The U.S. Coast Guard: A Unique Military Service in Every Way
Admiral Robert Papp, Commandant of the United States Coast Guard, leads a vital military service with far-reaching responsibilities. One of these responsibilities currently receiving widespread attention is the Arctic. In 2011 Congressional testimony, Papp once commented that “the United States Coast Guard (USCG) has zero capability in the Arctic.” But this past summer the Coast Guard conducted Operation Arctic Shield. According to Papp, “We just completed our fourth annual Operation Arctic Shield, which provides an air, surface and shore-side Coast Guard presence in the Arctic during the summer – the only time we need to be up there, at least for now. Personnel assigned to cutters, aircraft and communications teams gain valuable Arctic operational experience during this mission. So on any given day, we may have no capabilities in the Arctic, such as in the winter when we may not have a stitch of Coast Guard capability up there. But, during other times, we have rather substantial capability.”
According to Papp, the Coast Guard has had a long and continuous presence in Alaska – not the Arctic – since 1867 when one of it cutters carried the U.S. delegation to Sitka to receive the Alaskan territory from the Russians. The Commandant’s history in Alaska goes back 37 years to his first assignment as an Ensign in Adak, in the Aleutian chain, during the Cold War. This continuity has provided valuable first-hand experience on the changing Arctic.
“I was aboard a Seagoing Buoy Tender that ranged throughout the Bering Sea, Gulf of Alaska and up into the Arctic. In the summer of 1976, the ice was so thick we couldn’t proceed up to Kotzebue. A nearby Coast Guard ice breaker had an embarked helicopter, so I went for a ride to look for ice leads so our small ship might be able to pass through. We didn’t find any ice leads and, in fact, when we landed in Kotzebue, which was mid-July, the ice was up to the shore. Fast forward 35 years later to the summer of 2010 when, as the new Coast Guard Commandant, I went to Alaska in August. As we flew into Kotzebue, I couldn’t see any ice anywhere, which is a very dramatic presentation of what’s changed up there. This open water is new market space for the Coast Guard,” explains Papp.
To understand this new development for USCG, it is important to know how it differs from the other U.S. military services – a difference that centers on the U.S. Constitution. From the beginning, young America did not want its military used to enforce domestic law. However, the Coast Guard, from its inception, was created to enforce domestic law – in this case, the 1790 tariff laws enacted to help pay off the nation’s Revolutionary War debt. Today, the Coast Guard is still the primary federal agency authorized to enforce U.S. laws in the maritime environment. In order to accomplish such a mission back then and today, the USCG needs small, naval-type ships.
Papp explains: “The Navy doesn’t build many small ships nor does the Coast Guard build aircraft carriers or submarines. Each service has its own capabilities that complement each other because we’re required to have interoperable equipment. For instance, the Coast Guard has six patrol boats in the Arabian Gulf to help with security operations because the Navy doesn’t have similar patrol boats. And we have law enforcement teams on Navy ships around the world to enforce U.S. law. Our niche, non-redundant capabilities are very important to the United States and a critical resource around the world.”
Home Port: Western Hemisphere
Many people think the Coast Guard sits against the U.S. coastline, but it is out in the high-seas, primarily within the Western Hemisphere, deeply involved in the region. A good example is the January 2010 Haitian earthquake. “We were among the first ones on scene, which included being the first U.S. military service,” explains Papp. “We had Coast Guard cutters deployed in the Florida Straits and the Windward Passage on migrant interdiction patrols. We also had cutters deployed on drug interdiction in the Caribbean. When the higher priority natural disaster came up, we immediately changed mission tasking and sent them to respond.
“The Haitian earthquake happened one day, and the next morning Coast Guard cutter Forward was in Port-au-Prince harbor sending shore parties to do reconnaissance; launching its helicopter to survey the damage; sending medical people ashore to the Haitian Coast Guard base, which we helped develop and train; and providing triage until the ‘big boys’ arrived. The Secretary of Defense had to make a decision to deploy Department of Defense (DoD) forces and momentum had to build up for them to deploy. By comparison, as the Coast Guard Atlantic Area Commander at the time, I didn’t even have to make that decision because my rear admiral in Miami, who had forces allocated to him, made the decision to send those assets to Haiti. He informed me as the Atlantic Area Commander, but he had the authority to send them.
“The Coast Guard was like the scout, providing early information, but we don’t have a lot of capacity. By the time the first Navy amphibious ship showed up, we were wiping our brows, saying, ‘It’s about time they got here,’ because all of a sudden there’s landing craft, multiple helicopters, and thousands of Sailors and Marines.”
