With demands for its presence overseas and home and its missions on the rise, the Coast Guard continues to transform itself to meet missions at home and overseas and adapt to recruit and manage a high-tech workforce, the service’s top officer said this week.
“Around the world, our blue uniforms and iconic red racing stripe are symbols of professionalism and good maritime governance. However, the world is changing, and the pace of that change continues to accelerate,” Adm. Linda Fagan said during a Tuesday evening State of the Coast Guard address in Washington, D.C. “Rapid advances in technology, changes in the global economy, great power competition, and the impacts of climate change are all converging on the maritime environment and impacting Coast Guard missions.”
In the U.S., the Coast Guard monitors the nation’s ports and waterways through which pass 90 percent of U.S. imports and exports. “We have the enduring responsibility to safeguard the Marine Transportation System and enable the uninterrupted flow of commerce, which sustains more than 30 million American jobs and contributes more than $5.4 trillion to the U.S. economy every year,” Fagan said.
“The Coast Guard’s long-held global reputation as a trusted partner opens new doors and builds new coalitions in a region critical to great power competition. We help smaller nations protect their own sovereignty by countering illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. IUU fishing has replaced piracy as the leading maritime threat to the rules-based order.”
The speech was her first annual “State of the Coast Guard” address. The service chief laid out her priorities for the force of 57,000 active-duty, Reserve and civilian personnel and an auxiliary force of 21,000 volunteers who serve around the world.
These include: Strengthening the cutter fleet; bolstering tech for marine transportation; shoring up maintenance and infrastructure; incentivizing the workforce; and re-branding the Coast Guard to bolster recruiting.
Strengthening the fleet
She highlighted the Coast Guard’s roles in maintaining 14,000 miles of U.S. inland waterways.
“The importance of river transportation was made clear this past fall,” she said. “Extreme low water levels on the Mississippi River restricted vessel traffic, making it difficult for Midwestern farmers to get their harvest to market. The Coast Guard’s inland river cutter fleet worked feverishly to reset the buoys marking the shifting channels – and some of these cutters have been serving since World War II.”
That fleet of tenders is critical to ensure safe navigation, but the aging fleet has the service looking to modernize the force with the waterways commerce cutter (WCC) fleet of inland buoy, river buoy and inland construction tenders.
That WCC fleet “will give our crews reliable platforms to do their economically vital work on the rivers,” said Fagan. “The new cutters will also accommodate both men and women, ensuring heartland assignments are open to every member of the service.”
Across the Great Lakes, the demand for icebreakers remains strong. “The shipping industry moves more than 160 million tons of cargo every year. That flow must continue even during the harsh winter ice season,” she said. “Your Coast Guard facilitates nearly 1,000 vessel transits every winter with our fleet of seven icebreakers in the region. I am fully committed to fielding critical Great Lakes icebreaking capability to keep that traffic moving.”
Along the maritime coasts, Coast Guard crews continue to encounter expanding illegal activities and more migrants trying to reach the United States by sea.
“Today we perform this mission on a scale we have not seen in decades. Large numbers of people are embarking on perilous journeys in hopes of reaching the United States.,” Fagan said. “We are surging ships, aircraft and people to the Caribbean basin to prevent the loss of life at sea and deter these dangerous voyages.”
Leading those missions are Medium Endurance Cutters, “many of which are over fifty years old. And they are increasingly expensive to maintain, and the current high operational tempo puts even greater pressure on their aging systems and their crews,” she said.
“We are excited about the replacements for these ships. The Offshore Patrol Cutters are under construction now, and the first (are) expected to go in the water this year,” she added. “These new cutters will expand the Coast Guard’s capability to secure the U.S. maritime border and disrupt transnational criminal organizations.”
More investment to expand the polar icebreaking fleet remains a top priority, Fagan said. The Coast Guard has two polar cutters, “but a fleet of only two polar icebreakers does not deliver the high latitude presence the Nation requires. The national strategy for the Arctic region specifically calls to grow our fleet beyond two ships. The three future Polar Security Cutters will enable a shift from episodic presence to year-round Coast Guard presence in the high latitudes.”
The Coast Guard is expanding its fledgling force of cyber protection teams, with a third CPT slated to stand up soon on the West Coast, Fagan said.
