An update from the Coast Guard Commandant

Human migration patters, the billowing drug trade, allies nervous about China, it's all picked up the pace for the U.S. Coast Guard.

Human migration patters, the billowing drug trade, allies nervous about China, it’s all picked up the pace for the U.S. Coast Guard. At this week’s Sea Air Space Conference, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin got the lowdown from the Coast Guard Commandant, Admiral Linda Fagan, starting with the Coast Guard’s 2024 budget priorities.

Interview transcript:

Linda Fagan So we’re really excited for the continuing support that we’re getting from our authorizers and overseers, particularly with regard to the major acquisition programs that we have going on. Polar Security Cutter funded through long lead time for the third money in the budget for [Offshore Patrol Cutters (OPC’s)] six and seven Waterway Commerce Cutter Program Office for Great Lakes Icebreaking Capacity. And we just continue to remain committed to building and recapitalizing the fleet of ships that we need to operate for the nation, money as well, to help us accelerate into a single fleet of 60 to 65 helicopters. Not gotten any younger and accelerating towards a single fleet of tail blade fold, sixties is part of the investment. We do continue, we’ve got support. We need additional support around infrastructure investments. All those new ships have pier facilities that need upgrades and buildings and ensuring that the Coast Guard force has state of the art equipment. Not just ships and aircraft, but also some of the support and maintenance facilities that they need to operate from.

Tom Temin And by the way, just a year ago when we spoke, you had been nominated to commandant and now you have been in the job roughly a year. Do you like it?

Linda Fagan Yeah. So it was almost, exactly a year ago that nomination was announced publicly. The world shifted a bit for me at that point. It’s been an incredible 10 months. It is truly a privilege to advocate for the service and advocate for the workforce that we have, there’s a lot. But I wake up every day energized by what our men and women do to contribute to not just the organization, but the nation.

Tom Temin And let’s talk about recruiting. That’s where you get the raw material to keep the Coast Guard going, and the armed services have had mixed success, let’s say, the last couple of years. Coast Guard a little bit ahead of the game. Talk about some of the recruiting efforts you’ve got to keep that raw material coming in.

Linda Fagan Yeah. So one of our challenges is just increasing awareness of citizens that there is a Coast Guard and this is the kind of work that we do as a Coast Guard. As I talked to young recruits at Cape May, they almost always say, I had no idea. I didn’t know the Coast Guard existed, but now that I found you, I’m excited. I know what the value proposition is. I can’t wait to serve. Recently, we were at boot camp two weeks in, hardest part of boot camp. And the master chief said, How many of you want to spend a 20 year career? They all raise their hand. So the talent is there, they understand their purpose. We need to just increase awareness. We’re also reinvesting in recruiting capacity, opening nine new recruiting offices. We’ve opening and starting Junior ROTC programs. So it’s kind of an all hands on deck, multiple prong approach to recruiting. We need to inspire the youth of the nation to serve, serve in uniform, serve the federal government. These are honorable professions. There is a sense of camaraderie and community and value that you derive from serving, and we need to help enlighten that for young people.

Tom Temin Sure. Ships, engines, guns. What’s not to like?

Linda Fagan Yeah. Cyber, we’ve got cyber professionals. It’s a great time to be in the Coast Guard.

Tom Temin Yes, Cyber is a big part of the operation, too. Now, just as it is kind of across the armed services.

Linda Fagan We’ve been investing in our own cyber capacity. We’ve stood up a cyber rating. We’re establishing a cyber protection team on the West Coast. We’ve been investing in hiring civilians to help with the conversation between cyber experts and marine transportation system experts, so that we can be relevant and engaged with our critical port partners and commercial partners in that realm.

Tom Temin And I wanted to get back to a little bit of detail on shore facilities revitalization, you mentioned that as a top priority to take care of the new afloat gear and flying gear that’s coming your way. What are you hoping for in the next few years here?

Linda Fagan Yeah. So as the major acquisitions are being fielded, we have investments that we need to make. Seattle is where we will home port the new polar security cutters. That facility is not sufficiently sized to take those new ships. And so we’re working forward there. Charleston is a key part, that’s going to be a key port for us as we continue to through the final fielding of the national security cutters. And then, of course, the offshore patrol cutters are coming. And so up and down the coast, we have footprints where we’ve got ships now. The new ships are bigger, deeper, wider, bigger power demands. And so all of that is here and now for the service from an investment standpoint.

