In August 2022, the USCGC cutter Bear (WMEC-901) conducted daily exercises with Canadian, Danish, and French naval vessels as well as the Canadian Coast Guard during Operation Nanook, the signature military operation for Canadian Armed Forces to foster international cooperation and a shared responsibility to protect the flow of maritime commerce through the Arctic and northern Atlantic regions. In addition, a Norwegian Coast Guard officer sailed for six weeks on board the Bear. The Bear’s crew gained experience operating with ships in company near the Arctic Circle, and cross-decking provided valuable insights into how other navies and coast guards manage their people, train, and operate.
The Bear’s crew discovered there is much to learn from allies to “get real and get better,” including the institution of operational and managerial risk. Here is what the Bear observed:
Ship design and crew. The Bear’s crew was amazed by the relatively large size of the allied vessels with minimal crew assigned. Canada’s newest naval vessel, the 340-foot Margaret Brooke, carries a crew of 65. The Danish vessel Triton and Canadian vessel Goose Bay, at 368 and 181 feet, respectively, sail with about 40 crew members each. France’s Rhone, a 230-foot offshore support vessel, normally carries a crew of 17 but for this operation sailed with 30. The vessels are designed to be minimally manned. Extra berthing allows the addition of “adaptive force packages” (more personnel) as operations require. Norwegian Coast Guard vessels (300-plus feet) carry a crew of 50, using a command-and-control system designed to significantly reduce crew administrative burdens and shore-maintenance tasks.
In contrast, the 270-foot Bear sailed with nearly 100 organic crew, including a four-person maritime security response team. The Bear’s personnel allowance list, created in the mid-1970s, was designed so the crew could simultaneously fight and respond to damage for days on end.1 We left Operation Nanook convinced the Bear could have sailed with 30 percent less crew and still have accomplished all missions.
Force management and retention. Both the Triton and the Norwegian Coast Guard create crew rosters based on members’ qualifications as presented in their services’ personnel databases. The Norwegian Coast Guard’s database automatically generates a crewmember’s watch quarter and station bill. If billet gaps exist, a message is automatically transmitted to higher authorities with a new risk assessment and orders are cut immediately to fill the need.
The Danish Navy pays sailors based on rank; however, as sailors earn additional qualifications (such as helicopter tie-down, tow watch, and coxswain), they receive additional monthly stipends while attached to the ship. Many Canadian, Norwegian, Danish, and French officers as well as enlisted members are professional sailors; they have viable career tracks (26+ years) serving exclusively at sea. Every citizen of Norway is required to “conscript,” or provide service to the nation, for one year, typically after high school. These conscripts are valuable members of the Norwegian Coast Guard and assimilate with the professional crew.
In the U.S. Coast Guard, individual executive officers maintain their cutters’ sailing lists, anticipate gaps in billets, and have the administrative burden to seek replacements, which sometimes are not forthcoming. Regarding special pay, while noncompliant vessel cutter coxswains earn a monthly special duty stipend, regular coxswains do not, and those who enable shipboard helicopter operations on deck earn extra pay only when the ship conducts a certain number of evolutions per month. To our allies’ surprise, U.S. Coast Guard cutter crews are responsible for the maintenance and operations of their ship and are expected to train and maintain a portfolio of qualifications to perform multiple missions, often with short periodicity and without the appropriate tools on hand.2 In addition, the cutter command element must equip the crew with the appropriate gear and adequate supplies for each mission, which may change at a moment’s notice.
Underway watch and routine. Paperless charting allows for minimal bridge watchstanders during peacetime operations. All the partner ships in company maintained a bridge watch of just three persons. On the Goose Bay and Triton, each watch station was in three sections, with watchstanding personnel standing two watches a day for an entire week, shifting to exclusively day work the following week. Underway workdays started early. Routine shipboard cleaning occurred twice daily. While the Margaret Brooke has a wardroom, it serves only as a lounge for officers. All meals are eaten on the mess deck with enlisted members. The scullery is designed so each member washes his or her dishes and departments rotate cleaning the mess deck after meals. The Canadians feel this arrangement enables better crew interaction and improves morale. The Margaret Brooke also has a locker room exclusively for the boat crew to change into and out of operational clothing and to shower and clean and hang-dry wet gear. The Triton carries a sauna on board. Some ships offered rations of beer.
