Coast Guard Outlook: I’d like to talk to you about the scope and magnitude of the district you command, the team you lead to manage the activities, and how you approach the Coast Guard missions in your district. Let’s start with your area of responsibility.
Rear Adm. Eric Jones: As you know, the Coast Guard is organized with two areas: essentially everything east of the Rockies is Atlantic Area [LANTAREA], and everything west of the Rockies is Pacific Area. There are nine districts, five of which are here in LANTAREA. Our command, the Seventh District – headquartered here in Miami and serving the southeast United States – is a particularly interesting one. It goes from South Carolina through Georgia, down to Florida, and then it also includes Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, which amounts to about 1.8 million square miles, including the exclusive economic zone off of the territories in the Caribbean. It also includes 32 foreign nations and territories, with which we work a lot.
Are you responsible for all of the Coast Guard’s missions?
We face the same challenges of the other districts, as well as many that are unique to the U.S. southeast border and the nations of the Caribbean. We do all 11 of the Coast Guard’s missions – except icebreaking. Our Maritime Force Protection Unit Kings Bay provides critical transit security to the Navy’s ballistic missile submarines – which are strategic assets for our nation. We’re one of two districts with that mission. We have a well-known counter-narcotics and migrant interdiction responsibility. We have one of the busiest recreational boating areas in the country and it’s year-round here, it’s not seasonal. We have a lot of fisheries in our area of responsibility, as well as a lot of marine safety and prevention that’s driven by the fast-growing ports here in Savannah, Charleston, and Tampa. You also have the three largest cruise ship ports in the world, which obviously are a little quieter right now. Regarding maritime commerce, Florida is a huge trans-shipment point for cargo to the Bahamas, Haiti, and the Caribbean. The Port of Jacksonville serves as the lifeline to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, with several Jones Act trade companies that keep those territories supplied from the mainland. With all of that, we obviously have a lot of aids to navigation work to maintain. We’re on the southwest border for the United States, and so we also have a lot of border responsibilities here. It’s definitely the highest operational tempo district.
Let’s talk about some of your assets available to you, and some of those missions you just mentioned in more detail.
First of all, our cutters are more than ships … they are the right team, the right training, the right partnerships, the right authorities, the right technology and frankly, the right force package. They are greater than the sum of their parts. The Coast Guard, empowered through a robust blend of authorities, embodies this “right balance” and possesses the agility essential to meeting both national security and regional demands across the full spectrum of military operations, law enforcement, environmental response, and humanitarian assistance.
Our new cutters – the Fast Response [FRC] and NationalSecurity Cutters [NSCs], and soon the Offshore Patrol Cutters [OPCs] – have altered the battle space, allowing us to meet the threat downrange, and change our paradigms from responsive to proactive. The large National Security Cutters and Medium Endurance Cutters [WMECs] come directly under [Atlantic] Area.
Under the district, we’ve got six sectors; in Charleston, Jacksonville, Miami, San Juan, Puerto Rico, Key West, and St. Petersburg, Florida, which are our major land commands that do the nearshore operations. Our cutters at the district level get as large as the 225-foot and 175-foot buoy tenders for the aids to navigation [ATON] mission. We also have the white-hull 154-foot Fast Response Cutters, which have replaced the 110-foot patrol boats. We’ve got six FRCs in Miami and Key West, and seven down in San Juan. And those are really the law enforcement workhorses that we have in the district.
The sectors have small boat stations up and down the coast, primarily close-in law enforcement, search and rescue missions, recreational boating safety, and some fisheries. We’ve got ATON teams that manage the myriad aids to navigation on the intercoastal waterway and in the ports. The sectors have the marine safety teams that inspect vessels, conduct investigations of maritime mishaps, and do maritime permitting for events. And then we get major cutters – 210s, 270 WMECs, and 418-foot NSCs that come down from Atlantic Area, and when they get into the area, they shift their operational control to either District 7 or JIATF South, depending on the mission that they’re performing.
We’ve got four air stations – including the largest air station in the Coast Guard – that’s Air Station Clearwater, where we fly HH-60s and HC-130s; Air Station Miami, where we fly the smaller helicopters, the MH-65s, and the smaller fixed-wing HC-144s. And then there’s another -65 unit down in Borinquen, on the west coast of Puerto Rico. Finally, we have an air station up in Savannah that also flies the -65s.
I mentioned our buoy tenders. We have USCGC Willow, which is a 225-foot ocean-going buoy tender. She’s based in Charleston, and works all the way down into theCaribbean. Our District 7 tactical law enforcement team provides high-end pursuit training for our small boat coxswains and takes care of a lot of our sophisticated law enforcement gear, such as drug detection equipment and non-lethal munitions.
That must require a lot of manpower.
