The 12 months from Aug. 1, 2009, to Aug. 31, 2010, were a busy period for the U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area (PacArea). While in the throes of a major organizational change that left the command staff nearly depleted, they were still able to: coordinate support to several national-level responses to disasters around the world; coordinate security support for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, British Columbia; deploy law enforcement, port security, and environmental response personnel to support combatant commanders; and deploy a major cutter in support of a major bilateral exercise sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense. PacArea also came under command of a new commander – Vice Adm. Manson K. Brown.
PacArea deployed personnel, cutters, and aircraft in response to a tsunami in the Samoan Islands, a major typhoon in Guam, the earthquake in Haiti, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. On Sept. 16, 2009, Typhoon Choi-wan savaged the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) coordinated with the USNS Alan Shepard and the U.S. Navy Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 25 to deliver food, water, and medical supplies to the islands. For their heroic efforts, these Navy commands where awarded the Coast Guard Meritorious Team Commendation. Just days later, on Sept. 29, 2009, a tsunami struck the Samoan Islands killing dozens and injuring many more. The Coast Guard response was immediate as C-130s were dispatched to deliver relief supplies, transport the governor of Samoa back to the island, and carry USCG and Federal Emergency Management Agency responders to the scene.
In addition to these disaster responses in their own area of responsibility, PacArea coordinated support to two disasters in Coast Guard Atlantic Area’s region. Following the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010, PacArea deployed the CGCs Hamilton and Alert to support relief efforts. In response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, PacArea coordinated the deployment of four buoy tenders with their oil spill recovery systems as well as hundreds of personnel from across the area’s commands.
The CGC Mellon deployed in support of the U.S. Pacific Command’s Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training exercise known as CARAT, which was completed in August. This annual exercise is designed to increase U.S. military understanding of cultures in Southeast Asia and to enhance interoperability between the U.S. military and the forces of countries in the region. Mellon conducted joint law enforcement and search and rescue (SAR) training with maritime forces from Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Singapore. These events were conducted during CARAT exercises.
A two-year planning effort involving PacArea, District 13, the U.S. Navy’s 3rd Fleet, U.S. Northern Command, and the Canadian government resulted in a highly successful 30-day multi-agency security operation, Operation Podium, in support of the Olympic Games. The Coast Guard contribution to this operation included a high-endurance cutter, patrol boats, buoy tenders, personnel from the deployable specialized forces, and helicopters. The relationships built and interoperability created during this operation will serve both the United States and Canada well in responding to future security threats to our nation’s northwest maritime border.
Tracing the location of all of these operational activities on a world map reveals one of the greatest challenges to the PacArea: distance. In the Pacific, it is a long way to anywhere. To deploy personnel and assets to these far-flung regions requires careful planning. This then is a core value of the PacArea – coordinating the flow of critical resources across the vast pacific region in support of emergencies as well as balancing the apportionment of resources among the area’s districts in support of routine operations.
As if the PacArea’s region is not big enough, it is expanding. As the Arctic ice cap recedes, the Coast Guard is being called upon to expand its operations farther into the Arctic. While the missions the USCG is performing are not new, the environment is new, requiring the service to develop new capabilities. In preparation for this expansion, the area’s District 17 in Alaska is leading Operation Arctic Crossroads to evaluate the demands on aircraft, ships, boats, and people in the harsh Arctic environment.
While District 17 confronts the expanding Arctic, it continues to combat illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing in the north Pacific Ocean through its high-seas drift net enforcement operations. These operations include long-range air surveillance by Coast Guard C-130s and Canadian Air Force CP140 Aurora aircraft. Once these aircraft detect illegal fishing activity, they relay the information to Coast Guard cutters, the Russian Federal Border Service, or Japan’s Maritime Safety Agency for enforcement action.
Across the Pacific, the area’s 14th District is also continuing the “fight for fish” in Operation Persistent Presence. This operation places Coast Guard personnel on Navy ships transiting the Pacific to target illegal fishing. Combating illegal fishing is critical to supporting stability in the Pacific as many countries depend upon fishing for their economic survival. Illegal fishing robs these nations of their economic future; the joint USCG-Navy operation seeks to protect the future of these nations. Ensuring their economic stability significantly enhances national stability thwarting the expansion of terrorist organizations.
Along the U.S. southwest maritime border the movement of illegal aliens and contraband is increasing. PacArea’s 11th District has joined in multi-agency, bilateral efforts called Operation Green Flash and Operation Baja Oleada to combat this trend. These operations combine the capabilities of the Coast Guard, U.S. Navy, Customs and Border Protection, state and local law enforcement, and agencies of the Mexican government to enhance maritime awareness, responsiveness, and thereby improve effectiveness in interdicting illegal activity.
While much of PacArea’s past 12 months have been a series of operational highlights, there were two tragic events resulting in the loss of Coast Guard men and women in air crashes. On Oct. 29, 2009, the Coast Guard C-130 1705 conducting a SAR mission and a Marine Corps AH-1W Super Cobra helicopter on a training mission collided. In all, seven Coast Guard and two Marine Corps members were lost. On July 7, 2010, Coast Guard 6017, an MH-60T Jayhawk helicopter, crashed in transit. Three Coast Guard members were killed, one crewmember survived with serious injuries. We all honor the memory, service, and sacrifice of these brave Americans who died in the service of their country.
Looking ahead, PacArea can expect even more challenges. The decision has been made to remain with two Coast Guard areas to oversee operations versus transitioning to a single Operations Command. This means that the PacArea staff that was down to a skeleton crew in anticipation of decommissioning must now be reconstituted in a period of declining budgets. This will require significant collaboration between the two areas and Coast Guard Headquarters. As the area staff comes back together, they will also face the challenge of managing the prolonged replacement of the aging cutter fleet with new cutters being delivered under the Deepwater acquisition program while continuing to support Coast Guard obligations across the vast expanse of the Pacific. The work will be hard, but there is no doubt they will get the job done.
Chris Doane and Dr. Joe DiRenzo III are retired Coast Guard officers. Both are adjunct professors at the Joint Forces Staff College. DiRenzo is also an associate professor at American Military University.
This article first appeared in Coast Guard Outlook: 2011 Edition.