On U.S. Coast Guard Famous-class cutters, the bridge watch traditionally includes no fewer than six crew. Including those likely under instruction for each watch station, the bridge is typically full of personnel. After Operation Nanook, the Bear reduced the bridge watch to just three crewmembers in open ocean, to enable six four-hour watches for nonrates that freed them to perform hull preservation tasks or work the scullery. As the Bear’s boat crew and boarding team have no locker facilities, they rinse their dry suits, often covered with fish guts, on the fantail and hang them to dry in their personal space or in the helicopter hangar.
Operations. Like U.S. Coast Guard cutters, each ship in company also deploys globally to conduct a variety of missions, including counternarcotics and operations to prevent illegal maritime migration. Canadian Navy ships operate 140–160 days per year away from home port with a permanent crew attached. The Triton, commissioned in the early 1990s, has multiple crews, as the ship is continually at sea, meeting scheduled dry docks every 2.5 years. The Norwegian ships have two crews, each of which serves three-week stints underway. Captains admit there are benefits and drawbacks to having multiple crews on a single ship.
Anchoring modern vessels requires few crewmembers on the foc’sle; the Rhone can anchor with just two. All the other ships have 360-degree bridges and a touchscreen main and auxiliary system console that is the same as the one in the engine room. The Bear was particularly impressed with the Triton’s crew, who executed every operation on time and with precision, including helicopter operations. It appeared as though the MH-60’s tail and blades were folded and secured in the hanger for the night just ten minutes after the helicopter landed on deck.
For the past two decades, the 40-year-old Bear and her sister ships have operated 185 days per year away from homeport with a permanent crew attached. Famous-class ships’ depot-level maintenance seems routinely deferred. Anchoring the Bear in normal operations requires at least six people.
The Bear observed that the allied ships had nearly identical firefighting and dewatering equipment, with the exception that fire suppressants in their engine rooms were steam. Each allied service also issued new crewmembers inflatable personal flotation devices, Gill-type foul weather gear, flame-retardant coveralls, and flash gear. On sailing to Greenland, except for the boat crew and law enforcement personnel, Bear crewmembers carried only the standard-issue blue parka to stay dry and warm. In the Coast Guard, operational clothing (such as rain gear or a dry suit) is procured, funded, and managed by the individual unit and drawn from the same pot of money that funds portcall husbandry expenses and lube oil. Outfitting crews for niche missions is a discretionary expense that cutters often cannot afford.
Grooming and health. While the Bear’s morale committee continually requests “no-shave chits” for all hands, the Danes, French, and Norwegians authorize beards. The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) no longer limit hair length or tattoos, except for divisive symbols. That means recruits no longer have their heads shaved. Colorful dyed hair is permitted. Multiple ear piercings, hoops, and spacers are permitted. Members may also choose which gender uniform to wear. These recent changes were made to “keep pace with the Canadian society in which it serves.”3 The CAF also permits sailors to use cannabis responsibly when not actively supporting or preparing for an operational mission—not within 8 hours of duty, 24 hours of handling a weapon or sailing, and 28 days before flying an aircraft.4
Challenges are opportunities. Although some allies’ policies or practices seem too radical at present for U.S. armed forces to implement, what organizational risk exists if we refuse to change? Clearly, quite a bit. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Linda Fagan notes, “The status quo will no longer serve us as we look to the future.”5 Above all, Operation Nanook taught the Bear that the challenges we face collectively provide opportunities to break the status quo.
Great potential exists to generate sustained readiness and resilience in our workforce if we pioneer new operating concepts for legacy assets and personnel management. These changes, whether they impact operations or personnel management, require us to take risk. Much of that risk is mitigated, as allies have tested, implemented, and demonstrated new—and better—ways of doing business. We just need the humility, courage, and gumption to follow.
1. Interview with Commander Chuck Hill, U.S. Coast Guard (Retired), 28 September 2022.
2. Today there are six WMECs moored in Portsmouth, Virginia, and not a single over-the-horizon boat available to train multiple crews in use-of-force maneuvers.
3. Government of Canada, “Changes to the Canadian Forces Dress Instructions.”
4. Government of Canada, “Use of Cannabis by CAF Members,” DAOD 9004-1.
5. United States Coast Guard Strategy (Washington, DC: Headquarters, U.S. Coast Guard, 12 October 2022), 28.