Guard: An Innovative Plan for Multimission Excellence
But Coast Guard's Personnel and Fleet Inventory
Face Maximum Stress
By JAMES H. THACH III
JAMES H. THACH III is a retired aerospace program
man-ager and past chairman of the Navy League's Coast Guard Active and
Reserve Affairs Committee.
The United States Coast Guard was established in 1790 as the Revenue
Marine with a single assigned mission--namely, the enforcement of U.S.
customs and revenue laws. This simple directive to protect the seaborne
commerce of the fledgling nation, and hence the revenues to the United
States, soon expanded as the Congress authorized an increase in the strength
of the Revenue Marine in 1797 to "defend the sea coast, and ... repel
any hostility to [U.S.] vessels and commerce."
In the decades thereafter the Revenue Marine was charged with numerous
additional responsibilities, including but not limited to the suppression
of piracy, operating the nation's first lifesaving station (in Cohasset,
Mass.), protecting the timber reserves in Florida, and enforcing the law
in the newly acquired territory of Alaska.
The service's responsibilities were no longer simple and direct. New
missions and responsibilities continued to be assigned, and by the beginning
of the 20th century the Revenue Marine was responsible for an ever-increasing
number of lifesaving stations in and around U.S. coastal waters, enforcing
fishing laws in cooperation with the Bureau of Fisheries, policing the
anchorage of vessels in larger ports around the United States, and providing
special marine police services for regattas and marine parades.
The 20th century saw the addition of offshore seal patrols, the enforcement
of motorboat regulations, the testing and certification of merchant seamen,
enforcing oil-pollution laws in coastal waters, protecting the North Pacific
halibut fishery, and maintaining the newly developed LORAN (long-range
aids to navigation) system. Any resemblance to the original Revenue Marine
was by then purely coincidental.
There were other changes, and an exponential increase in operational
responsibilities. The U.S. Coast Guard was formally established under
that name in 1915, and served in combat, under U.S. Navy jurisdiction,
in World Wars I and II and in several other conflicts. The Coast Guard
was a major participant in the International Ice Patrol, and was responsible
for icebreaking in U.S. coastal waters and on the Great Lakes. The Coast
Guard Auxiliary and Coast Guard Reserve were established, the former Lighthouse
Service and Steamboat Inspection Bureau were absorbed into the Coast Guard
during one of the service's several reorganizations, and joint operations
with the Navy increased in both scope and frequency.
And, of course, the Coast Guard's responsibilities continued to expand.
Among the more significant new duties assigned in recent years: Polar
icebreaking to support new scientific research in the Arctic; a significant
increase in operations to prevent the immigration of illegal aliens; an
immense and continuing effort in the war against drugs; responsibility
for the nation's major waterway bridges; expanded efforts in the prevention
of maritime accidents; and additional duties in support of U.S. international
programs--an ongoing effort that has required the overseas deployment
of many of the Coast Guard's already scarce resources and people.
Today, although still very small in size, the Coast Guard faces a staggering
array of responsibilities and mission requirements. It is no longer just
the protector of the nation's customs laws.
The Responsibility Matrix
Coast Guard Commandant Adm. James M. Loy has defined the Coast Guard's
responsibilities in terms of five strategic goals: Maritime Safety, Maritime
Security, the Protection of Natural Resources, Maritime Mobility, and
Maritime Safety--the protection of life and property on the high seas,
primarily--is the mission for which the Coast Guard is most famous, and
in recent years meant 3,800 lives saved in an average year and $2.5 billion
in property also saved. In addition, the Coast Guard performs 141,000
recreational courtesy examinations annually, inspects over 50,000 merchant
vessels, and responds to over 50,000 calls for assistance from mariners
in distress. The American people read the accounts and see the blurred
pictures on TV and in the newspapers of dramatic rescues in the worst
possible conditions, and are justifiably proud of their Coast Guard. The
helicopter crew recovering a family from a sinking vessel, the 47-foot
motor lifeboat crew rescuing fishermen from their capsized boat in the
Columbia River in impossible sea conditions. These are the images that
most Americans remember.
With well over 75 million American boaters who own 17 million boats,
and who spent over $23 billion last year in boating activities, the Coast
Guard expenditure of less than $750 million in 2000 for all of its Maritime
Safety activities may well be one of the most cost-effective insurance
policies in the world.
Maritime Security can best be defined as the protection of the nation's
maritime borders. Last year there were literally hundreds of drug-related
murders in the United States and 50,000 citizens died because of drug
abuse. It is estimated that Americans spent over $50 billion to purchase
illegal drugs, and that the total loss to the U.S. economy was in excess
of $550 billion. Almost all illegal drugs used in America are produced
overseas and smuggled into the United States.
