Prepared for Any Eventuality At Sea
By JAMES H. THACH III
On the morning of 3 September 1998, the weather forecasts called for
heavy rain, and winds up to 70 mph, in the anticipated path of Hurricane
Earl. At Coast Guard Station Charleston (S.C.), crewmembers were just
sitting down to lunch when the first alarm sounded.
A sailboat had broken free of its mooring and hit one bridge, and was
now threatening another. In the rising storm, Petty Officer 3rd Class
Mark Kannan worked desperately to position his 41-foot utility boat alongside
the drifting sailboat so that Seaman Dale LaRose could jump aboard to
secure a tow line. The wind was swiftly driving the sailboat toward the
bridge. With only five feet to go before the sailboat hit the bridge,
they secured the line and towed the sailboat to a local marina, then
started back to the station.
But the storm had now reached full force, and calls for help swamped
channels 16, 21, and 22. Kannan's crew was sent to recover another sailboat,
adrift and threatening the same bridge. He positioned his 41-footer downwind
of the boat to take it under tow before it could hit two large sport
fishing boats and the bridge. As members of the crew prepared to leap
aboard the sailboat, Group Charleston notified them of a man in the water
nearby. The crew raced to the rescue.
They spotted the man, who was not wearing a life jacket, in water too
shallow for their boat. Unable to approach, they watched as he grabbed
the anchor line of a nearby vessel and climbed aboard. Kannan notified
Group Charleston that the man was safe and returned to the drifting sailboat,
which by then had wedged itself between the two sport fishing boats,
its mast battering them. LaRose rigged the sailboat for towing, and it
was towed to a safe mooring.
The radio crackled again. The man who had fallen into the water earlier
had fallen in again, not far from his original position. LaRose and a
Charleston Marine Police officer pulled him from the water and took him
to the marina. After six hours underway in the hurricane, the crew finally
returned to the station--cold, wet, tired, and hungry.
Cost-Effective Multimission Strategy
Almost every American knows that the Coast Guard saves lives at sea,
and most know that the Coast Guard plays a critical role in the war against
drugs. But few know that the Coast Guard is the only armed force of the
United States that also has federal police authority or know that the
Coast Guard examines and licenses all commercial U.S. mariners, inspects
all commercial traffic entering U.S. ports, and is responsible for establishing
the safety standards for all American-made vessels. In short, most Americans
are unaware of the full spectrum of missions assigned to the U.S. Coast
Guard, truly the nation's multimission service.
The Coast Guard has five primary mission areas:
Safety--Saving lives and property associated with maritime transportation,
fishing, and recreational activities.
Protection of Natural Resources--Minimizing environmental damage and
natural-resource degradation resulting from maritime transportation,
fishing, and recreational activities.
Mobility--Facilitating maritime commerce and eliminating impediments
to waterways traffic, while maximizing opportunities for recreational
enjoyment of the same waterways.
Maritime Security--Protecting U.S. borders against the flow through
maritime routes of illegal immigrants, illegal drugs, and other contraband;
also preventing illegal fishing in waters under U.S. jurisdiction, and
enforcing federal laws at sea.
National Defense--Enhancing regional stability by using appropriate
maritime capabilities in support of the national security strategy.
To protect America's national interests and sovereignty along its coasts,
in its ports and inland waterways, in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ),
and on the high seas, the Coast Guard engages in activities: (a) close
to shore; (b) more than 50 miles out to sea; and (c) around the world--in
short, wherever America's national security demands the Coast Guard's
presence. It has done so since its predecessor, the Revenue Cutter Service,
came into being in 1790.
But many if not quite all of the Coast Guard's aging fleets of ships
and aircraft are beginning to reach the end of their service lives. Reliance-class
(210-foot) and Hamilton-class (378-foot) cutters, built in the 1960s,
are obsolete. HC-130 Hercules aircraft, some of which are more than 25
years old, require extensive electrical and structural upgrades and modern
sensors. The service's HU-25 Falcon jets are more than 20 years old and
have major engine supportability problems.
It might seem surprising that the smallest of the nation's armed services
has such a wide range of missions. But the officers and enlisted personnel
of the Coast Guard remain "Semper Paratus" (always ready) to
fulfill their multimission mandate. They are rigorously trained to be
prepared to respond to virtually any eventuality at sea. Their vessels
and aircraft are designed and built to carry out a variety of missions.
