Defense Media Network

Rear Adm. Steve Branham Interview

U.S. Coast Guard District 7 Commander

What changes are you anticipating in manpower, vessels and other equipment?

We’re working on a recapitalization program right now. Our old 41-foot patrol boats, many in the 30 year age bracket, are being replaced by a 45-foot RBM [Response Boat Medium], which is faster, has better communications and other sensors, is very agile, more comfortable for the crews. They also are 40-knot-plus compared to 25.

We also are bringing on the 425-foot National Security Cutter, but those will all be deployed on the West Coast, not the East, because they have the sea-keeping capability and range to do enforcement work in the Pacific, where distances are much greater than in the Gulf or Caribbean.

We have brought 72 of our 87-foot patrol boats on board in recent years, five in the last year in District 7 – about 10 altogether – which helps increase our capability. We also are in the precess of designing and constructing a new, larger patrol boat to replace our 110-footers; they will be 153-plus feet with better sea-keeping and range than the 110-footers and outfitted with state-of-the-art communications and sensor suites. Both the 87- and the 153-footers will have stern ramps for state-of-the-art boat launching for rigid hull inflatables. Both are armed with automatic weapons and small arms. The current plan is for District 7 to get the first eight of the 153 footers to come off the assembly line; the first delivery is scheduled for late 2010, early 2011.

Given the budget pressures we have at the federal level, I don’t see the Coast Guard growing appreciably in the next several years, so we will have to continue to do the mission with roughly the number of people we have now. However, we’re meeting our recruiting numbers and getting great people coming in the front door. As far as training, my view is we have never had a better trained force.

What is the status of District 7’s Ports, Waterways and Coastal Security mission?

PWCS is a big chunk of our security mission and we are constantly looking for more efficient ways of doing that mission. We patrol, escort and safeguard using people, boats and aircraft, but if some of that mission can be done with electronics and technology – underwater sensors, cameras, radars, aerostats, UAVs, etc. – we are interested in that and willing to prototype those. There are a number of initiatives looking at all those things and I think we’re just starting to scratch the surface of applying those to their potential. All of those build maritime domain awareness and we have a long way to go to ensure we are totally aware of what is going on in the maritime domain.

What is the average number of illegal migrants moving through the maritimes each month and how many of those does the Coast Guard interdict?

The high end was about 1,200 a month, but last year the Cuban interdiction rate was down by as much as 40-to-50 percent due to a number of factors – some economic, some weather, some the uncertainty of the situation in Cuba and some because of the job we are doing out there.

The Dominican Republic numbers also are down, again because of the economy and our use of biometrics.

The Haitian flow is up slightly in the past 6 to 12 months. We had a significant spike in late January 2009, because of some uncertainly about where the policy on Haitians would go, but that steadied out in later months. So, in aggregate, our flow has been 500-1,200 a month in District 7, with much of the difference being due to seasonal factors. That’s probably a little lower than previous years.

We report interdictions because flow is hard to estimate and, as we crack down on the sea routes, migrants find other routes, over land. But we are doing a good job, I think, working with our intragency partners to interdict as many as possible.

Using biometrics, we can detect criminal migrants more easily, but the nature of those coming in, I think, still is largely people seeking a better lifestyle to take care of their families. Among Cubans, we see a range from those in poverty to the well-educated. Haitians are more likely to be at the poverty level, in many cases trying to join loved ones in the U.S., as also is true of many Cubans.

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...