Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Jason Vanderhaden testifies May 21, 2019, at the House Transportation Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation. (Coast Guard photo)

MCPOCG Vanderhaden Breaks Down Coast Guard Challenges, from Missions to Retention

The U.S. Coast Guard’s top enlisted member singled out polar security and cybersecurity as the two main growth areas as the USCG focuses on the future — and on retaining as many personnel as possible into the future.

“As we experience climate change, for whatever reason, that is opening up opportunities,” Master Chief Petty Officer Jason M. Vanderhaden told HSToday at the Government Technology & Services Coalition’s recent Maritime & Port Security 2019 event. “And if you wait, you’ll lose that. The Chinese are calling themselves a ‘near-Arctic nation.’ I don’t blame them, if you can claim it — but the competition for resources in the world is growing.”

The United States needs to prepare for this shifting dynamic, knowing that “you can’t just build an icebreaker in a year — it takes time to get it right.”

“We need to be able to project our influence. The Antarctic Treaty gives every nation who is in the treaty the right to inspect other countries’ bases at their desire. We couldn’t go inspect the Chinese base if we wanted to because we can’t get there,” he said. “So we need to be able to enforce a treaty and be able to look out for our own, look out for the world.”

Ultimately, he stressed, the U.S. needs to be able to promote its values, including regarding conservation of resources, “and without the ability to be present you can’t exert any influence over the Arctic, the Antarctic — those are expanding missions.”

“We’re playing catch-up on cyber and we have a lot of work to do,” Vanderhaden continued. “…We need to get our people to a very high level of qualification certification, that experience level so that they can regulate industry and, as they regulate, enable commerce — enable their work to be done, through cybersecurity.”

Vanderhaden enlisted in the Coast Guard in May 1988, and assumed the duties of the 13th Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard on May 17, 2018. His two children also serve in the Coast Guard.

Asked about current challenges for the enlisted, Vanderhaden replied that “maintaining and keeping our training level up” is critical.

“We’re really wringing every efficiency we can out of our training system and efficiency often means ‘harder on the workforce,’ when you’re trying to make sure every single seat is filled and you’re trying to make sure that you maximize every training — which is a righteous endeavor, but when you do that you create business processes that make it a little more difficult for the workforce to access that training,” he said. “I worry about making sure we can stay on top of our training.”

Then there’s the issue of keeping the Coast Guard workforce. This spring, as women leave active duty at a higher rate than men, the USCG released its first women’s retention study in three decades, which identified recommendations to improve retention factors related to work environment, career opportunities and family issues.

“If I see things that I think might be problematic, I’m going to really look for ideas to address that,” Vanderhaden said of overall retention issues. “But for right now, I’m just making sure we can continue to provide the great training that we’ve been providing our people in the budget environment that we’re in.” He also emphasized that Coast Guard technology needs to be “as up-to-date as we can … I’m not saying that we need to be state-of-the-art, but we need to at least be state-of-the-market in terms of our C4IT equipment, and we need help with that.”

He noted that the Coast Guard “has to grow by over 2,000 people in the next 20 years to be able to staff the ships that we’re in and maintain the equipment that we’re going to have.”

“I’m worried a little bit about our aviation forces — our helicopters are our aging and we need to recapitalize our aviation forces,” he said. “We need to start looking at that now. The new assets that we’re getting are great, but we can use the help in our operations and support budget, for sure. There are going to be great assets, but if we can’t operate them and maintain them it’s not going to do us a lot of good.”

The MCPOCG’s advice to junior enlisted personnel? “The Coast Guard is a great place to work — the demand for our work is growing, and we are,” Vanderhaden said. “We have 11 statutory missions. No matter what you want to do, you can do it in the Coast Guard, and I would say you can’t say that about many other services. If you want to do environmental safety, inspections and regulatory, you can do that in the Coast Guard. If you want to do law enforcement, you can do that in the Coast Guard. If you want to fly helicopters and do search-and-rescue, your options are really good in the Coast Guard.”

“I would say think carefully about what you want to do because as technology increases we are becoming more specialized, and so you need to get really good at something,” he continued. “So whatever it is that you like to do, even if it’s cooking, get really good at it and be the best you can. And whatever it is you choose to do and you do that, you’ll be in the Coast Guard, you’ll be rewarded for it, you’ll be recognized for it and you’ll have a bright future. I came up in food service. I was a food service guy and I’m now the senior enlisted member of the Coast Guard. So it just goes to show you that in the Coast Guard anybody can make it to the top — the options are for everybody.”