Their command and control structure is designed to handle a broad spectrum
of maritime events. Its flexibility, responsiveness, and multimission
capabilities enable the Coast Guard to be measurably the most cost-effective
agency in the federal service today. In carrying out its search-and-rescue
mission alone, for example, the Coast Guard saves not only thousands
of lives but also property valued at four times the service's annual
Safety at Sea
July 20, 5:38 p.m.: The 855-foot cruise ship Ecstasy was leaving Miami
with 3,514 people aboard when fire broke out in the ship's main laundry
room, on the second deck. The ship's crew began fighting the fire, and
did not request any outside assistance. Coast Guard Station Miami Beach
was notified of a fire, though, by the crew of a pleasure craft in the
vicinity, and station crewmen could see the smoke themselves, so they
contacted the Ecstasy. The captain confirmed that there was a fire, but
said it was under control.
Unconvinced, the station dispatched a 41-foot utility boat. The boat's
crew reported flames as well as heavy smoke. Coast Guard Marine Safety
Office Miami directed the Ecstasy to return to the Miami anchorage and
established a safety zone around the vessel. Ecstasy then finally radioed, "We
need help, we need help."
The Coast Guard swiftly launched three more utility boats, five cutters--Chandeleur,
Matagorda, Maui, Point Martin, and Point Glass--an HH-65A helicopter
(from Air Station Miami), and two HH-60J helicopters (from Air Station
Clearwater, Fla.). Four commercial coastal tugs also stood by to assist.
CINCLANTFLT (commander in chief, U.S. Atlantic Fleet) was kept informed,
and the Kidd-class guided-missile destroyer USS Scott was diverted from
the waters off West Palm Beach, Fla. Helicopters at Patrick Air Force
Base, Fla., and elsewhere in the vicinity, were put on standby, as was
the CG cutter Valiant. Virtually every potentially available resource
was deployed or put on alert.
Coast Guard teams assisted in controlling the fire. Seven Ecstasy crewmembers
and two tug personnel had to be medevaced due to smoke inhalation. (Between
50 and 60 passengers suffered mild smoke inhalation but did not require
The weather was clear, the seas were only four to six feet, and the
wind, coming in from the southeast, was under 10 knots. The Ecstasy was
only minutes away from the dock. Military and civilian rescue and firefighting
resources were nearby. The crew of the Ecstasy responded well. But change
only one or two of those conditions and circumstances, and everyone aboard
could have been in serious peril.
"Serious peril" accurately describes the Prinsendam incident,
which started early in the morning of 4 October 1980, 120 miles southwest
of Sitka, Alaska. The 427-foot cruise ship caught fire and began flooding.
During the 18-hour rescue operation that followed, weather conditions
rapidly degenerated: 35-foot seas, freezing rain, and 40-knot winds.
The closest Coast Guard assets were 170 nautical miles away when the
distress call came in. Coordinating with the U.S. Air Force, Canadian
forces, and several merchant vessels in the area, Coast Guard cutters
and long-range helicopters rescued 563 people from almost certain death.
The liner eventually sank, but without loss of life, in what has been
called the most successful large-scale marine rescue in peacetime history.
But the challenge facing the Coast Guard and its people is growing.
Cruise ships that will carry 10,000 people are already on the drawing
boards, and the cruise industry is forecasted to triple--to 15 million
passengers annually by 2020. The Coast Guard will need far better equipment
to answer the call in the 21st century.
Protection of Natural Resources
Few activities in the world pose as big a threat to America's marine
interests as illegal fishing on the high seas with drift nets. The Coast
Guard is responsible for most of the Pacific for preventing drift-net
fishing. In late May 1998, a Coast Guard HC-130H Hercules from Air Station
Kodiak, Alaska, patrolling about 360 miles south of Attu, Alaska, detected
two vessels with drift nets deployed. The crew of a nearby Russian Navy
vessel intercepted one and took it into custody, but only after having
to fire on the vessel to stop it. Because no other U.S. Coast Guard vessel
was available, the polar icebreaker USCGC Polar Sea was diverted to investigate
the second fishing vessel.
The Polar Sea tracked the vessel for three days, until relieved by the
cutters Boutwell and Jarvis. After a five-day, 900-mile chase, Boutwell's
crew finally boarded the 150-foot fishing boat Shen Shun. But it had
not been easy. The Shen Shun refused to stop and be boarded. Boutwell's
resourceful crew built a special boarding ladder that could be secured
from the cutter's small boat. As the official report states, "using
the cutter's small boat, a boarding team maneuvered alongside the rusty
trawler and secured a ladder to its side. They scrambled aboard and took
control of the ship, meeting no resistance from the fishing vessel's
At the request of the Chinese government, the Shen Shun was escorted
to Shanghai for prosecution. Case closed. But over the next week, five
more drift netters were spotted in the Pacific.
