(Article originally published in July/Aug 2015 edition.)
It was on August 4, 1790, that the first Congress authorized a new agency and the construction of 10 vessels to enforce federal tariff and trade laws. That agency, known as the Revenue Cutter Service, gave rise to the U.S. Coast Guard. Almost as old as the nation itself, the Coast Guard and its predecessor services proved themselves versatile and adaptable for more than two centuries, capable of successfully meeting new mission demands and evolving national priorities.
In the mid-19th century, immigrants from Europe set sail for New York and a new home. During the winter, “nor’easters” made the journey perilous and frequently caused ships to wreck along the coast. Many passengers died in the frigid waters before making it to shore. A national solution was needed to save those in peril on the sea. Thus, in 1878, the U.S. Lifesaving Service was born. In 1915, the Revenue Cutter Service and Lifesaving Service combined to form the U.S. Coast Guard.
Over the course of the next few decades, the multimission character of the service grew as additional agencies folded into the Coast Guard including the U.S. Lighthouse Service, responsible for lighthouses, light ships and other Aids to Navigation, and the Bureau of Navigation and Steamboat Inspection Service. Through it all, adaptation and transformation became embedded in the service’s organizational DNA. Today, the Coast Guard has a global presence with a diverse set of authorities and missions that are unique the world over.
“This is a very unique time in the Coast Guard’s history,” says its Commandant, Admiral Paul F. Zukunft. “Never has our service faced a greater demand across our mission set while simultaneously dealing with so many competing resource needs.”
Ninety percent of goods in the U.S. move on the water, and the rise in U.S. energy production has further increased activity on the nation’s Maritime Transportation System, a designation that includes the bridges, locks, dams, port infrastructure and Aids to Navigation that enable the movement of goods on America’s waterways. The Coast Guard is examining the impact of this growth and how it will affect maritime traffic and the nation’s ports, especially in terms of safety. To help meet the challenge, roughly 500 new Marine Inspectors have been added in the last five years, and plans call for continued increases in this highly specialized profession well into the future.
The Coast Guard also has a number of initiatives to better employ technology to improve navigation. They include the use of Automated Identification Systems, or AISs, to create virtual buoys that display on navigation charts and to update those charts remotely. Zukunft is quick to point out, however, that he’s not interested in removing the visual aids mariners have relied upon for more than two centuries on our nation’s river system.
“I stood on the bridge of a line barge recently next to a captain who’s been working the river for 40 years,” Zukunft stated. “Visual cues are an important part of the way he maintains the safe navigation of his vessel, and we’re not going to replace that. We will, however, find ways to make enhancements where it makes sense.”
Thousands of unaccompanied minors surged over the U.S.’s southwest borders last year. The Coast Guard believes this is symptomatic of a much larger problem – transnational organized crime networks. These networks, whose violence and illicit actions include trafficking drugs, humans and weapons, destabilize governments and stifle legitimate economic opportunity.
To sever criminal networks and disrupt their illicit activities, the Coast Guard has moved additional ships and aircraft into the maritime transit zone between South and Central America. “Intelligence driving operations,” as Zukunft calls it, is having an impact on transnational criminals. The Coast Guard has detained more than 300 suspected drug traffickers for prosecution this year and seized record amounts of contraband in both 2014 and 2015.
Recapitalizing the Fleet
But the greatest need for the Coast Guard right now is to recapitalize its aging fleet of cutters to meet the needs of 21st century operations. Currently, the service is on track to complete its acquisition of eight National Security Cutters, the largest ships in the Coast Guard’s arsenal with the ability to operate almost anywhere in the world.
At the other end of the size spectrum are the new Fast Response Cutters, which provide littoral presence and protection for the nation. Once complete, the service expects 58 Fast Response Cutters to be in service.
The “missing link,” as Zukunft recently described it, is the Offshore Patrol Cutter. Currently the 1960s-era, 210-foot and the 1980s-era, 270-foot Medium Endurance Cutters provide the link between the National Security Cutter’s open ocean endurance and the Fast Response Cutter’s littoral presence. With most Medium Endurance Cutters well beyond their intended service life and requiring significant funding just to stay in service, the link is untenable and under heavy strain.