Tom Temin And I wanted to ask you about the migrant surge, which has affected homeland security, other components. How has that affected the Coast Guard in the last year or two?

Linda Fagan So the maritime migration numbers have definitely been up starting last fall. And the Coast Guard’s role in this, is life saving work. It is incredibly dangerous, perilous for people who take to sea to attempt to migrate to the country that way. And we have moved Coast Guard assets to ensure that there’s not loss of life in that realm. But it has been a all hands on deck for us and our other [Department of Homeland Security (DHS)] entities. In fact, I just met with the Homeland Security Task Force Southeast Team, Integrated Interagency Team in Miami, and it is incredible group of dedicated professionals that are working to mitigate risk in that challenge.

Tom Temin And if you encounter a boat with people that are coming not legally, illegally. What is the Coast Guard’s duty there? To turn it back, to turn it over to [Customs and Border Protection (CBP)], to send it to them, what happens?

Linda Fagan When we encounter a migrant vessel at sea, what we were to do, is to get people off of the vessel and on to the Coast Guard ship. The vessels typically are not particularly seaworthy and then provide a level of just humanity and care to individuals, food, water, medical attention, and then they are repatriated to the country, their country of origin.

Tom Temin Got it. And that is definitely on the rise these days.

Linda Fagan Yeah, it’s we’ve had a bit of a weather break. The weather gets a vote in this, too. And so the last several weeks have been, not particularly significant, but we’re going into a good weather time period. We’ll see what the numbers look like.

Tom Temin And you are the first female commandant. What are you hearing from that set of coasties? What do they tell you? Is there kind of a back channel to you, in that sense?

Linda Fagan Yeah. So it’s interesting being the first female commandant, first female service chief, and I really don’t like talking about myself. And so I always will pivot to, hey, let’s talk about the organization. But it is an opportunity and it has been a privilege to be able to elevate awareness and advocate for this service. We are a global Coast Guard. We’re the world’s best Coast Guard. I’d argue we’re the world’s best military and what we do. And so it has just been great to have the opportunities to then engage, not just with Coast Guard workforce, but allies and partners with what our value proposition is.

Tom Temin The strategy says that the Coast Guard wants to sharpen its competitive edge. What do you mean by that?

Linda Fagan So that is getting after technology data, all of the things that we’ve we’ve been working to internalize into the organization, but we’ve got work still to do. The workforce expects a modern experience, and that includes how we train, how we treat our data. We have an incredible amount of data that we’ve got now, but it is not in a governance structure that allows us to do the kind of machine learning, artificial intelligence, predictive analytics that will serve us well. And whether we’re talking about the maritime migration challenge, the counter-narcotics effort in the East pack. Our leadership role in [IIlegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU)] fishing, all of that becomes enabled as we get after some of our competitive edge work.

Tom Temin And I guess, a subcomponent of that is the financial systems modernization, which was launched, but it’s not totally there yet. There’s been some tough [Government Accountability Office (GAO)] looks. Do you expect that to be righted?

Linda Fagan Yeah, so we are fully committed to having a successful financial system. We’re working with DHS and contractor to ensure that system has the functionality that it needs and that we need to ensure that we’re meeting our fiduciary responsibility to the American public.

Tom Temin All right. Just again, the Austal acquisition, that’s the offshore patrol cutters. How’s that going? It’s been just a short time.

Linda Fagan Yeah. So the phase two re-compete for the offshore patrol cutter was awarded to Austal. OPC is our top priority, we’re committed to, fielding the phase one OPC’s and are equally committed to phase two. And look forward to seeing those ships actually in operation soon.

Tom Temin All right. How are they powered? And you’re confident that that power source will be reliable?

Linda Fagan Yeah. Argus should go in the water soon. And once you get a ship in the water and you start to do sea trials, you gain all kinds of insights. I think we’ve got a great designs, great quality ship and we’re really looking forward to bringing them into the fleet.

Tom Temin Do you feel confident in the supply chain industrial base, The [Defense Industrial Base (DIB)] as they call it, and named DoD. They’re having trouble with ship building capacity. But you’re on a whole different channel.

Linda Fagan So we are and we aren’t. It was an interesting discussion at the panel around its ship building capacity and ship repair capacity, and there is a defense industrial base aspect to that. You cannot view any of that capacity in isolation. It’s not a Navy issue, it’s not a Coast Guard issue. It is a national security issue, in ensuring that the workforce is level loaded, at each of those yards, are absolutely critical to our own national security and national defense.

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