TOPICS > Nation

The Post-9/11 U.S. Coast Guard

May 7, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY KAYE: The many duties of the United States Coast Guard range from search-and-rescue operations, to the hot pursuit of drug runners, to protection of the marine environment. But as the war on terror continues, the Coast Guard, one of the five branches of the U.S. military, has been ordered to do even more.The Coast Guard is now focusing on homeland defense, with its primary mission to beef up security along America’s 95,000 miles of coastline, and in 360 ports and harbors.

Admiral Tim Josiah is the Coast Guard’s chief of staff.

ADMIRAL TIM JOSIAH: In Coast Guard terms, we made a big course change on the 11th of September. We were challenged to do missions that we have not spent a lot of time on since World War II.

JEFFREY KAYE: One of those missions can be seen in the pre- dawn hours off the coast of southern California. A Coast Guard launch rendezvous with vessels approaching the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Aboard the Coast Guard’s boat are armed units of the services newly-created sea marshal program. The marshals’ job is to board vessels arriving in U.S. harbors, such as this cruise liner returning from Mexico, to ensure that ships, passengers, and crews arrive in port safely; it’s work sea marshals are doing in harbors across America.

Once aboard, the sea marshals fan out across the ship to begin a deck-by-deck inspection. Their rounds take them from operational areas in the bowels of the vessel, to passenger lounges.

JASON RAIDER, Sea Marshal: When we’re up here basically, we look for anything that’s out of the ordinary, you know, suspicious packages that might be left unattended to; suspicious- looking individuals – it’s basically a security sweep.

JEFFREY KAYE: Sea marshals board all cruise ships arriving in the United States because of their potential attraction as terrorist targets.

BILL VEON, Sea Marshal: I don’t even want to think about what somebody could do with 2,500 passengers on board a ship, and taking the hostages. That’s what we are here to prevent.

JEFFREY KAYE: The Coast Guard’s motto is semper paratus, always ready. But some analysts question whether the Coast Guard is fully prepared to take on new homeland security responsibilities, while fulfilling its normal duties.

Scott Truver is a defense analyst who’s studied and advised the Coast Guard for nearly 30 years.

SCOTT TRUVER, Defense Analyst: Basically, what it has done is that the new normalcy for the Coast Guard is the war on terrorism. And certain things like fisheries patrols, like drug patrols, have been downgraded.

SPOKESMAN: The demand has been, frankly, more than we can meet. There are more facilities out there than we can provide individual protection for.

JEFFREY KAYE: The Coast Guard admits that even with increased vigilance, security shortcomings abound at America’s major ports. In the port of Los Angeles, for instance, the Coast Guard and other harbor authorities inspect only a minuscule fraction of cargo containers, prompting fears that the ones that go uninspected could contain everything from stowaway terrorists to nuclear devices. America’s coastline, as well as its ports, are still too vulnerable, says Scott Truver.

SCOTT TRUVER: Practically anybody can get into the United States. And it’s only the odd chance that we have good intel that allows us to intercept a threat coming, whether it is a boat full of alien migrants or whether it’s drug runners in a “go fast.”

SPOKESMAN: All right, here we go.

JEFFREY KAYE: To help with harbor patrol duties, the guard has turned to the Coast Guard auxiliary, whose unpaid volunteer members use their own boats. The auxiliary is serving as a kind of neighborhood watch in many U.S. ports. Ken Smith is a rear commodore in the auxiliary. He has been patrolling LA’s harbor nearly every day since September 11.

KEN SMITH, Coast Guard Auxiliary: If it wasn’t for us, the harbor would not be covered, and none of the harbors would be covered across the country. The Coast Guard Auxiliary fills in all of those spots that the regulars aren’t able to do just because they do not have enough people or vessels. So we volunteer our time. And we’re the eyes and the ears.

SCOTT TRUVER: When you get down to the auxiliary, they do a wonderful job, but they do a wonderful job primarily in promoting recreational-boating safety. They are being pressed into areas for which they were not necessarily envisioned. So this is another example of mission creep.

JEFFREY KAYE: With only 35,000 active duty personnel in its ranks, the guard is smaller than the New York City Police Department. And its annual operating budget of $5.5 billion would buy the Navy only a single aircraft carrier. One paramount challenge the Coast Guard says it faces, whether the country is at war or peace, is an increasingly obsolete fleet of long-range cutters and aircraft that need to be replaced. Out of 41 coastal fleets in the world, the U.S. Coast Guard’s are the 39th oldest.

ADMIRAL TIM JOSIAH, Coast Guard Chief of Staff: We need faster ships, we need aircraft with better communications, sensors, raiders to detect who might be approaching the U.S. coastline.

JEFFREY KAYE: One Coast Guard vessel showing its age is “The Alert,” a 30-year-old 210-foot cutter whose missions range from drug interdiction to fisheries enforcement.

SPOKESMAN: This is the refrigeration space.

JEFFREY KAYE: The Alert’s chief engineer, lt. Jay Shuman, shows off the vessel’s operations areas like a proud father. But he admits in cat-and-mouse chases with Mexican drug runners, his ship often loses.

LT. JAY SHUMAN: The top speed is somewhere in the neighborhood of 18 and a half to 19 knots, which translates to around 21 or 22 miles per hour, which is nothing compared to some of the other vessels that are out there. I mean, we have… some of the “go fast” boats that we were looking at doing our time down off the coast of Mexico were 25- foot wooden boats with three outboards on the back that can do upwards of 50 knots. And we can’t keep up with them with the cutter, and we don’t have a helicopter to go chase after them with.

JEFFREY KAYE: In recent years, the Coast Guard has replaced its near-shore fleet with fast, state-of-the art vessels, such as its 47-foot rescue boats– water-going hot rods.

SPOKESMAN: We can take it on up to 20- foot, sir.


SPOKESMAN: And up to 30 knot winds.

JEFFREY KAYE: Now, the Guard wants to embark on a massive, multibillion-dollar initiative that would modernize and replace hundreds of ships and aircraft that patrol 50 miles and more off the U.S. coast.

SPOKESMAN: Over this next year and a half with the resources that the administration is seeking for us, we will begin a rapid build- up of capability that will be for the long term.

JEFFREY KAYE: Additional duties and expectations are placing what was once a neglected branch of the military squarely on the radar screen.