USCG National Security Cutters
Newest flagships enhance National Security
BY MARTHA J. LAGUARDIA-KOTITE
© 2017 FrontLine Security (Vol 12, No 1)

It is July 2013 and U.S. Coast Guard deck hands take in the mooring lines aboard Coast Guard Cutter Stratton, a Legend-class National Security Cutter. Stratton slowly drifts away from the San Diego pier, sounding three short blasts to alert nearby maritime traffic that the 418-foot steel vessel was backing out. The engines shift, increasing speed ahead, and USCGC Stratton is outbound for sea.

Approaching the dark waters of the Pacific Ocean, Coastguardsmen near the bow prepare the anchor for release, part of a planned drill to demonstrate their proficiency for on-board evaluators conducting an 18-month check up.

A couple decks above and behind, Captain Andrew Sugimoto, the commanding officer, sits inside the bridge on an elevated, deeply cushioned “Captain’s” chair, bolted to the deck. Out of habit, he mentally notes the fathometer reading ample depth below the ship’s hull.

Sugimoto has more than 11 years at sea, has commanded two previous Coast Guard cutters, and was executive officer of two more. Having served on active duty for over 25 years, he is accustomed to expecting the unexpected, and wise about the ordinary becoming extraordinary.

On this morning, neither Sugimoto nor any of the 131 crew members suspected they would soon divert to stop drug smugglers off Mexico. A radio call from the California command center, in Alameda, changes everything – their mission surges from rehearsal to performance.

“We hadn’t even passed the San Diego sea buoy when we got a call from the 11th Coast Guard District saying that a C-130 aircraft had spotted what appeared to be two suspicious vessels 160 miles south of San Diego,” recalls Capt Sugimoto about the request to divert and investigate. Stratton speeds to the area and apprehends the smugglers before nightfall.


31 Aug 2015 – Boarding team from Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf conducts an interdiction of a self-propelled semi-submersible vessel suspected of smuggling 7.5 tons of cocaine. The seized contraband was estimated to be worth $227 million. (USCG photo)

USCGC Stratton is one of nine planned National Security Cutters, a new class of ships that are replacing the 378-foot High Endurance Cutters built in the 1960s. The largest and most technologically advanced, they are the flagships of the Coast Guard’s approximately $1 billion annual investment in the next generation of ships, aircraft and command and control systems. This program, according to the Congressional Research Service, calls for procuring eight National Security Cutters estimated to cost U$5.504 billion (about $688 million in production costs per vessel). Stratton, along with her two sister ships, Bertholf and Waesche, are all based in Alameda. On the East Coast, cutters Hamilton and James are based in Charleston, South Carolina. The sixth, Munro, will be stationed in Alameda, and a seventh, Kimball, is scheduled for delivery in 2018. The eighth NSC, Midgett, will be home ported in Honolulu. In December 2016, the Coast Guard awarded a contract option valued at $486 million for a ninth NSC to Huntington Ingalls Industries.

These frigate-sized vessels play a vital role in addressing advanced and emerging threats, securing our borders, and safeguarding commerce.

This new fleet, unlike ever before, provides high-end capabilities and sophisticated technology enhancing the U.S. Coast Guard’s efforts to protect America’s maritime sovereignty by preventing, detecting and defeating threats as far from our shores as possible. This resource is in great demand, particularly for stopping offshore drug, contraband and human smuggling by transnational criminal organizations operating in the southern approaches to the United States.


Coast Guard Cutter Sherman arrives at Naval Base San Diego on 18 August 2016. The crew offloaded approximately 11 tons of cocaine that had been collected during various seizures in the Eastern Pacific. (U.S. Coast Guard photo: Petty Officer 3rd Class Joel Guzman)

Stopping Crime at Sea
Captain Sugimoto describes the events after Stratton got underway from the San Diego. With America’s coastline more than 100 miles behind, the bridge watch is focused on closing the gap between them and the suspects’ position off Mexico. A deck below, inside the state-of-the-art surveillance and reconnaissance-equipped Command Information Center, a six-person team of specialists “frames the picture” for the Captain and the Eleventh District Command Center (which is hundreds of miles away in Alameda). The command and control system includes surface search radar, air search radar, and an electronic warfare suite designed to detect enemy radars. Sugimoto says these tools offer a great way of picking up tracks, determining distances, and enhancing awareness of what’s going on in the waters surrounding the ship. The Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) camera system looks out 7 or 8 miles, day or night, detecting heat sources.

