As the Coast Guard’s senior aviator and chief of staff, Vice Adm. John P. Currier is uniquely placed to assess the status and future of USCG aviation as the service’s mission requirements continue to grow. And with aviation already comprising a quarter of Coast Guard personnel and budget and playing an active role in the vast majority of its 11 statutory missions, what he terms the “demand signal” already significantly exceeds capability.
The Coast Guard’s official aviation centennial is 2016 – five years after the Navy – and it marks the arrival of Coast Guard Aviator No. 1 – Elmer Stone – at the Navy’s flight school at Pensacola, Fla., where all subsequent Coast Guard pilots have been trained.
Currier, who received his wings there in 1977, has served at six air stations and amassed more than 6,000 flight hours in Coast Guard and Navy fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. He recently spoke with Air Power at Sea: A Century of Naval Aviation 1911-2011 senior writer J.R. Wilson about the past, present, and future of the Coast Guard and its aviation component.
Air Power at Sea: A Century of U.S. Naval Aviation: In broad terms, what is the current state of Coast Guard aviation, assets, and programs?
Vice Adm. John P. Currier: I think it’s very strong right now. In fixed wing, we have a long-range strategy to convert our C-130 fleet to C-130Js, which will increase our capability in that arena. Also, the completion of the recapitalization of our medium-range surveillance fleet – now populated by the HU-25 Falcon jet, which is quickly becoming unsupportable – and replacement of it with the HC-144 CASA Ocean Sentry is a priority in the next 10 years.
We have about 105 H-65s, 38 H-60s, 28 C-130s, 10 Ocean Sentries, 15 HU-25 Falcons, and a couple of executive aircraft. Overall, the fleet is almost two-thirds rotary. Given the missions we have, I think that’s about right, in percentage, but we could use more aircraft overall.
For example, the demand for maritime patrol for the Joint Interagency Task Force is higher than we are able to meet, as are most fisheries patrols in the North Pacific and Atlantic and for armed helicopters for counter-narcotics in the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific.
For major contingencies, such as Katrina or Deepwater Horizon, we have limited assets to draw upon. There is no surge capacity – we are fully deployed every day. So our response to emergencies is at the expense of other operations elsewhere in the country.
We are able to do great things with our aircraft, but with additional capacity and capability, we could do more for the country.
What is the primary role of Coast Guard aviation today?
The security and safety of U.S. waterways. It’s an all-encompassing job that focuses basically on two channels – security for our maritime borders, inland and port coastal waters and, by extension, our maritime borders in the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific. In the past few decades, our SAR [search and rescue] capabilities have become highly evolved and, in the past decade, our security capability has approached that expertise as well.
Considering your respective 100th anniversaries, what has been the relationship between Coast Guard aviation and the Navy since 1916?
During World War I, the Coast Guard was able to provide both pilots and engineers at a time when the Navy needed that expertise. So we are historically closely linked with the Navy, not only in fixed wing and amphibious development, but in the 1930s and ’40s with development of the helicopter.
While we’re much smaller than Navy aviation, we continue to be partners with them in advancing rotary wing in the context of broader naval aviation. What most people don’t realize, looking at today’s carrier-centric Navy, is that more than half of naval aviators are actually rotary-wing aviators.
Coast Guard aviators have been involved in virtually every type of manned flight, from spotter balloons to the space shuttle – and now unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Are there any frontiers yet to challenge?
I think flight test, where we continue to be involved with the Navy at Pax River [Md.] for rotary wing; some of the missions and new platforms that are developed, for surveillance or weapons or actual TTPs [tactics, techniques, and procedures] for helicopters across their varied mission set. And, although we are naval aviators, our continued partnership with DHS [Department of Homeland Security] and CBP [Customs and Border Protection] in protection of our ports, waterways, and even land borders.
Does Coast Guard aviation still have a combat capability?
We are written into many of the COCOM’s [combatant commander’s] war plans, both from a surface and aviation perspective. In the case of a declared conflict, we are committed by law to augment the U.S. Navy requirements for aviation, and our ability to provide armed helicopters and expertise in SAR would be fully employed.
While the first Coast Guard aircraft were armed, more than 60 years passed without weaponized aviation. Why did you return to armed aircraft in 1999?
Initially, we armed our helicopters specifically for counter-drug operations in the Carribean and Eastern Pacific. Our unarmed helicopters, while effective in detecting threats, notably go-fast drug boats, could do nothing more when we arrived overhead – and oft times the cutter would not be in position to do an intercept, so those threats passed us by.
In 1999, we armed helicopters to apply warning shots – and if necessary, disabling fire – to these narcotics carriers. Following 9/11, we developed packages for protection of critical assets and infrastructure in our ports, including high-value naval assets.
What role will UAVs play in the Coast Guard’s future – and do you see any future need for weapons there?
We will explore the use of UAVs in two ways: A high-altitude vehicle we would need for broad area maritime surveillance, and vessel-based UAVs that could operate off our ships, extending not only the ship’s eyes and ears, but also, for smallboats, their reach for threat interdiction.
