The U.S. Coast Guard has taken to heart lessons over the past year not just about agility and creative ways to maintain security and commerce during a global pandemic but in fostering a diverse and inclusive workforce for optimal strength and effectiveness, Adm. Karl Schultz said.
“Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, our communities witnessed a national awakening for social justice, and as an organization we continue to look inward and evaluate our actions with renewed determination to achieve a fully inclusive Coast Guard,” the Coast Guard commandant said in his third State of the Coast Guard Address delivered today at Coast Guard Sector San Diego.
By the end of the summer the Coast Guard will have trained 125 “change agents” designed to “connect with hundreds of units per year to deliver training and facilitate conversations about the power of diversity and inclusion.” A new “mobile-enabled” mentorship program to be rolled out by summer is also designed to better connect members within the USCG community. A new Officer Recruiting Team will also focus on reaching underrepresented candidates “to aid in broadening the diversity of our Officer Corps.”
In an address that largely focused on the resiliency of the Coast Guard’s men and women during an unprecedented year and the need to nurture, retain and grow that workforce, Schultz announced a 66 percent increase in tuition assistance. Effective today, the annual cap for reimbursement is $3,750 for active-duty and reservists.
“The past year has been difficult for so many in our workforce — particularly for those members of our team juggling childcare, online schooling, and in some cases care for elderly family members,” Schultz said. “…Undoubtedly the greatest burden has fallen on the shoulders of our deployed forces. COVID protocols and restrictions made already demanding in-port training and cutter maintenance all the more challenging, and crews experienced extended restriction-of-movement periods as they readied for deployed operations.”
The commandant noted that the stress of the past year has also heightened focus on caring for mental health. “Of note, our 75 Auxiliary clergy members more than doubled the number of our own chaplain corps, providing spiritual and mental health support for our members under considerable stress” in 2020, he said, later adding that USCG would be “leveraging telehealth capabilities to increase the reach of 13 new mental health professionals and eight soon-to-be-recruited regional nurse case managers while exploring the employment of enlisted behavioral health technicians to better support our workforce’s mental health needs.”
Schultz also announced more flexible service options, including an option to defer involuntary activation for one year for active-duty members who transition to reserves as well as two-year active-duty enlistments for new recruits.
Since announcing a “tech revolution” at last year’s State of the Coast Guard address, the commandant said initiatives and rollouts have “leaped-frogged ahead” including migration to a cloud-based suite of collaboration tools over the past year, better force connectivity, and stronger telework capability. “Underway WiFi” will be piloted on two cutters this year to help deployed crews stay connected to family and friends.
Support investments should also include resilient and upgraded facilities as well as finding affordable housing solutions for a workforce in which fewer than 10 percent of service members live in government housing, the USCG leader added.
Schultz also stressed the importance of upgrading the inland fleet, with an average age over 50 years old. “I’m excited to say that we will issue a request for proposal this year to replace our legacy fleet of tenders with new Waterways Commerce Cutters. We anticipate awarding a detail design and construction contract in the spring of 2022. These new cutters will offer more afloat opportunities for women,” he said.
Detailing some of the USCG partnerships on global maritime security including combating drug trafficking, piracy, and illegal fishing, the commandant emphasized that “the real key to spotlighting bad behavior is maritime domain awareness.”
“Last fall, our Research and Development Center tested the ability of unmanned surface vessels to augment traditional ship and aviation capabilities for operations in the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean. We learned that the future of our unmanned systems strategy will most likely rely on more diverse systems and effective integration of machine learning to unlock actionable data for Coast Guard operators,” he said. “These are valuable lessons as we stand up an unmanned systems element within our Coast Guard requirements shop to consider how unmanned technology can augment our future fleet.”
That fleet is shaping up now as work continues on the tenth National Security Cutter and the first of a future fleet of 25 Offshore Patrol Cutters. On Friday, the 42nd Fast Response Cutter – Robert Goldman – will go into service. “The recently enacted Fiscal Year ’21 appropriations bill funded the acquisition of the last 4 Fast Response Cutters, completing our FRC program of record of 64 hulls,” Schultz said. “We look forward to commissioning FRC numbers 43 through 64 and placing them into operational service.”
Add that to three future heavy icebreakers, and the USCG has “over 100 highly capable ships that model the rules-based order.”
“While the Department of Defense is rightly focused on hard-power lethality, the U.S. Coast Guard provides soft power, multi-mission flexibility, trusted access, and non-kinetic options to advance U.S. interests, preserve U.S. security and prosperity, and address wide-ranging threats and challenges,” he said.
COVID-19 and the security of the supply chain underscored the importance of a strong Marine Transportation System, and Schultz gave credit to the credentialed U.S. Merchant Mariners “who form the backbone” of the MTS. “Last year, the Coast Guard made sure these marine operators were categorized as essential workers — annually, they are responsible for $5.4 trillion of economic activity that Americans depend on,” he said. “Throughout this global pandemic, these professionals kept products moving to ensure stores were stocked with medicine and critical supplies.”
USCG stood up the Maritime Cyber Readiness Branch within Coast Guard Cyber Command to help protect the MTS, investigating incidents and sharing information with partners.
“Combined with our Cyber Protection Team that is certified, trained, and deployable for Prevention and Response operations, the Coast Guard is taking important and necessary steps to increase safety and security where physical and cyber threats converge,” the commandant continued. “We maintain strong relationships with our U.S. port partners, we hold leadership roles on Area Maritime Security and Harbor Safety Committees, and we have the technological expertise to integrate cyber awareness and resilience within the Marine Transportation System.”
Schultz lauded the Coast Guard workforce “who continue to create innovative solutions to evolving challenges, who continue to forge new partnerships during challenges, and who continue to make history.”