The U.S. Coast Guard, with nearly 42,000 men and women on active duty, is a unique force that carries out an array of activities affecting almost every facet of the U.S. maritime environment. The Coast Guard is a regulatory agency, a law enforcement organization, and a military force – the fifth branch of the U.S. armed forces. In peacetime, the service is housed within the Department of Homeland Security, but upon declaration of war or when the president directs, it operates under the authority of the Department of the Navy.
With 11 different statutory missions, executed by more than 1,200 units around the world, life in the Coast Guard is never dull – but 2012 seemed an especially interesting year in the challenges and opportunities it presented to the service. In the 10th year of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, the commitments of Coast Guard deployable special operations forces to the U.S. military continued to evolve, while back at home in the Western Hemisphere the service was confronted with a daunting series of events, including the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history, a new tactic for drug smugglers in the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, the worst Midwestern drought in 56 years, and the continuing emergence of a new maritime frontier in the warming Alaskan Arctic.
The following highlight reel of the year’s events, while just a small sample of the Coast Guard’s varied workload, illustrates how its service members – among the most agile and versatile people working for the federal government – live up to what has been their motto for nearly two centuries: Semper Paratus, or “Always Ready.”
Defense Readiness and Support
The Coast Guard’s unique status as a military service with law enforcement authority and capability gives it a distinct role in national defense, with specialized units organized under its Deployable Operations Group command. Since 1995, the service has been assigned four major national security missions: maritime intercept operations; deployed port operations, security, and defense; peacetime engagement; and environmental protection.
The largest Coast Guard unit outside the continental United States is Patrol Forces Southwest Asia (PATFORSWA): 280 Coast Guardsmen, with six patrol boats, based in Manama, Bahrain. Originally organized in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, PATFORSWA now focuses on maritime security, infrastructure protection, and military assistance and support in the Arabian Gulf, U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility (AOR).
Maritime Safety and Security Teams (MSSTs), the rapid-response units created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, are trained and equipped to protect ports and maritime facilities from terrorist attacks. In the spring of 2012, MSST San Diego, Calif., ended its six-month deployment to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. As part of the U.S. Southern Command’s Joint Task Force Guantanamo Maritime Security Detachment, MSST San Diego boatcrews, specialists in armed boat operations and threat interdiction, conducted more than 4,500 hours of patrols during the deployment and provided security both shoreside and in courtrooms where military commissions were held.
The Coast Guard’s eight Port Security Units (PSUs) continued to rotate in and out of the Middle East in support of Operations New Dawn and Enduring Freedom, providing harbor defense and security to ports and waterways under the Naval Expeditionary Combat Command. The year 2012 marked the end of an era for one of these deployments, as the Coast Guard, after nearly 10 years of operations in support of Combined Task Group 56.5 at Kuwait Naval Base, was released from its operational responsibilities at the base.