At this point, our doctrine for airborne use of force is helicopter-based. Due to the strategies and tactics we use for employment, I don’t see a need, at least in the near term, for weaponized UAVs for the Coast Guard.
How do Coast Guard aviators differ from their Navy, Marine, Army, and Air Force counterparts?
First, Coast Guard aviators fly in a domestic environment, which makes them perhaps more attuned to operations in congested areas. We have to be expert tacticians in both our mission areas and our mission environment.
Another difference is, when the alarm goes off, our young aircraft commanders adapt to the situations they face. They are given fairly broad doctrinal guidance, with well-developed TTPs, but they also are expected to be independent thinkers, facing situations as they evolve, and acting accordingly.
Do you see any possibility the enlisted pilot program might be resurrected?
I knew Master Chief [John] Greathouse, the last enlisted pilot, and held him in great esteem and awe, but at this time, the Coast Guard has no short- nor long-term plans to return to enlisted aviators.
How has the Coast Guard responded to the sudden jump in aviation accidents that began a few years ago?
Quite frankly, I looked at it very closely across the board and, after careful analysis, we found no common causal or contributing factors. So we surveyed the overall aviation environment to see what might be the genesis.
What we found were high stress and OPTEMPO [operational tempo] missions, with our people focused and accomplishing incredible feats, but in more routine missions, we might have been letting our guard down a bit. So there is a renewed focus on basics to fight complacency and ensure risk is assessed properly in all missions, not just those with high risk.
What was so confounding for us was that many of the aviators involved in these mishaps were among the very best we have, which is what caused us to take great pains to survey the environment to see what was contributing. That reflects right back on leadership, from my level on down, and our renewed commitment to ensuring crew resource and operational risk management and to the basics of aviation that yield safe and effective flight operations.
Coast Guard aviation is unique among the services in that all maintainers also are flight crew; what was behind that policy in the beginning and what effect does it have on USCG aviation today?
It probably started because of our size; the Navy started that way, as well, but as aircraft grew in complexity, our service philosophies diverged. The readiness requirements at our air stations, we felt, meant having maintainers and flyers combined.
We’ve had exceptional talent in our enlisted aircrew and the model truly works in meeting readiness requirements. Some tremendous bonds develop between pilots and aircrew, especially in the high-risk missions we confront.
Another unique thing about Coast Guard aviation and the Coast Guard as a whole is we don’t restrict any mission or assignment by sex. Some of the best aviators and other operators we have are women. The sky is a great equalizer and the challenges you face as an aviator are not respective of gender, race, or anything else – only skill and ability.
The Coast Guard Academy seems to place limited emphasis on aviation as a career path for future officers. Why?
The Coast Guard is a maritime service; aviation is a major contributor to mission effectiveness, but we feel it is very important for officers to be well-grounded in surface fleet operations, to have an understanding of how shipboard life functions, and how we utilize ships in accomplishing our missions. The academy’s focus is to produce a basic officer, trained in leadership, academically developed, with an understanding of Coast Guard maritime culture and heritage.
We don’t have any trouble qualifying young officers for flight, so I think the model works for us. And the caliber of officer we are getting in aviation has never been higher.
Are the eight Coast Guard air stations and special aircraft and crews assigned to counterterrorism sufficient for the requirement?
Those air stations are not exclusive; they are equipped with weaponized helicopters for their counterterrorism mission. Given the current threat level, we feel that is adequate.
What remains to be seen is can we maintain the level of expertise required for SAR and the safe and effective use of weapons in these units without adding additional resources.
What role will aviation play in the Coast Guard’s expanding mission in the Arctic?
Due to the distances and harsh environment, aircraft, especially fixed wing, are mandatory. The reach provided by helicopters and the surveillance capability of fixed wing are essential to maintaining domain awareness and response in the Arctic, which a surface fleet often cannot.
Does Coast Guard aviation have an antipiracy mission, either domestic or overseas?
It is a subset of maritime security in a domestic criminal context, in support of our surface forces, just as any other criminal activity. Currently we have a limited role in international counter-piracy operations, from an aviation perspective, although our law enforcement detachments are deployed with the Navy around the world and have been employed in counter-piracy operations.
What do you see for the future of the Coast Guard?
I think we have a strong future. We are a unique instrument in our national toolbox for safety and security and our relevance, despite our small size, is reinforced through the performance of our people. No other organization, national or international, has the span of responsibilities we have in the context of maritime safety and security.
That is both our strength and our weakness. Building support for 11 different missions is more difficult than trying to resource a single mission. So our survival mechanism in the world of competition for resources is outstanding performance; if we can’t set the bar high and achieve that performance, then we would have a hard time achieving the support we need.
But, from where I sit, I don’t see any problem in maintaining that support.
This interview first appeared in Air Power at Sea: A Century of U.S. Naval Aviation 1911-2011.