This post is part of a series looking back at the top naval stories from 2022.
A change in leadership, difficulty in recruiting and major developments in two major shipbuilding programs were among the major Coast Guard stories of 2022.
In June, Adm. Linda Fagan took charge of the Coast Guard following an April nomination from President Joe Biden. Fagan, who had served as vice commandant since 2021, followed Adm. Karl Schultz who led the service from 2018 until the June change of command.
“Coast Guard women have helped shape the service and pioneered the role of women in the federal government and the nation,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said during the change of command. “Now, the Coast Guard has its first woman commandant. Today is a historic day for the United States Coast Guard, a historic day for the United States.”
Fagan’s focus as the head of the Coast Guard will be on its workforce, she said during her change of command ceremony. As commandant, she plans to provide the policy and support needed for the Coast Guard members while the service works to modernize.
The Coast Guard is expected to be called upon more in 2023, Biden said during the June ceremony. Over the past two years, the Coast Guard was involved in marine safety on inland waters, humanitarian aid and enforcing fishing and drug laws. The service branch also helped other countries with maritime security.
Going forward, there will also be more attention on the Arctic Circle, Biden said at the ceremony. The Coast Guard is looking to expand its icebreaking fleet to six with a mix of medium and heavy cutters in order to respond to the changing environment, some of which is caused by climate change, according to the service’s latest strategic documents.
The Coast Guard is working toward building its first new heavy polar icebreaker since the 1970s. Halter Marine, which was bought by Louisiana-based Bollinger Shipyards in November, won the $745.9 million design contract for the first heavy icebreaker in 2019 but the service, the yard and new management are still working through the detailed design for the first Polar Security Cutter that was expected earlier this year.
The icebreaker is complicated, Schultz said in February. The COVID-19 pandemic also negatively affected the timeline, he said. Halter has brought on retired Rear Adm. Ronald Rábago, who had led Coast Guard acquisition, to work on the program.
“We’d say, number one, it’s a complex vessel in the sense of its mission set. We haven’t delivered a heavy icebreaker in this country for over 40 years. The last one was Polar Star and the technology has changed dramatically,” Rábago told USNI News during a visit to the shipyard in August.
In order to accommodate the new 23,000-ton icebreaker, the shipyard had to go through a capital improvement plan, which included strengthening the area the ship would be built.
Austal USA won the second phase of the Coast Guard’s 4,250-ton Heritage-class Offshore Patrol Cutter program in June. The original shipbuilder Eastern Shipbuilding initially pursued a protest with the Government Accountability Office, but it withdrew the complaint in October and filed suit in federal court to challenge the award.
The initial Austal contract is for $208.26 million, but with options for up to 11 Offshore Patrol Cutters, the amount could grow to up to $3.3 billion. Austal will start with the future Pickering (WMSM-919).
In the Fiscal Year 2023 budget request, the Coast Guard asked for money to buy a commercially-available medium icebreaker to increase its capability and supplement the icebreaker USCGC Healy (WAGB-20).
Other Coast Guard vessels are being built across other southern shipyards. HII’s Ingalls Shipbuilding is finishing Coast Guard National Security Cutter Calhoun (WMSL-759). As of August, Ingalls was working on two more Coast Guard Legend-class National Security Cutters. Congress authorized a 12th NSC as part of the Fiscal Year 2023 budget.
Like the other service branches, the Coast Guard is not immune from recruiting woes.
Fagan testified in July that the Coast Guard needs the right tools to attract talent toward the service. Tools include modernized shore facilities, cutters and aircraft, she said before the House Homeland Security Transportation and Maritime Security panel.
“The heartbeat of the Coast Guard is the workforce,” she said during her testimony.
She suggested an opt-out promotion program that would allow service members to opt-out of promotion in order to stay at a station for an additional year and then opt back into the cycle.
Greater flexibility for the Coast Guard is needed to address recruiting and retention concerns, Fagan testified.