Acquiring the “right tools” to modernize the fleet and meet the demands of an evolving security environment — including greater interest in the Arctic from Russia and China — are critical for the U.S. Coast Guard to “keep pace” as it presses forward with transformational recruitment and retention initiatives, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Linda Fagan told the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation and Maritime Security at a Thursday hearing to discuss her vision for the service.
“Our blend of authorities, capabilities, and leadership are in demand around the globe to help protect American interests,” she said. “However, the world we operate in is changing rapidly. Advances in technology, pressures on maritime supply chains, and threats to the global rules-based order are changing demand for Coast Guard missions and changing the communities where our people live and work. The Coast Guard must keep pace with these changes to uphold our proud tradition of service.”
Fagan stressed that “the heartbeat of the Coast Guard is our workforce,” and her “highest priority as a commandant is to transform our talent management system.”
“We will recruit people from across our great nation who are service-oriented and have a high sense of purpose. Our leaders will provide an increasingly diverse workforce, a strong sense of belonging, so every individual is valued, safe, and able to deliver their best service to the nation,” she said. “Once a person has joined the Coast Guard, we retain them by providing them and their family the support they need and deserve, including access to high-quality housing, health care, and child care. We will provide greater career flexibility, eliminating policy barriers that deter people from continuing to serve.”
For the USCG to keep its competitive edge, she continued, “we must provide the right tools, including a modern fleet of vessels and aircraft, as well as the resilient shore facilities that support them.”
“Applying new technologies, we will incorporate data systems into our operations so our leaders can make the best decisions across every mission,” the commandant told lawmakers. “We will advance our mission excellence, and we will continue to be brilliant at our core missions at home while we meet global demand for the Coast Guard by deploying where we provide the American people the greatest benefit.”
“How has Russia’s attack on Ukraine changed the state of play in the Arctic at all?” Chairwoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) asked. “And what do you view as the future of our encounters with Russia and China in the Arctic?”
Noting that China has “declared themselves as a near-Arctic nation,” Fagan replied that the United States is an Arctic nation.
“We’re not a near-Arctic nation, we are an Arctic nation. And so, getting the capability and capacity to create enduring presence in the Arctic, in the waters off of Alaska, are absolutely a priority. I’m thankful for the support that we’ve received from Congress with regard to money to begin building polar security cutters,” she said. “And as we’ve said, we’re working detailed design for the first polar security cutter. We’ve purchased long lead-time materials for the second. I have a sense of urgency for the nation that we need to get that capability fielded as soon as possible.”
Russia and the Coast Guard operate in and along the shared maritime boundary line in the Bering Sea.
“We continue to operate, and those engagements continue to be professional,” Fagan said. “We, two winters ago, had the Polar Star up above 65 degrees and had some interactions with the Russians there. You know, actual presence matters, and so getting that capability. And the Coast Guard is really excited about fielding that and operating that for the nation.”
“There are a number of multilateral forums that help get at the kind of dialogue and discussion that I think are important for us as a nation: the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, North Pacific Coast Guard Forum,” she added. “And it is unclear to me where we will sort of end with those forums or what form they will take moving forward, particularly with regard to Russians’ invasion of Ukraine.”
Chinese operations around the world indicate their interest in “presence and access” in the Arctic, she said, “which is why it becomes so critical for us as an Arctic nation to have a presence on the water in the Arctic to ensure our own national sovereignty.”
Fagan told lawmakers that the service has been consistent with assessed equipment needs in the region. “We need six icebreakers, at least three of which are heavy, and we need one now and which is why the polar security cutter at [shipbuilder VT Halter Marine] is so critical,” she said. “We continue to work on what an Arctic security cutter might look like, a medium-capable icebreaker, and are excited about the conversation and support around the potential for a commercially available icebreaker.”
“We need to acquire equipment much quicker than we’re doing right now because our adversaries are doing it much quicker than we’re doing,” said Ranking Member Carlos Gimenez (R-Fla.).
Fagan said that the Coast Guard maintains a “sense of urgency for getting operating capability into the Arctic so we can create more enduring presence.”
The commandant emphasized that “the biggest issue at hand centers around people and workforce,” as “the recruiting challenge for the service is real.”
“It’s here now. It’s not unique to the Coast Guard,” she said. “I have a real sense of urgency around what we need to do to surge into the recruiting challenge that we face, and we are moving to do that.”
Fagan noted that “people stay in the Coast Guard, we retain people at a high rate, but we need to make it easier to retain an even greater number of people.”
“And that gets at policy and support makes it easy for people to come, stay, and serve successfully. And that will require us to unpack some of the assumptions of service that we’ve used for so long,” she said. “You know, for example, on opportunities to lateral into the service at a mid-pay-grade point where you’ve got full credentials on the civilian side, opportunities to opt out of promotion for a year because you’re in a place that you and your family are happy and stable, and then an ability to opt back in without penalty or impact.”
The USCG’s workforce initiatives are “transformational,” she said, reflecting “cultural change with regard to workforce policy and talent that we are going to need to get after as a service.”
“As you know, culture change is difficult,” Fagan added. “I have challenged the team, though, to be bold, be transformative. The red flag for me is if someone says, ‘Well, we’ve always done it that way.’ That generally indicates it’s an area that we need to make progress in.”