U.S. Coast Guard Roles and Missions
The U.S. Coast Guard is a military, multimission, maritime service within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and one of the nation’s five armed services. The core roles of the U.S. Coast Guard are to protect the public, the environment, and U.S. economic and security interests in any maritime region in which those interests may be at risk, including international waters and America’s coasts, ports, and inland waterways. Both the Arctic and the Antarctic regions fall within the scope of U.S. Coast Guard responsibilities.
From its inception as the Revenue Marine in 1790, the service has possessed a military character. Alexander Hamilton, later to become the first Secretary of the Treasury, conceived the need for a capable maritime presence as early as 1787 when he noted, “A few armed vessels, judiciously stationed at the entrances of our ports, might at a small expense be made useful sentinels of the laws” (Hamilton, 1787). For almost seven years, the Revenue Cutters represented the only naval force of the United States. Revenue and U.S. Coast Guard cutters have been employed as naval assets in every maritime conflict since the quasi-war with France in 1798-1800.
From the outset, the service’s maritime expertise and military discipline suited it well for acquiring additional tasking. Law enforcement duties expanded beyond a narrow focus on customs laws to include prevention of slave importation, and winter cruising by cutters to assist vessels in distress began in the 1830s. United States involvement in polar operations dates from the purchase of Alaska in 1867, when Revenue Cutters accepted possession of the territory and began exploration of the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean coastlines. By the 1870s, cutters made annual patrols to the Alaskan Arctic to enforce sealing and whaling laws, prevent the illegal introduction of alcohol and other contraband, provide medical and other assistance to Native communities, assist ships affected by ice, and support scientific inquiry. These multidisciplinary patrols fit well within the service’s increasingly diverse duties and organizational culture of independent operations. The Lifesaving Service and Revenue Cutter Service were merged in 1915 to form the U.S. Coast Guard. Patrol activities in ice-affected waters of the Arctic represented the only regular government presence for many years and were conducted regularly until the late 1940s.
During World War II, the U.S. Coast Guard polar operations expanded to secure Greenland against German incursions. The U.S. Coast Guard oversaw the design of deep-draft polar icebreakers and shared the operation of these seven ships with the Navy in the postwar era. U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Navy icebreakers were kept busy throughout the subsequent Cold War years with massive operations to build and resupply Defense Early Warning (DEW Line) sites in the Arctic, establish Thule Air Base in northwestern Greenland, conduct submarine warfare-related research in the Arctic Ocean and peripheral seas, and support large-scale exploration of Antarctica.
After World War II, the Lighthouse Service and Steamboat Inspection Service were assimilated into the U.S. Coast Guard. Polar operations continued throughout the Cold War and into the 1970s. U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers assisted summer tug-and-barge sealifts to Prudhoe Bay in the 1970s as the Alaska Pipeline was built and supported several years of testing in Maritime Administration studies of commercial icebreaking ship design. Even before the end of the Cold War, icebreakers were increasingly in demand for nondefense research in the Arctic.
Throughout its history, the U.S. Coast Guard’s mission has expanded in response to the changing needs of the nation. Today, the U.S. Coast Guard provides unique benefits to the nation because of its distinctive blend of military, humanitarian, and civilian law enforcement capabilities. To serve the public, the U.S. Coast Guard has organized its responsibilities into five fundamental roles: (1) maritime safety, (2) national defense, (3) maritime security, (4) maritime mobility, and (5) protection of natural resources, and a
unique mission in ice operations in which icebreakers play a key role.
These roles may again be altered in response to the pronounced, large-scale environmental changes that are occurring in the Arctic. It is highly likely that commercial endeavors will develop in this region; these developments will lead to increased commercial traffic, resource exploitation, and associated international interface, which will directly affect U.S. Coast Guard statutory responsibilities and pose significant challenges to the Coast Guard’s future ability to execute these responsibilities in the ice-affected waters of the Arctic.
