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The U.S. Coast Guard Is a Sound Investment in Homeland Security

A history of resourcefulness with limited resources

The history of the U.S. Coast Guard is a two-century chronicle of people figuring out how to protect the nation’s maritime domain using the resources at hand and operating in challenging, often harsh, environments. Recent history has been no exception.

In the late 1990s, the service struggled to counter a new weapon in the arsenal of drug smugglers: the go-fast boat, a small boat with a planing hull that could reach speeds of 50 knots in the open ocean. At the time, even the fastest Coast Guard cutter, with both turbines maxed out, could reach a top speed of about 29 knots.

The Coast Guard didn’t waste time trying to figure out how to crank out faster boats for chasing drug runners; its history had taught its leaders to look at what it had, rather than to fantasize about what it wanted. The answer, they understood, was on the flight decks of its large cutters: a helicopter that could travel at 120 knots.

USS Freedom intercepts cocaine from go-fast vessel

An MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter, assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 22 embarked aboard the littoral combat ship USS Freedom, hovers over the position of illicit drugs dumped overboard by the crew of a high-speed go-fast vessel. Sailors and Coast Guardsmen from Freedom (left) and Colombian navy sailors in a patrol boat search the area beneath the helicopter. Freedom‘s boarding team recovered 72 kilograms of cocaine from the Caribbean Sea. U.S. Navy photo

The next problem was how to use a helicopter to stop a boat. The go-fasts were outlasting enforcement aircraft, speeding out of U.S. jurisdiction before they could be apprehended. The Coast Guard found its answer in the HITRON – the Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron. HITRON helicopters were outfitted with .50-caliber anti-material rifles and their crews modified to include snipers – not for shooting smugglers, but for disabling the outboard motors of their boats. If smugglers don’t respond to warning shots, the service’s snipers are authorized to disable their boats with rifle fire. It’s a simple solution, enabling the service to use its assets wisely and minimize risk in a high-risk environment. Since 1998, the HITRON has participated in more than 150 go-fast boat interdictions, without the loss of a single Coast Guard member’s life.

Why not simply build a faster boat? Two reasons: First, the Coast Guard understands that the secret of its enduring value to the nation is its versatility; it has always avoided specialization. History had taught it that once the threat of the go-fast was neutralized, drug smugglers would think of something else, leaving the service wondering what to do with a fleet of super-fast speedboats. This suspicion has been borne out in the illegal transit zones of both the Caribbean and the East Pacific, where you don’t see many go-fast boats any more; you see – or struggle mightily to see – self-propelled semi-submersible (SPSS) craft packed with drugs.

Second, and more important: The Coast Guard’s budget has never been much to brag about. Today the service pays for itself – its 42,000 personnel, its 244 cutters, 1,850 boats, 204 aircraft, and a growing mission portfolio executed from shore installations throughout the world – with an allowance of about $10.2 billion a year, or slightly more than the cost of three B-2 stealth bombers.


A Culture of Resourcefulness

As Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft, the assistant commandant for Marine Safety, Security, and Stewardship, points out, the frugality of the Coast Guard is nothing new; the service traces its roots to 1790, when the cash-strapped United States – a nation without a naval force – bought itself 10 cutters to enforce tariff and trade laws and prevent smuggling. Over time, some people saw the ships as a quasi-navy, performing key defense functions; some saw them as law enforcement vessels.

Today, when people see a large white cutter at sea, some may see it as a vessel that enforces the U.S. exclusive economic zone protecting American fish stocks. Some may see it as a forward-deployed vessel for the interception of illegal drug shipments, or for responding to illegal migration attempts at sea. Others may see it as an antiterrorism asset capable of intercepting a ship carrying a weapon of mass destruction toward U.S. shores.

A Coast Guard cutter is, of course, all of the above, and much more – and recent history offers unprecedented examples of the service’s versatility and resourcefulness. The service typically has cutters and aircraft deployed in the Florida Straits, performing a variety of missions, and on Jan. 12, 2010, when a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck the island nation of Haiti, these assets had been diverted to lend humanitarian assistance as soon as the tremors had ceased.

“I’ve commanded a number of ships in my career,” Zukunft said, “and once you’re under way, you’re not tethered by a bureaucratic decision-making process. As the commanding officer, you ultimately have that authority, and you can easily shift from one mission set to another. In a natural disaster, it is pretty easy for us to make that shift and then immediately provide situation awareness back to the Department of Homeland Security, and ultimately to the administration, saying, ‘This is a mass casualty event and we’re going to need the whole of government to respond.’ We saw that in Haiti.”

For the Coast Guard, that command authority extends to the field in more than 44 bilateral agreements with other nations. These bilateral agreements increase the operational reach of U.S. assets and foster integration with international partners by providing support to enable partner nation assets to patrol and respond to threats in their own sovereign waters. Drug smugglers are agnostic to borders that ostensibly create a “safe haven” in the territorial seas of many nations across the transit zone that do not have the capacity to conduct sustained detection, monitoring, and interdiction operations. These bilateral agreements cover a range of subjects from procedures on ship boarding to over flight of national airspace.

The Coast Guard has a similar relationship with the U.S. Navy, which is, by law, limited in its ability to support a U.S. law enforcement response. However, the Navy has made significant contributions in the counter-drug fight. The Coast Guard, with limited assets for patrolling the maritime transit zones into the United States is able to capitalize on the intercept capability of Navy ships: As a military force with a long tradition of interoperability, the service deploys law enforcement detachment (LEDET) personnel on these Navy ships. When the Navy detects an incursion, LEDETs aboard that vessel can promptly carry out the enforcement action. All of this happens instantly, without deliberation, within the military command structure shared between the Department of Defense with its Title 10 authorities, and the U.S. Coast Guard with its Title 14 authorities.

