Miami-based U.S. Coast Guard District 7 could be seen as coming close to a Hollywood view of fast and furious service operations.
On any given day, district boats and aircraft are dispatched to interdict drug smugglers and boatloads of illegal aliens; perform search and rescue (SAR) missions; enforce fisheries laws and regulations; enhance marine safety; maintain aids to navigation; provide humanitarian assistance in the wake of storms and earthquakes; handle homeland security tasks as part of the ports, waterways, and coastal security mission; oversee the safe operations of cruise, container, and liquefied natural gas (LNG) ships and ports; conduct cooperative patrols and exercises with 34 Caribbean nations and territories; and more.
Those not at sea may be involved with the Cruise Ship National Center of Expertise, the multi-agency Center for Interagency Maritime Intelligence, or the Homeland Security Task Force-Southeast.
“The 7th is in a unique situation where almost all the Coast Guard’s statutory missions are extremely important – aside from ice – and we have a pretty high tempo of operations. For example, 41 percent of all Coast Guard cocaine seizures in the first three quarters of FY 10 were made here,” noted Rear Adm. Bill Baumgartner, who took command of the district in May 2010. “Migrant interdiction also is a major task, including deterrence and dissuasion operations to prevent any possibility of a mass migration.
“Across the Straits of Florida, we maintain a constant vigil for illegal migration from Cuba. Another vector we worry about is coming across from the Bahamas, where we interdict illegal migrants from a wide variety of countries in South Asia, the Middle East, South America, and the Caribbean, so that is a constant concern for us. After the earthquake, we have been especially vigilant about illegal migration from Haiti, where the damage and poor economic conditions create an incentive to leave the country.
“We also have a history of migrant flow from the Dominican Republic through Puerto Rico. We have been very successful in deterring that with our biometrics program, where we fingerprint and identify any migrants we catch. That enables us to determine who are smugglers and who are people reentering the U.S. after prior removal, then prosecute them, which has been very successful as a deterrent. We also use biometrics in other smuggling vectors, especially those coming from the Bahamas, to identify bad actors, including those who may be homeland security threats.”
Given the popularity of all types of boating in the district, combined with storms and powerful currents, SAR is another top mission. The nearly complete installation within District 7 of Rescue 21, the Coast Guard’s advanced command, control, and communications system to maintain contact with and assist mariners in distress, has significantly improved the SAR success rate.
A unique annual event in the waters off South Florida also provides maritime safety and SAR challenges. In any given year, 30,000 to 50,000 amateur and professional divers take part in lobster mini season, where they are allowed to catch lobsters for two days prior to the opening of the commercial season.
“This year we had a huge effort on safe diving and boating and a tremendous presence on the water in the most popular areas. We typically have four or five diving deaths during this period and this year we only had one, which is the lowest number of fatalities we’ve ever seen during lobster mini season,” Baumgartner reported.
“We estimate around 30,000 divers took part this year, lighter than usual, which may have been impacted somewhat by the oil spill. This event is so popular, once you make a hotel reservation, you can’t cancel, so many people may not have reserved at all because of concern about problems. Which was frustrating for us, because we spent a lot of time trying to get accurate information out.”
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf, which had largely dissipated by lobster mini season, involved several hundred District 7 Coast Guard members and auxiliarists, including about 200 assigned to the Florida Peninsula Command Post headquartered in Miami.
“One good thing coming out of that is we now have a couple of thousand Coast Guard personnel who have seen, up close, a world-class response effort. And I’m glad I have people on my staff who were involved in that,” he said.
With no offshore drilling platforms in his district, however, Baumgartner is more concerned with a high potential for other types of natural or man-made disasters involving areas in which the 7th District is deeply involved.
“We have the three busiest cruise ship ports in the U.S., with some 110 ships handling more than 5.5 million passengers annually, and eight of the nation’s largest container ports, loading and off-loading 7.9 million containers in 2009, for example,” he explained. “Plus two major LNG import terminals – Savannah, Ga., the busiest in the nation and undergoing a major expansion, and Guayanilla, Puerto Rico, with a third offshore terminal now under construction off Tampa, with no estimates yet on how many shipments are expected through there.
“More impressive, we have a total of 21 deep water ports in the 7th and more than 25,000 arrivals each year, which is the highest of any district in the Coast Guard. Many of those are from Caribbean ports, smaller vessels that require a lot of port state control attention. These are not U.S.-flagged vessels, so to make sure they are operating safely when they come to the U.S., we inspect them to make sure they are up to international codes. That’s quite a workload because many Caribbean countries don’t have the capacity to do those inspections, so a lot of additional Coast Guard inspectors must work on those vessels.”
