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Interview With Adm. Charles W. Ray

Vice Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard

Adm. Charles W. Ray assumed the duties as the 31st vice commandant on May 24, 2018. As the vice service chief and chief operating officer, Ray executes the commandant’s strategic Intent, manages internal organizational governance, and serves as the component acquisition executive.

Prior to this appointment, Ray served as the deputy commandant for operations, responsible for establishing and providing operational strategy, policy, guidance and resources to meet national priorities for Coast Guard missions, programs, and services.

His previous flag officer assignments include Pacific Area commander, Pacific Area deputy commander, the 14th Coast Guard District commander, service with U.S. forces Iraq as director of the Iraq Training and Advisory Mission for the Ministry of Interior, and the military adviser to the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

A native of Newport, Arkansas, he graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in 1981. After an assignment as a deck watch officer aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Acushnet, he was selected for naval flight training and earned his wings in 1984.

He served at six Coast Guard air stations from Alaska to the Caribbean, accumulating more than 5,000 hours of helicopter flight time. Ray was designated an aeronautical engineer in 1988 and served as engineering officer at three stations and at the Aviation Logistics Center as the program manager for the development of the Coast Guard’s Aviation Logistics Management System. He commanded Coast Guard Air Station Borinquen, Puerto Rico, from 2002 through 2005. Ray is the longest-serving active-duty Coast Guard aviator, which has earned him the distinction of being Coast Guard’s 25th Ancient Albatross.

His staff assignments include a tour as chief of the Office of Performance Management at Coast Guard Headquarters followed by a tour as the chief of staff of the 14th Coast Guard District. Ray earned a Master of Science in industrial administration from Purdue University and a Master of Science in national resource strategy from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces (now known as the Dwight D. Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy) in Washington, D.C.

Ray’s personal awards include the Coast Guard Distinguished Service Medal, five Legion of Merit Medals, one Bronze Star Medal, two Meritorious Service Medals, one Coast Guard Air Medal, three Coast Guard Commendation Medals, and the Coast Guard Achievement Medal.

COAST GUARD OUTLOOK: You’ve been on the job for about six months. Have you identified an area on which you’re focusing first? If so, what is it?

Adm. Charles W. Ray: Yes, to answer your question, I’m in the execution phase. The commandant and I have kind of worked through our roles and missions for each other and with each other. And I’m kind of the guy that keeps the railroads running on time. We’ve got great assistant commandants and deputy commandants and a lot of work in progress right now. My primary mission as I see is just to enable that, do the things that those folks need, whether it is engaging with our department or engaging with anybody else, so that our guys can do their work to deliver the capability that the Coast Guard needs.

Adm. Charles W. Ray covered

Vice Commandant Adm. Charles W. Ray. U.S. Coast Guard photo

This year marks the 75th anniversary of U.S. Coast Guard rotary-wing aviation. What are your thoughts on this? Could you tell us about the significance of the service’s contribution to helicopter flight?

If you think about it, just 75 years ago was kind of the beginning of lifesaving missions of helicopters. And now we have missions certainly around the world. Every developed country around the world uses helicopters for search and rescue. They are a key – as you know from your Army career – attribute of what we need to support both to do warfighting and to support those that are doing warfighting. In other words, they’re just such a tremendous lifesaver. To think that the Coast Guard was on the ground floor of helicopter aviation 75 years ago – and we literally were. We had people who were pioneers with Sikorsky – Cmdr. Frank Erickson and people like him. Oliver Berry, who was one of the first … machinist’s mate mechanics for helicopters, was a coastie. And the things that they developed about 75 years ago – there are literally millions of people alive today that wouldn’t be were it not for that.

These CubeSats are specifically designed to support Coast Guard search and rescue missions in regions that were heretofore not accessible, or we didn’t have any eyes or ears in the sky listening.

As a helicopter pilot, you have the distinction of being the service’s 25th Ancient Albatross. Could you tell our readers what the moniker represents, and what does it mean to you to be an Ancient Albatross?