We’re busy, so we have a fairly good-size workforce with almost 3,700 active-duty personnel, 750 reservists, nearly 200 civilian employees, and we benefit from nearly 4,500 Coast Guard Auxiliary volunteers.
A couple of years ago the Coast Guard came out with its Western Hemisphere Strategy, which was kind of a first for the Coast Guard in promulgating its strategic vision for a geographic area and the unique challenges in your district. That strategy really does focus a lot on what you’re doing.
Absolutely, it is. And we work very closely with U.S.Southern Command in both operations and in capacity building with our partners throughout the Caribbean. As we can build capacity among the [Royal Bahamas Defense Force], [Jamaica Defense Force], Haitian coast guard, or the Dominican navy, for example, they become partners in tackling the same issues we’re facing. Not only are they helping us to keep migrants and illicit drugs from making it into the United States; when we work together, we can help smuggled cash and weapons from getting into those countries. In April, President [Donald] Trump, Adm. [Karl] Schultz, and U.S. SOUTHCOM Commander Adm. [Craig] Faller were there to announce those operations. Since then we have seen an infusion of additional Coast Guard and Navy assets during 2020. SOUTHCOM’s enhanced presence, incorporating 17 Coast Guard cutters and seven Navy ships with embarked Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachments [LEDETs], as well as four allied ships in the Caribbean region, continues to support ongoing whole of-government and internationally-supported operations, reducing the availability of illicit drugs and saving countless lives in the United States and throughout the region. The intent is to stymie the flow of illicit drugs, degrade transnational criminal organizations, and increase interoperability with our interagency partners and partner nations. This operation directly supports the National Drug Control Strategy. We deal with SOUTHCOM directly, as well as through our daily interactions with the Joint Interagency Task Force South [JIATF South]. We’re very close partners there.
JIATF South also covers the Eastern Pacific. Does that come under your district?
The Pacific coast comes under District 11 In Alameda. It really just depends on where the operations are centered. My counterpart at District 11 is probably my closest partner. We coordinate closely with District 11 to ensure that when JIATF and the partner nations hand off a case, it’s completely seamless.
Are you responsible for the Law Enforcement Detachments (LEDETs) that go aboard the Navy ships, or any other types of vessels, to provide law enforcement authority?
Tactical Law Enforcement Team South [TACLET South] is physically located here in the district, at Opa Locka, co-located at Air Station Miami, and they are also an Atlantic Area unit. We have a Maritime Safety and Security Team here in Miami, an MSST team in Kings Bay, Georgia, as well as the helicopter tactical interdiction squadron out of Cecil Field in Jacksonville – those are the helicopters that conduct the airborne use of force mission to stop drug-running “go-fast” boats. Those three higher end assets are Atlantic Area assets, but we support them along with Base Miami Beach, to take care of the people and their families, and we frequently work with those teams because those helicopters and LEDETs deploy to cutters, U.S. Navy, and allied ships that are operating in our region. All those units are ready to shift to missions as needed. We might have a cutter downrange working for JIATF South, doing detection and monitoring for drug smuggling, and if we suddenly see an uptick of migrants moving off the north shore of Haiti, or across the Mona Passage, we can quickly work to get them re-tasked to cover whatever the mission demand is. And of course, when you have something like a Hurricane Maria or a Dorian happen, they’re in a good position to shift gears and help with a domestic disaster recovery, or an international humanitarian assistance disaster response.
This has been an extraordinary hurricane season.
We’re constantly keeping an eye on the weather. When we see a storm heading our way, we start doing a whole lot of preps and a lot of communications and coordination with our local FEMA colleagues, and with the local National Guards and our partner nations, helping them get ready. Once the storm is inbound, we try to get our families and dependents moved to safety, and move our assets out of the way but where they can respond quickly once the storm has passed. This time of year, that’s an ever-present threat that we’ve got to be ready to respond to. With each storm that passes, our aids to navigation cutters – the black-hulled work horses of the fleet – have the herculean task of ensuring our nation’s constellation of buoys, day boards, and ranges[the street lights and stop signs of our waterways]remains on station to indicate safe passage to and from our ports. These cutters must verify that our 4,300 fixed aids and 860 floating aids are working properly, and service the critical aids that are damaged or dislocated to ensure the Maritime TransportationSystem quickly recovers.
Those storms must create a lot of SAR missions.
Search and rescue offshore is our bread and butter. Even there, we work with partners quite a bit. There are rescue coordination centers down in Trinidad and Tobago, and Fort-de-France, Martinique, and we work very closely with them for cases that might even be well out into the Atlantic to help find and help mariners. But even when storms make landfall, we have helicopters that are based year-round in the Bahamas, and they were the first that were on-scene in Great Abaco while Dorian was still spinning on Grand Bahama Island, helping to rescue some people at the clinic at Marsh Harbour.