The world's fish harvest more than quadrupled from 1950 to 1996, when
it reached 93 million tons. Last year, the Food and Agriculture Organization
(FAO) of the United Nations estimated that, because of massive overfishing,
only 80 million tons were available for harvest. The FAO expects the
demand to increase by 2010, to 115 million tons, however, as the world's
population continues to grow.
The United States possesses the largest EEZ in the world, with 42,000
miles of coastline to patrol. Within the EEZ waters are some of the world's
most valuable fisheries, containing fish stocks that support a $20 billion
American industry. The question arises, therefore: If the Coast Guard
is now so short of resources that it must send a polar icebreaker to
chase illegal fishermen, what will it do in 2010?
Mobility for the Nation
The Coast Guard is responsible for the fixed and floating aids to navigation
that keep the nation's maritime freight moving, and maintains more than
50,000 such aids, not only along the coasts of the United States, but
on every navigable river within U.S. boundaries. The Coast Guard established
and maintains the differential global positioning system that provides
mariners the precise navigation information necessary for safe operation
in and around U.S. ports. The Coast Guard also establishes and enforces
the safety requirements for all U.S.- and foreign-flag commercial vessels
operating to and from U.S. ports, and operates the vessel traffic systems
that guide mariners in and out of major U.S. ports. It also licenses
U.S. merchant mariners.
In short, the Coast Guard has regulatory and management responsibility
for almost 90 percent of all of the freight moved across U.S. borders--another
enormous responsibility. But in most years funding available to the Coast
Guard for that mission is less than $500 million.
As Hurricane Georges approached the Gulf of Mexico in September, the
Coast Guard began to batten down the hatches. Boaters in the Gulf of
Mexico from Florida to Texas were urged to seek safe harbor. The captain
of the port closed Gulfport, Miss., to all commercial traffic, pilots
in the New Orleans area secured operations, and the Southwest Pass and
the Mississippi River outlet were closed to all deep-draft traffic. The
preparations undoubtedly helped--but nothing stops a hurricane.
29 September: Damage assessment began. The ports of Gulfport and Pascagoula,
Miss., Mobile, Ala., and Pensacola and Panama City, Fla., all remained
closed. There was extensive damage to aids to navigation, and potential
shoaling of ship channels. Major flooding continued. New Orleans was
spared, thanks to the Category 2 storm's late turn to the northeast,
but damage was nonetheless sufficient to prevent area pilots from working,
which meant that most commercial traffic from New Orleans to Panama City
had to be halted.
Coast Guard radio traffic also was hampered because five high-level
radios towers were badly damaged. Aids to navigation were severely affected,
with Pascagoula the hardest hit--virtually every aid there was damaged
or destroyed. In Mobile Bay, 30 miles of main-channel buoyage was lost.
Coast Guard buoy tenders from all over the Gulf were brought in to repair
the damage and get the marine traffic moving again. Over a dozen sailboats
were sunk; 50 more were beached in Dog River, Ala., alone. Dauphin Island,
Ala., was cut in two, several barges were sunk, and over 65 percent of
the piers on Mobile's Eastern Shore were damaged.
Despite its comparatively low wind speeds (up to 110 mph), Hurricane
Georges effectively stopped all commercial traffic not only on the Central
Gulf Coast but also on the river systems into and out of the nation's
heartland. All of which brings up another relevant question: What assets
will the Coast Guard need to respond to a Category 5 hurricane?
Maritime Security at Risk
If the Coast Guard had not been doing its best to stop drugs short of
America's coasts, there would have been more than 460 million additional "hits" of
cocaine last year and 100 million more marijuana joints on the streets
of America. As part of the national war on drugs, the Coast Guard's interdiction
efforts are essential--but without enough resources even the best law-enforcement
agencies sometimes lose.
12 September: The cutter USCGC Confidence sighted a drug suspect "go-fast" traveling
north at 31 knots, 90 miles west of Martinique in the West Indies. Confidence
launched its small pursuit boat, but it had no hope of intercepting a
vessel capable of 60 mph. Confidence contacted a nearby French Navy ship
and a Coast Guard aircraft for help. The go-fast began maneuvering erratically,
obviously trying to evade pursuit. A French Customs aircraft arrived
to assist with surveillance and tracking.