The “Coasties’” Dual Culture
The Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard are designated by U.S. law as the nation’s “armed services.” As such, most people are confused as to why the Coast Guard is in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) rather than the DoD. “Being in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) allows us to keep that law enforcement designation,” explains the Commandant, “which provides a unique, dual culture within the Coast Guard. We understand our defense responsibilities, but we need to take that a step further because, as law enforcement officials, we’re mandated to perform in accordance with other citizens’ rights as well as a belief in Rule of Law. I think that’s what makes ‘Coasties’ a little bit different.
“I’ll give a tangible example of this difference. The U.S. had a merchant ship in the Gulf of Aden about two years ago that was seized by Somali pirates. A U.S. Navy ship was in the area with a Marine team trained to board vessels forcibly and to retake them.
The ship also had a Coast Guard law enforcement detachment aboard. In this particular case, the Marines went on first and retook the vessel. However, once they secured the ship, the law enforcement detachment went aboard immediately behind them, secured the crime scene and started collecting evidence that would lead to arrest and prosecution.
“The Coast Guard has Maritime Safety and Security Teams, which are part of our Deployable Specialized Forces. We established 13 after 9/11. We’ve reduced one for budget reasons, and we’ve beefed up one and call that ‘MSRT,’ Maritime Security Response Team. That team is trained offensively – to do what Marines do – and can retake a vessel. We just received direction from Congress to create another MSRT on the West Coast. One on each coast is all we need because it’s very specific training; it’s very detailed, and it takes time. These type cases don’t come up that often.”
Drug Interdiction Capabilities
Another U.S. Coast Guard primary mission responsibility is drug interdiction. South America produces approximately 700 metric tons of cocaine per year, primarily in Columbia, Bolivia and Ecuador. Every year about 400 metric tons pours into the U.S., which is why it is critical for the Coast Guard to stop this supply in bulk. Drug traffickers load up three to five tons of pure cocaine in a small boat – a “go fast” boat – with three to four outboards that travel at speeds up to 40 knots. These boats leave Columbia or Ecuador, travel directly to El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras or some Central American country and then offload the drugs. There it is broken down into small loads that go through the Mexican cartels to the U.S. border.
Papp explains that the Coast Guard does not want these shipments “to get into Central America, so we position ships in the Pacific and in the Caribbean to intercept these go-fasts. Another thing we do – because, obviously, a big ship can’t go as fast as those 40 knot boats – is use our Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron (HITRON), located in Jacksonville, Fla. We’ll launch the helicopter, which has a machine gun, and it flies along the go-fasts firing warning shots in the water across the bow of the boat. Hopefully, they get the message and stop. If they don’t, we have a sharpshooter with a 50 caliber marksman rifle, who starts shooting out the outboards.
“Once again, this is not a defense threat; this is a law enforcement case. Who knows, maybe what they have onboard are big bundles of laundry soap, but, they’re fleeing from us, and they refuse to stop. We obviously can’t shoot them if they’re not firing on us; however, we can shoot the engines, bring it to a stop and investigate the case. The United States has bilateral agreements with almost every South and Central American country. Some actually allow us to come into their territorial waters to prosecute cases.”
It is easy to understand the importance of drug interdiction to the Coast Guard by referencing the service’s most expensive assets, its ships. USCG currently has about 41 major ships; on any given day between 15 and 18 are underway performing missions. The remainder are in maintenance or stand-downs because they have just returned from patrol. Out of the 15 to 18 underway, Papp generally has six devoted to drug interdiction on any given day in the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific. The Coast Guard is also supported by U.S. Navy ships within those waters. However, as mentioned, they have no law enforcement authority. But they can do detection and monitoring under Title 10.
The Coast Guard feeds the Navy intelligence, and they travel to where they think the go-fast boats will be. If the Navy detects one, the Coast Guard law enforcement team on board takes operational control of the Navy ship through a USCG Admiral in Miami or Alameda, Calif. They actually hoist a Coast Guard flag on the Navy ship and use Coast Guard people to prosecute the case. Papp maintains that “on the Navy and Coast Guard senior officer level, this partnership is well understood between both services, and I think that’s good for our country because we have complementary, non-redundant forces. The reason Americans need to know about such things is because the Navy is being mandated by Congress to reduce its forces, and they’re not going to be able to deploy those ships anymore. This means the U.S. is going to lose that capability.