To support the “art of surprise” plan, Sugimoto readies the ship’s flight deck in case he needs it, and pulls in the San Diego based Coast Guard Cutter Petrel, an 87-foot patrol boat. Stratton’s distinctive communication suite links the cutter’s small boats with the aircraft and Petrel. Sugimoto’s team could also dial into any of the radio circuits and listen to breaking news, adjusting plans accordingly. All units are under Stratton’s tactical control.

Combining sensor input with the ship’s state-of-the-art communications system creates an accurate operational picture beyond what they can see from the bridge and radar views. This detail is displayed on a big screen and on monitors, assisting Coastguardsmen like Lt. Cmdr. Morgan Holden, Stratton’s Tactical Action Officer at the time. Holden is ultimately responsible for locating the suspects. “It’s hard to find these guys on radar,” she explains. “From 30 miles away I need to see what’s going on. The different angles provided by the Petrel, the aircraft, and our own information, gives me the whole picture so I can get Stratton to the right spot and I can launch the boarding teams without being seen.” As Sugimoto describes it, Holden and her team “set the trap for the bad guys.”


July 2015 – Coast Guard Cutter Stratton interdiction of self-propelled semi submersible in the Pacific. (USCG photo: Petty Officer 2nd class LaNola Stone)

Protecting our Backyard
Such capabilities are particularly important during a time when the Navy is positioning more of its resources to the Asia-Pacific region. In April of 2014, then Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that the Navy would commit to sending two additional ballistic missile defense destroyers to the defense of Japan by 2017 as part of increasing America’s high-profile presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, noted in an article he authored for Foreign Policy, that the Navy “will increase the day-to-day naval presence in the Asia-Pacific region by about 20 percent, to 60 ships by 2020.” He explained, “The Asia-Pacific will become increasingly important to our national prosperity and security.”

Underscoring the Navy’s commitment to this region, littoral combat ship USS Freedo, conducted her maiden overseas deployment to Southeast Asia in March of that year.

According to Robert Kapcio, U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command’s Director of Strategy, Policy and Theater Security Cooperation, “The Navy continues to provide both surface and air forces from both the Pacific and Atlantic Fleets, and continues to look at innovative ways to support SOUTHCOM’s Countering Illicit Trafficking mission in the out years.”

General John F. Kelly, former Commander United States Southern Command recognizes that the Coast Guard’s National Security Cutters serve as a critical force for countering transnational organized crime when fiscal constraints limit the availability of large surface assets such as U.S. Navy frigates. “To mitigate shortfalls, we rely heavily on the U.S. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection, which now provide the bulk of ships and aircraft available to disrupt drugs bound for the United States,” said Kelly before the 113th Congress House Armed Services Committee. “Severe budget constraints are significantly degrading our ability to defend the southern approaches to the United States.”


Boarding team members from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf work to retrieve bales of contraband from the water that were thrown overboard by suspected smugglers in January 2015. (USCG photo)

There is a significant need for more resources to limit trafficking. “The requirement for ships is much greater than the resources available,” reveals Colonel Greg Julian, a U.S. Southern Command’s Public Affairs Officer. “Through our detection and monitoring we see 80 percent and can only interdict 20 percent.”

Illicit drugs coming to the United States from South America pass through an area known as the Transit Zone, roughly seven million square-miles, about twice the size of the continental United States. This zone includes the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea, the Eastern Pacific Ocean near Mexico, and waters adjacent to Central and South America. United States Southern Command, located near Miami in Doral, Florida, is responsible for contingency planning and operations in this area, and for defense of the Panama Canal. One of its components, the Joint Interagency Task Force – South, monitors activity in the Transit Zone.

According to Mr. Jose Ruiz, a U.S. Southern Command spokesperson, 86% of the drugs that come into the United States move through the Caribbean and Pacific waters near Central America’s isthmus. “It’s very likely if drugs [cocaine] were seized off the coast of Mexico, they may have transited through SOUTHCOM’s area of responsibility.” He says the main source for cocaine trafficked around world is the Andean region of Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, whereas Marijuana is sourced from many locations.

The introduction of the Coast Guard’s flagship into this maritime battlefield is timely. The ship’s enhanced communications suite, its 12,000-mile range, combined with 60 to 90-day crew stamina and the ability to operate in extreme weather, serve to increase the Coast Guard’s influence and availability. This agility, and means to operate at higher sustained transit speeds and greater distances from shore, also provides a unique form of diplomacy to persuade as a “soft power” in geographic areas where the nation may not want to leverage the hard power of a U.S. Navy warship to coerce. This was evident in the 2008 deployment of a Coast Guard cutter off the Republic of Georgia as tensions escalated with Russia.