Well, first it means I’m old, Rhonda. That’s one thing it means. At any rate, I don’t think it’s any particular reflection on me. It’s just the good fortune I have to continue to get to serve for several years now. I think there is a connection there. When I travel around to visit operational Coast Guard women and men, being the Ancient Albatross just by definition means that I was a front-line operator. So, I think there is a connection with young coasties there that maybe I wouldn’t have as strong were I not that. And then secondly, I think it gives me a unique perspective on where we have been and perhaps where we need to be moving forward with regard to aviation capability.

Of the airframes you’ve flown, do you have a favorite? If so, would you share that with us?

Well, I loved them all when I flew them. And I’d pick any one of them now over, believe it or not, going to a lot of meetings. At the time, I liked every one of them. But I’ll tell you the one that I think I liked most in hindsight, and looking forward, the Coast Guard H-60 program is so important to our service. And it was just a success from the very beginning. We were able to learn from the Department of Defense’s lessons. And some of our best acquisitions have come when we’ve done that, you know, learn what they’ve learned. We do best when we are kind of recipients that pay attention to other people. So, we piggybacked on our Department of Defense contract originally, which made the program a success in the beginning. And the good thing about H-60 is, as we move forward, there will be H-60s flying in this country and in this world for many years to come. So, it’s a very sustainable platform. And then operationally, it is just really a super aircraft. I’ve flown it in a lot of bad weather. I had the good fortune of being in a lot of good missions with it. It’s just an extremely capable helicopter that is perfectly suited for Coast Guard missions. And as we get our new cutters fielded – national security cutters, offshore patrol cutters – they are all H-60 capable [to operate the aircraft]. So, that will make that shipboard-helicopter team, which I think is the real strength of our service.

 

The Coast Guard is observing another anniversary this year: the 50th anniversary of the Office of Research, Development, Test and Evaluation (RDT&E). One of its programs under development, with the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate, is the Polar Scout. Could you briefly explain what it is, and how much of a game-changer will this be for the service? When is the scheduled launch?

We’re pretty excited about it. It is the beginning of our foray into the world where we are the ones driving the space capabilities that meet our requirements, which is really interesting. And we’re working of course with DHS Science and Technology, the Air Force and NOAA. So, it’s a team effort. But these CubeSats are specifically designed to support Coast Guard search and rescue missions in regions that were heretofore not accessible, or we didn’t have any eyes or ears in the sky listening. So, it’s a test run for the next year. We’re going to launch [Dec. 3], and we’ve got a pretty well-thought-out plan in order to run these evaluations. But the bottom line is: this is completely capable with our operational plans for the Arctic region. We understand we need to be able to operate up there. And this is another capability that will allow us to have better domain awareness of what is happening in the Arctic region. So, it’s a combination of us cooperating with other [agencies] in space, where we haven’t been the originator, we’ve just been the user of space products, and now we’re kind of the originator, with some good teammates. It’s driven right towards the Coast Guard search and rescue requirements, and it’s driven right towards an area where we know we need to operate. It’s a growing area of operations.

Ancient Albatross

Then-Vice Adm. Charles W. Ray wears traditional flight gear as part of the change-of-watch ceremony. Ray relieved Rear Adm. John Korn as the service’s 25th Ancient Albatross at a ceremony held at Air Station New Orleans, Louisiana. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley

What is the status of the C-27J program?

Well, it’s better … we’ve fielded them at Air Station Sacramento. Probably the best thing I can tell you that we’ve done in the last two years of that program is we’ve banded together with other Spartan [operators] – the name of the C-27s is Spartan – so I’ve talked to these people directly, that is the U.S. Army special operations guys, and then the Aussies are operating the C-27s as well. So, we’ve banded together to create this users’ group and thereby we have more purchasing power. We have more power with the original equipment manufacturer with regard to engineering changes that need to be made. It’s really nothing new. But in this case, it’s been very helpful, because we collectively are the largest C-27 operator group in the world. So, we are able to therefore increase the availability of that airframe and the reliability of that airframe. And that’s a great thing.