Perhaps the most significant example of how the Coast Guard uses its relationships with other agencies – local, regional, state, and federal – as a force multiplier to protect and secure the nation’s maritime domain, and to bring order to chaos in the wake of a national incident, occurred during the months-long response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which began with an explosion of the offshore oil rig on April 10, 2010, and continued over the next several months as the damaged wellhead beneath the rig spewed crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

From July 12 to Dec. 17, Zukunft was the federal on-scene coordinator for the Deepwater Horizon response, which at one point, involved nearly 5,000 Coast Guard men and women; under National Incident Commander Adm. Thad Allen, the Coast Guard led the entire response, an undertaking that involved nearly 48,000 people. It was the first time the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan (commonly called NCP), formulated more than 40 years ago, had been implemented in a real-world event. The plan, said Zukunft, provides the Coast Guard the authority to be the face of the federal government in a response of Deepwater Horizon’s magnitude. “What we bring to the table is a number of mission sets,” said Zukunft, “but just as important is a number of unique authorities that aren’t duplicated anywhere else in the federal government.”


Strategically Allocating Assets

The unique authorities of the Coast Guard are not limited to the response arena; in its prevention activities, the service leads in a way that maximizes the efficiency of global maritime commerce. In more than 35 sectors throughout the United States, a sector commander, as captain of the port, has broad authority for providing for the security of port facilities. “You can put the most stringent security measures in place,” reminded Zukunft, “but as soon as you do that, you gridlock our global supply chain.” Coast Guard captains of the port work with all stakeholders – interagency, private-sector, state, tribal, and local – to focus on the most significant threats to U.S. ports. For example, with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Coast Guard examines cargo manifests and determines vessels of interest that may require more stringent inspections. “It’s a very select, targeted process,” said Zukunft, “so we’re not making every vessel pull off to the side and operating maritime checkpoints.” In 2010, the Coast Guard screened more than 257,000 ships and 71.2 million people.

To help assure the security of port facilities in more than 196 countries from which U.S.-bound cargo embarks, the Coast Guard deploys several international port security liaison officers who assess those countries’ compliance with the International Ship and Port Security Code. Vessels departing from any nation found not to be in compliance are automatically vessels of interest, subject to inspection before being allowed into a U.S. port.

The Coast Guard has a long tradition of maximizing the efficiency of its resources. Every year the service takes a close look at all of its mission sets and matches them to its assets. The demands on those assets are expressed through federal strategic planning documents, such as the National Drug Control Strategy, regional fisheries management plans, or the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review. “Of course, every year,” Zukunft said, “the demands that emerge far exceed the resources we have available. But we look at the threats on a global scale and then determine where we’re going to allocate our major cutters, our C-130s [Hercules aircraft], and where we look to get the best return on our investment.”

Enforcing security zones during U.N. General Assembly

A Coast Guard smallboat crew enforces a security zone in place along the East River for the United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 20, 2011. The Coast Guard was working with local law enforcement to promote safety and security throughout this high-profile event. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Erik Swanson

An eye toward efficiency results in a service that is constantly refining the proficiencies of its workforce: The Coast Guard is, first and foremost, a learning organization that evolves along with its knowledge set – and this knowledge leads to refinements that better protect the American homeland from threats. Zukunft points to Deepwater Horizon as a wake-up call that revealed to the Coast Guard, and to the nation, that its ability to imagine the scope of the threat posed by mobile offshore drilling units (MODUs) had been insufficient. Programs since implemented by the Coast Guard include area committees that reach down to the local level to prepare for worst-case scenarios in their contingency plans, and close collaboration with the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement to ensure integrated and complimentary inspection regime to mitigate the risks associated with deep water drilling.

The ability to learn and adapt has led the Coast Guard to take a closer look at its recapitalization plan, launched more than a decade ago to replace and enhance the capabilities of vessels and aircraft that are, in many cases, years beyond their designed service lives. “What we learned through our acquisition process is that when it came to designing requirements for a new generation of vessels and aircraft, the expertise resided in the Coast Guard, and not necessarily among contractors. In terms of understanding what today’s and tomorrow’s mission needs are, we were best positioned to guide and have since taken over leadership of that process.”

It’s a good bet that if the Coast Guard doesn’t ask for a piece of equipment, it’s already figured out a way to do without it. In the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific transit zones, where drug smugglers have largely abandoned the go-fast boat in favor of semi-submersibles, the Coast Guard isn’t giving chase with a new fleet of submarines. With its partners in the Navy, it has figured out a way to approach the submersibles stealthily and board them before their cargo can be scuttled. Under the Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act, passed at the Coast Guard’s urging, anyone operating an unflagged semi-submersible in the open ocean, for any reason, is subject to criminal penalties and a heavy fine.

It’s too early to measure how effective these new measures are in discouraging the use of self-propelled semi-submersibles – but there’s no denying that operating an SPSS is now much riskier for drug traffickers.

“The ocean is just as big,” said Zukunft. “The threats are even more complex, and we have fewer ships. Being able to efficiently and effectively direct our resources toward the greatest likelihood of success – that has paid huge dividends for us and our nation.”

This article was first published in Coast Guard Outlook: 2012 Edition.


Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...