The U.S. Coast Guard is unique among federal agencies: Housed in the Department of Homeland Security since 2003, it combines the missions of an armed force with security and regulatory activities. The only U.S. military agency to reside outside the Department of Defense (DoD), it consists of nearly 42,400 active-duty members, 7,800 civilian workers, 7,000 reservists, and 30,000 auxiliarists. Despite its relatively small budget – $10.1 billion in 2010 – the Coast Guard’s mandate includes a variety of roles and tasks at home and around the world. In addition to traditional missions such as search and rescue (SAR), port security, fisheries enforcement, environmental protection, and drug and migrant interdiction, the Coast Guard has been called upon, in recent years, to conduct operations in far-flung locales – counter-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa, for example, or the protection of petroleum pipelines and shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf.
The Coast Guard has also been a traditional leader in emergency management, and 2010 presented the service with two of the biggest crises in its history. It was one of the first U.S. government agencies to respond to the 7.0-magnitude earthquake in Haiti on Jan. 12, providing humanitarian relief, medical aid, and restoration of Haiti’s marine transportation system. Coast Guard MH-60 helicopters, assigned to drug interdiction duties in another part of the Caribbean, were the first military aircraft on the scene, and were soon followed by the Coast Guard Cutter Forward, which anchored at Port-au-Prince to conduct damage assessments and provide air traffic control. By quickly increasing surface and air presence, both for humanitarian assistance and in response to an initial increase in illegal migrant departures, the Coast Guard likely deterred a potential mass migration from Haiti’s shores.
On April 20, when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded about 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana, causing the largest offshore oil spill in the nation’s history, the Coast Guard became the U.S. government’s lead agency in response to the disaster. Several 225-foot Juniper-class seagoing buoy tenders, each outfitted with a Spilled Oil Recovery System (SORS) – a capability designed specifically to allow the vessel to respond to spills when private-sector response is either inadequate or unavailable – reported to the Gulf in the wake of the spill, recovering, separating, storing, and transferring spilled oil. The Deepwater Horizon response marked the first operational use of the SORS, which collected a total of 1.5 million gallons of spilled oil.
The Coast Guard’s flagship mission, search and rescue, is more than 160 years old, and the service is recognized as a world leader, leveraging technology – most notably Rescue 21, the new computer-based communications system designed to replace a legacy radio system – to increase the service’s coverage across all continental U.S. and territorial waters.
In 2010, the Coast Guard continued a trend begun in 2009, when it began to share one of its key search and rescue tools, the Search and Rescue Optimal Planning System (SAROPS), with international partners. In the past year, the Coast Guard has helped Mexico to develop its SAR capability with SAROPS installation and training of Mexican personnel at regional coordination centers in Mexico City and Puerto Vallarta. At the request of the Mexican navy, the Coast Guard also provided introductory motor lifeboat (MLB) training, which is scheduled to be followed by a more advanced heavy-weather course.
The maturity of the satellite-based global positioning system (GPS) has supplanted another of the Coast Guard’s legacy systems: The terrestrial navigation system known as LORAN-C (long-range navigation) was finally phased out by the Coast Guard in 2010, essentially ending the 67-year era of radio navigation in North America. Established as a secret Allied navigation system in World War II, LORAN-C also set an international standard, as vigilant personnel endured lengthy family separations at remote stations in the harshest of climates in order to maintain 99.7 percent signal availability to air, land, and maritime users.
Today’s sophisticated digital systems, including electronic charting and the satellite-based Nationwide Automatic Identification System (NAIS), represent just a part of the Coast Guard’s marine safety mission. The service’s mandate to ensure the navigability of 95,000 miles of coastline, 25,000 miles of inland waterways, and more than 3,700 marine thermals also involves the maintenance of more than 50,000 short-range aids to navigation (ATONs) – signs, lights, beacons, markers, lighthouses, and electronic aids.
In 2010, the Coast Guard’s ATON expertise was a crucial factor in the response to both the Haiti earthquake and the Deepwater Horizon spill. In Haiti, the Coast Guard Cutter Oak, a 225-foot buoy tender and the first military vessel to offload relief supplies in Port-Au-Prince, established two buoys to facilitate the safe navigation of relief ships and barges. The Oak was primarily responsible for reopening the port just three days after its arrival, allowing more aid to reach Haiti and establishing early command and control for the movement of relief supplies and vessels. Oak’s crew also helped evacuate hundreds of injured people to the United States.
ATON work was also important to the Coast Guard’s Deepwater Horizon response in the Gulf, where 12 Coast Guard buoy tenders were deployed, including eight 225-foot Juniper-class seagoing buoy tenders and four 175-foot Keeper-class coastal buoy tenders.
