As the nation’s premier maritime law enforcement agency, the U.S. Coast Guard is responsible for enforcing U.S. law on the nation’s waterways and on the high seas.
This role takes on many forms, from stations enforcing laws on local waterways to cutters making fisheries patrols in U.S. territorial waters, and even on an international level with the Coast Guard teaching this expertise worldwide.
Technically, under federal law, every Coast Guard member above the rank of third class petty officer is a law enforcement agent and can enforce U.S. laws. But on the highest levels, the service has a cadre of specially trained law enforcement personnel.
That’s the service’s law enforcement detachments – LEDETs in the service’s parlance – created in the early 1980s and whose only job is high-level law enforcement. Their role has increased and expanded throughout the years as the needs of the nation and the service have changed.
“The tyranny of distance and space in the maritime domain requires the Coast Guard to leverage existing authority and jurisdiction by pushing the lines of operations out as far as possible, and establishing a layered defense in depth,” said Ken Ward, who heads the Counterterrorism Division of the Coast Guard’s Office of Counterterrorism and Defense Operations.
That evolution has resulted in a cadre of special Coast Guardsmen who are, in effect, special operations forces, elite personnel trained for very special missions, on par with those from their sister services in the Defense Department.
“The Coast Guard possesses unique capabilities and authorities that enable the Coast Guard to perform law enforcement operations in international waters in a number of situations,” Ward said. “As one of the nation’s five armed forces, the Coast Guard has a well-developed relationship with its sister services and NATO allies.”
Those relationships have expanded the Coast Guard’s footprint and reach into the international realm, and though they most often operate from ships and aircraft of the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy, they’ve also operated from vessels of the British Royal Navy, the Royal Netherlands Navy, the Belgian Navy, and the Royal Canadian Navy to name a few – extending the reach of U.S. law enforcement even farther.
“This provides critical access to a variety of platforms from which these enhanced law enforcement detachments can operate,” Ward said. “This expanded access and expeditionary footprint is critical to the Coast Guard’s layered security strategy.”
A layered strategy is key to the service’s success as it maximizes the assets of the Coast Guard and is critical because of the United States’ 350 ports and 95,000 miles of coastline – a maritime domain full of bays, lakes, and rivers.
Instead of reacting at the coastline, the proactive layered strategy starts overseas at the source of the threat – or drugs as the case may be.
“The Western Hemisphere Drug Transit Zone is an area roughly two times the size of the continental United States [CONUS] between the source and target countries of the cocaine trade,” said Capt. Doug Fears, chief, Office of Law Enforcement at Coast Guard Headquarters. “Approximately 1,000 metric tons of high-purity cocaine flows through the maritime areas of that zone every year.”
On average, during each of the past five years, 100 metric tons of cocaine has been removed through maritime interdiction operations. Compare that with just 20 metric tons that, on average, are interdicted coming across the southwestern U.S. border and another 25 metric tons seized annually elsewhere in CONUS.
That’s with a force of roughly 200 service members – a small number of highly trained people who are able to provide a proactive layer of defense to the nation.
When the LEDET program was introduced in 1982, the first LEDETs operated directly under Coast Guard districts. Structured this way, they were the lead law enforcement specialists at each unit, conducting local operations and training others in the business.
Public Law 99-570 was established in 1986, authorizing the service to establish billets for active-duty Coast Guard personnel to conduct counterdrug interdiction operations aboard U.S. Navy surface ships.
Along with expanding the Coast Guard’s reach, these operations from Navy ships took the Coast Guard’s LEDETs to a new level of operations in line with the service’s directives.
This led in 1988 to Congress enacting Public Law 100-456, which made it a requirement to appoint Coast Guard law enforcement personnel to be aboard any Navy ship that navigates within a known drug-smuggling area.
A year later, Congress further assigned roles and missions in the 1989 National Defense Authorization Act, designating the Defense Department the lead federal agency to detect and monitor illegal drug trafficking on the high seas. However, the Coast Guard was appointed the principal agency for the interdiction and apprehension of illegal drug traffickers in the maritime domain.
While drug interdiction has remained a significant mission focus and arguably the most well known of the LEDETs’ work, LEDET service members perform a variety of tactical law enforcement missions, including maritime security operations, conducting boardings, and training U.S. and international allied boarding teams. LEDETs’ interdiction and boarding skills remain in demand for conducting antipiracy operations worldwide in addition to multinational sanctions enforcement operations.