Right now the big piece that is missing on the C-27 is the sensor package, and that’s still in development. We’re going to follow the similar technology that we’re using in our C-130s [Hercules] and our C-144s [Ocean Sentries], because we believe there is benefit to this common technology.

As far as Coast Guard operational capability, right now the big piece that is missing on the C-27 is the sensor package, and that’s still in development. We’re going to follow the similar technology that we’re using in our C-130s [Hercules] and our C-144s [Ocean Sentries], because we believe there is benefit to this common technology. But it’s taken a little time and the C-27 is the third of those three aircraft that we’ll outfit with the sensor package, the Minotaur sensor package. So, what we’re doing in the interim is we’ve got kind of a palletized roll-on version of a sensor package that we’ll be able to use, because that will make those aircraft much more effective for Coast Guard operations. So, getting the aircraft where it was reliable and maintainable was Step A, because we had to get that airplane where it would fly. And now we’re missionizing it. And the long-term solution to missionization will take a little while. So, we’ve got an interim solution that is ongoing, [and] I think bears promise.

Could you list one or two of the things that the Coast Guard does best? Is there an area where the service could improve?

I think where we do best is in our agility. As you know, the commandant has made it very clear that one of his highest priorities and one of the things we’re focused on is readiness for the Coast Guard. What we’ve demonstrated the last couple years across a host of mission sets, whether it is responding to national contingencies as a result of hurricanes, or whether it is responding to an influx of illegal smuggling in any part of the ocean south of us, or just think of things that we’ve responded to in the last few years. Our agility is directly related to our readiness, which is directly an area of emphasis that we pride ourselves on. Where we’ve struggled is having the resources to ensure we’re ready. We’ve done pretty well. Our elected officials have done a great job of supplying the Coast Guard with the new assets that we need. But the thing where we haven’t been as successful is demonstrating that we need these operations and [support] funds to maintain our readiness. And that is the day in and day out funds that you buy spare parts with and you train with, and you make sure that your Coast Guard personnel are ready to roll, whether it’s medically, or with regard to all the other things. So, this kind of operating funding is where we have not done as well in terms of ensuring that people understand what our requirements are.

So, it’s literally a case of – we know where approximately 80 percent of the smuggling events are happening, and yet we’ve got resources to only get after about 20 percent of that.

In a September 2017 Business Insider article, you referred to drug trafficking in the Eastern Pacific and around the Galapagos Islands as a “capacity challenge.” What did you mean, and how is the Coast Guard combating traffickers in such a vast area of ocean? Is it a matter of leveraging assets to stem the flow of smugglers along this corridor?

When I was talking about it being a capacity problem, I was directly referring to the fact that because of the new capabilities we have – and because of the teamwork within the federal agencies whose job it is to prevent drug smuggling – we’ve got just better awareness of where the movements are and where the drug vessels are. So, it’s literally a case of – we know where approximately 80 percent of the smuggling events are happening, and yet we’ve got resources to only get after about 20 percent of that. If I had more resources, I have good intelligence to put them on target to make more of a difference. But we never have perfect intelligence. So, we’re continually refining our processes, working with other nations in the transit zone, working with other government agencies from the United States to just continually get better at that and to target specific routes that the smugglers use. But really, it’s a capacity issue. Just like I said then, it still is now.

Ray C-130J

Vice Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Charles W. Ray. Above: Charles W. Ray signs the U.S. Coast Guard’s next HC-130J Super Hercules aircraft during a tour of the Lockheed Martin facility in Marietta, Georgia, Oct. 23, 2018. The facility is also home to the Hercules Training Center and other military aircraft. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Diana Sherbs

Now the blessing is that we just took delivery of another national security cutter. So, that program is bearing a lot of fruit when it comes to addressing the smuggling challenges in all the approaches. Right now, it’s in the Eastern Pacific. But it could be in any vector. And then we just [awarded] the contract to start construction of the offshore patrol cutters, the first of that class of cutters, about two months ago. So, that is a significant leap forward. But while these ships are being built, we will remain in a capacity-constrained environment.

