In his final State of the Coast Guard speech, Commandant Adm. Bob Papp recapped ongoing efforts to modernize the fleet, outlined a mission set weighed down by everything from sequestration to record levels of ice, and pledged “increased accountability” for Coasties when it comes to alcohol abuse, with a program starting early this month.
Papp offered no specifics on that program in the Feb. 26 speech. He also offered no specifics on his successor — the commandant is due to retire in two months and says he’s made a pick for his replacement, but the ultimate decision rests with President Obama. Papp didn’t offer any names.
What the commandant did cover in his fourth and last state-of-the-service address, from the Coast Guard’s gleaming new headquarters in Washington, D.C.:
Upgrading the fleet
■ Hamilton, the fourth national security cutter, is on its way to commissioning this year. James will be christened this summer, Munro is in production and contracts are in place for Kimball. The 2014 budget provides for long lead time materials to begin working on the eighth and final NSC, Midgett.
■ The eighth fast response cutter, Charles Sexton, will be commissioned in March. Ten more are in production, six more are under contract, and there is funding for six additional cutters. That will put the total at 30, more than halfway to the program’s planned 58 patrol boats.
■ The service has received 148 of 170 ordered response boats-medium, designed to replace aging 41-foot utility boats and other nonstandard utility boats.
■ Offshore patrol cutters are next on the horizon. In February, the service awarded three design contracts worth a total of $65 million to Bollinger Shipyards Lockport, Eastern Shipbuilding Group and General Dynamics Bath Iron Works, to compete for the production contract.
This winter’s harsh temperatures have kept Coast Guard icebreakers busy in the Midwest.
“The cutter Hollyhock, along with our 30-year-old, 140-foot icebreaking tugs and Canadian icebreakers, is on St. Claire River near Detroit grooming navigational channels in the worst ice cover the Great Lakes have seen in decades,” Papp said.
He added that the Mackinaw had just completed nearly two months of continuous ice-breaking, keeping open the passages between the Great Lakes and providing assistance to commercial traffic.
Meanwhile, off the West Coast, drug interdiction teams are working to stem the flow of drugs into the country, although “we stop only a fraction of the contraband our intelligence tells us is moving,” Papp said.
According to a Feb. 24 Associated Press report, the Coast Guard is only able to stop a third of the drug-smuggling boats and aircraft headed for the U.S. coast.
On top of that, the area in which the service intercepted suspected drug boats traveling between Mexico and southern California tripled in size during fiscal year 2013. However, the number of interdictions that year dropped by 30 percent, as sequestration forced the service to operate fewer assets in the area.
Quality of life
Papp paid special attention to the Coast Guard’s efforts to eliminate sexual assault from the service, speaking directly to victims.
“I want to let you know that you can come forward without fear of retaliation, and that your rights and dignity will be protected,” he said. “I have no greater responsibility than to ensure no Coast Guardsman ever has to experience the devastation of sexual assault at the hands of someone they thought was a shipmate.”
The service received 180 reports of unwanted sexual contact in fiscal year 2013. This year, the service added $5 million dollars and 32 military and civilian billets for response coordinators to its sexual assault prevention and response program, “but by the time we are focusing on response, we have already failed — because it means a sexual assault has occurred,” Papp said.
He went on to call out alcohol as not only a contributor to sexual assaults, but its own problem in need of attention from leadership.
“Next week I will direct a new and stronger policy to take this problem head on,” he said. “There will be increased accountability.”
A 95 percent retention rate has clogged the path to advancement for many Coasties in recent years. Some have waited up to three years for a spot in “A” school, Papp said, but that’s changing.
The service reinstated high-year tenure limits last year — targeting, for example, E-3s through E-5s with more than 20 years of service for involuntary retirement. Papp said advancement opportunities are already opening for younger members.
“We’re seeing a decrease in the waiting time for most of our ‘A’ schools right now,” he told Navy Times. “And that’s also reflected in the fact that, I think it was 1,500 [recruits] we brought into Cape May [N.J.] last year. We’re close to 3,000 this year because of those vacancies occurring.”
Papp added that leaders are looking at each“rating pyramid” to make sure that each specialty remains sufficiently manned.