The nation’s economy relies on the Marine Transportation System’s infrastructure, vessels, sensors, and data, a network “that enables the efficient movement of cargo and passengers,” she said. “These essential networks are vulnerable to malign cyber activity. The Coast Guard’s responsibility to maintain a safe and secure Marine Transportation System extends to cyberspace, our newest operational domain.”
That increase in cyber protection capabilities hinges on a growing cyber workforce, which will include Coast Guard personnel trained and assigned in a new rating and specialty of cyber mission specialist that the Coast Guard approved last year. “To staff our growing Cyber Protection capability, this year we will assign the first members of the new cyber mission specialist rating in our enlisted workforce, and these professionals will enhance the Coast Guard’s capacity to protect the maritime industry in cyberspace,” said Fagan.
The service also last year established an Office of Data and Analytics (OD&A), in Washington, D.C., envisioned to make data, “from marine inspection and drug interdiction details to illegal fishing and ice operations statistics, more accessible across the organization to empower data-driven decision-making,” according to a 2021 Coast Guard announcement. “This expert team is accelerating the implementation of a new, big-data platform we are calling Surveyor. This system will integrate enterprise-level data and workforce analytics to enable better decision-making,” Fagan said.
Maintenance and infrastructure
Coast Guard officials say the operational missions cannot happen without adequate, reliable support ashore, but maintenance backlogs threaten to degrade those capabilities.
“The condition of our shore infrastructure challenges both readiness and resilience. Investments in new construction and strong funding for maintenance will secure the shore facilities we need to complete our missions at sea and in the air,” Fagan said.
“Voyages to the high latitudes, like every Coast Guard mission, begin and end at a shore facility. Maintenance and recapitalization of our buildings, piers, and runways are essential to mission success,” she said.
But “we have units operating from shore infrastructure that is over 100 years old – like Station Rockland, Maine, which was built in 1881. Maintaining this aging shore infrastructure is a demanding task. It requires consistent funding that our current budgetary top line does not allow. We must invest in new construction, particularly in critical locations such as Seattle and Charleston [S.C.] as we build out homeports for the new cutters.”
The Coast Guard is struggling to fill its ranks, just like the other military services, and officials are looking at new approaches to recruiting and retaining personnel amid a shrinking pool of interested, prospective recruits. “We must adapt to remain an employer of choice,” Fagan said.
She’s creating a Talent Management Transformation Task Force, which she described as “a new team that will build the agile and integrated human resources structure we need to manage our workforce more creatively.”
For Coast Guard members, that might be more flexibility in career moves and enlistment bonuses for specific rates. “We are finding new opportunities for our workforce to maintain geographic stability, making it easier for them to continue to serve where they have roots like a spouse’s career or family ties,” she said. “And we are moving away from the fixed promotion and assignment timeline that forces people to choose between two options – up or out.”
Already, new parents have the ability to take 12 weeks of parental leave, and “many are already taking advantage of this new benefit,” she said. Now she’s eyeing expanding the availability of Coast Guard housing and childcare, which for many Coast Guard members in remote areas can be especially difficult and expensive.
Fagan said she appreciated the $155 million in funding approved by Congress in the last two years to build and improve Coast Guard child development centers, and she noted the 2023 federal appropriation included $5 million for child-care subsidies. “Our families deserve safe, affordable housing that they can be proud of. In the many remote communities home to our smaller units, families often rely on Coast Guard-owned housing,” she added.
Coast Guard recruiting is getting a boost this year, with an additional $6.5 million – over what the service asked for – approved by Congress. The service plans to open seven new recruiting offices and, this year, will expand its Junior ROTC units from six to 10 high schools, “an exciting expansion of a great program,” Fagan said.
Branding the USCG
To help carry that we’re-hiring message across the U.S., service officials launched a new marking campaign, complete with a new brand – “Protect. Defend. Save.” – that Fagan described as “inspired by our Coast Guard ethos.”
“We need to do a better job telling the Coast Guard story. Nothing is more important to our recruiting effort than building awareness of the Coast Guard brand,” she told the audience. “This work to build Americans’ awareness of their Coast Guard will help us fill our ranks, particularly the buses to our Recruit Training Center at Cape May, N.J.,” she said. A new barracks building is already in the works for the service’s boot camp which also needs additional barracks and an all-weather training facility, although those aren’t yet funded.
“When we make the talent management, family services, and recruiting transformations we need, we will be prepared to meet the demands of the future. I am fully confident of the Coast Guard’s ability to succeed in this work,” she said.