Sunday, February 26, 2012

U.S. Coast Guard's Wide-Ranging Mission Set Increasing, Commandant Says

By Karen Parrish, American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 24, 2012 - If something touches the nation's waters, the "multi-mission" Coast Guard probably has some responsibility for it, according to that service's only four-star officer.

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr. told the Pentagon Channel and American Forces Press Service the complex mission set has evolved over the service's 221-year history, since Congress in 1790 authorized the building of 10 vessels to enforce federal tariff laws and prevent smuggling.

"We were the maritime force of the nation when the nation couldn't afford a Navy," Papp said, noting the Coast Guard predates the Navy by four years. Over time, he added, the Coast Guard has amassed a wide range of responsibilities: stopping drugs, saving lives, screening and inspecting vessels, maintaining aids to navigation, enforcing fisheries laws and pollution standards, and even searching foreign ports for sources of harm to the United States.

The admiral said he sums up the service's 11 statutory missions this way: "We protect those who use the sea, we protect the nation against threats from the sea, and we protect the sea itself."

The admiral said to meet those missions, a "good Coastie" needs specific qualities, some of which – such as patriotism and selfless service -- are common to service members of all branches. The defining characteristic for Coast Guardsmen, he added, is a love and understanding of the sea in its turbulent moods.

"You have to understand that everything that occurs on the ocean ... is multiplied in terms of difficulty, particularly when you're doing it at night or in the midst of a storm," Papp said. "And that's when the Coast Guard gets its work done."

Looping back to the mission mix, the commandant said adaptability is the other Coast Guard essential.

"Rather than be able to focus just on defense, or just on law enforcement, a Coast Guardsman's got to be versatile ... and have some level of knowledge and competency in a broad range of activities," he explained.

The admiral noted a Coast Guard cutter crew's January rescue of six Iranian mariners in waters off Iraq highlights one of the service's lesser-known efforts.

"A lot of people say, 'You're the Coast Guard; what are you doing over there?'" he noted. "[But] it's not just U.S. coasts. There are a lot of coasts around the world ... [and] we offer the United States options in terms of national security."

Papp said most people don't realize the Coast Guard has operated in the northern Arabian Gulf for nine years, filling "a niche capability for the Department of Defense that Central Command needed."

Iraq has offshore oil platforms that produce 90 percent of the country's wealth, but a territorial dispute between Iraq and Iran means those platforms are under constant threat, he explained. Coast Guard patrol boats, along with Navy patrol craft, provide security for those platforms under command of the Coast Guard's Patrol Forces for Southwest Asia, he said.

"That's just one example of Coast Guard people overseas," he said.

The Coast Guard pushes the boundaries of the United States' maritime security, the commandant said, because port security begins where ships that end up in U.S. ports start out -- places like Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, and Singapore.

Papp said since 9/11, the Coast Guard –- as the nation's representative to the United Nations International Maritime Organization -- has pushed for treaties to help in increasing America's port security.

"We now are able to send inspectors overseas to verify the security procedures in the ports of countries that wish to trade with the United States," he said. That effort involves a couple of dozen U.S.-based traveling inspectors and small Coast Guard commands, each also about two dozen strong, in Europe and the Far East.

"That is really what I view as a low-cost effort ... to help provide security," Papp said.

U.S. ports are the other end of the Coast Guard's layered port security.

"We've done a great job over the last 10 years in restoring and rebuilding our boat fleet in the ports, repopulating our Coast Guard stations and sectors, and creating something we call deployable specialized forces ... which are basically [special weapons and tactics] teams afloat," he said.

Papp said he worries about maritime security's "middle layer" -- vast expanses of ocean.

"Our country needs to have a persistent presence to intercept any identified threats that might be coming toward the United States," he said. "That's really our weak point right now."

High-endurance ships that can stay on station and survive the weather are critical to that middle range, he said, and the large Coast Guard cutters built to provide that presence are now more than 40 years old.

"They're falling apart, they're very expensive to maintain, and we need to be about the process of getting those rebuilt," Papp said.

The constricting federal budget will make that "very difficult," he acknowledged.

"We've always liked to consider ourselves a lean and agile force," the commandant said. "But ... because people keep pushing responsibilities to [us,] [we] end up doing more with less, which is something that's cursed us over the years."

The Coast Guard's increased missions are within the service's capabilities, but not its funding, Papp said.

"Unless somebody's going to infuse massive amounts of money into the Coast Guard budget, we can't handle this on our own," the admiral said. "We'll do the best we can with the resources we have, and I will identify the resources that are needed for our country, but then we've got to come up with an all-of-government solution."

The Coast Guard has worked hard since 9/11 to build its uniformed strength back to what it was in 1990, Papp said. "But we've taken on a whole lot more responsibilities over the last 10 years as well," he added.

Note: I wrote a piece on the Coast Guard for Counterterrorism magazine a while back. You can read my piece via the below links:

I also wrote a column about my visit to the U.S. Coast Guard station in Philadelphia and my ride aboard a Coast Guard boat on the Delaware River.

You can read my column via the below link:

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