
Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing
In September 2020, the Coast Guard issued the Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing Strategic Outlook. This document outlines a service mission that gets little national attention, but according to the Outlook, “IUU fishing has replaced piracy as the leading global maritime security threat. If IUU fishing continues unchecked, we can expect deterioration of fragile coastal States and increased tension among foreign-fishing Nations, threatening geo-political stability around the world.”2
The impact of illegal fishing is massive: 93 percent of the world’s major marine fish stocks are classified as fully exploited or significantly depleted. IUU fishing undermines the sustainable management of these resources. Combating IUU fishing is essential to global maritime security, regional stability, and economic prosperity across the world.
The fleets engaged in IUU fishing often are heavily subsidized by their home countries and exploit gaps in governance. NOAA’s 2019 biennial IUU fishing report to Congress highlighted this issue, describing multiple instances when the Chinese distant-water fishing fleet was found illegally fishing in the exclusive economic zones of countries from the western and central Pacific to the coasts of Africa and South America.
Operation Kuartam is one example of how the Coast Guard counters IUU fishing. The USCGC Bertholf (WMSL-750) deployed in late August on a counter-IUU fishing operation supporting South American partners and the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization. There were grave concerns over the presence of a Chinese distant-water fleet near the protected waters off the Galapagos Islands, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Bertholf’s crew monitored nonregistered vessels and vessels exhibiting activities contrary to Regional Fisheries Management Organization regulations and Ecuadorian sovereignty. The operation focused on gathering evidence to support IUU fishing network analysis and disruption and sharing that information with regional partners.
In addition, the Bertholf conducted a joint patrol with the Ecuadorian Coast Guard vessel Isla San Cristóbal in the Ecuadorian exclusive economic zone, the protected waters surrounding the Galapagos Islands, and international waters.
Similar operations extended to the Eighth Coast Guard District in the Gulf of Mexico. In 2020, the district’s first fast-response cutter, the Benjamin Dailey (WPC-1123), interdicted a record 12 lanchas during a spring patrol, seizing an impressive total of 20,670 pounds of illegally caught fish. The crew of the USCGC Edgar Culbertson (WPC-1137) interdicted ten lanchas on their first patrol.
Search and Rescue
In 2020, tropical storms and hurricanes exhausted the standard alphabetical list of names, and the Greek alphabet kicked in. During the 25th named storm, Hurricane Delta, Petty Officer Second Class David Reynolds and crew received a call for help from a shrimp trawler with four adults, two infants, and three dogs on board. Despite 46 mile per hour winds—34 is the limit to get underway—Reynolds and crew launched their 45-foot response boat–medium. Leaning on their years of experience, they made the 25-minute transit, skillfully negotiating the strong winds and seas.
Once on scene, Reynolds found Hurricane Delta had broken the trawler’s rudder, leaving the vessel at the mercy of the sea. Two Coast Guard helicopters overhead had deployed rescue swimmers, but the air and boat crews agreed it was safer to hand the infants across to the Coast Guard boat instead of hoisting them to a helicopter. Reynolds safely maneuvered the boat alongside and transferred all six passengers and the pets on board. He and his crew then navigated back to his home port in Galveston, Texas, to waiting emergency medical services.
The Coast Guard has a long history of prioritizing “human-to-human” interaction through partner-nation capacity building. Last August, the service’s Mobile Training Team, operating under the International Mobile Training Branch at the Yorktown, Virginia, Training Center, worked alongside the Philippine Coast Guard to establish that country’s new Outboard Motor Maintenance Center of Excellence.
In addition, the U.S. Coast Guard “conducted a Small Boat Operations course for eight Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) participants in Manila from February 24 to March 6.” “It’s a great exchange of professional knowledge between USCG and PCG. It will further enhance the Surface Support Force capabilities to respond to search and rescue cases,” noted Philippines Coast Guard Commander Christie Cabuyaban.3
In a similar effort, under Department of Homeland Security authority and in collaboration with Customs and Border Protection, the service participated in the three-day North American Maritime Security Initiative (NAMSI) Pacific full-scale exercise. The 2020 exercise included maritime interdiction operations 15 nautical miles off Puerto Chiapas, Mexico. This important, visible international effort tested the evolution of law enforcement and intelligence sharing and response. The primary objective was to fully use the NAMSI communications plan to enable and enhance operations between command centers and deployed assets. The exercise is laying the groundwork for Canada, Mexico, and the United States to coordinate interdictions in the future.