In the role of maritime safety, the U.S. Coast Guard seeks to eliminate deaths, injuries, and property damage associated with maritime transportation, fishing, recreational boating, and other maritime activities. Safety missions can be described in terms of prevention, response, and investigation. Prevention activities include developing commercial and recreational vessel standards, licensing commercial mariners, operating the International Ice Patrol to protect ships transiting North Atlantic shipping lanes, and educating the public. The U.S. Coast Guard represents the nation in the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which promulgates measures to improve shipping safety, pollution prevention, maritime security, and mariner training and certification standards worldwide. The U.S. Coast Guard develops and ensures compliance with domestic shipping and navigation regulations by inspecting U.S. flag vessels, mobile offshore drilling units, and marine facilities; examining foreign flag vessels based on the potential safety and pollution risks they pose; reviewing plans for vessel construction, repair, and alteration; and documenting and admeasuring U.S. flag vessels.
As National Recreational Boating Safety Coordinator, the U.S. Coast Guard works to minimize loss of life, injury, property damage, and environmental harm associated with water recreation, through education programs, regulation of boat design and construction, approval of boating safety equipment, and courtesy marine examinations of boats for compliance with federal and state requirements. The all-volunteer U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary plays a central role in boating programs.
Despite extensive prevention programs, response to maritime incidents is still necessary. As the lead agency for maritime search and rescue (SAR), the U.S. Coast Guard maintains a coastal network of boat stations, aircraft, communications systems, and a command-and-control network to respond to those in peril at sea. Any U.S. Coast Guard unit can respond to SAR requirements, and the Coast Guard also coordinates other federal, state, local, and private assets, including the world wide Automated Mutual-assistance Vessel Rescue (AMVER) program. Finally, the U.S. Coast Guard investigates accidents to determine if laws have been broken and whether changes should be made to improve prevention programs.
In the Arctic Ocean and Bering Sea, the U.S. Coast Guard’s search-and-rescue efforts involving coastal communities and fishing vessels have not been uncommon. Decreasing and more unpredictable ice concentrations may increase the risk to Native peoples pursuing traditional hunting and fishing in boats or on sea ice. These small communities might logically demand increased government SAR services as a quid pro quo for the impacts of development on their lifestyles. Fishing vessels working in or near the ice edge have also experienced dramatic losses, of both crew and vessels, and have required occasional urgent SAR assistance. Although the well-endowed North Slope Borough operates its own SAR helicopter, maritime SAR over the more extensive area falls clearly in the U.S. Coast Guard’s portfolio. For both communities and vessels, a mobile, helicopter-equipped ship would seem to offer more economical SAR services than fixed stations with low seasonal workload.
As ship traffic increases in U.S. Arctic waters, the U.S. Coast Guard’s maritime safety and security roles will be significantly affected as enhanced maritime domain awareness (MDA) is increasingly desirable. Longstanding U.S. positions on freedom of navigation would argue against direct regulation of vessels transiting along the North Slope and through the Bering Strait. However, the ability to monitor all vessels in these waters would be beneficial for both safety and security purposes. Increased presence by government icebreakers or other surface vessels would contribute to better awareness, but a more comprehensive monitoring capability may be needed. As an example, in 2004 the Malaysian freighter SELENDANG AYU went aground and spilled oil near Unimak Pass. The impacts were exacerbated by lack of knowledge of the ship’s presence, which prevented dispatch of assistance until it was too late to avoid the vessel’s total loss, crewmember deaths, fouling of pristine coastline, and expensive cleanup action. As a result of this incident, the U.S. Coast Guard is installing automatic identification system (AIS) equipment to monitor shipping in this highlytrafficked area of the Aleutians. Similar AIS capability may be helpful in the vicinity of the Bering Strait and along the Arctic coastline.
As one of the five U.S. armed services, the U.S. Coast Guard helps to defend the nation and supports the National Security Strategy. The U.S. Coast Guard has served alongside the Navy in all wars and most armed conflicts since 1798, and has maintained weapon systems, training programs, and operating procedures that facilitate readiness and interoperability with the Navy and the other services. Many U.S. Coast Guard capabilities have military applications as well as domestic civilian purposes. Current agreements with the Department of Defense assign the U.S. Coast Guard five
specific defense missions in support of U.S. combatant commanders: (1) creating a visible presence and thereby maritime interception operations; (2) military environmental response operations; (3) port operations, security and defense; (4) peacetime military engagement; and (5) coastal sea control operations. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, the United States employed U.S. Coast Guard capabilities, which currently remain a key component of maritime security in the Persian Gulf. As part of its national defense role, the U.S. Coast Guard operates the nation’s only multimission polar icebreakers, projecting U.S. presence and protecting national interests in the Arctic region.
