Faced with growing strategic challenges, crumbling infrastructure, fleet and capacity needs, and the imperative to attract and retain top talent, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz on Thursday laid out a vision for the service to confront what’s around the corner and years down the road.
“We did not become the world’s best by resting on our laurels,” Schultz told an audience of Coasties during the 2020 State of the Coast Guard Address in Charleston, S.C., stressing that they are “an indispensable arm of the United States Armed Forces, and a vital component of the Department of Homeland Security.”
“As a service, we are rightfully proud of our ability to lead in crisis, but our greatest value is in preventing crises in the first place,” he said. “There is no agency better suited than the United States Coast Guard to lead in the maritime domain and to uphold worldwide institutions founded on the principles of freedom, sovereign rights, and liberty.”
Listing recent successes from Hurricane Dorian response to rescuing all crew members from the capsized MV Golden Ray, Schultz noted that since the Western Hemisphere Strategy was implemented four years ago the Coast Guard has interdicted 2 million pounds of pure cocaine worth $26 billion.
“Additionally, great power competitors like China and Russia are gaining influence right here in the Western Hemisphere by exploiting opportunities amid the instability and weak governance fueled by transnational criminal activities,” he said. “Our efforts in the Western Hemisphere are critical, and we are using every tool to combat this scourge.”
“…Our Offshore Patrol Cutters — which will become the backbone of our modernized fleet — will have a critical role in this campaign. The first in its class, Cutter Argus, is already under construction and will be delivered in 2022. The Offshore Patrol Cutter program is set to deliver 25 hulls and that fleet will ultimately comprise almost 70 percent of our offshore presence.”
Schultz promised a strategic outlook, planned for release in late summer, on illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing — pegging China as “one of the worst predatory fishing offenders.”
“This is far more than just about conservation and sustainability; this is a national security challenge warranting a clear response,” he said. “Fish is an essential protein source for over 40 percent of the global population, and fish stocks around the world are critical to many nations’ sovereignty and economic security. Even by the most conservative estimates, IUU fishing accounts for more than a $23 billion annual loss to the global economy.”
The Coast Guard is “fostering a partnership with Global Fishing Watch, which uses cutting-edge machine learning and artificial intelligence to visualize, track, and share data about fishing activity in near real-time,” and “if successful, this initiative may be scaled to our fisheries enforcement efforts worldwide.” Schultz called on more countries to partner with the U.S. in the effort to stop IUU fishing, and to join in “publicly denouncing countries and corporations” that illegally fish.
Amid “coercive states’ influence operations” and threats in the Indo-Pacific, the U.S. will “aspire to remain the preferred and enduring partner in the region,” anchored by engagement and capacity, including the first two 154-foot Fast Response Cutters to be homeported in Guam by the end of the year. National Security Cutters will participate again in RIMPAC and conduct joint operations in the Western Pacific with the Navy’s 7th Fleet.
“I’ve challenged my headquarters staff to work with our colleagues at the Department of State to explore leveraging similar funding models for Oceania that have enabled Coast Guard operations in the Caribbean and Central American corridor for the past 25 years,” Schultz said.
The commandant lauded congressional funding of the Polar Security Cutter to replace the aging Polar Star heavy icebreaker, along with the $555 million in the president’s budget request to fund a second Polar Security Cutter. “And there’s an acquisitions and funding strategy to build a third,” he added. Those, in addition to three medium icebreakers, “will ensure American sovereignty and presence in the Polar regions for decades to come.”
Schultz also called for a whole-of-government effort “to solve our communication blackout in the Arctic now,” citing dead zones in northern Alaska and the Arctic Circle.
Many of the Coast Guard’s defense contributions aren’t supported by Defense Department funding, “leaving the Coast Guard on an unsustainable path to support our growing operational requirements” even as “DoD’s readiness funding has grown nearly three times as much as the Coast Guard’s over the past five years despite our services having the same types of readiness challenges.”
