The Coast Guard in Honolulu is getting a second new $670 million national security cutter, a third new fast-response cutter and is taking part in a new operating concept in American Samoa that the service’s commandant said is part of a “doubling down” of capability in Oceania between Hawaii and Australia.
As it takes steps to recapitalize an aging fleet, the Coast Guard has been called on to bring its capabilities to the all-of-government approach to countering Chinese expansionism that’s rooted in the South China Sea and spreading to the isles of Oceania — even as it continues to battle budget constraints to do so.
China seeks to reorder the region to its advantage in part through predatory economics aimed at coercing other nations, according to a new U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy report.
“Our enduring role is not to replace or duplicate Department of Defense assets or capabilities, but to employ our unique authorities and capabilities to complement Department of Defense forces,” Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said during a July 25 media briefing from Saipan.
A dual commissioning of the two new 418-foot flagship national security cutters, Kimball and Midgett, is scheduled for Aug. 24 in Honolulu and is expected to be attended by hundreds of Coast Guard brass and invited guests.
The Coast Guard is a military service, a law enforcement organization, a regulatory agency, a first responder and an intelligence gatherer, and that Swiss-army-knife flexibility has been on display this year as part of the Pentagon’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” campaign.
The national security cutter Bertholf out of Alameda, Calif., deployed for 164 days to the Western Pacific where the ship, under tactical control of the Navy’s 7th Fleet, enforced United Nations sanctions against North Korea.
The crew made history March 24-25 as the first Coast Guard cutter to transit the Taiwan Strait as part of a freedom-of-navigation operation — angering China in the process.
The Stratton, a cutter that deployed in June to replace the Bertholf, operated that same month with a Fijian fisheries officer aboard to patrol U.S. and Fijian exclusive economic zones.
Lt. Cmdr. Stephen Brickey, spokesman for the Coast Guard’s Pacific Area, said the Kimball and Midgett likely will do similar Western Pacific deployments — in addition to patrols to the Eastern Pacific and Bering Sea.
The Midgett, expected to arrive in Honolulu on Friday, already made some history, seizing more than 2,100 pounds of cocaine worth $64 million from a low-profile vessel stopped July 25 in the Eastern Pacific.
The Coast Guard has been tasked to have more of a presence in the Western Pacific, and Schultz
recently traveled to Guam and Saipan to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Guam and get a firsthand understanding of China’s 21st-century incursions into American territory.
Chinese investments in the freely associated states of Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands are seen as threatening longtime U.S. interests. A new RAND Corp. study called the islands “tantamount to a power-projection superhighway running through the heart of the North Pacific into Asia.”
In Oceania “the Coast Guard is uniquely situated to assist partner nations uphold and assert their own sovereignty, while protecting our national interests,” Schultz said.
“Through engagement, partnership and presence, we are a maritime bridge between the Department of Defense’s lethality and the State Department’s diplomacy,” he said.
Schultz noted the U.S. Coast Guard’s branding — its white ships with red “racing stripe” — is replicated to some degree by Chinese and other coast guards, but “what we think we bring is appropriate behavior” and the hope is to be a “partner of choice” through security engagements and professional exchanges.
Schultz announced a new operating concept called Operation Aiga, Samoan for “family.” The 225-foot buoy tender Walnut and new fast-response cutter Joseph Gerczak, both out of Honolulu, recently deployed to American Samoa and Samoa to conduct fisheries enforcement and strengthen partnerships, the Coast Guard said.
The $58 million, 154-foot fast-response cutters have greater endurance and speed than the smaller patrol boats they are replacing. Three of the new cutters will be sent to Guam in the next several years. Schultz called the efforts a “doubling down in Oceania.”
In Honolulu a third fast-response cutter, William Hart, is due to arrive around Saturday. The Oliver Berry arrived in 2017, followed by the Joseph Gerczak in 2018.
At the same time the Coast Guard is recapitalizing its fleet, it still finds itself in a budget crunch to deploy it.
In 2017 the Defense Department received a 12% boost in operations and support funds while the Coast Guard, part of the Department of Homeland Security, received a 4% increase, Schultz told a Senate panel in April.
“Yet the Coast Guard’s military contributions are in fact immutable,” Schultz said, adding that the Coast Guard annually expends over $1 billion on defense in direct support of combatant commanders while the $340 million in defense readiness dollars it receives hasn’t changed in more than 18 years.
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