Coastal Force Battles Oceanwide Adversaries

June 2010
By Robert K. Ackerman, SIGNAL Magazine
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The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Rush sits astern of the Japanese fishing vessel Koei Maru 10 in a joint enforcement project with officials from the island nation of Kiribati. The Japanese vessel was found to be violating Republic of Kiribati fishing regulations, and it was seized and its master arrested. The more than $700,000 in fines paid to Kiribati both boosted the country’s treasury and helped deter other nations from violating its fishing regulations.

A large portion of the Pacific is the focus of local maritime security efforts.

A small coastal patrol group is enforcing maritime security over an area four times the size of the continental United States. Armed with a few cutters and a handful of international agreements, the U.S. Coast Guard’s 14th District force is waging a war against the conditions that can breed piracy and terrorism.

For this vast region, maritime security entails more than just monitoring ship traffic. Virtually any nefarious seagoing activity can take place, including drug trafficking, alien migration and international crime. Each nation in this part of the Pacific region has a different capacity to govern its maritime environment, so many security activities must be conducted in partnership with other nations.

These security efforts can have long-term socio-economic ramifications. For many small island nations, fish stocks are their equivalent of crude oil deposits. Their economies are dependent on fishing, and illegal activities such as overfishing or trawling from schools in national waters threaten to undermine national economies and the societies they underpin. This in turn could give rise to other illegal activities such as piracy, which now plagues the waters off the Horn of Africa (see page 50).

The Coast Guard’s 14th District covers more than 12 million square miles of Pacific Ocean waters and islands. From its base in Hawaii, the district encompasses 1.5 million square miles of U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) waters, and it extends 3,300 miles out to Guam in the north and about 2,500 miles down to American Samoa in the south. It includes four monuments and two marine sanctuaries.

The “tyranny of distance” is a major challenge facing the Coast Guard, notes Lt. Cmdr. Jay Caputo, USCG, District 14 fisheries enforcement officer. However, the more than 10 million square miles outside of the U.S. EEZ feature many countries with which the Coast Guard must interoperate, both technologically and culturally. Australia, New Zealand and France all have national assets in the region, and they are joined by a host of small independent island countries that depend on maritime activities for their economies.

Nine cutters are based with the district, with two more assigned as support ships. Four C-130 aircraft and four HH-65 helicopters constitute its air assets. Its 22 shore units comprise two sectors, three boat stations, one air station and one maritime safety and security team (MSST), an antiterrorism team established to protect local maritime assets. Active duty personnel total 1,150, with another 150 in reserve.

Capt. Mike McCraw, USCG, acting District 14 response chief, explains that technology plays an important role in the Coast Guard’s many missions. Computerized drift modeling is used in search and rescue, for example, and this technology is applied to maritime security measures. Many Coast Guard missions overlap, and the captain cites one case of a powerless boat adrift that turned out to be carrying illegal migrants. Such a vessel also could be trafficking in drugs, so the search and rescue technologies come into play for law enforcement.

To maintain contact with all of its assets throughout the district, the Coast Guard relies on its standard Internet protocol (IP)-based network along with a standard communications suite. Even with this equipment, establishing and maintaining communications can be a challenge over the vast ocean distances. Capt. McCraw points out that the Coast Guard’s Joint Rescue Coordination Center (JRCC) has partnerships with other rescue coordination centers, which maintain communications with their own assets. While the Coast Guard may not always have direct ship-to-ship communications, it can coordinate efforts through these equivalents to its JRCC.

Unlike other Coast Guard units, District 14 has not yet received Rescue 21, the Coast Guard’s new command and control network (SIGNAL Magazine, November 2003). Capt. McCraw offers that its implementation, which may take place within a year, will go a long way to solving the district’s communications shortfalls.


Members of a U.S. Coast Guard maritime safety and security team (MSST) secure a perimeter after rappelling from a helicopter during a vertical insertion exercise in Hawaii. Vertical insertion is the tactic used by MSSTs, which were established to protect local maritime assets from terrorism, to board vessels using the element of surprise.

“The Coast Guard can never have enough communications,” the captain says. “With the assets we have out here, we cover a large area. So, communications are the biggest wish list we have.” More bandwidth and better connectivity are high on the wish list. Capt. McCraw cites advanced datalink capabilities, particularly those that permit full video downloads, as vital for enabling the real-time information access the district needs.

The Coast Guard relies on a variety of sources for situational awareness over this vast area. With its limited resources, it relies on mariners for some information. The Automated Mutual-Assistance Vessel Rescue system, or AMVER, provides the ability to communicate with a mariner to improve maritime domain awareness. While this system is strictly for search and rescue, information gleaned from it can be useful when a mission changes to include a law enforcement element.

Several threats characterize the Coast Guard’s multimission tasking. Drug smuggling takes place as it does virtually all over the world. Alien migration is increasing in the region. Piracy is not a major threat yet, but its presence is significant in waters to the west of the area. And, as always, search and rescue constitutes a major part of the Coast Guard’s focus.