During the exercise, a Customs and Border Protection P-3 Orion aircraft and a Coast Guard Air Station Sacramento HC-27 Spartan surveillance aircraft provided support by identifying known targets of interest. To add more realism to the exercise, Joint Interagency Task Force–South provided two unique maritime interdiction events involving Mexican-flagged and stateless vessels. This allowed operations centers to use NAMSI protocols and process requests for highly specialized U.S. Coast Guard law enforcement detachment teams.
After the conclusion of maritime interdiction operations, the USCGC Alert (WMEC-630) conducted a medical evacuation exercise with a Mexican Navy helicopter. This was the first time the Coast Guard Pacific Area conducted shipboard helicopter landings with a Mexican aircraft.
Evaluators and observers from the U.S. Coast Guard, Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras were embedded on board 13 operational assets and five command centers during the exercise. The exercise provided an opportunity to identify best interoperability practices, as well as areas where procedures could be enhanced and refined to further support joint multinational operations.
A review of Coast Guard 2020 international engagements would be incomplete without highlighting the Rim of the Pacific (RimPac) exercise. Last year, the USCGC Munro (WMSL-755) participated in the 27th iteration of this multinational exercise from 17 to 31 August.
Despite a challenging COVID environment, RimPac drew 22 surface ships, one submarine, and multiple aircraft representing ten countries, for a combined joint force of more than 5,300 shoreside and at-sea personnel.
The Munro operated in the vicinity of the Hawaiian Islands with an embarked U.S. Navy helicopter. She conducted 29 exercises throughout the event, increasing interoperability and goodwill between the U.S. Coast Guard, Department of Defense, and all partner nations.
Marine Safety & Response
On the morning of 4 December, multiple state and local agencies responded to reports of a large fire at Toledo Beach Marina in LaSalle, Michigan. A storage and maintenance building that housed hundreds of boats and other hazardous materials was engulfed in flames. Local fire departments battled the fire throughout the day, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took the lead on the environmental response. The Coast Guard and EPA incident commanders needed to contain the hazardous materials and a large smoke plume moving northeast over Lake Erie.
Thanks to the hard work of the Coast Guard Office of Aviation Forces, the District 9 Short Range–Unmanned Aerial System (SR-UAS) program had expanded considerably in prior months. The Ninth District Response team, based in Cleveland, Ohio, deployed two SR-UAS remote pilots on short notice to provide overflight support.
For the next two days, each pilot flew multiple sorties, providing valuable real-time imagery and localized live video feeds for incident command staff and support personnel. The live feeds helped on-scene decision-makers determine environmental impacts and highlighted potential paths of discharge to the surrounding waterways that threatened Allen’s Cove and Lake Erie.
In addition, the SR-UASs provided much-improved visibility of remote and otherwise inaccessible areas. This real-time situational awareness proved beneficial to senior staff and maritime environmental experts and yielded
significant resource savings by eliminating the need for traditional manned aircraft.
Acquisition of the new Heritage-class offshore patrol cutter (OPC) is the Coast Guard’s highest investment priority. The 360-foot OPC will provide a capability bridge between the 418-foot national security cutter, which patrols the open ocean in the most demanding maritime environments, and the 154-foot fast-response cutter, which serves closer to shore.
The OPC will feature state-of-the-market technology and will replace the 270-foot and 210-foot medium-endurance cutters, which are between 30 and 50 years old and increasingly expensive to maintain and operate. The first OPC, the Argus, is scheduled for delivery to the Pacific Area in 2022. The program ultimately is set to deliver 25 hulls, and this new fleet will make up a significant portion of the Coast Guard’s offshore presence.
In addition, the Coast Guard’s ninth national security cutter and the third for the Atlantic fleet, the Stone (WMSL-758), was christened at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Mississippi, on 29 February and accepted for delivery by the Coast Guard on 9 November. The cutter is named for Commander Elmer “Archie” Fowler Stone, who became the first Coast Guard aviator in 1917.
The largest and most technologically advanced of the Coast Guard’s newest cutters, the national security cutters are replacing the aging 378-foot Hamilton-class high-endurance cutters, which have been in service since the 1960s.