In addition, tens of thousands of illegal immigrants attempted to enter
the United States by sea last year. How many succeeded will probably never
Clearly, the need for expanded enforcement of laws and treaties has grown
in recent years. The Coast Guard is now responsible for protecting over
3.3 million square miles of contiguous U.S. coastal waters. Despite its
limited resources the Coast Guard last year prevented over 125,000 pounds
of cocaine from entering this country, stopped 40,000 pounds of hashish,
and interdicted over 4,500 illegal immigrants who were attempting to enter
the United States. The Coast Guard's total operational expenditures for
all of these law-enforcement responsibilities was only $778 million in
2000, less than one tenth of one percent of the economic loss caused by
illegal drugs, another exceedingly cost-effective use of scarce federal
Protection of Natural Resources is another critical mission for the Coast
Guard--and for the nation. The dramatic decrease in available fish stocks
has become a global problem. The $25 billion U.S. fishing industry employs
over 300,000 people either directly or in support functions. U.S. fishermen
harvest over four million tons of protein annually to help feed an increasingly
Another "protection of natural resources" mission results from
the harmful environmental impact of pollution spills. Today, Americans
better understand the impact of pollution and consider preservation of
the environment to be a national priority. Most people still do not realize
the extent of the Coast Guard's responsibilities for protecting the maritime
environment, however. With almost 26 percent of its 2000 operational budget
expended for the protection of national resources, it is clear the Coast
Guard is very deeply involved in this vital mission.
The Coast Guard responds to approximately 12,000 pollution incidents
every year, and, to enforce fisheries laws, boards and inspects 14,000
vessels annually. In spite of this intense effort the number of fish species
designated as "overfished" has continued to increase, so the
Coast Guard's work in this area also is likely to expand.
Maritime Mobility: To keep ships and small craft of all types moving
safely the Coast Guard maintains more than 50,000 federal aids to navigation
ranging from lighthouses to fixed shore aids to floating aids and including
the differential global positioning system now in service around the coastal
United States. The Coast Guard operates Vessel Traffic Services (VTS)
systems in many of the more crowded U.S. ports and channels to facilitate
the safe passage of vessels in congested waterways. The Coast Guard possesses
the nation's only significant icebreaking capabilities, and operates not
only in the coastal waterways and Great Lakes but also in the Arctic and
Antarctic. Because 95 percent of all imports to the United States come
by ship, the economic importance of the Coast Guard's icebreaking services
cannot be overemphasized.
The approximately $565 million in expenditures allocated to support maritime
mobility in FY 2000 represents a statistically insignificant percentage
of the estimated $1.7 trillion value of the maritime commerce protected,
but consumes almost 19 percent of the Coast Guard's annual operating budget.
National Defense: The Coast Guard provides not only a significant low-end
naval capability in time of war, but also several unique capabilities--in
port security, maritime interception, military environmental response,
and peacetime military engagement--that support U.S. political and diplomatic
policies around the world. Only a minute $63 million was expended by the
Coast Guard in 2000 for national defense, but the U.S. Navy knows it can
call on every Coast Guard resource from the large 378-foot cutters to
the 25-foot port security raider boats, and everything in between. In
short, all of the Coast Guard's personnel and physical resources are ready
to support national defense in time of need.
The Key Word: "Multimission"
How can the Coast Guard deliver such extraordinary value, across such
a broad spectrum of missions, at such a reasonable cost? The answer lies
in the unusual expertise that the Coast Guard has developed over the years,
particularly the ability of Coast Guard personnel to expertly perform
so many very different, and very difficult, tasks. Combined with the acquisition
of capital equipment that can cost-effectively perform many different
functions, that expertise translates into "value added" in numerous
All Coast Guard personnel, from the commanding officer of the largest
cutter to the newest recruit at a small boat station, train for and are
called upon to perform the full spectrum of Coast Guard missions. As an
example, a large buoy tender might be cleaning up a major oil spill on
Monday and the next day be servicing aids to navigation--then be suddenly
called away on a drug-interdiction mission. During the same week she might
be helping a disabled fisherman, then be ordered to the scene of a major
This is precisely what happened to the buoy tender USCGC Juniper, which--less
than two weeks after she was commissioned--became the on-scene command
ship and recovery vessel at the time of the TWA 800 tragedy. All of the
missions enumerated were performed by one Coast Guard vessel and one Coast
Guard crew, and with a degree of expertise that could not be duplicated
by any other seagoing agency in the world.