Fishing enforcement is a major activity for the district Coast Guard forces. The biggest priority for the Coast Guard now is known as “the fight for fish,” according to Capt. McCraw. The Coast Guard partners with other nations through the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), which includes the European Union as well as Asian states such as Japan and Korea.

Lt. Cmdr. Caputo notes that roughly 9,000 vessels are registered under the WCPFC. It is virtually impossible to track all 9,000 craft simultaneously, so the Coast Guard must rely on surveillance to detect and track transgressors.

The top fishing haul in the region is tuna. Unlike other areas where fishing stocks have been played out, tuna remains plentiful. However, the political zones that have been established by maritime laws do not fit the tuna’s migration patterns, Lt. Cmdr. Caputo points out. Any holes in the patchwork of laws and regulations will be seized upon by illegal fishing interests or others that do not worry about overfishing these plentiful stocks.

The nations’ EEZs are separated by “high-seas pockets” over which no single nation has authority. So, the WCPFC attempts to regulate fishing hauls in those regions. The commission empowers its member countries with a high-seas boarding and inspection scheme that allows them to board vessels for inspection outside of their EEZs. Lt. Cmdr. Caputo notes that the Coast Guard patrols the high-seas adjacent to U.S. EEZs to ensure that vessels are in compliance with WCPFC conservation regulations.

Complementing that international agreement are bilateral agreements the United States has signed with seven other area nations. Each agreement allows the United States to bring a Coast Guard cutter into that nation’s EEZ to patrol and conduct boardings for EEZ compliance.

These agreements are initiated by U.S. Coast Guard officers working through the U.S. State Department at a country-to-country level, reports Carolyn Ridderman, international affairs officer for District 14. The agreements vary country to country, but each agreement is a relatively simple mechanism that grants each foreign country the ability to conduct law enforcement operations within its EEZ using a U.S. Coast Guard cutter as a platform, she allows.

The key to these agreements is that the host nation will have its own enforcement official conducting operations aboard the U.S. ship. Effectively, the U.S. Coast Guard provides the transportation for the other nation’s official to engage in law enforcement. “The U.S. Coast Guard is not in the business of surveilling other countries’ EEZs,” Ridderman points out. “If we are transiting from point A to point B, and we happen to be passing through another country’s EEZ, then we are willing to provide opportunities for that country to get out on the water and enforce laws in its EEZ. But we don’t specifically patrol other countries’ EEZs,” she emphasizes.

Richard Roberts, acting chief for incident management for District 14, describes these types of agreement as “a force multiplier for the cooperative effort to cure the Pacific area.” The United States is looking to expand that agreement to include another 12 countries, which would help close gaps in maritime security coverage.

Each agreement is different, Lt. Cmdr. Caputo points out. Some are all-encompassing, while others focus on law enforcement or just fishing concerns. A search and rescue agreement with the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Palau empowers the Coast Guard to provide search and rescue assistance in those countries’ waters, Roberts relates.

Securing the economic viability of these small nations by enforcing their EEZs can pay big dividends. The island nation of Kiribati, for example, has the 12th largest EEZ in the world but a gross domestic product of only about $130 million. Its capital is 2,000 miles away from another of its main islands, and it has only one patrol boat to monitor its waters. In 2008, a U.S. cutter carrying a Kiribati official seized a Japanese long-line fishing vessel that was conducting illegal activities. Another seizure involved an illegal bunkering operation that was supporting vessels in another zone. The fines that were paid to the Kiribati national treasury totaled more than $4 million, but that was not the only benefit the small island nation received. Lt. Cmdr. Caputo relates that Kiribati officials reported a surge in nations seeking to update vessel licenses and comply with Kiribati law after the seizures.

Not only does a small nation benefit financially from protection of its EEZ resources, it also becomes stronger in a societal sense. Ensuring economic stability as well as the rule of law helps ward off corruption and graft from taking root in the region. Cmdr. Brad Sultzer, USCG, District 14 enforcement chief, points out that if these small national economies break down due to the draining of their chief economic resource, then all of the other threats that confront authorities can increase in scope.

Somalia often is cited as an example of how extreme poverty, combined with a lack of governing authority, spawned the epidemic of piracy plaguing the waters off its coast. In fact, overfishing is what began the country’s march to piracy as a pastime. Fishing boats from other countries were sapping Somalia’s EEZ of fish stocks on which coastal residents depended for both protein and economic support. People began sailing out to confront those fishing vessels, and this activity evolved into seizing other ships for ransom.

Capt. McCraw emphasizes that there is no budding Somalia among even the poorest nations in the district, but continued vigilance is necessary to ensure that illegal actions in the region’s vast waters do not adversely affect their economies.

U.S. Coast Guard District 14:



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