The service’s construction efforts also include the polar security cutter (PSC). In 2019, VT Halter Marine of Pascagoula, Mississippi, was awarded a fixed-price incentive (firm) contract for the detail, design, and construction of the lead PSC. Construction of the first unit is planned to begin in 2021, with delivery slated for 2024. In July 2020, the Coast Guard released a request for information seeking industry review and input in advance of a planned procurement of polar landing craft that will support PSC operations.4
The service also has continued construction and commissioning of its 154-foot Sentinel-class fast-response cutters. The FRCs are a key component of the service’s offshore fleet and can deploy independently to conduct missions such as port, waterways, and coastal security; fishery patrols; search and rescue; and national defense.
Named after Coast Guard enlisted heroes, the FRCs are replacing the aging Island-class 110-foot patrol boats. The Coast Guard accepted delivery of the 42nd FRC, the USCGC Robert Goldman (WPC-1142), in Key West, Florida, on 21 December. On 22 September, the service exercised a contract option for four more FRCs. This brings the total number of FRCs under contract with Bollinger to 60 of the 64 planned, with a total contract value of approximately $1.48 billion.
Diversity and Inclusion
In the Diversity & Inclusion Action Plan 2019–2023, Admiral Schultz says the service “must be the world’s most diverse and inclusive” if it hopes to “garner the talent, innovation, creativity, and performance necessary to meet the challenges of an increasingly complex maritime environment. We owe it to our nation, and ourselves, to create a Coast Guard where everyone can contribute the full power of their diverse backgrounds, experiences, and thoughts.”5
The action plan includes three lines of effort: developing diversity and inclusion acumen; strengthening leadership awareness and accountability; and building and maintaining an inclusive total workforce. By embedding inclusion and diversity more fully in its culture, the Coast Guard will be able to draw on the full range of service members’ talents to meet mission execution in a fast-paced, ever-changing world.
Like the rest of the nation, the Coast Guard had to deal with an “enemy” that seemed to be everywhere: COVID-19. The USCGC Stratton (WMSL-752), for example, departed Alameda on 28 October to begin a counternarcotics patrol in the eastern Pacific. Before getting underway, the crew had to self-quarantine and pass two COVID tests.
Nevertheless, on 11 and 12 November, several crew members began developing COVID symptoms and were administered a rapid test. Eleven crew members tested positive. While those 11 and their close contacts were quarantined, the Stratton crew began the transit home. “The crew’s health and safety is my highest priority,” said Captain Bob Little, the Stratton’s commanding officer. “Stratton has a highly resilient crew, always dedicated to the mission. Our mission today is to get healthy so we can continue our service to the nation.”6
As the virus’s impact grew, the Coast Guard worked to ensure clinics were operating safely and established a COVID-19 Vaccine Incident Management Team while striving to maintain operations. In addition, the service participated in the Department of Defense Operation Warp Speed to accelerate distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.
Commanders Rebecca Albert and Brett Workman deployed with the Navy as part of Combined Task Force 129 to support the USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) in New York City during the height of the crisis. Both commanders were part of Operation Gotham and reported to the city’s Multi-Agency Command Center. Albert and Workman were instrumental in planning and facilitating the transfer of patients from an overwhelmed Queens hospital.
Odds and Ends
The service’s Research and Development Center in New London, Connecticut, conducted a successful autonomous systems experiment/proof of concept off Hawaii as part of its Low Cost–Domain Awareness project. Using two different commercial products, the center explored application within the District 14 (Hawaii) area of responsibility. In addition, the Coast Guard R&D Program stood up the Blue Technology Center of Excellence on the grounds of Scripps Research Institute in San Diego to conduct technology mining with commercial entities.
Finally, 2020 saw the implementation of a new program that has been a long time coming: the Meritorious Advancement Program. During the State of the Coast Guard event in Charleston, South Carolina, Admiral Schultz meritoriously advanced two petty officers, Nathan Newberg and Emily Ford, from second-class to first-class petty officer. The program provides a way for Coast Guard leaders to recognize and promote truly exceptional enlisted members. The program applies to active and reserve members.
1. U.S. Coast Guard, “Tech Revolution."
2. U.S. Coast Guard, Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing Strategic Outlook.
3. “U.S. Coast Guard Conducts ‘Train the Trainer’ Course with Philippine Coast Guard,” U.S. Embassy in the Philippines, 9 March 2020.
4. “Coast Guard Releases Request for Information for Polar Landing Craft,” 7 August 2020.
5. U.S. Coast Guard, Diversity & Inclusion Action Plan 2019–2023.
6. Bridget Johnson, “USCG Cutter Stratton Aborts Pacific Mission Due to COVID-19 Outbreak,” Homeland Security Today, 20 November 2020.