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Interview: U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Gary T. Blore

Commander, U.S. Coast Guard District 13

Rear Adm. Gary T. Blore is commander of Coast Guard District 13 and the service’s 22nd Ancient Albatross – the longest-serving aviator officer.

His Pacific Northwest District encompasses Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and
Montana, 4,400 miles of coastline, 600 miles of inland waterways, and a 125-mile international border with Canada. But the district’s small size,
compared to others, belies its strategic value and impact on the national
economy and security.

Blore recently spoke with Defense Media Network senior writer J.R.
Wilson for a two-part report – first on the status of District 13 and
second – in this centennial year of U.S. naval aviation – on the role of
aviation in Coast Guard operations.

J. R. Wilson: In broad terms, what is the current state of Coast Guard District 13?

Rear Adm. Gary T. Blore: If you look at the ports of Seattle and Portland, we have the
third largest container port, third largest Navy fleet concentration,
largest ferry system in the United States and a nuclear submarine base,
which we provide escorts for – one of only two large SSBN [nuclear missile
submarine] bases in the nation.

We are resourced adequately for what we do here, which is mostly Oregon
and Washington, plus inland rivers in Idaho. Our challenges include some
very arduous weather, huge distances to cover, a lot of recreational boats
and, of course, an international border with Canada.

But we have a lot of things going for us, too, including a very
professional recreational boating community with a superb knowledge of the
sea.

We also have a great working relationship with Canada and our federal
partners, from CBP Air and Marine to the FBI, working seamlessly from the
two or three command centers we have. So we have a lot of reasons to put
our resources to best use in what is a really good example of local, state,
and federal agencies working very well together.

What role do you see District 13 playing in the Coast Guard’s
expanded mission in the Arctic?

While we are not directly on the Arctic, a lot of support for it
comes out of the Port of Seattle. Most of the fishing boats working in
difficult conditions in Alaskan waters are homeported in Seattle, as are
our three polar icebreakers.

It is difficult to support activities logistically in Alaska, so much of
that comes from District 13 – from doing drydocks for ships coming down
from Alaska, raw product being processed, dispatching cutters, etc. We
also work very closely with the Coast Guard units in Alaska – and I see
that support, which goes all the way back to their gold rush, continuing.

When it comes to claims on the Arctic, some Canadians have indicated
as great a concern about the United States as with Russia.

Long term, I think the Arctic is a relationship the U.S. and
Canada will work on together, as we have in other areas for 200 years.

However, Canada, Russia, Norway, Denmark, and others with interests in the
Arctic are all signatories to the International Law of the Sea Convention
[which the U.S. Congress never ratified] and so have a protocol they can
look at and say “this is the way we would look at the mineral rights you
are claiming.” That’s an awkward place for the United States to be.

Also, the United States has a pretty limited ability in the Arctic. We do
have three icebreakers, but one is about to be decommissioned, one is
being rehabilitated and only the third is fully operational.

And there is a long lead time for many of these assets, such as
Arctic-capable aircraft and ships with ice-reinforced hulls. Another
icebreaker would take 10 years to put into service if we started the
acquisition effort today. And that’s a long time.

My concern is the business community is going to shift much quicker than
the federal government can follow. We have the potential for new trade
routes opening up over the top that will make it faster and less expensive
than going through the Panama Canal and increased conflicts over mineral
rights.

When all that starts to become profitable, we will need to be up there to
make sure our environment is protected and our laws are properly adhered
to and enforced. And that will be difficult if we don’t have the right
equipment.

It’s really a question of does the U.S. want to be an Arctic nation. Some
Americans may not think of us as an Arctic nation, but by virtue of Alaska
and other interests, we are.

How would you rank the Coast Guard’s 11 primary missions in terms of
time, assets, and effort put into them in District 13?

SAR [search and rescue] and fisheries are what we do the most, along with some illegal
immigration activities and drug missions.

Basically, we have designer drugs coming south and money going north. We
work closely with the Canadians, especially their navy and the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police], and they do a marvelous job of keeping all but a small percentage of that from coming across the border.

We also do security and safety inspections; if a vessel has been into a
port during its current voyage where inspections are not tight, we make
sure what they are carrying. We work very closely with CBP [Customs and Border Protection] on that.

Is Ports and Waterways Security a major issue for District 13?