A British Royal Navy ship and the cutter USCGC Adak were diverted to
assist in intercepting the go-fast as it headed south, this time running
toward Venezuela. The French Navy ship then launched its helicopter to
maintain surveillance. U.S. Coast Guard headquarters in Washington granted
permission for a right-of-visit boarding and the use of nondeadly force,
and Coast Guard District Seven, headquartered in Miami, authorized use
of warning shots if the vessel did not stop. At one point, the French
helicopter, hovering 30 feet over the go-fast, reported that the boat's
crewmembers were trying to foul the helicopter rotor by throwing debris.
District Seven advised Venezuela of the go-fast's intent to enter its
territorial seas, and Venezuela responded by deploying one of its own
naval vessels. But the go-fast still got away. After patrolling the go-fast's
path in search of possible contraband that might have been jettisoned
during the pursuit, all of the law-enforcement assets that had been called
out returned to their normal patrol operations.
The final count of assets actively involved in the pursuit: three U.S.
Coast Guard cutters, one Coast Guard aircraft, one U.S. Customs aircraft,
one U.S. Navy aircraft, one French Navy warship, one French Navy aircraft,
one French Customs aircraft, one British warship, and one Venezuelan
Only four days later, testifying before the Senate Committee on Foreign
Relations at a joint hearing on U.S. Anti-Drug Interdiction Efforts,
Coast Guard Commandant Adm. James M. Loy stated, "It is important
for this committee to know that, in my estimation, the most significant
problem we have is the lack of a surface end-game capability in the transit
zone and the arrival zone. We are getting brutalized at the moment by
go-fast vessels." The situation described by Loy apparently has
persuaded him to consider the use of force by Coast Guard aircraft. He
has directed that the use of nondeadly force be evaluated, and that the
results of the evaluation be available early this year.
Another major threat facing the United States is the migration of illegal
aliens. It is the Coast Guard's job to keep illegal migrants from reaching
U.S. soil. An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people illegally migrate to
the Western Hemisphere every year. Many are smuggled in aboard ship.
Most are from island countries with little or no ability to absorb their
population growth and no economy to support it. The overall situation
is expected to get worse. For instance, the populations of the Dominican
Republic and Haiti are expected to rise 17 and 18 percent, respectively,
Mass migrations, such as those in 1994 from Haiti and Cuba, can result
in tens of thousands of migrants being intercepted, or rescued, in a
very short period. If interdiction efforts are unsuccessful, the average
cost to return a single migrant to his or her home country is $10,000
to $30,000. Without the tools to effectively combat these threats to
U.S. national sovereignty, the Coast Guard's continued success is in
The Coast Guard is an armed force with a long history of courageous
defense of the nation alongside its sister services. Its contributions
are being recognized more and more not only by U.S. leaders but also
by foreign governments. Coast Guard forces have deployed in support of
diplomatic sanctions against Haiti, and in support of the restoration
of democracy in that same country. Coast Guard forces also were deployed
to the Arabian Gulf in support of Operation Desert Storm, and USCG cutters
were operating in the Gulf as recently as the summer of 1998 to help
enforce the U.N. sanctions against Iraq.
April 1998, the Arabian Gulf: Under cover of darkness, the CG cutter
Chase is carrying out maritime-interception operations as part of a U.S.
Navy surface action group (SAG). Chase spots a potential smuggler sneaking
out of the Khawr Abd Allah River. The master maneuvers to stay within
waters claimed by Iran, where U.S. warships cannot go. For almost six
hours, Chase's combat watchstanders track the suspect vessel as it hugs
the Iranian coast.
There is a short distance on the eastern side of the Arabian Gulf where
Iran's territorial waters do not extend far enough for a ship to maintain
a straight course and avoid international waters. The Chase's commanding
officer hopes that this master will follow the usual practice, which
is to take the chance and maintain a straight course. Chase matches the
vessel's every move, being careful to remain covert through the use of
deceptive lighting and varying speeds. Its boarding team stands by to
launch, with the cutter's rigid-hull inflatable boat (RHIB) swung out
in the davits, ready for pursuit. Chase's opportunity finally comes:
The vessel's master decides to risk cutting across international waters
with his lights out.
Turbines spring to life and, at 27 knots, Chase maneuvers to intercept.