The success of the USCG’s counter-narcotics, counter-human smuggling, and safety and security efforts involving international shipping depends on close cooperation with widely diverse maritime organizations, from the Bahamas to Brazil. The smallest of those 34 nations and territories only have three or four small patrol boats – leading some to sign security agreements providing for joint patrols – while others have full-fledged navies. And the concerns and interests of those nations vary just as widely.
“The Caribbean Law Enforcement and Intelligence Council is looking at how we can help support and build cooperation in the region, including enforcing common safety standards on shipping,” the admiral said. “We have bilateral agreements with most of the nations down here, focusing on law enforcement, SAR, and migration issues. So a lot of what we do is on a country-by-country basis, such as shipriders, where we put a law enforcement officer from another country on a Coast Guard cutter to help enforce their laws from our vessel.
“Another important task is training. Haiti is a good example where we have a pretty aggressive program to help train their coast guard. The [CGC] Oak, a 225-foot buoy tender homeported in Charleston, [S.C.] for example, also has a mission to work with the Haitian coast guard. They typically go down twice a year for training and to help with maintenance – a lot of the training is with mechanics on how to maintain their engines. And that is tremendously important.”
Cruise ships, container ships, and LNG ships and facilities are considered top targets for terrorists, bringing the 7th District’s Ports, Waterways and Coastal Security mission to one of the highest readiness levels in the Coast Guard. Some units, especially helicopter crews, have been trained in the authorized use of deadly force in anti-terrorism conflicts, although Baumgartner reported they have had no need to employ it so far. However, airborne use of force (AUF) is employed in other operations.
“We have used AUF with warning shots and disabling fire against narcotics smugglers, especially against go-fast vessels. Our Helicopter Interdiction Squadron out of Jacksonville deploys to our high and medium endurance cutters working the counter-narcotics mission. They can launch and interdict go-fast boats that are too far away or moving too fast for our boats. They use warning shots, but also have high accuracy rifles capable of shooting out the boats’ engines to stop them,” he said.
“Through mid-August 2010, we’ve had six such encounters in the 7th, which is down a bit. Haiti and Deepwater diverted resources, which may have caused that, although we still managed to seize 12,666 kilos of cocaine and make 14 arrests. The bulk of those boats originated in Colombia, trying to land somewhere on the Central American isthmus between Panama and Mexico, then transit over land through Mexico into the U.S. So it is very important for us to interdict at sea, which is our best chance.”
Oddly, the only Coast Guard unit flying MH-65 Dolphin helicopters for the counter-narcotics AUF mission does not belong to District 7, where it is located, but to the Coast Guard’s Pacific area. But the 7th District does have an organic firepower capability at sea.
“Our boat stations from mid-Florida southward are the only ones trained and authorized to use disabling fire to stop go-fast smuggling vessels in both counter-narcotics and illegal alien interdiction,” Baumgartner added. “We do that with SPC-LE [Special Purpose Craft-Law Enforcement] boats, which are our primary high-speed interceptors at South Florida coastal stations.
“A tactical law enforcement detachment constantly trains and retrains all the boat units employing non-compliant vessel use of force. This is a tricky and important mission, so before I took over as commander, I had one of our stations take me out to show me exactly what they do, so I know what they do and how well they are trained if I have to authorize any use of force.”
While demonstrating an ability to move quickly and function effectively as a multi-mission force during both the Haiti and Deepwater Horizon disasters and still maintaining their other missions was a highlight of the past year, Baumgartner said his priority as the new district commander is to ensure all elements of the 7th District are able to execute all their missions faithfully, effectively, efficiently, and without any of the operational mishaps of recent years. And planning for new challenges have already been identified.
“We’ve spent a lot of time trying to determine the root causes of past bad operational decisions and how to bolster our ability to make the right decisions. In some cases, we need more experience, in others we need to remove distractions so our people can concentrate on the task at hand.
“Meanwhile, the Panama Canal is going to be expanded and that will impact several ports in our district. We have ports now planning ahead, thinking about dredging, widening channels for ships the revised canal can handle. The potential size of those ships is significantly larger and that is something we are planning for now.” The expansion will double the canal’s capacity for vessel flow.
This article first appeared in Coast Guard Outlook 2011 Edition.