As the 23rd commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Adm. Thad Allen has borne the burden of change, most pro-foundly by steering his massive fleet and force out of the Department of Transportation and into new and unwieldy seas in the global war on terrorism under the Department of Homeland Security.
As both Atlantic-area and Maritime Defense Zone Atlantic commander, Allen earned praise by directing the Coast Guard's East Coast response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Four years later, the Coast Guard proved its agility under his leadership by rescuing nearly 22,000 Gulf Coast residents during the devastating 2005 hurricane season.
A 1971 graduate of the Coast Guard Academy and the son of a retired Coast Guard chief petty officer and World War II veteran, Allen leads a force of 42,000 active-duty members and 12,000 reservists in a fast-changing matrix of missions around the world.
The American Legion Magazine recently spoke with Allen at his Washington office.
Q: What are some of the unique homeland-security challenges the Coast Guard faces?
A: In trying to develop a maritime-security regime for the country, water presents challenges you don't find in the air or on land. In the air, we have persistent radar contact and positive control of aircraft. On land, we have a hard line in the sand, if you will. You can go on the map and say that is the border. In the maritime domain, we have a 12-mile territorial sea. It's an undulating band. It's not a bright line.
We don't have persistent radar coverage of the maritime approaches in this country. You can have a ship, an Iranian freighter full of ammonium nitrate, steaming 15 miles off our coast, that hasn't declared its intent to enter the country. There's no requirement for them to call us. We might not even know for a while that it is there. But actions we have taken internally and internationally after the Sept. 11 attacks are making it easier for us to track maritime vessels.
Q: What are some of the major changes since 9/11?
A: Large commercial vessels now must submit a manifest of cargo, crew and passengers 96 hours before entering U.S. waters, instead of the previous 24-hours notice. This information is run through the National Targeting Center. If there appears to be anything amiss, we have the opportunity to hold the ship offshore and do a boarding or put other controls in place. That's a significant step forward.
In addition, the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002 has given us better tools to manage security. The law re-quires that certain waterfront facilities and vessels, where there can be significant consequences associated with a terrorist incident, must have Coast Guard-approved security plans in place. Let's say you are a ferry operator, or you run a water-front chemical facility that transfers cargo to barges. You are required to have a security plan that says, "Here is how we protect our perimeter (and) here is how we make sure that we maintain the integrity of the logistic chain."
The United States has also negotiated several long-range agreements through the International Maritime Organization. We negotiated the requirement for ships to carry transponders that when picked up on radar will identify the name of the ship and data associated with the vessel. And last year we reached an agreement that helps us keep tabs on vessels oper-ating near U.S. waters that have not yet declared intentions to enter.
Q: What happens when the Coast Guard suspects something is amiss aboard a vessel?
A: We have a couple of options. We can deny them entry, or in some cases we actually transport a team several miles offshore to board a ship. We have on occasion denied entry to ships not giving us 96 hours advance notice of arrival. If a ship shows up in port and we think security systems in place are inadequate, or the safety systems pose a threat to the port, we expel the ship from port.
Q: How have the Coast Guard's post-Sept. 11 responsibilities affected its ability to carry out traditional missions?
A: The case can always be made that we never have adequate resources, but we are addressing those concerns through a 20-year Deepwater program intended to replace and augment aging ships and other equipment. In the meantime, we have to make do with the resources we have. Our field commanders have a finite amount of resources allocated to them. Their job is to assess risks regarding illegal immigration, illegal fishing, drug interdiction and those types of things, and apply their resources to the highest risks. Better intelligence and more effective allocation of resources result in successful out-comes. We are doing more with less, you might say, without jeopardizing our post-Sept. 11 responsibilities.
Q: What will it mean to update the fleet?
A: New technology gives us an ability to better communicate. Traditional chains of communication are slow in compari-son to new technology and methods. What once took as long as an hour or an hour and a half to get permission to fire warning or disabling shots now takes only a few moments in secured, real-time, chat-room communication. When de-ployed, Deepwater enhancements also will enable us to share radar images. We will have the capability to create com-mon operational pictures that can be passed between all platforms to expand situational awareness to sense, see and tar-get incoming threats. Our security bubble will be increased dramatically.
Secondly, new fleet platforms will be more operationally flexible. We will have ships that are capable of performing more than one mission. Multi-use platforms will enhance our ability to react more quickly to ever-changing mission de-mands and situations.
Q: How does today's Coast Guard differentiate itself from the other service branches?
A: The normal approach in armed forces is you train, deploy, fight, restock, re-equip, retrain and deploy again on some kind of cycle. The Coast Guard always seems to have an actual mission and is permanently deployed where we live and work, serving our communities. Having said that, we do have ever-increasing assets deployed in Department of Defense-type operations. But generally, the operational motto of the Coast Guard is that our people do their mission where they live.
Q: Has the Coast Guard's evolving role had an impact on recruiting?
A: I think (recruits) have the larger expectation that they will be involved in activities more related to homeland security. I think they understand the diversity of assignments and experiences in the Coast Guard. Recruits understand that a good deal of what we do is related to humanitarian service and protecting the homeland. These are pull factors that bring folks to our organization, and we have been doing pretty well on recruiting.
Q: Of all the federal response agencies, the Coast Guard is credited for the best response during the hurricanes of 2005. Why? A: One of our unique characteristics is that we give our field commanders autonomy. We expect them to do the job without having any affirmative orders. We expect our field units to exercise initiative on the scene. If field units have the capability to do something on their own, it is their duty to do it. That's the Coast Guard culture. Search and rescue are Coast Guard legacy missions. And we like to think we do them well.
What happened during Katrina is actually what happens during any hurricane. Early on, we take our air and sea assets and move them to the edge of the storm so we can enter the area as fast as we can to assess damage and do search and rescue. The only difference between Katrina and previous hurricanes is that the scale and magnitude of Katrina was clearly off the chart. But we approached Katrina like we would any hurricane.
Q: Are we safer today than we were on Sept. 11, 2001?
A: You know, that's always tough, and it's a difficult and dangerous thing to surmise, but I can certainly say that I think the American people can be confident that steps have been taken to increase port security and maritime security, and indeed security throughout the country.