We need a fleet of icebreakers. I’m talking about six icebreakers, is what we’ve identified through a couple of different studies, and three of them need to be heavy icebreakers. The truth is we need one right now.

You mentioned the Arctic before. You delivered the keynote address at the Arctic Encounter Symposium 2016 at which you referred to the Arctic region as having a “new ocean up there.” There is increased maritime activity due to ecotourism, oil and gas exploration, and fisheries enforcement, to name a few. How is the Coast Guard able to carry out its statutory missions in this remote environment? What additional resources are needed to tackle these 21st century problems to protect the nation and its interests?

Well, the way we are doing our mission in the Arctic region now is we’re using our major cutters in the season, basically between June and October, when the areas just off the north slope are ice free, or [have] less ice, so we can sail up there in a non-ice breaking vessel. We’re using that for part of the solution. We’re using aviation on a seasonal basis. And then, of course, we have an icebreaker, the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, up there during that period as well. And they are still up there. So, my point is, we use the normal Coast Guard assets right now to learn to operate up there, whether it is on the surface or in aviation or communications, or, as we talked about earlier, the Polar CubeSats.

Adm. Charles Ray RB-M

Charles W. Ray, vice commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, talks with a crewmember aboard a 45-foot response boat-medium from Station New York, Oct. 4, 2018. During the visit, the admiral visited various Coast Guard units and assets in the Sector New York area of responsibility. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Hunter Medley

I think the assets that we need – in order to have the year-round presence in the Arctic region and Antarctic as well, although the primary emphasis is on the Arctic – are icebreakers. We need a fleet of icebreakers. I’m talking about six icebreakers, is what we’ve identified through a couple of different studies, and three of them need to be heavy icebreakers. The truth is we need one right now. Our nation hasn’t built a heavy icebreaker in 40 years. So, we need to be moving forward on that. We’ve gotten pretty good support, but we need to continue that. And what that will allow us to do moving forward is to operate in the Arctic and polar regions year-round, in the Arctic year-round. So that is where we need to be because of all the reasons you listed: more human access, more competition, exploration, and competition for petroleum products and other natural resources. Just in general, an ability to exert our sovereignty in the regions that belong to the United States and the ability to operate there when we want to operate.

 

On Aug. 26, the Nationwide Automatic Identification System (NAIS) became fully operational. Could you briefly explain what the NAIS is? How will the NAIS affect the Coast Guard, and how will it affect the maritime industry?

So, the NAIS is a network infrastructure that allows us to improve our maritime domain awareness in the approaches to our harbors and all of our waterways. You know the United States is blessed with this really kind of unique geography where we have the major river systems and over 300 ports around the nation. We’re a maritime nation. So, using the NAIS, and with the cooperation of the maritime public and those that approach the United States, we’re able to understand who is approaching the United States through these electronic messages that go back and forth on this network. And it also provides a “blue-force tracker,” where we know where the ships – federal or state assets are – that would be in charge of our approaches. When you put all this together and we enable it by over 200 sites around the country, including Alaska and Puerto Rico and the inland rivers, we’re able to see … who is approaching our country, and what their destination is. We can pull up and identify each vessel and determine their characteristics and where they are going and identify them.

Arctic Encounter Symposium

Then-Vice Adm. Charles W. Ray delivers the keynote address at the Arctic Encounter Symposium 2016, held at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington, Jan. 15, 2016. The Arctic Encounter Symposium is the largest annual Arctic policy event in the United States. U.S. Coast Guard photo Petty Officer 1st Class George Degener

And then the other really kind of side benefit that we’ve demonstrated in the last couple of years is that using the same network system, we can actually create electronic aids to navigation, which is super important following a storm when the traditional physical aids to navigation – like down in the Gulf Coast last year – are taken out of commission by the bad weather. We can use electronic AIS to create aids to navigation. Because these ships are all participating in that system, they can use those to mark good water, bad water obstructions, and things like that.