It is in the sense we’re prepared for any contingencies. The fact
we haven’t had any incidents in this part of the U.S. does not mean we
aren’t prepared.

What changes do you see in District 13 assets in the next decade?

We have four helicopter facilities and, other than upgrades, the
helicopters [H-60s and H-65s] should remain about the same. On the fixed-
wing side, we’re looking forward to getting the HC-144s [Ocean Sentry
medium range turboprops], which will be a significant change in aviation for us.

This is kind of a patrol boat district, [but] our patrol boats really
aren’t designed to go deep Pacific, which is probably our biggest
weakness.

The smallboat community is located at a number of coastal stations
throughout the district, with a lot of motor lifeboats that can get
through the bar.

Our four 52-foot motor life boats, the only ones in service, are half a
century old, but because of the cold water and how they were built, the
hulls are in excellent shape, although we do have to manufacture some of
the parts for repairs. They have an incredible range, with very efficient
diesel engines; not fast, but designed to go through the bar and drag a
fishing boat back across.

However, the Coast Guard does need to start thinking about what could
replace that capability when they can’t be used anymore. And they will be
fairly expensive to replace because of their tremendous seakeeping and
towing capability.

What else distinguishes District 13?

One is our Maritime Force Protection Unit, one of only two in the
United States, which is primarily for submarine escort and protection
[of nuclear missile submarines based in Bangor, Wash.].

We provide a small squadron of law enforcement vessels around the
perimeter to keep innocents away, but also in case there is someone with
evil intent out there. There are others involved, of course – the Navy and
Washington State Police.

What is District 13’s relationship to Coast Guard-equivalent
operations in Canada?

The Shiprider program with Canada [USCG and RCMP cross-trained,
then stationed on the other nation’s boats for interdictions] was
developed about two years ago, both on the Atlantic seaboard, on the Great
Lakes and here. The border between the U.S. and Canada is very erratic,
making it difficult from a law enforcement perspective as it zig-zags back
and forth.

For a long time, we had different law enforcement philosophies about being
armed, but now the Canadians are armed and we have worked it out to
maintain our standard boarding gear, including side arms, while in
Canadian waters.

With respect to international relations with other coast guards or
equivalents, does politics ever get in the way?

It really doesn’t … because we all want to protect our
communities. China, for example, has some very good equipment and people,
but their hoisting equipment is not as good as ours and we’ve been
cooperating with them to improve that. It’s all about saving lives and
that’s one of the reasons the North Pacific Coast Guard Forum was founded.

Other than submarine escorts, what is District 13’s relationship to
the U.S. Navy?

We do a lot of work with the Navy, which is the lead agency for
homeland defense offshore, and we lend our capabilities to them when
needed.

In a world increasingly concerned with non-state terrorists, drug
cartels, illegal immigration, and piracy, how well positioned is District
13 to deal with those issues?

None of those are truly huge here – and I hope they don’t become
big. We’re not prepared for state actors, but that’s why we have the U.S.
Navy. Non-state actors – criminals – are what we’ve always encountered and
are set up for in law enforcement.

We don’t want to just meet the minimum qualifications, but ensure we are
fully proficient. And that does require a lot of extra training and work
to practice the right procedures they would use should they encounter
someone they would need to intercept.

Good intel is crucial. And intelligence has become much more efficient in
the Coast Guard, with our own intelligence cells processing both law
enforcement and counter-terrorism and working closely with federal and
state law enforcement agencies and the RCMP.

If there is one legacy of the [2010 Vancouver] Olympics partnership, I
would say it is the use of intelligence in the two countries. We now have
the right avenues for exchange, the right people reviewing information as
it becomes available, we both know who to contact for what.

We sort of knew all that before the Olympics, but the Olympics really
polished it. I would say there is nothing going on in the maritime the
Canadians know about that I don’t know about and nothing I know that they
don’t.

We are in NORTHCOM’s AOR from a homeland defense standpoint. They are
still growing, but bring a lot to this, being collocated with NORAD, which
has always had a great relationship with a joint Canadian-U.S. command. As
NORTHCOM influences us more and more and becomes more involved in our
operations, that very cooperative U.S.-Canadian spirit comes through loud
and clear.

A longer version of this interview appears in the Spring 2011 edition of Defense.

By

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