U.S. Coast Guard Ratchets Up Port Security: Patrols and Ship Boardings Increase, Stretching Limited Resources 'Almost to Breaking Point'

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Responding to the threat of terrorism, the U.S. Coast Guard has made its largest commitment to port security since World War II, according to Rear Adm. Jeffrey J. Hathaway, the service's assistant commandant for operations policy.

"The nation has 361 ports and 95,000 miles of coastline--including the Great Lakes and inland waterways--which are vulnerable to terrorist attack," Hathaway told National Defense. Since September 2001, the Coast Guard has conducted nearly 40,000 surface and air patrols to protect those assets, he said. h has boarded more than 2,500 vessels of interest and interdicted more than 6,200 illegal immigrants.

Now, as part of Operation Liberty Shield, which was launched in March, these efforts are being increased yet again, Hathaway said. Coast Guard patrols are growing by 50 percent. The Sea Marshal program, which escorts, boards and inspects arriving and departing vessels, will expand. The number of Maritime Safety and Security Teams, the Coast Guard's highly trained anti-terrorist units, is being doubled.

These additional responsibilities come at a time when the Coast Guard's resources already are "stretched thin, nearly to the breaking point," making it "extremely difficult to continue serving other missions," Adm. Thomas Collins, the service's commandant, told a Senate hearing.

The Coast Guard, with 36,000 active-duty officers and enlisted personnel, is the smallest of the U.S. uniformed services, in March, it was transferred from the Transportation Department to the new Department of Homeland Security.

With the increased focus on homeland security, the Coast Guard is receiving additional resources. For fiscal year 2003, the Coast Guard received an extra $1 billion in funding. For 2004, it requested $6.7 billion, a $581 million increase.

Coast Guard reservists are playing a larger role, Collins said. More than 3,900 are currently on active duty. Reflecting their growing importance, the total number of reservists increased from 8,000 to 9,000 personnel in 2003, and they are slated to expand yet again to 10,000 in 2004, he said.

To conduct the additional patrols, Hathaway said, the Coast Guard is buying up to 700 Homeland Security Response Boats from Safe Boats International, of Port Orchard, Wash. The total value of the contract is $145 million, with each boat costing roughly $180,000.

The new 25-foot response boats will replace nearly 300 non-standard shore-based craft. They are more maneuverable than the older boats. Outfitted with twin engines, they are capable of speeds in excess of 40 knots.

A full cabin provides crew protection from the elements and is equipped with state-of-the art navigation and communication systems, heater and shock-mitigation seats. The response boats are designed to be transportable by road or C-130 aircraft.

The contract calls for delivery of the boats to begin in July and to continue at a minimum rate of two per week.

For 2004, the Coast Guard has requested 43 fully crewed and outfitted Port Security Response Boats and nine 87-foot Coastal Patrol Boats. The service also plans to begin acquiring medium-sized response boats to replace its aging fleet of 41-foot utility vessels.

In addition, the Coast Guard is standing up a new station in Washington, D.C. in order to beef up waterside security in the nation's capital. The Coast Guard is headquartered in Washington, but until recently, it rarely was called upon to patrol the placid Potomac River. That changed with 9/11. The new station, located at pierside on Bolling Air Force Base, will have about a dozen personnel and two patrol boats to cruise the Potomac, watching for suspicious behavior, Hathaway said.

More Anti-Terrorist Teams

At the same time, the service is adding six new Maritime Safety and Security Teams, bringing the total to 12 nationwide, Hathaway said. MSSTs are deployable units consisting of about 100 Coast Guard men and women. …