The cutter’s speed, robust C4ISR (command, control, communication, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) equipment, and access to similar international combat ships are powerful instruments for international partnerships, defense readiness and border security.

Complemented by fast small boats and helicopters launched from her decks, this resource is a key to the unified efforts of domestic and international partners to safeguard the homeland, confront threats from transnational organized crime networks, prevent drug and human smuggling, and save lives far off shore, according to Chief Warrant Officer Chad Saylor, a Coast Guard spokesperson. These ships also patrol the North Pacific enforcing fisheries laws, simultaneously providing critical search and rescue coverage in the harsh Bering Sea.

Captain John McKinley, former commanding officer of USCGC Waesche, recently led the National Security Cutter through an international military exercise – Rim of the Pacific. McKinley describes the cutter’s capabilities as the “lynchpin for being able to operate and make decisions.” He demonstrated this while aboard the Waesche and commanded a task force of ships from the People’s Republic of China, Brunei, Mexico, France and New Zealand to help foster cooperative relationships. “This is very cool stuff.” Of the many cutters he has served on in the Coast Guard, McKinley asserts: “this is the most capable ship.”

Capt. Andy Tiongson, former CO of the Coast Guard Cutter James, notes that the austere fiscal environment, coupled with the U.S. Navy’s rebalance of forces to the Pacific, could result in “somewhat of a void” of fewer military ships and assets closer to home. “Who’s home here, in our backyard?” Tiongson asks, rhetorically. “The answer is going to be the United States Coast Guard. We have always operated here, and with the recent release of our Western Hemisphere Strategy, we will continue emphasis in this region.”

Hunters and Prey
Sugimoto has an arsenal to catch the smugglers. His team planned to use the C-130 fixed-wing aircraft on scene from Air Station Sacramento and two of the cutter’s high-speed small boats designed to operate 40 miles away. At their disposal is the cutter’s stern boat launch, a flight deck, and two helicopter hangers that could support MH-65D or HH-60T helicopters or, in the future, an Unmanned Aircraft System.

The aircraft covertly circles above the suspects, tracking and videotaping their movements as the armada approaches. Stratton’s two small boats flank the Petrel. From about two miles away, Petrel’s crew, from their higher vantage point above the water, witness two suspects scrambling from the larger boat into the smaller craft, known as a panga or go-fast, and then take off, leaving behind the larger, deep-hulled wooden vessel with four 225-horsepower engines and an unknown cargo hidden under tarps.

The Coast Guard had planned for such a trick. According to Chief Brian Milcetich, a boarding officer riding aboard one of the two cutter small boats, his team proceeded as planned to the larger vessel that they suspect contains the drugs. Milcetich is also the pursuit mission commander, which means he is responsible for overseeing the law enforcement procedures they would use to stop the escapees.
“Pretty scary,” Milcetich says of the vessel boarding. “It was covered in tarps. We didn’t know if someone was going to jump out.” The boarding team conduct a quick sweep of the vessel. Pulling back the tarp, they find the boat is laden with drugs. “I’ve been in over 17 years and I’ve never seen that much.” They wait about 20 minutes for Stratton to relieve them of their duties, making sure the go-fast would not sink with the contraband. Then, they pursue.

Petrel and the second Coast Guard small boat have kept a respectable distance behind the fleeing vessel, which is speeding at more than 30-knots and are now about 15 miles away. “It was brutal to be a passenger on a small boat in 4-foot seas getting tossed around for two hours,” recalls Milcetich of the pounding ride. At 40 knots, Milcetich’s team catch up. It is late afternoon and slightly overcast. They have little time before sunset.

U.S. Southern Command coordinates enforcement operations to deny Trans­national Criminal Organizations the use of the Transit Zone air and maritime routes. Southern Command’s component command, Joint Interagency Task Force-South, monitors suspect activity and hands off leads to the U.S. Coast Guard and partner agencies for investigation.

To set the trap, aircraft and ships from the U.S. Coast Guard and, when necessary, Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment Teams aboard Allied ships, locate and detain suspects. These detached 7- to 9-person teams provide the authority and expertise to conduct law enforcement boardings from non-Coast Guard ships.

According to the USCG, during a five-month period between February and July 2014 Bertholf, Waesche and Stratton teams made 13 drug busts resulting in the seizure of more than 7,600 kg of cocaine and 28,000 pounds of marijuana – worth an estimated $280 million. Since the first operational deployment of an NSC, these three cutters have combined to remove 98,921 kg of cocaine, worth an estimated $2.9 Billion wholesale.