Another component of the Coast Guard’s marine safety mission is the mariner licensing and certification program carried out by the National Maritime Center (NMC) in Martinsburg, W.Va., which continues an overhaul and modernization effort that has cleared away a years-old backlog of applications. As of August 2010, a mariner’s credential – which used to take months to be issued – was issued by the NMC in an average of fewer than 17 days.
2010 also saw some of the final steps taken in establishing the National Centers of Expertise (NCOEs), an initiative aimed at an issue that has confronted the Coast Guard since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when the service began to direct personnel and budget resources toward maritime security – at the expense, some critics charged, of the service’s traditional marine safety mission. Given the increasing technical complexity of the work of Coast Guard inspectors, the service has established seven centers to encourage specialization, training, and collaboration among its professionals. The seven centers, most of which opened their doors in the last year, are the:
- Cruise Ship NCOE, Miami, Fla.
- Suspension and Revocation NCOE, Martinsburg, W.Va.
- Towing Vessel NCOE, Paducah, Ky.
- Investigations NCOE, New Orleans, La.
- Vintage Vessel NCOE, Duluth, Minn.
- Liquefied Gas Carrier NCOE, Port Arthur, Texas
- Outer Continental Shelf NCOE, Morgan City, La.
Maritime Security and National Defense
Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, the Coast Guard’s maritime security mission has gained prominence both domestically and abroad, where the service has become more integrated into the military command structure than at any time since World War II. The Coast Guard is charged with protecting the Maritime Transportation System (MTS) – the nation’s ports and waterways, along with their critical infrastructure, assets, and people. The Coast Guard not only conducts periodic security inspections (more than 7,000 in 2010) and patrols in commercial waterfront areas, but also, with the America’s Waterway Watch (AWW) program, attempts to increase Maritime Domain Awareness with the help of its Auxiliary and Reserve components. In 2010, Coast Guard and auxiliarist personnel logged 3,000 hours in support of AWW.
Additional tools for ensuring MTS security are the Coast Guard’s mariner licensing and transportation worker credentialing programs, which vet the workers in American port facilities and aboard merchant vessels. In 2010, the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) program was given a technological boost; fully portable biometric scanners, which will become the primary means for TWIC verification, were distributed to all 35 sectors, 16 Marine Safety Units, and two training centers. Nearly 71,000 TWIC records were verified in 2010.
The Coast Guard forms partnerships to enhance its security mission whenever possible, and the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, held in Vancouver, B.C., helped to revive a cooperative agreement between the Coast Guard and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in which the two agencies conducted joint patrols along the U.S./Canadian maritime border. The patrol and information-sharing effort, which also involved the U.S. Navy, was successfully concluded in March 2010, and injected new momentum into the effort to establish future joint cross-border patrols. In June 2010, during the G20 Summit held in Toronto, Ontario, the Coast Guard/RCMP agreement also allowed for joint patrols in the Great Lakes region.
The Coast Guard partners with the U.S. Navy in its drug interdiction mission. Coast Guard law enforcement detachment (LEDET) teams, often aboard a vessel operated by the U.S. Navy or another U.S. ally, conduct counter-drug operations in the “Transit Zone,” or maritime approaches to the United States from Central and South America. In fiscal year 2010, the Coast Guard removed 202,439 pounds (91.8 metric tons) of cocaine and 36,739 pounds (16.7 metric tons) of marijuana en route to the United States, which together were worth an estimated $3 billion. The service seized 56 vessels and detained 229 suspected smugglers. Additionally, the Coast Guard participated in the inaugural International Maritime Interdiction Course, conducted under the Colombia International Maritime Center Against Narcotrafficking. The program, created with the help of the Coast Guard, promotes cooperation between the navies, coast guards, and maritime law enforcement agencies of Latin America in order to develop strategies to combat illegal drug trafficking.
The Coast Guard contributes to border security by conducting migrant interdiction patrols – which, given the increasing difficulty of crossing the nation’s southwestern land border, have become an important humanitarian mission for the Coast Guard, as a growing number of migrants attempt dangerous ocean crossings to reach the California coast by boat. In 2010, the service interdicted 2,088 undocumented migrants attempting to enter the United States – 44.7 percent of the total number of interdictions.
Because of the increasing level of interdependence among the world’s nations in terms of trade, supply chains, and information, much of the Coast Guard’s security work is conducted through international engagement; the service’s multiple missions make it an ideal emissary between the U.S. government and the maritime services of other nations. The Coast Guard has a leading role at the International Maritime Organization and other multinational bodies that significantly contribute to setting global standards for maritime safety, security, and stewardship. In 2010, the Coast Guard’s many activities in the area of international security included:
- Multiple joint operations with the maritime law enforcement agencies of several partner nations in support the DoD’s U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). Additionally, Coast Guard Mobile Training Teams provided training in port security, smallboat operations, coastal search and rescue, maritime crisis management, and other roles;
- The assistance of assessment teams in Yemen and Panama, to evaluate the coast guards of these nations and strategize for long-term effectiveness and sufficiency;
- The initiation, at the request of the U.S. Department of State, of a partnership and professional exchange program with the Vietnam Marine Police, to help expand and improve relations between the two governments; and
- Through the Coast Guard’s International Port Security Program, established in 2004, the conduct of security visits and evaluations by Coast Guard personnel in 64 participating countries. These visits ensure compliance with international security requirements and increase the security of commerce bound for the United States.
