Hampton Roads Braces for Effects of Coast Guard's Temporary Deactivation of Units amid Staffing Shortages

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The USCG Cutter Legare returns to USCG Base Portsmouth
The USCG Cutter Legare returns to USCG Base Portsmouth on July 13, 2023, after returning from a 69-day patrol in the Florida Straits. (Billy Schuerman/The Virginian-Pilot)

Coast Guard units will be temporarily deactivated in a consolidation this year as the service grapples with one of the largest workforce shortages in its history.

What this means for Hampton Roads — home to the Coast Guard City of Portsmouth and a hub for the service’s Atlantic operations — is unknown, an official said.

“While there is new stress with change, the Coast Guard cannot maintain the same level of operations with a workforce shortfall of this magnitude. We cannot do the same with less people,” said Lt. Luke Pinneo, public affairs officer for Portsmouth-based District 5.

The deactivation is part of a servicewide “force alignment initiative” that will begin taking effect this summer. Across the Coast Guard, units with redundant capabilities nearby will be consolidated for the foreseeable future. Members assigned to the affected units will be “strategically relocated” in the coming months.

The Coast Guard has reported missing its recruiting targets for four consecutive years, and as of April 2023, the service was understaffed by 10% — or around 5,000 members. The shortage exceeds 10% in some mission-critical jobs, such as cyberspace, specialized forces and marine inspectors.

“This is a dynamic, challenging, and changing situation,” Pinneo said. “We recognize it as a multiyear challenge and expect that shortage to grow throughout 2024. Exact numbers are unknown as decisions will continue to be fluid.”

The Coast Guard hasn’t said publicly which units — in Hampton Roads or elsewhere — will be deactivated.

But the service detailed in October that three 210-foot cutters will be removed from service, pending decommissioning, and seven 87-foot patrol boats will also be laid up, pending reactivation. Additionally, 19 boat stations whose search and rescue capabilities are deemed redundant will be reclassified to operate on an as-needed basis and six non-response boat units will suspend operations entirely.

The Coast Guard has a strong foothold in Hampton Roads. The local Coast Guard community is comprised of 480 active-duty and civilian personnel, 130 reservists and 1,300 civilian volunteers.

Portsmouth-based Sector Virginia’s assets are spread across Portsmouth and Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story in Virginia Beach. Its footprint encompasses six multi-mission boat stations, five 87-foot patrol boats, three aids-to-navigation teams and a sector field office.

Eight 270-foot cutters homeported in Portsmouth and two 210-foot cutters at Little Creek represent about 850 personnel.

Additionally, Yorktown is home to one of the Coast Guard’s eight major training centers. The facility funnels active-duty and reserve members into the area for 10 to 19 weeks for entry-level training courses as an introduction to their primary job.

Sector Virginia’s area of responsibility covers the Atlantic coast from the Virginia- Maryland border to the Virginia- North Carolina border, the Virginia portion of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, the Virginia portion of the Intracoastal Waterway, some inland lakes and the busy commercial terminals that comprise the Port of Virginia.

Hampton Roads-based crews are responsible for search and rescue, maritime law enforcement, port safety and security, aids to navigation, commercial vessel inspections and maritime migration.

While the Coast Guard will be less visible in some communities, Pinneo said the service will maintain its geographical coverage and responsiveness. There will be no impact to search and rescue operations.

The consolidation, Pinneo emphasized, is temporary. The Coast Guard will evaluate future manpower requirements while focusing on improving recruitment and retention efforts.

“If we fail to adapt, we would be putting our crews and the American public at risk,” Pinneo said.

The service is targeting its afloat fleet, working to have 10,000 new members assigned to the cutter forces in the coming years.

“What is known about the future is Coast Guard men and women will continue to serve the nation and save lives every day,” Pinneo said. “That is not changing.”

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