“And I hope that you stay if you’re an E3,” he added. “I hope that you stay.”

The Coast Guard hosted its first Affinity Fair in May to promote a more inclusive service. Vanderhaden said affinity groups “help us to understand what our strengths are in terms of diversity, but they also help us understand where we need to improve in terms of diversity.”

“I really appreciate the leadership of these affinity groups and their ability to tap into the knowledge and experience of their membership to better inform Coast Guard leadership,” he said. “Because every now and then it’s good to hear that you’re doing something right, but you also need to know where you need to improve… You really need to get the inclusiveness right so that when you bring in a diverse workforce, they stay. As a service we’re focusing on inclusion so that when we do get the diversity, it sticks.”

Vanderhaden fondly remembered Commander Molly Waters, who passed away from injuries suffered in a May 13 motorcycle collision. She blazed a trail as commanding officer of the cutters Neah Bay and Hollyhock and was executive officer of the cutter Fir.

“We lost a very dedicated, passionate leader who had a lot to share. She was taken from us far too soon,” he said. “Her loss will be felt.”

On operational issues, Vanderhaden said operations and support funding “has not increased as much as we need it to,” especially since “our new ships costs almost twice as much to maintain as our old ships, but our money to maintain them has been relatively flat.”

“At Homeland Security we’re all in this together in terms of trying to provide security for the nation. So if some amount of money from the Coast Guard leaves to go to provide for the most immediate threat, then I think most of the Coast Guard can get behind that,” he said.

But operations and support shortfalls are “causing us to find that money other places, and those other places are things that sometimes affect our people.”

“We don’t offer tuition assistance for college at the rate that the other services do, we’ve had to trim some of our work-life programs more than we wanted to, and a lot of times our computer and information technology systems have not been updated as fast as we would have liked to, had we had the money to be able to do it,” he said, stressing, “We’re working hard to make the investments in our mobility. We’re trying to get some tablets and ap-based things so that our folks have the latest technology to help them do their jobs. But it’s expensive and we need the help.”

On maritime security developments, Vanderhaden said that “overfishing and reduced fish stocks is definitely a big concern for us,” a problem “somewhat” in the Caribbean but a definite concern in the South Pacific, where island nations “stand to be in a lot of trouble if they can’t fish, and then that makes them open to influence from other countries, particularly China — if they start running short on revenue, they have to maintain their stability somehow and they will look for help, for lack of a better term, from other places. And we would be concerned that they might turn to China for that help.”

And as Russia is “working to capitalize on the northern sea route and how they can benefit from that economically,” the United States wants “to be able to project, we want to be able to be present up there.”

“In the future, we may need to be present to make sure that nobody tries to stake a claim to any resources up there that they’re not entitled to,” he said.

At the southern border, Vanderhaden said the Coast Guard is seeing “a little bit more of an uptick” in migrants “leaving out of Ensenada or leaving out of Mexico and trying to get into San Diego by boat or watercraft” but the USCG is largely supporting border security efforts by “providing some boat crews down on the Rio Grande Valley, helping CBP, just because there’s so many.”

“But at the end of the day, we really want to stabilize — these people don’t want to leave their country. They love their country. They love it, Guatemala. They love Honduras, they love El Salvador. They love Nicaragua. They love these countries, but it’s dangerous,” he said. “And so they’re looking for safety and opportunity, and we would love to give them opportunity in their country so that they can stay in their country and help their country thrive. They want to work, they want to be productive members of society, but they also don’t want their lives threatened or in danger.”

“As the Coast Guard, we try to make a difference in the revenue stream for these criminal organizations that make it dangerous in those countries; the illicit drugs are a big revenue source for these transnational criminal organizations,” Vanderhaden noted. “As the Coast Guard, we’re trying to get after that the best we can by pushing the border 1,500 miles south and really trying to make a difference down there. If these countries were safe, I don’t even think we’re having this discussion.”

#RealDeal Interview: MCPOCG Vanderhaden Advises ‘Readiness Is Key’ in Cyber, Interdiction

Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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