The success in confronting trans­national organized criminal operations is not lost on U.S. Southern Command. Recently, Bertholf completed a three-month deployment in the Eastern Pacific, which includes the western boundary of Southern Command’s oversight. During that time, the cutter had six successful apprehensions resulting in over seven metric tons of cocaine seized and 17 arrests. Jose Ruiz, notes that the orga­nization relies on the Coast Guard everyday.

Over the past five years, Coast Guard cutters and aircraft have removed from the high seas more than 630 metric tons of pure, uncut cocaine, with a wholesale value of nearly $19 billion. These annual seizures at sea amount to more than three times the quantity of cocaine seized at U.S. borders and within the U.S. combined. During the August 2015 christening of Coast Guard Cutter James at the Pascagoula, Mississippi shipyard, the Service’s then vice commandant acknowledged this kind of ship has increased impact on the drug war. “We’ve already seen more per patrol in terms of drugs interdicted, illegal smugglers and illegal activity in our fishing zones,” Vice Admiral Peter Neffenger said. “We’ve already seen them catch more of those than any of their predecessors had ever done before.” Based on the successes of her sister ships, Neffenger says USCGC James will “provide a big line of defense against those who would bring illegal goods into our country, who would smuggle people, smuggle drugs, and take advantage of our resources.”

Closing In
The smugglers try diverting the law enforcement teams, tossing bundles overboard – but the small boats in pursuit have no problem circling around and retrieving the items before catching up again.

The hunters and their prey move out of eyesight of Stratton’s bridge watch, but are still visible on the ship’s sensors. For about 20 minutes, Milcetich’s team give the four men every chance to stop on their own, calling out in Spanish over the loud hailer: “Stop your vessel.” The law enforcement team use hand signals and flash blue lights to get their attention. “They were having none of it,” he recalls. The fleeing men drive the boat erratically, used trick maneuvers like the corkscrew, circling then reversing direction quickly as they attempt to lose the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard’s pursuit gunner on the lead small boat prepares his weapon to fire warning shots, releasing rounds of loud pops and flashes of light. The suspects continue attempting to evade authorities, so Milcetich radioes the situation to Stratton, and Captain Sugimoto authorizes use of physical force to compel the smugglers to stop.

Sea swells are now reaching nearly 6 feet and the day’s light is fading. Milcetich prepares to close, and have his gunner shoot out the engine. He is concerned that, in this sea state, a slight bump of the marksman would cause his aim to be off. He confers with his four teammates about the risks vs. gain, asking the gunner, “are you sure you can do this?” The gunner is confident, and asks the coxswain to get him in closer. Milcetich's final question is, “Are you all sure this is a perfect situation to end this pursuit and everyone will be safe?” They all agree.

As the gunner prepares to take a shot at the boat’s engine, the suspects suddenly turn their vessel, positioning themselves perfectly for the Coast Guard’s alternate plan. The Coast Guard coxswain takes the opportunity to drive his boat’s bow into the beam of the panga, forcing a collision. “The men all fell over in the boat,” recounts Milcetich. “The two guys in front immediately raised their hands – gave up. The two in the back were trying to restart the engine. It died when the kill switch was pulled as they fell.” Milcetich leaps aboard the panga. His team follows. “I went for the guys at the back shouting ‘hands up’ in Spanish,” he says. They ignore him as one reaches for the vessel's throttle trying to restart the engine. “I grabbed his hands. He resisted me and pulled back. To me that’s a threatening response. I ended that.” Milcetich pins the suspect. The fourth man puts his hands behind his back, giving up. Within seconds all four men are in handcuffs. The sun sinks over the horizon.

“Pretty cool example of using all the different capabilities of the ship exercised by an outstanding crew,” Sugimoto says. “We were able to maintain control and take it down.”

According to the plea agreement filed in the United States District Court Southern District of California, approximately 5,305 kilograms (11,695 pounds) of marijuana were seized 115 nautical miles southwest of Ensenada, Mexico. One of the men pled guilty, admitting he and three others helped transport the marijuana to the United States for distribution.

Milcetich agrees the National Security Cutter’s capabilities are impressive. For him, what makes the ship successful he says is the crew. “For us to take our hats off from a training exercise and shift suddenly into this law enforcement mode – it’s more a testament to the people we have on board than the capabilities of the NSC,” he said.

Holden agrees. “Getting to work with the exceptional people onboard is the only reason I keep asking to go back to sea.”

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Captain Martha J. LaGuardia-Kotite is a serving member of the USCG Reserve. She is an award-winning author of five books, and can be reached at www.marthakotite.com and on Facebook, www.facebook.com/laguardiakotite

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