If we get a ship up in the polar regions or down in the polar regions in Antarctica and they have some sort of a casualty, I don’t have any way to go – there is no backup.

With the Coast Guard’s myriad challenges, what keeps you up at night, admiral?

Not a lot keeps me up. We’ve got great Coast Guard folks. They are well led at the tactical level, very well led. I think the thing that probably keeps me up, it’s seasonal. One of the things that keeps me up is how thinly spread we are, with regard to this ice breaking mission. If we get a ship up in the polar regions or down in the polar regions in Antarctica and they have some sort of a casualty, I don’t have any way to go – there is no backup. You’ve got Plan A and that’s what you’ve got. So that causes me a little challenge. The only other thing is that what the Coast Guard provides to [the] nation. With just a few more resources, we could improve that so that our readiness is driven to even a higher level, and we could therefore be of even greater assistance in more than one incident. So, if you had an incident on the West Coast, you could go, and on the East Coast, you could go. So, we could provide that capability – that unique thing that we contribute to the United States – in more places at the same time.

 

Where do you see the U.S. Coast Guard in five years? Ten years?

Ten years, I’ll pick that. In 10 years, we’re going to have a fleet of cutters – we’ll be in better shape than we’ve been in modern times – I’ll say since World War II. We will have a better capability and capacity. I see us being a more diverse workforce that brings to bear all the talents that America has on the problem sets we have. And that’s really the strength of the service – the folks who make up our Coast Guard. So, I see us as continuing to improve there. And then I think we will continue to be what we have been for the last 228 years. And that is when America has a crisis that has to do with the maritime approaches or anything in the maritime, America calls on the Coast Guard, and we’re there to answer the bell.

Cooking

Then-Vice Adm. Charles Ray, Coast Guard Pacific Area commander, works alongside Chief Petty Officer Kevin Ball at a cooking competition held at Training Center Petaluma, California, on Nov. 12, 2015. The competition between the Coast Guard Pacific Area commander and the Atlantic Area commander served to raise awareness for the work completed by Coast Guard food service specialists. U.S. Coast Guard photo

For fun and for a good cause, and while you were the Pacific Area commander, you and your team won against the Atlantic Area commander and his team in the third annual cooking competition – your team’s third attempt – in 2015. Could you explain the significance of the competition? What did you and your team prepare?

What we prepared? It was some kind of duck dish. What’s significant about it, it’s really important. I’ll tell you it goes back to what I said earlier that the strength of the Coast Guard are the women and men who make up the Coast Guard. All the ships and airplanes are important. But what’s really the strength is our people. And one of the key groups of people that we found over the years is really hard to attract are people who want to be a culinary specialist. And you’ve got to have it. When you’re out there on the high seas operating for a month or two at a pop, one of your primary sources of morale is the food you eat. So, promoting the Coast Guard folks who do that for a living is super important. We really go to great efforts to go and support these young folks that are learning that trade. That’s what I was doing with this cooking contest. It was actually, like you said, my third time doing it. And I was going against my good friend, who is retired now, Vice Adm. Dean Lee. And we had a head-to-head contest. And luckily, we had a lot of adult supervision by some of the young culinary specialists who were there in school and on staff. So, bottom line, it was by showing an interest in this group of Coast Guardsmen who have chosen to be culinary specialists, we were emphasizing how important they are to our service – as every coastie is. But on that particular day we were emphasizing the importance of those culinary specialists. And that’s why we participated in this kind of good-will tournament or competition.

 

How was it?

I thought it was really good. And thank goodness the judges did too. Yeah, it was good.


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