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THE THIN BLUE LINE AT SEA: THE UNITED STATES COAST GUARD

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LONG HISTORY

If there is a single force that is in action 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, it is the United States Coast Guard. It not only is on call 24/7, but it is also tasked with a wide variety of missions that take it from the fresh and salt waters of the United States to the front lines of America’s wars.

 

The first of the Coast Guard’s forerunners was the Revenue Marine – later the Revenue Cutter Service – which was founded in 1790 under the Treasury Department. Their task was to ensure the collection of tariffs and to stop smuggling – the latter mission being quite familiar to the Coast Guard of today.

 

The Coast Guard as it is now known would not be formed until 1915, when the Revenue Cutter Service was merged with the United States Lifesaving Service (which had been founded in 1848). After that, the Coast Guard eventually absorbed the Lighthouse Service and the Bureau of Maritime Inspection and Navigation.

 

In 1967, the Coast Guard was moved from the Treasury Department to the Transportation Department, where it stayed until the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003.

 

PRESENT RESPONSIBILITIES

According to their official website, the Coast Guard handles eleven responsibilities under Title 14 of the United States Code:

• Ports, waterways, and coastal security

• Drug interdiction

• Aids to navigation

• Search and rescue

• Living marine resources

• Marine safety

• Defense readiness

• Migrant interdiction

• Marine environmental protection

• Ice operations

• Other law enforcement missions

 

To accomplish these missions, the Coast Guard relies on 41,948 active-duty personnel, 7,484 reservists, 28,986 Auxiliary members, 247 cutters, 1850 boats, and 204 aircraft (as of August 2009). All of this is employed to secure 19,924 kilometers of coastline. By comparison, the United States–Mexico border is 3,141 kilometers long.

 

A BUSY YEAR

In any given year, the Coast Guard can be very busy. According to Coast Guard figures, in 2008 alone, the Coast Guard responded to 24,000 search-and-rescue cases, carried out 70,000 commercial inspections, interdicted 5,000 migrants, intercepted over 185 tons of cocaine, and still maintained 42,000 navigational aids.

 

The Coast Guard also was active across the world in 2008, delivering 30 tons of relief supplies for Georgia during the South Ossetia conflict, securing Iraqi oil terminals with six patrol boats, and providing security for over 500 military shipments that supported Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. This represents quite a volume of work for an entity that is less than half the size of the United States Marine Corps, and which operates on a relative shoestring budget!

 

COMPARING BUDGET LINES

The Coast Guard accomplishes this mission on a budget—$9.26 billion in fiscal year (FY) 2009, and a budget request of $9.955 billion for FY 2010. However, $67.2 billion in discretionary spending was given to the Department of Health and Human Services in FY 2009. That is over six and a half times the Coast Guard’s budget request. The Department of Housing and Urban Development requested $28.5 billion in the FY 2010 budget, nearly three times the Coast Guard’s FY10 figure.

 

The Coast Guard has been on a budget diet, and that has meant that many of their ships are old. This is particularly true for their largest ships.

 

OLD SHIPS, YOUNG PATROL BOATS

The best Coast Guard vessels are the 12 Hamilton-class high-endurance cutters. These ships, the first of which—USCGC Hamilton (WHEC 715)—was commissioned in 1967, are for all intents and purposes lightly armed frigates. At present, they carry a single Mk 75 76mm gun, two Mk 38 25mm Bushmaster cannons, and a Mk 15 Phalanx Close-In Weapon System (CIWS). They also have been known to carry anti-submarine torpedoes and Harpoon anti-ship missiles. Ten of these cutters are based in the Pacific, with two others based in the Atlantic.

 

The Coast Guard also has 29 medium-endurance cutters. Two of these cutters, the Acushnet and Alex Haley, are former Navy salvage vessels first commissioned in 1944 and 1971, respectively. Both of these vessels have been serving in Alaska. Two other classes of cutters also serve, the 13-ship Bear class and the 14-ship Reliance class (two other vessels of the latter class have been decommissioned).

 

The first Reliance- class cutter was commissioned in 1964. The USCGC Bear (WMEC 901), lead ship of the Bear-class, was commissioned in 1983 – and has racked up 20 drug busts (12 marijuana, 8 cocaine) in her career.

 

The Coast Guard’s patrol boat fleet is in somewhat better shape. In 2009, the last of 72 87-foot coastal patrol boats were delivered by Bollinger Shipyards, the first of which, USCGC Barracuda (WPB 87301), entered service in 1998, giving the Coast Guard modern patrol boats. Two other Barracuda-class patrol boats were purchased by Malta, which has been using them since 2003. The Farallon-class patrol boats, the first of which, USCGC Farallon (WPB 1301), entered service in 1986, have primarily been fighting smugglers. The Farallon-class boats also are on the front lines against illegal immigrants, many of whom are in vessels that can barely stay afloat.

 

MODERNIZATION – AND A ROUGH ROAD

Seeing a force that was aging, the Coast Guard, began an effort to recapitalize in 1993. What eventually emerged was a 25-year plan referred to as the Integrated Deepwater Systems Program – or Deepwater. In 2002, a joint venture between Lockheed–Martin and Northrop Grumman was awarded a $20 billion contract to carry out this modernization.

 

In 2005, the contract was modified in light of post-9/11 requirements – going up to $24 billion. One of the first efforts was a plan to upgrade the 49 Farallon-class patrol craft. The modernization included an effort to lengthen the 110-foot patrol cutters by 13 feet. The program failed badly. The modernization of the first eight ran to over $100 million, and eventually they had to be decommissioned (in 2007) without any replacements.

 

Ultimately, the Coast Guard asked the contractor for a refund. The new National Security Cutter program, however, managed to go forward. The first of these cutters, USCGC Bertholf (WMSL 750), was commissioned in 2008, costing $641 million. The Coast Guard plans in the long run to field eight of these vessels. Plans are also in the works for designs to replace the medium-endurance cutters and the Farallon-class patrol craft.

 

MULTI-MISSION AICRAFT

The Coast Guard also has its own small air force. The present fixed-wing force is a mix of HC-130Hs—modified Hercules transports, and HU-25 Guardians (a variant of the Dassault Falcon). The Coast Guard is planning to modernize 16 of the HC-130Hs and buy 6 HC-130Js, which would use the newer C-130J as the baseline. The Coast Guard is also acquiring 36 HC-144 “Ocean Sentry” Maritime Patrol Aircraft.

 

The Coast Guard also has a number of helicopters, which are used either for search and rescue or drug interdiction. The mainstay of the Coast Guard helicopter fleet is the HH-65 Dolphin, based on the Eurocopter AS.365, with 102 of these helicopters in service. The Coast Guard also has 42 HH-60J Jayhawk helicopters, based on the Navy’s HH-60H Rescuehawk, and eight MH-68A Stingray helicopters, both of which are used for drug interdiction. The Coast

Guard is planning to modernize both its HH-60Js and HH-65s in the future.

 

DOWN THE ROAD

The Coast Guard’s modernization is likely to leave the force in very good shape. The operational tempo may be an issue. The Coast Guard has many missions and the trend has been increasing. Drug cartels are still moving drugs on the seas, refugees will continue coming from places like Cuba and Haiti, and Americans will still have maritime accidents and need to be rescued. It looks like the Coast Guard will not be getting a break any time soon.