With the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, there are no direct military threats in the Arctic basin. However, with the most recent missile testing, although seen as a failure, it may be possible for missiles launched from North Korea to reach parts of Alaska. In response, the United States has positioned significant missile tracking assets in the Aleutian Islands. Although at present, the U.S. Coast Guard is not actively patrolling these waters for national defense, this may change if the political climate in this region changes. It also appears that geopolitical competition in the Arctic is under way and increasing. Indicators include Canadian initiatives toward a more overt Arctic presence, aggressive Russian and Danish claims to the Arctic, and Danish-Canadian sovereignty disagreements over Han Island. This competition will likely develop further if exploitation of oil and gas reserves proves economical. U.S. national interests can only benefit from an active and capable presence in this competitive environment. Icebreaking capability would strengthen U.S. defense posture in the Arctic by (1) creating a visible presence and thereby providing a clear statement of national interest in the region; (2) establishing an ability to monitor and react to events as necessary; and (3) preserving a basic capability for direct military action if ever required. The U.S. Coast Guard’s military status would offer advantages for protecting U.S. interests anywhere along the spectrum from peacetime operations to conflict.
The U.S. Coast Guard’s principal objective under its role of maritime security is to protect America’s maritime borders and sovereignty. As the nation’s primary maritime law enforcement service, the Coast Guard enforces or assists in enforcing federal laws, treaties, and other international agreements on the high seas and in waters under U.S. jurisdiction. U.S. Coast Guard units have authority to board any vessel subject to U.S. jurisdiction to make inspections, searches, inquiries, and arrests. With a capable fleet of cutters, aircraft, and trained personnel, the U.S. Coast Guard can leverage the responsibilities of other agencies. As part of its maritime security role, the Coast Guard operates the nation’s only multimission polar icebreakers, projecting U.S. presence and protecting national interests in the Arctic and Antarctic regions.
Two of the most visible recent security roles have involved the interdiction of illegal drugs and illegal migrants. The National Drug Control Strategy designates the U.S. Coast Guard lead agency for maritime drug interdiction, involving forward deployment of cutters and aircraft throughout the Caribbean Sea and the west coast of Central America. Illegal migrant interdiction, which in a majority of cases begins as a search-and-rescue operation, has been characterized by the movement of hundreds of thousands of people from Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and China.
Passage of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act in 1976 extended the U.S. exclusive economic zone (EEZ) offshore to 200 nautical miles (nmi). The U.S. Coast Guard provides the principal U.S. capability for patrolling and enforcing fisheries laws in the EEZ. A variety of international fisheries agreements have further expanded U.S. jurisdiction to high seas beyond the EEZ, such as the prohibition of high-seas drift net fishing in the North Pacific Ocean and continuing effort focused on the maritime boundary line in the Bering Sea.
Since 9/11, the U.S. Coast Guard’s long-standing role in port security has received tremendous emphasis and resources. The U.S. Coast Guard was responsible for reviewing, approving, and enforcing security plans for port facilities and for vessels using U.S. ports as security measures were increased after 9/11. In addition, the U.S. Coast Guard has added new resources to protect critical port infrastructure, including defense assets, and respond to potential security threats in U.S. ports and waterways.
The post-9/11 emphasis on security has highlighted the vital need for maritime domain awareness. The concept of MDA encompasses real-time or near-real-time information on every aspect of maritime areas surrounding the nation: ships and their intended activities, cargoes, marine events and operations, environmental conditions, and so forth. Reporting requirements, such as 96-hour prenotification by vessels bound for U.S. ports, fulfill some MDA requirements, as do existing vessel traffic services in many port areas. U.S. legislation and international agreements now require most commercial cargo and passenger vessels to have AIS transponders, which broadcast information about the vessel’s identity and position to other vessels and centers on shore.
An increasingly accurate MDA picture not only will enhance maritime security but will aid other U.S. Coast Guard missions as well. The ability of the U.S. Coast Guard to monitor AIS signals is being expanded through the use of AIS receivers in satellites, on U.S. Coast Guard ships and aircraft, and on offshore installations. While AIS is nominally a short-range system, MDA will also be enhanced by the integration of AIS with an IMO Long Range Identification and Tracking (LRIT) requirement currently under development. The LRIT system will use satellite-based com-
munications already required on board most commercial vessels. These satellite systems however, are not reliable above 76 degrees North latitude, and a provision in the international agreement has been made to use iridium technology in areas where the satellites are unreliable.
