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An Interview with Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert J. Papp

Adm. Robert J. Papp became 24th commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard on May 25, 2010, assuming leadership of the largest component of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) – 42,000 active duty; 8,200 Reserve; 8,000 civilians; and 31,000 volunteer auxiliarists.

The nation’s oldest continuous sea-going service, the Coast Guard traces its history to 1790, when the first U.S. Congress created the Revenue Cutter Service within the Treasury Department and authorized the construction of 10 vessels to enforce tariff and trade laws and prevent smuggling. Today, with a fleet of 250 cutters, 1,872 boats, and 211 aircraft, the Coast Guard is charged with 11 primary missions: ports, waterways, and coastal security; illegal drug interdiction; aids to navigation; search and rescue; living marine resources; marine safety; defense readiness; undocumented migrant interdiction; marine environmental protection; ice operations; and other law enforcement.

It also is called upon to support Defense Department (DoD) military actions, such as the current war in Southwest Asia, DoD and State Department training missions with foreign navies, and international cooperative enforcement of maritime law with other sea-going nations in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

In mid-August, Papp discussed the state of the Coast Guard and his goals and visions with Faircount senior writer J.R. Wilson.

J.R. Wilson: In the wake of an extremely busy year to date and with new equipment and facilities – such as the Centers of Expertise – coming online, what is the state of the Coast Guard in 2010?

U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert J. Papp: Having previously served as the Atlantic Area commander with responsibility for most of those operations and our ability to respond, plus our day-to-day activities, I would say the state of the Coast Guard is very sound. We are ready to take on missions on a day-to-day basis.

Having said that, I have some concerns. First, a lot of our infrastructure, especially our fleet – and by fleet I mean cutters, aircraft, and their sensors and communication equipment – is in excess of 40 years old and in need of replacement. The replacement hulls are not coming through quickly. However, the cost of acquiring them increases with each passing day. Moreover, we are challenged with securing funding for these large recapitalization projects in an increasingly austere budget climate.

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert Papp listens intently as a project supervisor explains the process of a sand washing machine that separates oil from beach sand during a visit to a Deepwater Horizon response site in Grand Isle, July 6, 2010. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Caleb Critchfield.

We have also had 16 aviation deaths in the last 22 months, as well as serious smallboat accidents – all of which gravely concern me. One of my first priorities will be to take a hard look at these incidents and identify any trends that are compromising the safety of our people and citizens. For instance, I am concerned that our aviation community has taken on too many missions, and this may have detracted from their focusing on search and rescue operations. The investigations should uncover the facts we need to conduct a rigorous analysis. We owe it to the families of the fallen, our Service, and our citizens to ensure the cause of these tragic events is determined – and to prevent reoccurrence.

How does the Coast Guard today compare to how it was in 2000?

The tragic 9/11 terrorist attacks moved the Coast Guard into new mission areas and provided us with about 7,000 more people. We need these additional personnel, but it’s worth noting that these additional personnel merely brought us back to our early 1990s pre-streamlining personnel strength. However, personnel are expensive. We have had to assume increased expenses to fund their pay, health, and training. So while our budget has grown, so have our expenses.

We started building the National Security Cutters and now Fast Response Cutters – patrol boats – and if the budget stream continues, we can continue to replace some of those older ships I’m concerned about.

The service also is called upon to support Defense Department (DoD) military actions, such as the current war in Southwest Asia, DoD and State Department training missions with foreign navies, and international cooperative enforcement of maritime law with other sea-going nations in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Before 9/11, we were looking at discontinuing one of our training centers, but since then we are running our training centers at Yorktown, Va., and Petaluma, Calif., at maximum capacity and have opened a new law enforcement training center in Charleston, S.C.

Security has always been a Coast Guard mission area, but we’ve had to devote a lot more resources to it as 9/11 indicated vulnerabilities for our country, and we looked at how security is provided to our ports and waterways, which are vital to the economy. We never viewed ourselves as being vulnerable inside the U.S., but we now realize we are.