The cutter hails the vessel by radio. No response. "Try again," says
the commanding officer. The response is less than polite, and the vessel
turns north, back toward Iran. Running dark, Chase's boarding team approaches
the vessel from the opposite side in the RHIB. Because the tanker is
running very low in the water, the boarding team is able to easily step
aboard. Finding no one on deck, members of the boarding team stealthily
enter the pilothouse. They surprise the master, first mate, and helmsman.
The master is politely asked to reverse course, and the remainder of
the nine-man crew is awakened and mustered on deck. Time elapsed from
the moment the Chase kicks into high gear to the encounter in the pilothouse:
The Coast Guard's unique capabilities in interdiction, night boarding,
inspection, and shiphandling made this particular arrest--and three more
like it--possible for Chase in its one month in the Gulf. In the future,
the need for such operations, both overseas and along the U.S. coasts,
is expected to increase, necessitating additional Coast Guard resources.
The Coast Guard's military-engagement responsibilities continue to increase
even in the peacetime arena. The service operates like the navies of
many emerging nations do and is therefore frequently invited by these
nations to train them to protect their own sovereignty--so that U.S.
forces will not have to.
The CG also has been steadily strengthening and expanding its ties and
its working relationships with the U.S. Navy. The new "National
Fleet Concept" demands a closer USN/USCG alliance as the ships and
systems that will be used by both services are built to protect 21st-century
America. It already is apparent that the Navy will be experiencing a "low-end" shortage
of frigates, and that the Coast Guard represents the most cost-effective
short-term solution to the problem.
An Uncertain Future
"Since fiscal year 1992, the Coast Guard has assumed increased
responsibility while shrinking its workforce by nearly 10 percent and
operating with a budget that has risen about 1 percent a year in actual
dollars. The commandant of the Coast Guard told the Congress in 1996
that funding was no longer sufficient to sustain the normal pace of operations." So
states the May 1997 GAO (General Accounting Office) report Coast Guard:
Challenges for Addressing Budget Constraints. Two years later, more personnel
cuts have been made, no additional dollars have been authorized, and
several new responsibilities have been added to the Coast Guard's burden.
Its equipment now has reached the point where it can only be described
as, at best, operationally and technologically "challenged." The
Coast Guard lacks the people it needs, the equipment it needs, and the
funding it needs, yet is continually expected to do more with less.
In the last decade the Coast Guard has been unable to invest for the
future. Its AC&I (acquisition, construction, and improvements) funding
actually has decreased, in constant 1999 dollars, and the average AC&I
level in recent years has been less than one-third of what is required
to keep the Coast Guard modernized and fully capable of carrying out
its range of missions.
Enter the Coast Guard's Deepwater Capabilities Replacement Acquisition
program (Deepwater for short). The Coast Guard needs independent, long-range
operating capabilities and the ability for sustained operations in severe
weather and sea conditions. The goal of the Deepwater project is to modernize
the service's aircraft, ships, and command-and-control infrastructure
with an integrated system of afloat, aviation, and information-technology
systems that will fill those needs.
The first phase of the project is devoted primarily to capability analysis
and concept development. Its goal is to identify existing commercial
and military technologies that can be used to develop an operating system
at the lowest possible price to U.S. taxpayers. The system can then be
scaled to meet any Deepwater need.
Simultaneously, the Coast Guard is reviewing all of its current roles
and missions--and those likely to be imposed in the foreseeable future.
This first comprehensive review in 17 years will validate the Deepwater
requirements and identify possible opportunities for the Coast Guard
to be more effective and efficient in its operations. With its typical
resourcefulness, the Coast Guard already has launched an innovative approach
to solve its current equipment shortfall: Deepwater. As Coast Guard officials
describe it, Deepwater is both:
(a) A mission that requires extended on-scene capability and flexibility,
ranging from the U.S. coastline to the Arabian Gulf; and
(b) The largest and most important acquisition project in Coast Guard
history--a project, moreover, that is being approached from a mission-based
set of building standards (the recapitalization of the entire Deepwater
fleet), and not simply a cutter-replacement program.
But most of all, it is the future, not just of the Coast Guard, but
of America's inherent capability to assert its national sovereignty and
defend its own territory and citizens--and protect its overseas interests
as well. Deep-water is, in short, a unique and cost-conscious procurement
concept and project, that, if and when approved by the administration
and funded by Congress, will provide the Coast Guard the capability it
needs to meet the demands of the 21st century.
JAMES H. THACH III, director of search-and-rescue requirements at Sikorsky
Aircraft, is chairman of the Navy League's Coast Guard Active and Reserve