Although the need for routine interdiction of drugs or aliens in the Arctic seems unlikely at this point, the need for law enforcement may increase. There are indications that the northern Bering Sea is rapidly changing from an Arctic to a sub-Arctic body of water. These changes favor increases in commercially valuable fishery stocks and their possible movement northward into the Arctic Ocean. While open-water monitoring and enforcement of commercial fishing could be accomplished by thin-hulled cutters that now perform these tasks in the Bering Sea, there may be significantly increased risk of “shoulder” season ice blockages in the Bering Strait and along the coastline. Mitigating this risk would require available icebreaking capability for effective U.S. Coast Guard enforcement.
Within the role of maritime mobility, the U.S. Coast Guard facilitates maritime commerce and eliminates interruptions and impediments to the efficient and economical movement of goods and people, while maximizing recreational access to and enjoyment of the water. The U.S. marine transportation system is a critical component of the nation’s economy, and the U.S. Coast Guard has primary responsibility for managing waterways and ports. U.S. Coast Guard cutters, boats, and personnel maintain the aids to navigation system, marking navigable areas and obstructions with buoys, fixed structures, and a variety of audible, visual, and electronic signals. Notices to Mariners provide up-to-date navigation information on system exceptions, special events, et cetera. The U.S. Coast Guard operates vessel traffic services (VTS) using AIS technology, tailored to the needs of particular port areas, to monitor and direct waterborne traffic. VTSs promote the efficient movement of vessels, seek to prevent collisions and groundings, and enhance the security of critical port areas. Small icebreakers and ice-strengthened cutters in the Great Lakes and the northeastern United States assist vessels and facilitate their movement in port areas and along the St. Lawrence Seaway system. Oversight of bridge design standards and drawbridge openings ensures that waterway transportation needs are accommodated. Polar icebreaking to facilitate maritime commerce, scientific exploration, and national security activities is included in the goal of maritime mobility.
The role of vessel assistance, which was formally instituted by a 1936 Executive Order (Appendix C) and what the U.S. Coast Guard has termed “domestic” icebreaking, has historically been confined to the Great Lakes and northeastern United States. Similar routine icebreaking services have never developed in Alaska due to the rarity and limited seasonal nature of commercial shipping in ice-affected area, other than occasional events such as the Prudhoe Bay sealifts mentioned above. New commercial ventures, exemplified by the Red Dog Mine north of the Bering Strait, and planned offshore North Slope oil and gas development, may result in pressure for a capable icebreaker presence in the spring and fall “shoulder” seasons. From a business perspective, the presence of an icebreaker operating in the general area could serve to mitigate the risks of unpredictable ice and weather conditions and improve the economics of projects subject to seasonal shipping limits. This would be a natural extension of the rationale for U.S. Coast Guard domestic icebreaking.
PROTECTION OF NATURAL RESOURCES
The U.S. Coast Guard seeks to protect the nation’s natural resources by eliminating environmental damage and the degradation of natural resources associated with maritime transportation, fishing, and recreational boating. Closely tied to the U.S. Coast Guard’s safety prevention efforts, avoidance of accidents is a key component of protecting the U.S. marine environment. The U.S. Coast Guard enforces regulations and laws protecting sensitive marine habitats, marine mammals, and endangered marine species, as well as laws preventing discharge of oil and other hazardous materials. A wide range of activities addresses environmental objectives in offshore lightering zone regulation, domestic fisheries enforcement, and foreign vessel inspection. U.S. Coast Guard units are often the first on scene when a pollution incident is reported, and the Coast Guard is typically the lead agency for a pollution response effort. Under the National Contingency Plan, U.S. Coast Guard captains of the port are the designated federal on-scene coordinators (FOSCs) for oil and hazardous substance incidents in all coastal and some inland areas. The FOSC is responsible for forging a coordinated and effective response effort with a complex group of government and commercial entities, often in dangerous and emotion-laden situations.
