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Naval Institute: What Was the Coast Guard Doing in Iraq?

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    What Was the Coast Guard Doing in Iraq?

    By Vice Admiral James Hull, Commander Cari Thomas, and Lieutenant Commander Joe DiRenzo III, U.S. Coast Guard

    Proceedings, August 2003

    On 29 January 2003, General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was asked, "The Coast Guard announced today [it is] sending eight cutters, 600 people, to the Persian Gulf, which I understand is the first time they have been dispatched to a combat zone since the Vietnam War. What's the thinking behind that, and what's their mission going to be?" General Myers answered, "For the Coast Guard, primarily for port and harbor and waterway security. That's what they do best."

    Immediately, questions followed about why the lead federal agency for maritime homeland security should remain a military expeditionary force, as part of a power projection strategy overseas. After all, the Coast Guard suffers from its own readiness issues and is embarked on a multiyear, multimillion-dollar strategy to address deficiencies and modernize much of its fleet. Why, in the face of our current homeland security threats, should the nation's primary maritime security force deploy overseas?


    In spite of increasing responsibilities in homeland security, Coast Guard forces remain committed to and equipped to support expeditionary operations. Here, the Coast Guard cutter Boutwell leads the Tarawa (LHA-1) Battle Group through the Persian Gulf leading up to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

    Because we are good at it. Even with the Coast Guard's recent move to the Department of Homeland Security, our authorities allow us to work at home, on the high seas, or in a foreign theater. We can speak the Joint Operation Planning and Execution System and Incident Command System. We still work with the Department of Defense, maritime industry officials of many countries, and a variety of law enforcement agencies, navies, and coast guards. General Myers revalidated one of the service's primary missions and reinforced our long commitment to national defense and expeditionary operations. Coast Guard contributions to a wide range of mission in support of in-theater combatant commanders align precisely with President George W. Bush's National Security Strategy, which includes defending, preserving, and extending the peace.

    With forces that can play in both the home and away games, the Coast Guard remains equipped to participate in whatever portion of power projection the President decides to invoke.

    Defending the Peace: Military Power

    Defending the peace includes defeating global terrorism, preventing future attacks, and transforming our national security institutions to meet new challenges and opportunities. A 1995 memorandum of agreement between the Secretaries of Defense and Transportation identifies Coast Guard core capabilities applicable to the national defense role and provides the operational framework for interoperability. The components of the agreement include: port security and defense, maritime interception operations, coastal sea control operations, peacetime military engagement, and military environment response operations. The agreement, still valid today, states that the Coast Guard is "a branch of the Armed Forces at all times . . . required to maintain a state of readiness to function as a specialized service in the Navy in times of war."

    The Coast Guard is the recognized leader in port security, at home and overseas. Overseas missions are performed primarily by port security units (PSUs), self-contained units staffed mostly by reserve members that operate in conjunction with harbor defense commands, mobile inshore undersea warfare units, and in-shore boat units as part of the Naval Coastal Warfare Plan. PSUs have contributed significantly to operations in Umm Qasr and Bahrain, providing command and control for port and shoreside security and escort operations. In addition, the Coast Guard patrol boat Wrangell (WPB-1332) was assigned to protect British minesweepers clearing the entrance to Umm Qasr. In this 40-mile swath of water, comprised of a 200-yard channel, the Wrangell's 110-foot size was ideal. Trained at the Coast Guard's Special Mission Training Center at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, the PSU fits well within the combatant commander's requirement for a proficient, expeditionary, self-contained port security contingent.

    In recent years the Navy has been involved overseas in the visit, board, search, and seizure mission, particularly in the Persian Gulf since the end of Desert Storm. This effort recently was expanded to support detection and interception of al Qaeda and Taliban leaders attempting to flee Afghanistan and Pakistan. Coast Guard personnel provide the Navy with boarding expertise taken from extensive experience in combating drug and alien smugglers.

    Law Enforcement Detachment 205, embarked in the USS Chinook (PC-9), located and secured a large Iraqi military equipment and weapons cache hidden in caves in southern Iraq. It is likely that members of the Republican Guard had prepositioned this equipment for future urban combat. Also in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the high-endurance cutter Boutwell's (WHEC-719) boarding teams worked with HMS Chatham and the Danish frigate Olsen Fischer to intercept and board suspected smugglers close to the Iraq-Iran border.

    The cutter Dallas (WHEC-716), positioned off the west coast of Syria, intercepted fugitives from Saddam Hussein's regime who were attempting to flee by sea. She also provided force protection to Navy battle groups in the eastern Mediterranean. In a 13 April 2003 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Rear Admiral John Stufflebeen said, "Whether they [Hussein regime] stay or whether they decide to go, we're going to work this part of the water hard to make sure that if they do go, we catch them." He referred to the Dallas as "the lead dog," sniffing around any ships moving through the eastern Mediterranean.