Another example of the multimission functionality of the Coast Guard
would be almost any small boat station around the United States. Although
search and rescue (SAR) is what the stations are staffed for, SAR is only
one of their varied responsibilities. They also are inspectors, not only
of recreational craft but also of fishing vessels (and their catches).
They also are maritime policemen, well-trained in law-enforcement theory
and practice. Personnel at some boat stations must patrol armed, protected
by flak jackets and ready to meet forceful resistance.
Some stations also have a K9 component, with drug-sniffing dogs that
go to their day's work in small boats, working with their Coast Guard
handlers to keep drugs from America's shores. Boat station personnel protect
the maritime environment, working to prevent--and, when necessary, clean
up--pollution spills. They are educators, teaching the fundamentals of
safe boating to the boating public. They maintain the small buoy boats
that repair and replace the smaller aids to navigation along America's
shores and on U.S. rivers. And, of course, when someone calls for help,
they are the voice on the other end of the radio. Every day, they put
their own lives on the line to save others. One station, one crew, multiple
Such multifunction tasking is clearly very difficult--and requires endless
training of the personnel involved and the acquisition of equipment with
multiple capabilities--but is a hallmark of today's Coast Guard. From
the perspective of government accountants, multimission taskings are very
cost-effective, because they involve high utilization of expensive resources,
both personnel and equipment, and therefore lower cost per activity.
The Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 established a measurement
system for all federal agencies; the Coast Guard consistently receives
very high marks--the most recent report card gave the multimission service
an "A" in every category except financial management, where
the Coast Guard received a "B" (but has subsequently completed
a property audit that should raise that grade to an "A" as well).
It should be noted that achievement of these grades has been very hard
on the Coast Guard's people and equipment, requiring long working hours
and a heavy maintenance burden.
The Dilemma of Success
Because of its numerous accomplishments, high grades, and public reputation,
it might seem that the Coast Guard is in excellent shape. That is not
the case. In fact, today's Coast Guard is in considerable trouble--not
of its own making, though.
The Coast Guard's physical infrastructure and hardware inventory are
rapidly wearing out. The Coast Guard's fleet of cutters is older than
39 of the world's 41 major naval fleets. Its largest cutters--the 378-foot
high-endurance Hamilton-class WHECs--were built in the 1960s. They have
no sonar, no air-search radar, very limited computer capability, no night-vision,
no low light level TV, and no infrared search capability. They are effectively
"Deaf, Dumb, Blind, and Hog-Tied" in today's high-technology
maritime world. On drug-interdiction or similar missions they often cannot
find their quarry, they cannot share current tactical data, and they may
not be able to catch the enemy even if they do find them. The 378-foot
cutters are powered by a combination of diesel and gas turbine engines,
but the turbine engines are the same as those used on the old 707 jet
transports, and at last count there were no spare engines to be found
anywhere in the world. The last 378 to deploy overseas with the U.S. Navy
was for that reason forced to make emergency repairs to its turbines when
they quit while the cutter was still underway with the carrier task force.
The crew met their obligations, but at a very high cost.
Perhaps optimistically, the Coast Guard gives the 378 class only three
more years before they are totally obsolete. The truth is, though, that
they became economically obsolete almost 10 years ago. It would have cost
the United States less to have replaced them in the 1990s with ships of
superior capability, fitted with more reliable systems, and with smaller
Two of the Coast Guard's medium-endurance cutters are even more ancient;
they were operational in World War II and should have been replaced 30
In 1993 President Clinton called on all U.S. government offices and agencies
to "reinvent" themselves into more efficient entities. The Coast
Guard, under the guidance of then-Commandant Adm. Robert E. Kramek, dutifully
undertook to "streamline" the Coast Guard and between 1994 and
1998 cut the active-duty force by 4,000 people.
Kramek also managed, despite increased mission requirements, to reduce
the Coast Guard's operational budget by approximately $400 million.
The administration and Congress did not reward the Coast Guard, unfortunately,
for its forward-looking actions by providing the recapitalization funds
needed to complete the job. The predictable result was that the Coast
Guard's infrastructure suffered. Maintenance of cutters, aircraft, and
shore facilities was postponed. The training needed was not provided,
and the new equipment even more urgently needed was not procured. The
fleet inventory continued to age and the availability of other operational
resources dropped. One result was that the readiness rate for 41-foot
utility boats fell by 20 percent and the readiness rate for the old 44-foot
motor surfboats dropped by 35 percent.
Recruiting and retention also suffered, creating significant gaps in
critical-skill personnel such as aircraft pilots and VTS radar operators.