Protecting the Arctic marine environment begins with ensuring the safety of vessels operating in these challenging conditions, including the availability of icebreaking assistance and comprehensive monitoring of vessel movements. Prevention might also include a regulatory regime, limiting vessels to geographic areas and seasonal periods appropriate to their ice capabilities. The Canadian Arctic Shipping Pollution Prevention Regulations (ASPPR) would serve as an obvious example. Increases in traffic, especially from Russian or Canadian waters, may create U.S. interest in establishing regulations; enforcement and deterrence would necessitate an on-scene presence capable of operating in ice. The U.S. Coast Guard would clearly have regulatory responsibility for this type of waterways management. Responding to a major oil spill in the Arctic is challenging, as cleanup activities for an onshore spill near Prudhoe Bay in early 2006 attest. Oil cleanup offshore would be even more difficult due
to the dearth of infrastructure and the possibility of ice. Where depth of water permits access, an icebreaker could offer command-and-control capabilities, communications, berthing, helicopters, boats, cargo space, heavyweight handling gear, tankage, and support services to smaller craft, all of which would be of great benefit to cleanup operations. Direct oil recovery could also be included as an icebreaker capability: POLAR SEA successfully tested a boom-mounted skimming system known as the Vessel of Opportunity Skimming System (VOSS) (as well as other capabilities) while participating in an oil spill exercise off Sakhalin Island in 1998. The U.S. Coast Guard’s new fleet of coastal buoy tenders is equipped with VOSS, and thought should be given to the need for new polar icebreakers to be equipped with the latest technology for oil spill response.
The principal objective of the U.S. Coast Guard’s polar ice operations role is to support U.S. interests in the polar regions by providing the icebreaker operating time and capabilities required by the U.S. Coast Guard and user agencies in polar regions. This objective is selected as the U.S. Coast Guard’s long-term first priority because Coast Guard icebreakers are the only national icebreaking resources that can reliably accomplish national objectives in the polar regions. Although, the U.S. Coast Guard has included polar icebreaking as part of its national defense role, polar operations have in fact spanned all of the mission areas to some degree. The U.S. Coast Guard polar icebreakers have been tasked at various times to support the national objectives in the polar regions by (1) providing platforms for scientific research in the Arctic and Antarctic; (2) performing logistical and supply activities in the Arctic and Antarctic; (3) providing support for resource exploration, shipping demonstration projects, and research, development, and testing projects in the Arctic; (4) performing military missions in the Arctic; (5) supporting diplomatic missions related to U.S. strategic interests; and (6) coordinating an international exchange of information on ice operations.
Even before the effects of environmental changes were widely recognized, the Arctic was a target for scientific inquiry as one of the least explored areas of the planet. It seems clear that the rapid environmental changes now under way will continue to require active scientific observation and study. While science support is not exclusively a U.S. Coast Guard mission, oceanographic research is directed by statute and has been part of the service’s Arctic operations since John Muir sailed with the Revenue Cutter CORWIN in 1884. Science support remains a compatible mission for U.S. Coast Guard-operated icebreakers. U.S. icebreaker presence in the Arctic, for any or all of the potential missions discussed above, would synergistically enhance the ability to conduct scientific sampling and observation. In yet another area of competition, robust marine research capabilities in the Arctic will also bolster the international standing of U.S. scientists and research programs, as well as preserve the benefits of applied research.
The U.S. Coast Guard’s science support role, primarily through logistics in McMurdo Sound, is addressed in U.S. Coast Guard statutory authorities. The presence of U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers in the Antarctic every year brings a variety of additional national capabilities to the region, not the least of which is a visible maritime presence.
The need for future U.S. Coast Guard presence in Antarctica could unfold in three possible ways. First, increased geopolitical competition in Antarctica—perhaps manifested by more aggressive activities by other nations or even outright abrogation of the Antarctic Treaty—might call for a more forceful and visible U.S. presence. U.S. Coast Guard units would be obvious candidates for such a presence in Antarctic coastal areas. A second need might result from extensions of the Antarctic Treaty system, or other international agreements, aimed at managing Antarctic activities such as fishing or other resource exploitation. Again, U.S. Coast Guard capabilities would offer an on-scene solution. Finally, Antarctic tourism is growing rapidly and involves thousands of American tourists sailing on foreign-flag vessels in an area with no sovereign regime of safety, security, or environmental regulation and enforcement. These are all areas of U.S. Coast Guard responsibility and expertise, and changes in the dynamics of Antarctic tourism could require U.S. federal action to protect American citizens. The likelihood of any of the foregoing possibilities is difficult to assess, but all could be accommodated by continued U.S. Coast Guard icebreaking support in the Antarctic.