Human trafficking can also result in SAR cases.
The people who [attempt] to emigrate over the seas are undertaking a very dangerous journey, with a real risk for loss of life – that’s not just across the Florida Straits from Cuba and the Bahamas, but they’re also trying to get into Puerto Rico from the Dominican Republic or the Virgin Islands from the Windward and Leeward islands.
Has COVID changed the way you do business?
The Coast Guard has not been immune to the effects of COVID-19. If you have served aboard cutters and ships, you know the tight confines in which sailors live and work on a daily basis. So now we have to keep our people safe during the coronavirus. We’re following the guidelines, and keeping our people as safe as we can. We’ve just had to impress upon our leadership and our personnel that when they’re looking out for themselves by keeping their faces covered and practicing good hygiene and physical distancing, that they’re not just protecting themselves, but they’re protecting their loved ones and their fellow crew at the unit.
One of the key things is we had to make sure that commerce continues to flow – not just into Florida to keep grocery store shelves stocked and gas stations moving – but also keeping commerce for the key supply chains in the southeastern part of the country that’s supplied through Savannah and Charleston. The cruise ship industry initially presented us a real challenge. We received almost 100 cruise ships here and offloaded more than a quarter million passengers in the opening weeks of the COVID crisis, and thank goodness our sector commanders in Miami, in Jacksonville, in Tampa, had such great relationships with their port partners, because they were able to work closely to get those folks off in the first two to three weeks.
We continue to be a big supporter of the enhanced counter-drug operations that are being led out of U.S. Southern Command. And, of course, any time you’ve got a natural disaster or social unrest – and COVID causes both – you have to deal with the increased risk of a maritime migration. Knowing that your migrants could be infected with COVID creates its own challenges, so we’ve had to push a lot of PPE [personal protective equipment] out to our cutters, and we’ve tried to keep a real strong presence in those hot spots, such as the North coast of Haiti, the Windward Passage, the Mona Passage, and the Florida Straits. Would-be migrants and smugglers alike have taken notice that our ships and aircraft are still on patrol. And in that effort, we’ve been supported well by our sister component, CBP [Customs and Border Protection] Air and Marine Operations. They’ve provided some of the aircraft to help maintain a good presence off of these migration hot spots, because we’ve seen a bit of an uptick.
What about living marine resources?
We continue to carry out our responsibility to ensure the long-term sustainability of our commercial and sport fisheries, and safeguard protein stocks in the southeastern United States, which supply both food and employment. To that end, we continue to employ our surface assets to enforce commercial and recreational fishing regulations as well as protect against foreign fishing incursions into our exclusive economic zone. Despite the pandemic, District 7 cutters and boats still managed to conduct over 1,700 Living Marine Resource [LMR] boardings since the beginning of the fiscal year, issuing dozens of violations.
What’s the most difficult part of the job?
The toughest part of the job is that there’s just never quite enough resources for everything that the Coast Guard would like to do. That’s why we leverage partnerships to the best degree we can. Each of the sectors, each of the smallest stations have great relationships with the local Department of Natural Resources. In the case of Florida, the Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation Commission have a lot of sworn officers, boats, and vehicles. We deal with the local sheriff’s offices. We stand closely tied with Customs and Border Protection, whether it’s the customs officer or the air and marine operations agents. We even have networks between the Coast Guard assets, the local county and municipality assets, so we can decide who’s available to respond to an emergency. So that certainly helps us. The commandant has talked about how hard it is to both recapitalize the Coast Guard’s assets while we keep our legacy platforms and systems performing to meet our mission. It’s great to see the new NSCs in the fleet, the Offshore Patrol Cutters under construction, and the FRCs now assigned to just about all of the districts. But at the same time, a lot of our infrastructure – our stations, our sector buildings, our air station hangars – are old, and some have been damaged by hurricanes in the last few years. It’s been tough to get the resources needed to keep those going. We have these really hardworking young women and men who have decided the Coast Guard is where they want to serve, so we do everything we can to give them the best tools to get the job done. That’s probably the biggest challenge. When it comes to operations, I’ve got a phenomenal team: the captains and the commanders that lead the sectors and the air stations, the lieutenants and lieutenant commanders who command the cutters that are out there – they do a phenomenal job. But it is frustrating getting them the things they need to get the job done.
Thank you for your time, admiral. Any last thoughts?
The people who stand the watch, listen to the radios, monitor and then head out to sea – whether they’re flying over it or steaming across it – they’re really an incredibly dedicated bunch. The op tempo here just doesn’t slow for anything.
This interview originally appears in Coast Guard OUTLOOK 2020-2021 Edition.