Preparedness

The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and Homeland Security

by Brent Bankus

Since the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. homeland, the operating tempo of the nation’s active and reserve forces has increased exponentially. In addition, because of the possibility – likelihood is the more appropriate word, most experts say – of additional terrorist attacks, both home and overseas, in the future, it is essential that all U.S. manpower assets, including long-established volunteer military organizations, be used to the maximum extent possible in the fight against international terrorism.  One such organization, with a long and distinguished history of service on the nation’s waterways, is the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary.  

During the late 1930s, when war clouds already were beginning to gather over Europe, the United States belatedly started to pay more attention to its long-neglected military establishment, which was plagued by antiquated weapons and equipment, outdated tactics, and even more outdated thinking in the senior echelons of the nation’s armed forces.

Because Germany and Japan had significantly expanded and modernized their seagoing forces since the end of World War I it soon became evident that the United States itself did not have enough of the waterborne assets needed for such missions as the security of inland waterways and the protection of U.S. ports and coastal areas. Moreover, the U.S. Coast Guard, normally charged with these missions, had been reduced to a mere 10,000 officers and enlisted men – and, unlike the nation’s other armed services, did not have a reserve component to rely upon in times of need.  

Four Missions and a Major Mandate

The idea of establishing a reserve component to the Coast Guard began to take shape in 1934, when yachtsman Malcolm Stuart Boylan planted the seed that eventually became the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. Five years later, thanks in large part to his advocacy and the realistic case he made, Congress passed The Coast Guard Reserve Act of 1939, which established the new Coast Guard Reserve as a civilian force and assigned it the following four missions: supporting the safety of life at sea and upon the navigable waters of the United States; the promotion of efficiency in the operation of motorboats and yachts; promoting a wider knowledge of, and better compliance with, the laws, rules, and regulations governing the operation and navigation of motorboats and yachts; and “facilitating certain operations of the Coast Guard.”

“There is hereby established a United States Coast Guard Reserve,” the Act said, “...which shall be composed of citizens of the United States and its Territories and possessions ... [and] who are owners (sole or in part) of motorboats or yachts.”

Because of their civilian status the new Coast Guard reservists initially were prohibited from wearing uniforms or insignias of military rank, and could not participate in Coast Guard training.  In addition, if their privately owned vessels were needed to carry out any of the missions assigned, they had to be commanded by a regular Coast Guardsman – either an officer or a noncommissioned officer.

The Early Years of World War II

By June 1940 the Coast Guard new reserve component had enrolled 2,600 men and had 2,300 hundred boats of various types and sizes at its disposal. By that time the Coast Guard also was offering a few training courses for its reserve personnel. Those who passed the courses were appointed to three "reserve grades": senior navigator, navigator, or engineer.

In February 1941, with the war clouds growing both larger and darker, Congress passed a law restructuring the Coast Guard Reserve into two components, one of them a strictly civilian force renamed the Coast Guard Auxiliary, and the other a real Coast Guard Reserve, which would act as a feeder organization for the regular Coast Guard. Like their counterparts in the other reserve components, members of the Coast Guard Reserve were paid for participating in drills, and had to maintain normal military physical standards.  Those unable to meet those standards, but who still wanted to serve, were invited to become "temporary” members of the reserve.  A "Coast Guard TR" was a volunteer who served only in a designated geographic area – usually near his home or workplace – in a less than full-time status. TRs could be between 17 and 64 years of age, and their physical requirements were not overly stringent.  

Between 1941 and 1945 the Auxiliary served more or less as the Coast Guard's general-purpose force. During the early months of 1942, when German U-Boat “Wolf Packs” were attacking U.S. convoys with alarming success, Coast Guard Auxiliary craft patrolled the eastern seaboard in an effort to stave off the U-Boat attacks on the ships carrying essential supplies and equipment to Great Britain (and, later, the Soviet Union).  While never sinking a U-Boat, the Coast Guard Auxiliary was credited with saving over 500 stranded seamen whose vessels had fallen prey to the German submarine attacks.

The Present-Day Auxiliary and Homeland Security

Like their WWII counterparts, members of the present-day Coast Guard Auxiliary donate untold thousands of hours of their time to help the active-duty Coast Guard, particularly in the field of homeland security.  By statute, the Coast Guard Auxiliary may assist the Coast Guard with any function, power, role, or duty with the exception of direct law-enforcement or combat missions.  

This volunteer component of the Coast Guard now boasts approximately 34,000 members nationwide, with 5,000 vessels, and 300 aircraft. Historically, the Auxiliary has played a vital role by helping the active-duty Coast Guard carry out its boating-safety and search-and-rescue (SAR) missions. After 9/11 the Auxiliary’s missions were greatly expanded to augment the Coast Guard active and reserve components in the field of homeland security as well.  