We have moved finite resources from one mission program to another, but the beauty of the Coast Guard is we have very adaptable ships, aircraft, and boats and train very adaptable people. So we are at a steady state on our day-to-day missions, but in an emergency can move resources from other mission areas and direct them to the highest priority mission.

What are your goals for the Coast Guard during your tenure as commandant?

I thought long and hard about that as I prepared for the confirmation process and it really coalesced a number of things I’ve observed over the years. Contained within the mission statement I prepared are four principles – Steady the Service, Honor our Profession, Strengthen our Partnerships, and Respect our Shipmates.

The last of those – Respect our Shipmates – is how we take care of our people. Strengthen our Partnerships is a realization we will never be able to do everything we’re tasked to do with the resources we have, so we have to Strengthen our Partnerships with DoD, the Department of Justice [DoJ], and other elements of DHS. We need to make sure our people are trained properly, we are not over-tasking them, and we provide direction in professionalism.

But the most important principle is Steadying the Service. My two immediate predecessors began a lot of major organizational changes, which placed a great burden on our people, not only in doing day-to-day and post-9/11 assignments, but also a lot of staff work to accomplish these initiatives. Eight years ago, Adm. Tom Collins initiated the sector concept, which was a major field change. Four years ago, Adm. Thad Allen started the modernization process, which continues today.

I could have come in and instituted my own major changes, but that would only have added to the burden of our people in the field. So instead, my intention is not to make changes but to complete these ongoing initiatives. More simply, my goal is to Steady the Service and allow our people to concentrate on doing their jobs. I’m confident I can bring some of my predecessor’s changes to conclusion, and that Steadying the Service is the correct course for our Coast Guard.

To complete the sector initiative, we need to bring a couple of remaining Coast Guard Groups under that construct. This is easy to implement. The challenge is that these changes were never fully resourced. We will work hard to obtain the necessary resources, but until sufficient resources are available, we will have to operate within the limited mission sets these commands are capable of performing.

Now that we have an Authorization Bill, we are also moving forward to complete modernization. The Deputy Commandant for Operations [DCO] organization is mostly complete and the legislation allows us to finalize this staff and promote the director to vice admiral. The Deputy Commandant for Mission Support [DCMS] organization has also completed much of its organizational change. The legislation will allow us to transition from the Chief of Staff construct to the DCMS construct. The Force Readiness Command [FORCECOM] will be maintained as a training- and doctrine-focused organization, under DCMS.

The modernization construct also envisioned consolidating the Atlantic Area and Pacific Area commands under a single command – Operations Command, or OPCOM. However, based on my experience as Atlantic Area commander, the vastness of the Atlantic area of responsibility, which stretched from the Great Lakes to the Middle East, made it a challenge to superintend. The Pacific area of responsibility is equally vast and includes the emerging Arctic waters. Moreover, it is strategically important to mirror the command structure of our sister service, the U.S. Navy – and the Navy places great importance on having an Atlantic area and a Pacific area commander. Therefore, I intend to refine the original modernization plan by retaining the Atlantic Area and Pacific Area commands, vice consolidating the areas under a singular Operations Command, as originally envisioned.

I could have come in and instituted my own major changes, but that would only have added to the burden of our people in the field. So instead, my intention is not to make changes but to complete these ongoing initiatives. More simply, my goal is to Steady the Service and allow our people to concentrate on doing their jobs. I’m confident I can bring some of my predecessor’s changes to conclusion, and that Steadying the Service is the correct course for our Coast Guard.

What is your overall vision for the Coast Guard?

We are a major component within DHS that provides for maritime security, but we also have stewardship and responsibility for marine safety and other responsibilities that don’t neatly fit with the DHS portfolio – many of these responsibilities flow from our legacy relationships serving as part of the Department of Transportation and Treasury. My goal is to take the finite resources we have and make sure I’m giving sound direction to my senior leaders on how to equitably distribute them across our 11 statutory mission sets. This direction will take into account how we relate and interact within DHS, as well as DoD – as we are always an armed force – and our other federal, state and local partners. We need to continuously strive to balance our resources across our mission sets.

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...