“The long-term solution is to recognize the Coast Guard’s crucial role in maintaining our national security,” Schultz said. “I continue to advocate for a return to a ‘security’ and ‘non-security’ appropriations framework which would help ensure the Coast Guard is funded in parity with the rest of the military services.”
Another challenge is increasing cyber attacks on ports. “This year, to better enable our operations, we intend to refresh our Cyber Strategy,” Schultz said.
He announced expansions to the Enlisted Marine Inspector Program and called for “a regular training cycle for our marine safety professionals to keep pace with an increasingly complex maritime industry.”
“Pivoting to shore infrastructure, every mission begins and ends at a Coast Guard facility. Unfortunately, due to years of flatline budgets forcing tradeoffs, the facilities that our men and women deploy from and return to are crumbling around them. Forty percent of Coast Guard buildings are over 50 years old,” Schultz continued. “Mold. Leaky roofs. Flooding. Outdated building standards. These have all culminated in a $2 billion backlog of facility repairs. Every day that we continue to operate with antiquated infrastructure, it gets harder to protect our modern maritime economy, harder to save those in peril, harder to attract talented men and women into our ranks, and ultimately harder to defend our nation.”
Budget tradeoffs have also “brought our information technology to the brink of catastrophic failure,” he added, with more than 95 vital systems kicked offline for several days last summer due to a single server malfunction.
The commandant announced a new Tech Revolution Road Map that aims this year to increase external internet speeds “by 50 times and double major cutter connectivity with planned upgrades over the next three years.”
“And we are placing all of our IT equipment on an industry-standard replacement cycle, reducing the risk of future critical failures and addressing the long-term problem of deferred maintenance. This spring we will also transition to Microsoft Office 365 in the cloud, to increase email reliability during both day-to-day operations and critical crisis response efforts,” he said.
Schultz praised the procurement team of AUXDATA — “another cloud-based, user-friendly system to manage the outstanding work done by our highly capable 24,000-member volunteer Auxiliary force” — for winning the HSToday Homeland Heroes Award for Acquisition Excellence: Brenda E. Oberholzer, Contract Specialist; Lt. Nicholas M. Fredericksen, Contracting Officer’s Representative (COR) & Technical Evaluation Team Chairperson; Lt. Carl N. Stokes, Program Manager, AUXDATA system; Shandra J. Kotzun, Procurement Law Attorney, C4IT Service Center, U.S. Coast Guard. The team watched Schultz’s remarks live at headquarters as he lauded their “innovative procurement techniques that will deliver this critical software in just over four months.”
“While we’ve developed this new road map to a more technologically advanced and effective Coast Guard, we need an injection of funding now,” he said. “Closing our existing $300 million annual IT shortfall is an important step to modernize the Coast Guard’s technology landscape.”
Schultz called “building and sustaining a robust talent management enterprise” the Coast Guard’s “most pressing challenge and our greatest opportunity.”
“To lead operations in an uncertain future requires us to harness the full power of diverse backgrounds and original thinking,” he said. “We must all build an inclusive culture that not only attracts the best of America’s diverse population, but fosters an environment that encourages them to stay.”
Preliminary results are expected in June from a study on underrepresented minorities, and next month the Coast Guard will launch a four-year Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan. A workforce 2030 action plan is also due within the next year. MyCoastGuard, a communications hub for all Coasties, will launch in June.
The Coast Guard’s Meritorious Advancement Program now allows District Commander to select and advance service members, and Schultz marked the occasion by advancing Petty Officer Emily Ford and Petty Officer Nathan Newberg to first class petty officers at the end of his address.
Ford, a storekeeper stationed at Coast Guard Operation Bahamas, Turks and Caicos (OPBAT), helped pull together the Hurricane Dorian response effort. Newberg, a rescue swimmer stationed at Coast Guard Air Station Savannah, saved the captain and pilot trapped on the bridge of the Golden Ray.
“History and experience show that our people enable the Coast Guard to adapt and overcome,” Schultz said. “This was true for Hamilton’s Revenue Cutter Service, and is true today – to best serve the nation, we must invest in our Service and empower our people.”