Increasing Budget Problems
“At the same time, our Coast Guard Fleet is antiquated. The basic service life for a naval ship is usually 25 to 30 years. All of our major ships are 40-plus years old. Engineering-wise, they’re antiquated and hard to support; they’re falling apart, less reliable and more expensive to maintain. We’ve been on a ship-building program for a number of years. Right when we’re starting to hit our stride in getting the ships built, we hit declining budgets.
“As a Service Chief, I’ve been given the courtesy to sit in on the Joint Chiefs of Staff sessions. I’ve watched their budget struggles throughout the last few years as they face what could be some real challenges. During the past 10 years, we’ve done much better from a budget allocation standpoint in DHS than we did when we were part of the Department of Transportation (DOT) because the DOT focus is more on regulatory activities, and we’re an operating agency.
“So, the real benefit for us in DHS is that we’re grouped with operating agencies – Secret Service, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And, we have a large intelligence component because each agency has its own intelligence that we integrate together. Having all the operating agencies that contribute to homeland security under DHS is a wise idea for our country.
“However, it’s hard to come up with any one department in the federal government that’s inclusive of all the responsibilities the Coast Guard has. DHS had growing pains in the beginning, but they’ve since settled in, and I’m comfortable with us being there. The Coast Guard went from a USD$3 billion annual budget under DOT prior to 9/11 to a USD$10 billion budget in 2012 under DHS. That’s allowed us to start our ship building, to recapitalize our boats, to renovate all of our helicopters, plus we have 6,000 more people than we had 10 years ago. The problem is these ships because it’s taken so long to get our acquisition workforce back up to speed, to let the contracts and to start our building. Now that we’re on a roll building ships, we’re confronted with budget challenges. And, ships are expensive. Each year is proving to be a challenging endeavor for me as we try to keep our ship building program going.”
The Arctic & the Environment
Papp pauses for a moment and then doubles back to explain more thoroughly why the Coast Guard has this new “market” in Alaska. As stated, USCG has broad authorities associated with U.S. waters.
With Alaska’s expanding waters, the service is responsible for the increased territory and increasing population – whether for drilling or fishing, cruise ships or new trade routes going through the Arctic and Bering Strait.
“The way we take care of it, because we have no built infrastructure up there,” explains the Commandant, “is to deploy ships with good endurance and that can launch helicopters and boats. This is part of our current ship building. We have capability now, but most of those 12 ships are 45-years old. We’ve built three new ones that are supposed to be part of their replacement. We’re ultimately supposed to build eight new ones to replace the 12 old ones.
“The Coast Guard has been experimenting in the Arctic for some time now, deploying during the summer and experimenting before increased activity starts. Shell didn’t get the opportunity to drill for oil in 2012, but they’ll be back in the summer of 2013 and the summers after that. Other companies will begin drilling as well because of massive amounts of oil. If Shell is legally authorized to proceed, their rights need to be protected. If other people or organizations want to be up there to legally protest, their rights need to be protected as well. That’s part of the Coast Guard’s law enforcement responsibility, which includes maintaining security in the area.”
Papp is a thoughtful man who believes discourse is important when contentious issues arise. During one of his earlier jobs as Admiral and Commander of Coast Guard operations at the Great Lakes, he brought together industry and environmentalists to assist in the resolution of equally contentious issues. “That’s two pieces of bread, and the Coast Guard’s the meat in the middle because oftentimes we didn’t fully satisfy either one. For instance, one issue I was dealing with was invasive species – ballast water coming into the Great Lakes and depositing invasive species. It was impossible to make anyone happy because you’re never going to get that ballast water clean enough to satisfy the environmentalists. And, if you try to do that, it’s a huge financial burden on the shippers. So, the Coast Guard has to be like Solomon and come up with what we believe is the best solution and one that’s also in accordance with other countries.”
Piracy, Policy and the IMO
One of Papp’s jobs relative to other countries is as head of the U.S. delegation to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a United Nations’ specialized agency responsible for improving maritime safety and preventing pollution from ships. He has Coast Guard officers or senior executives on various IMO committees who work year-round to develop environmental laws and treaties. Right now, Papp and his staff are working on piracy policy and environmental policy, but he warns those type things usually move at “glacial speed” because it is hard to gain consensus.
The Commandant explains: “The piracy policy is moving slowly because the issue is how to deal with it. Some countries believe very strongly, as does the United States, that armed security details on ships is the way to go. No country has ever lost a ship that had an armed security detail onboard. We also know that no ship that can sustain a speed greater than 18 knots has ever been seized by pirates. These are some best practices, but some countries worry about liabilities involving the armed security details. What if you shoot an innocent fisherman? What if we’re perceived as escalating weaponry, and the pirates respond with even greater weaponry? We have countries on the IMO policy board with different cultures and different ideas that don’t necessarily agree with American solutions. And, if you’re trying to pass something and codify it in the international maritime organization, you have to gain consensus amongst the countries.