In its Final Report, the 9/11 Commission said that a major risk area for future terrorist attacks is the U.S. waterways system, the umbrella term that includes shoreline areas, the nation’s coastal and inland waterways and lakes, and literally hundreds of ports, harbors, and inlets.  In the 2002 Homeland Security Act maritime homeland security was broken down into five operational components, the first of which is ports, waterways, and coastal security. A prime area of focus for the U.S. Coast Guard, this mission was further delegated down to the Coast Guard Auxiliary.

Updating the Mandate

In January 2002, to better leverage its volunteer assets, the Coast Guard Auxiliary implemented Operation Patriot Readiness and, with it, a series of improvements to the Auxiliary personnel system to quantify and identify the capabilities of Auxiliary members, including those possessing non-traditional but crucial skills – e.g., medical training and/or the ability to operate and/or maintain various specialized equipment systems.         

In announcing the 2002 National Security Strategy, President George W. Bush made it clear that “defending the nation against its enemies is the first and fundamental commitment of the Federal Government.”  In addition, and in large part because of the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration has taken a preemptive approach to fighting the war on terrorism. This proactive rather than reactive mindset has permeated all departments of the federal government, including the Department of Homeland Security and the various offices and agencies under it, including the U. S. Coast Guard and, by extension, the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary.   

Today, in accordance with the Coast Guard’s own still-evolving concept of Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) – which translates into “anything associated with the global maritime environment that could impact the safety, security economy or environment of the United States” – the Coast Guard Auxiliary is charged with four principal areas of focus: awareness, prevention, protection, and response. 

In much the same way the other armed services have given greater responsibility to their various reserve components, particularly since the first Gulf War in 1991, the Coast Guard has entrusted the Coast Guard Auxiliary with increasingly greater responsibilities through which it can aid and support the active-duty Coast Guard and the Coast Guard Reserve. The Auxiliary is now routinely being assigned some relatively benign safety missions, such as providing patrols for large boating events. These post-9/11 missions are being gradually expanded, moreover, so that, as and when the threat level increases, Auxiliary assets will be leveraged to augment the active and reserve components of the Coast Guard as where needed to help counter the growing threats.

A Greater Awareness of Native Waters

The expansion of this “area of awareness” is particularly suited to the Auxiliary, if only because members of the Auxiliary are in most cases already thoroughly familiar with their air, land, and sea areas of patrol. It is intuitively obvious that the on-scene personnel best suited to detect irregularities in port, waterways, or critical-infrastructure security are, in most if not all situations, those who are native to the local area of operations.  

Not incidentally, expansion of the Auxiliary’s awareness mission includes the use of Auxiliary rotary-wing aviation assets (AuxAir) to support and augment the federal government’s Automatic Identification System (AIS) – which was specifically designed to electronically identify each ship approaching a U.S. port of entry from various sensor platforms such as buoys positioned in the approaches to ports and at various land reception stations. In areas where electronic detection is difficult or sporadic, AuxAir has been used to complement and augment the AIS.  

The prevention mission also is well suited for the Auxiliary, if only because any increase in uniformed presence makes would-be terrorists that much more apprehensive. For practical purposes, the Auxiliary’s increased presence in the vicinity of critical-infrastructure sites effectively hardens those sites to a certain extent – and also facilitates the interdiction and apprehension of terrorists.  

Because of legal constraints, the protection mission is somewhat outside the Auxiliary’s specific areas of responsibility. Nonetheless, the Auxiliary supports this mission by providing the extra forces needed to free active-duty and reserve Coast Guard personnel to concentrate more of their own efforts on that mission.  

A Low-Cost, Low-Noise-Level Major Asset

The Auxiliary’s response mission is a major growth area for the Auxiliary, which is specifically being groomed for a much expanded role in this area.  As demonstrated by the 9/11 attacks, local emergencies quickly evolve into state and national emergencies as and when the sheer size and complexity of an incident quickly overwhelm the local and frequently limited first-responder assets immediately available.

Because of the broad spectrum of specialized skills likely to be required in the event of another large-scale terrorist attack it can be safely assumed that Auxiliary communications personnel and other highly qualified members will be immediately mobilized in times of future need.

The missions listed above are but a few of many that the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary has undertaken to leverage its assets to help the active-duty Coast Guard carry out its own homeland-security responsibilities. What makes the Coast Guard Auxiliary even more remarkable is that, as a strictly volunteer military organization, it carries out its own training, and its operational missions, in a non-pay status.

In an era of skyrocketing costs, including but not limited to those associated with homeland security, the members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary meet their mission requirements on a shoestring budget, and with little public fanfare.

This is, of course, in keeping with the spirit of those defending the American homeland in the colonial period, when all volunteers were “minutemen,” prepared at a moment’s notice to defend “home and hearth” from attack.