Three companies are now bidding for the contract to build the Offshore Patrol Cutter, which is expected to be the largest acquisition project in the Coast Guard’s history when all 25 vessels are completed.
Opening the Arctic
The Arctic is fast opening up to increased human activity, and that is driving the demand for Coast Guard resources in one of the globe’s most complex and challenging environments. With plans well underway for Royal Dutch Shell to resume drilling in the Arctic this summer, the Coast Guard will position assets in the region to respond if needed to search-and-rescue incidents or potential oil spills.
Coast Guard icebreakers enable scientific research during the summer months, and the nation’s only heavy icebreaker, Polar Star, is used to resupply the U.S. Antarctic Program at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. But the service says this mission is fraught with risk as there are no other icebreakers in the U.S. inventory to come to Polar Star’s rescue should it become trapped in ice.
As a result, the service is looking at various options to restore its ability to project U.S. sovereignty in the polar regions, including purchasing a new heavy icebreaker, reactivating the Polar Sea, which is currently mothballed in Seattle, or leasing an icebreaker. Whatever the decision, Zukunft says the service will need a top-line adjustment to its budget to proceed. With an expected cost of just over $1 billion, funding a new icebreaker is well beyond the Coast Guard’s ability given its current acquisition budget.
Access to the polar regions requires not just ships but also robust international partnerships and close collaboration at the federal, state, local and tribal levels. During a time when the U.S. is challenged by a number of geostrategic issues with Russia and China, the Coast Guard has productive operational relationships with its counterpart services in both those countries.
Global cooperation is also part and parcel of both the Polar Code and the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, and Zukunft has made clear his support for Polar Code implementation and ratification of the Law of the Sea treaty, stating that both are needed to improve governance and the rule of law in the Arctic.
The Coast Guard released its first cyber strategy in June to guide the service as it addresses challenges in the rapidly evolving domain of cyber security. The strategy speaks to three lines of effort for the multimission Coast Guard.
First and foremost, the service is responsible for safeguarding its own cyber systems. Like every government agency, Coast Guard systems are prime targets for attack from hackers and from both state and non-state actors. Second, the Coast Guard has a statutory role to ensure that vessels and facilities engaged in international commerce are secure. And third, it uses cyber technology to conduct operations, primarily in countering illicit drug-trafficking networks operating in the Western Hemisphere. And in this regard its success rate over the last two years has been remarkable.
The service also has a long history of partnering with foreign maritime organizations to develop their maritime capabilities. Annually, the Coast Guard provides education and training opportunities to students from more than 35 countries through in-country mobile training, resident training and education programs at Coast Guard “schoolhouses” in the U.S.
One of those schoolhouse programs is the International Maritime Officers Course, held at the Coast Guard’s Yorktown, Virginia Training Center. The course provides mid-level international officers the opportunity to study multimission maritime forces through seminars and hands-on training. Since its inception, more than 1,000 students from over 120 countries have participated.
For highly qualified international students who want to attend a four-year program at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, the service accepts a few international applicants each year. Since 1971, more than 100 foreign cadets from 34 countries have graduated from the Academy, and several have served in senior maritime positions around the world.
In conjunction with training, the Coast Guard helps other nations strengthen their maritime capabilities by working with them on needs’ assessments, new and excess equipment sales, reciprocal port security visits, subject-matter-expert exchanges, coordination with other U.S. agencies, and collaboration with regional leaders.
The Way Forward
The tradition of international cooperation has, among other benefits, enabled the Coast Guard to secure over 40 counter-drug bilateral agreements with other countries, authorizing the service to take action against smugglers in their territorial waters and greatly expanding the service’s range of operations.
So while the challenges are great, steady progress is being made, and under Zukunft’s leadership the way forward is clear. It’s not easy being “Semper Paratus,” but for the Coast Guard it’s a way of life.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.