“The Arctic is another issue we’re getting into now. We do have a search and rescue agreement negotiated at the Arctic Council, which is the eight Arctic countries. Secretary Clinton led that. Now we’d like to agree on an environmental policy, but that’s more challenging to work through. For instance, how do we respond to disasters and oil spills? Unfortunately, everything we do at IMO is hobbled by the fact that the United States is the lone country that hasn’t signed onto the Law of the Sea Treaty. Detractors say, ‘We don’t need it because we have the best Navy.’ But, that’s not our culture; we’re a country that believes in laws, that abides by laws. We resort to force when we have to, but we shouldn’t have to because let’s try to get things done peaceably.”
According to Papp, the Law of the Sea Convention provides a venue for negotiating disputes between countries. It sets up a set of standard practices and regimes for how much territorial sea a country can claim, how much of an exclusive economic zone. Most importantly to the United States right now, it also codifies how a nation can make extended outer continental shelf claims. In Alaska, the U.S. can extend its offshore claim 200 miles. But, about 20 percent of the world’s oil reserves are in this region, and the U.S. has the opportunity to claim 600 miles, potentially, for drilling rights. However, the country does not have standing under the Treaty right now in order to negotiate that claim. The Commandant believes American companies will not risk the liability of drilling in areas without a clear claim. And, there is no way the U.S. can guarantee such claims without being a party to the Treaty.
The Coast Guard is very supportive of sustainability and has a number of ongoing initiatives. But, Papp says that “from a green building perspective, it’s difficult for us to come up with money to change things we already have. This is why our new headquarters, which is currently under construction across the river in Anacostia, is so exciting to us. General Services Administration (GSA) let the contract, and the building is expected to be LEED-gold certified. My understanding is that we’re going to have the largest green roof in the United States. I was joking when I originally looked at the HQ rendering and asked, ‘Who the heck is going to be on the roof cutting grass?’ I didn’t know it was all vegetation that doesn’t grow very high.
“I’ve since been over there walking on the roofs, and they consist of low-water vegetation that will be watered with stormwater runoff rather than potable water. The stormwater will run down into a pond, which will recirculate the water back up to the roofs and then back down again into the pond.
We’ll also have green spaces with low-water vegetation within the courtyard. We’ll be moving in August of 2013, and the new building is large enough to consolidate most of our locally based 3,000 Coast Guard personnel into our new HQ.”
Fisheries are very important to the U.S. Coast Guard as well, especially since they enforce all fishery laws. Although the Coast Guard participates in all regional fishery councils, it sits as a non-voting member. This allows the councils within the United States to make determinations on species, quotas and numbers necessary for sustainability. In order to be knowledgeable on the specified training regarding enforcement within different regional waters, the Coast Guard has its own regional fisheries training centers. This allows Coasties to learn the different policies since each region has its own regulations and fish species.
“This is critical training that we share globally,” explains Papp. “For instance, I’ve been to many International Seapower Symposiums around the world, and I probably get more questions than the Chief of Naval Operations because most countries don’t need aircraft carriers or submarines. But, on a day-to-day basis they do need assistance with fisheries and other things we’re experts in, such as drug smuggling and piracy. This means they can relate better to the United States Coast Guard than they do the United States Navy. Many African countries, for example, say they have navies, but from our perspective, what they have are coast guards, which is why we have great relevance to them.
“As an example of this, the U.S. Combatant Commander for Africa, General Carter Hamm, came to me saying he had all these emerging African nations that wanted to develop a navy. But what they really wanted to develop was a coast guard, which is why Carter asked me if I could send training teams or Coast Guard cutters. As a result, we used to program our forces in to be able to devote time to the Navy’s Africa Partnership Station (APS), but with our reduced number of ships and budget we’re not able to do that. Instead, in 2012, we put a Coast Guard training team onboard a Navy ship. As they went from port to port, they conducted shoreside training for African navy personnel. We also got underway with their boats and taught fisheries protection, and boarding and drug interdiction.”
As a passionate and compassionate human being with a highly evolved sense of justice, these types of humanitarian, internationally focused programs are very important to Papp, which is why he supports the Law of the Sea. Such programs allow the military to settle things peacefully rather than resorting to force. “Military people understand this inherently because they have the most invested and the most to lose. We would rather negotiate and find better, peaceful solutions to contentious issues,” concludes Papp.