    Military missions for the Coast Guard are an important part of the national strategy and an instrumental part of those forces that defend the peace. The National Fleet concept, signed in 1998 and revalidated in 2001, speaks directly to Coast Guard-Navy integration. It is a cornerstone document that reaffirms the service's expeditionary capability and the immediate need for a modernized fleet to replace ships such as the Dallas, commissioned in 1967.

    Preserving the Peace: Diplomatic Power

    The Coast Guard has capabilities to preserve the peace. We work with our hemispheric neighbors in counterdrug operations and with international partners to provide safe vessel standards across the globe. With our eyes squarely on the homeland security ball, the Coast Guard also sends expeditionary forces to help preserve the peace overseas.

    At the request of the regional combat commanders, eight Coast Guard 110-foot patrol boats are deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Operating in various locations within the Central and European Command areas of responsibility, these vessels provide a layered harbor defense as well as serving as quick response maritime interceptors. Coast Guard patrol boats also escorted the British vessel Sir Galahad with the first shipment of humanitarian aid to Iraq. On 11 April 2003, the Wrangell, Adak (WPB-1333), Aquidneck (WPB-1309), and Firebolt (PC-10)—with a Coast Guard law enforcement detachment embarked—escorted the M/V Manar, with more than 700 tons of vital humanitarian supplies, into port.

    During Operation Desert Storm, the Iraqi-generated oil spill in the Persian Gulf was an ecological disaster, but quick Coast Guard response saved precious natural resources and contained the damage to the environment. The service's capability in this area is unmatched. Through its extensive international interests, the Coast Guard has instant access to the largest worldwide database of oil spill response capabilities, which can be brought to bear as circumstances dictate.


    To support coalition objectives for postconflict Iraq, Coast Guard personnel secured the Mina-al-Bakr Oil Terminal in the northern Arabian Gulf (right) to ensure oil resources would be available for Iraq’s economic future and replaced buoys in the Khawr Abd Allah waterway (above) to permit the safe transit of humanitarian supplies and future commerce to Umm Qasr.

    The Walnut (WLB-205), a seagoing buoy tender with oil spill containment system capability, was sent to support Iraqi Freedom operations. In conjunction with the Coast Guard National Strike Force teams and the Vessel of Opportunity Skimming System, the Coast Guard provides formidable pollution response and an element of national security.

    Worldwide, the Coast Guard receives more requests for engagement operations from combatant commanders than it could ever support. Like many navies of the world, we perform border security missions and fisheries and law enforcement duties, and there is a natural humanitarian link. Central Command, European Command, and Pacific Command all use a variety of Coast Guard platforms for worldwide engagement missions. Through these and other engagement opportunities, the Coast Guard builds on common interests to promote global security, all in the name of preserving peace.

    Extending the Peace: Economic Power

    Ensuring the unfettered flow of commerce, both import and export, is critical to most national economies. In Iraq, preserving oil resources for that nation's economic future was an important objective in extending the peace. Just 13 miles off the Iraqi coast, 39 Coast Guard reservists secured the Mina-al-Bakr offshore oil terminals in the opening phases of Operation Iraqi Freedom. More than a million barrels of oil a day flowed through this terminal before the war. The Coast Guard's action will help ensure continuation of the flow, a major source of income that will aid in the reconstitution of Iraq.

    Placing navigation aids in approaches and harbors is important for the safe navigation of the ships that import and export goods. In a postconflict environment, the aids- to-navigation program is an essential military mission, which currently only the Coast Guard is able to perform. The Walnut demonstrated this expeditionary capability in support of Iraqi Freedom, maintaining the 41-mile navigable channel heading from Iraq's primary southern port, Umm Qasr, to the sea. Because of years of neglect, the buoys along this route were in a terrible state of repair or had been removed. The Walnut provided a well-marked channel for humanitarian aid arrivals, vital to coalition objectives. In all cases, establishing a well-maintained seaway provided greater safety and security for mariners transiting to these ports.

    An Expeditionary Force Multiplier

    The Coast Guard adds measurable value to the larger National Security Strategy goals, and its capabilities are an extraordinary force multiplier. From Operation Iraqi Freedom lessons learned, to historical data from ongoing maritime interdiction operations, to recent responses to large environmental defense operations, the Coast Guard's unique skill sets must be continually capitalized on and maintained.

    We carefully assessed our expected demands when contemplating deploying 11 cutters and 4 port security units to the Gulf, and the Department of Homeland Security steadfastly supported the combatant commanders' request for Coast Guard expeditionary forces. The Coast Guard's participation had, and will continue to have, a significant impact on our nation's future.

    Vice Admiral Hull is Commander, Coast Guard Atlantic Area. Commander Thomas is the executive assistant to the Atlantic Area Commander. Lieutenant Commander DiRenzo is the Atlantic Area's Anti-Terrorism Coordinator.

    Join the Naval Institute, a membership association for Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard professionals and anyone interested in the sea services. Benefits include a subscription to Proceedings magazine, discounts on books, magazines and gifts, and access to the world's largest private ship and aircraft photo library.

    © 2003 U.S. Naval Institute. All rights reserved.




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