The overall situation became so difficult that Loy, Kramek's successor,
was forced to order a cutback in noncritical operations to help preserve
aged equipment and also reduce the strain on the badly overworked Coast
Guard work force.
All of these problems result from severe, and continued, underfunding.
The Coast Guard's AC&I (acquisition, construction & improvements)
budget serves as a prime example. AC&I money buys the Coast Guard's
new or replacement equipment, and serves as a reliable measure of the
service's reinvestment rate. Over the last 15 years the Coast Guard has
received, in constant 2000 dollars, an average of $544 million for AC&I;
that total includes supplemental authorizations. But the value of all
Coast Guard assets is estimated to be $20 billion. This means that Congress
and the executive branch have reinvested in the Coast Guard at a rate
of only 2.7 percent. The commonly accepted minimum required to keep a
commercial company functioning is a 5 percent reinvestment rate--almost
twice what the Coast Guard has been allocated.
The Way Out
Recognizing the extreme problem it is facing, the Coast Guard has developed
an innovative approach to upgrade its infrastructure while still carrying
out its missions. The new "Deepwater" approach breaks new ground
in government procurement. First, the Coast Guard did not specify in its
Deepwater proposal the number of ships and aircraft needed and the required
capabilities of each. Instead, it defined the missions that have to be
carried out and asked the private sector to propose how those missions
should be done: how many ships and aircraft are needed, what type of electronic
and computer systems should be procured, and even how they should be operated.
Another important point: The Coast Guard did not call for a "lowest
initial cost" approach--which in the past has led to the procurement
of equipment that, while cheap to buy, was very expensive to own and operate,
in terms both of dollars and people. Instead, the Coast Guard is seeking
the lowest life-cycle costs.
Funding the Deepwater Project will not be inexpensive; estimates indicate
a total program cost between $17 billion and $20 billion, spread over
the next 20 years. From a national policy point of view, though, it seems
absolutely mandatory to keep what is by any measurable standard the world's
best Coast Guard functioning with the capabilities and at the operational
levels that will be required to meet the challenges looming just over
The only question to be answered, therefore, is this: Will the next administration
and the new Congress have the good sense, and the foresight, needed to
keep the Coast Guard Semper Paratus (Always Ready) for the foreseeable
How Safe Are U.S. Ports?
Maritime security is the umbrella term used to describe matters related
to the speedy and safe transportation of goods and services to and through
U.S. ports. After the bombing of the USS Cole, the American public started
to ask: "Could this happen here?"
The short answer is "Yes." However, several recent efforts
by the Coast Guard and other federal, state, and local agencies--as well
as the private sector--have focused on the vulnerability of U.S. ports
On 13 November 1998, recognizing both the continuing importance and the
vulnerability of the U.S. Marine Transportation System, Congress directed
the Secretary of Transportation, through the Coast Guard and in consultation
with other federal agencies, to establish a task force to assess the adequacy
of the nation's ports, waterways, and their intermodal connections, to
operate in a safe, efficient, and environmentally sound manner.
In September 1999, the task force issued its findings and recommendations
in a report to Congress, An Assessment of the U. S. Marine Transportation
System. Maritime security is one of five key areas addressed in the report;
the issues pertaining to the Maritime Transportation System include the
need to support national security programs in general, various ways of
keeping the flow of waterborne traffic moving, and initiatives to safeguard
the nation's ports and waterways.
The Hart-Rudman Commission, which was concurrently tasked with reviewing
the overall U.S. national security situation, set two simple goals in
a report issued at the end of the first phase of its ongoing work: first,
to sustain U.S. economic prosperity; second, to ensure the security of
the U.S. homeland.
Inherent in those goals is a paradox of major concern to political leaders
and maritime security planners alike. Sustaining prosperity requires greater
openness and more freedom of movement. On the other hand, ensuring homeland
security implies a need to tighten down the national borders. Finding
an appropriate balance that enhances prosperity and improves security
at the same time is a tall order indeed, as Coast Guard Commandant Adm.
James M. Loy frequently points out.
The Coast Guard is doing its part to develop solutions. On 21 October
2000, the Coast Guard Academy hosted an interactive workshop on Homeland
Security: The Maritime Achilles Heel that highlighted potential threats
to the U.S. marine infrastructure and encouraged participants to craft
innovative ways to prevent and respond to asymmetric attacks on U.S. ports.
Navy League National President John R. Fisher, one of the participants,
said the workshop "gave us a clear picture of the threats and very
complex problems with which the Coast Guard and others are coping every
How to prevent threats to the U.S. port system is an issue that will
continue to foster debate, and another mission that probably will require
the assignment of additional Coast Guard personnel and physical assets.