The Coast Guard is at “about 90 percent for total vaccination across the active force” and 92.5 percent with a first shot as the service is focused on educating members about COVID-19 and the vaccine before setting a deadline to enforce mandatory vaccination, Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz told senators Tuesday.
Asked about a target date for the service’s vaccine mandate — the Department of Homeland Security has set Nov. 22 as the deadline for employees to be fully vaccinated or request a religious or medical exemption — Schultz said that “what we’re trying to do right now is we’re trying to drive folks toward understanding the benefits of the vaccine, the risk to force from a readiness standpoint, education.”
“If you are not vaccinated, you may not attend an advanced training course or curriculum until you get vaccinated,” Schultz said at the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Oceans, Fisheries, Climate Change and Manufacturing hearing on Coast Guard oversight. “In terms of discharge and those things — on the active side, somewhere just south of 3,000 unvaccinated folks — there’s some portion of that that are religious accommodations… everyone will go through a chaplain. We have not acted on them yet. There are medical waivers in there. So we’re trying to really get our arms around what those specific numbers are … we have not made any decisions regarding administrative decision, but we’re looking, like the other services, at those actions.”
The administration has requested $13.1 billion for the U.S. Coast Guard for fiscal year 2022. Schultz said this reflects the service’s readiness priorities “as we look to provide our workforce with the capable assets, the resilient infrastructure, and modern systems they need to conduct operations and meet both current and future mission demands.”
“To close the Coast Guard readiness gap, we need sustained operations and support budget growth of about three to five percent on an annual basis,” he added.
The Polar Security Cutter program, constructing the first new heavy icebreakers in decades, will “enable the United States to project sovereignty, protect natural marine resources, counter malign actors, and respond to new mission demands caused by receding ice.” Schultz also stressed that progress on the Offshore Patrol Cutter program to replace Medium Endurance Cutters is vital as “they are becoming increasingly expensive to maintain and require extraordinary efforts by our personnel.”
“Despite these Herculean maintenance efforts, this fleet of Medium Endurance Cutters has lost roughly 11 percent of its operational capacity over the past two years and that is a degradation to front-line mission performance,” he said. “I’m increasingly concerned about our ability to sustain operations with our legacy rotary-wing MH-65 and MH-60 helicopters as 65 Dolphin parts are increasingly hard to locate. Hence, the Coast Guard must immediately transition towards an all MH-60 Jayhawk fleet. To meet today’s standards for both energy efficiency and resilience, we must update our shore facilities.”
Investments in technology are also critical as the Coast Guard confronts challenges in the security and reliability of the Marine Transportation System. Assets to nimbly respond to emergencies remain vital as USCG responded to a dozen major hurricanes between 2015 and 2020, as well as other crises including California wildfires, Midwest flooding, and the August earthquake in Haiti.
“Our complex operating environment and challenging missions makes it critical that we harness the full power of the background, experience, and imagination of every member of our Coast Guard workforce. Myself and senior leaders across the organization remain fully committed to fostering an environment that provides an inclusive and rewarding journey for all Coast Guardsmen in our quest to be a service increasingly reflective of the American public we are honored to serve,” Schultz said. “We must position ourselves to be an employer choice in a highly competitive marketplace for talent.”
Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Jason Vanderhaden told senators that he’s finding high morale across the service as he travels around the country.
“The current challenge I am most concerned about is our ability to recruit and retain the workforce needed to operate our cutters and boats and aircraft,” Vanderhaden said. “As we replace our aging assets, the new cutters, helicopters, and planes being built require us to grow our workforce now, so that we are prepared to operate and maintain these technologically advanced resources when they arrive. Although, today, we enjoy the highest retention rate of all the military services, we will need to retain the future workforce at an even higher rate to meet the increasing demand, both domestically and abroad.”
Vanderhaden noted the retention studies that have been commissioned by the Coast Guard and how those resulting recommendations have led to several workforce initiatives to make things easier for USCG families while maintaining high standards of readiness and increasing opportunities for underrepresented groups.
“Policy change alone is not enough to retain our best and brightest,” he added. “We developed an action plan to reinforce the importance of inclusive leadership at all levels, especially, leadership by example and we started at the top, the top of our enlisted workforce to demonstrate our commitment to good leadership.” That includes changing the advancement process to master chief petty officer and expanding mentorship opportunities — in fact, he said, the Air Force is now evaluating the Coast Guard’s new mentoring program for their own use. “Not often Air Force copies the Coast Guard, but I think we hit a home run with this one.”
Asked about the USCG strategy to combat illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, Schultz said it is “not positioning the Coast Guard to be the world’s fish cops because we don’t have the capacity for that.”
“We are trying to take a lead role to stitch together like-minded thinkers, like-minded nations. We need to partner with NGOs, we need to partner with academia, there’s a lot of capabilities out there. We need to figure out how we share information and how we illuminate that,” he said. “If you look in the east and west coast of the African continent, east and west coast of South America, we saw the 350 China flagged and/or China characteristic [ships]… we sent a National Security Cutter down there and in the course of three or four days identified at least a couple of dozen vessels where their, you know, AIS, their Automated Information System didn’t correlate with their activities or position. We see the same challenges off the African countries. So I think what we can do is elevate that.”
Schultz added that fisheries enforcement is “about collaborating” as the USCG brings “a voice of credibility” to that international cooperation. “And what we want to do is take a nation like China, and we say, responsible flag states don’t send their vessels 9,000 miles away and have no coast — China Coast Guard, they’re short of making sure they follow the rules.”
The commandant also elaborated on USCG diversity priorities, noting that the Coast Guard Academy class of 2025 is 40 percent women and 38 percent underrepresented minorities. “We have the highest, both women and underrepresented, of any of the service academies, but we were driving toward a 50 percent that reflects for women,” he said. “…In terms of African-Americans in the service, we’re about five and a half, six percent and we need to drive that closer to the 11 or 12 percent that represent society with a propensity to serve.”
Vanderhaden said the Coast Guard recruitment mission is doing a better job of “telling our story” at high schools and community colleges. “This fiscal year ’22 budget looks really good for being able to build out our training center, our boot camp in Cape May, so we can get more folks through,” he said. “That’s going to be critically important, and then the training centers as well.”