Living Marine Resources
The Coast Guard also contributes to national security by protecting the living marine resources within the nation’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The most significant element of this mission is enforcement of laws and regulations in domestic fisheries; in 2010, the service boarded 5,361 domestic fishing vessels in the U.S. EEZ, revealing 149 significant violations.
The Coast Guard has joined with more than 40 other states and territories, as well as with the European Union, to manage highly migratory fish species in the high-seas regions of the western and central Pacific – areas outside any nation’s EEZ. In the past year, the Coast Guard conducted three patrols and boarded 17 fishing vessels – more boardings than any other member of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission – in support of the commission’s efforts.
While the U.S. fishing fleet is well-regulated and violations are relatively uncommon, the Coast Guard remains vigilant against foreign incursions. The service detected and interdicted 82 foreign fishing vessels in U.S. waters in 2010 – the vast majority of which were small Mexican lanchas in the Gulf of Mexico.
Commercial fisheries are not the only living resources protected by the Coast Guard; the service conducts programs to protect the most endangered marine species, including sea turtles, right whales, and Hawaiian monk seals. Over the past year, the Coast Guard responded to 52 reports or requests from partner agencies to assist with stranded or entangled marine protected resources, and during the Deepwater Horizon response, the Coast Guard provided more than 400 flight hours to facilitate the release of rehabilitated oiled wildlife, including 239 seabirds.
Many of the flight hours logged during the Deepwater Horizon response were flown on the Coast Guard’s updated extended-range transport and SAR workhorse, the HC-130J turboprop. The newest version of the aircraft features considerable technology upgrades that enhanced the Coast Guard’s contributions to both Deepwater Horizon and the Haiti earthquake responses: a suite of sensors that allowed it to conduct damage assessment mapping in Haiti while carrying a full load of relief supplies; night-vision capability that allowed for a night landing on a remote Dominican airstrip; multispectrum visual imagery and synthetic aperture radar mapping data to track the progress of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill; and the capability to transmit live video from the scene of the spill to assist in daily response planning.
The new HC-130J is just one element of a broad recapitalization program that has been under way for more than a decade now, and aimed at modernizing the Coast Guard’s aging assets. During the Haiti relief operations, the service’s seagoing fleet did not fare as impressively as the HC-130J: 12 of the 19 cutters assigned to Haiti suffered significant mechanical problems that impeded their ability to respond; two had to suspend relief activities to perform extensive repairs. The average age of a Coast Guard cutter is 40 years.
While 2010 did feature some significant events in the recapitalization effort, overall the future of the Coast Guard fleet is murky. Compounding the uncertainty is the fact that, despite a seemingly ever-broadening mission portfolio, the service’s 2011 budget proposal of $9.87 billion, released by the White House in February 2010, is approximately $35.8 million (or 0.4 percent) less than the service’s enacted budget for fiscal year 2010 (by comparison, the entire Department of Defense’s budget for 2011 is $708 billion). Among the steepest cuts in the Coast Guard budget were decreases in the service’s maritime security and counterterrorism capabilities; the budget proposes cutting five of the 12 Maritime Safety and Security Teams and canceling nine new aircraft and five cutters.
The cuts caused a stir throughout the nation’s capital, across the political spectrum. “It doesn’t make sense,” said Lawrence Korb of the left-leaning Center for New American Progress, “to have the Coast Guard budget cut when its missions are growing.” On March 10, the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Mackenzie Eaglen and Jim Dolbow of the U.S. Naval Institute wrote in their “Reject Coast Guard’s Maritime Security and Counterterrorism Mission Budget Cuts”: “Today’s Coast Guard remains stretched thin after going decades without recapitalizing its equipment. … Financing a robust and modern Coast Guard is a commonsense necessity for a maritime power like the U.S.”
The Coast Guard has always prided itself on being the U.S. agency that, perhaps more than any other, has been able to do more with less – but how long it can continue to do even more, with even less, remains a question most likely to be addressed by the 112th United States Congress that was seated in January 2011. For these legislators, the Center for American Progress offers this warning: “Failure to correct the current imbalance between responsibilities and capabilities will further erode the service’s already dwindling ability to carry out its statutory missions, and deny it the ability to protect this nation against 21st century challenges.”
This article was first published in The Year in Defense, Winter 2011 Edition.