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Coast Guard Cutter Deployments Point to Bigger US Military Role in Western Pacific

Apr 11, 2021
by William Cole
The Coast Guard's five newest cutters in Honolulu -- including two of the service's most capable 418-foot vessels -- continue to reach farther across the Pacific to combat illegal fishing and counter the growing influence of China.

Recent deployments of the national security cutter Kimball and the smaller fast-response cutter Joseph Gerczak are representative of growing national security responsibilities as greater Coast Guard integration with the Navy and Marine Corps is sought.

Honolulu has two of the big cutters the Coast Guard calls the "centerpiece " of its fleet, as well as three 154-foot fast-response cutters.

The Kimball's efforts included:

* While patrolling approximately 3,600 miles in the Philippine Sea, the Kimball in mid-February conducted its first-ever at-sea boarding as part of Operation Blue Pacific, a national security mission aimed at maintaining stability in the region.

* Later that month the Kimball and Japan Coast Guard ship Akitsushima operated near the Ogasawara Islands of Japan with helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles practicing interdicting foreign vessels operating illegally in Japanese waters.

* In early March, the Kimball, with two Marines aboard, sailed close to Iwo Jima and held a remembrance ceremony marking the 76th anniversary of the famous World War II battle.

* While on patrol, the Kimball was briefly diverted to assist in a search and rescue case in the Federated States of Micronesia.

*The Kimball stopped in Guam and worked with Palau, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, the Coast Guard said.

In December, the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard released a tri-service maritime strategy called "Advantage at Sea" noting that, "Since the beginning of the 21st Century, our three services have watched with alarm the growing naval power of the People's Republic of China and the increasingly aggressive behavior of the Russian Federation."

China deploys a multi-layered fleet that includes its navy, the China Coast Guard and the People's Armed Forces Maritime Militia, naval auxiliaries disguised as civilian vessels, the report states.

Better coordinated U.S. naval forces would be "uniquely suited" for operations in competition with China, with the U.S. Coast Guard's mission profile making it the "preferred maritime security partner for many nations vulnerable to coercion."

"Integrating its unique capabilities -- law enforcement, fisheries protection, marine safety and maritime security -- with Navy and Marine Corps capabilities expands the options we provide to joint force commanders," said the report, which is seen as acknowledging the importance of the Coast Guard in competition with China below the threshold of conflict.

According to the Coast Guard, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is a far-reaching security threat, with one in five fish caught illegally around the world.

Distant-water fishing fleets that operate on an industrial scale far from home are closely associated with illegal fishing, with China having the largest distant-water fishing fleet in the world, the Coast Guard said last September.

China's Maritime Militia, with more than 3,000 vessels, "actively carries out aggressive behavior on the high seas and in sovereign waters of other nations," the Coast Guard said. It added that, "China must exercise more responsible flag state control over its vessels."

In late December, the fast response cutter Joseph Gerczak sailed 2,400 miles from Hawaii to Kiribati as part of Operation Blue Pacific.

"We're working to increase awareness of unlawful fishing operations in remote territories of the United States, the Pacific, and the Republic of Kiribati's exclusive economic zones," Lt. James Provost, commander of the cutter, said in a Coast Guard-produced news story. "Over the course of our patrol we queried one Chinese fishing vessel while enforcing Kiribati's sovereignty."

Honolulu received the five new cutters in recent years in some cases as replacements for older, less capable vessels. The Coast Guard is adding to its fleet elsewhere as well. Guam already has two of the new fast-response cutters and is getting a third this summer, said Chief Luke Clayton, a Coast Guard spokesman in Honolulu.

In his recent "State of the Coast Guard" address, Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said, "We will transition Coast Guard Air Station Barbers Point from decades-old C-130H fixed-wing model aircraft to modern, sophisticated C-130Js, and provide a hangar to protect and support these new platforms."

Schultz added that the C-130J's greater speed and endurance "make the aircraft ideally suited for standing the watch over U.S. interests in the vast Oceania region."

A Brookings Institution article written late last year by a member of the Coast Guard and Marine Corps laid out a scenario in which all three services could work closely together in a situation where China and one of its neighbors engage in armed skirmishes over an exclusive economic zone dispute.

In this case, the U.S. Coast Guard has an agreement with the neighbor that allows for joint security, law enforcement operations and EEZ enforcement.

A new type of fast-moving unit from a Marine Littoral Regiment -- the first of which will be based in Hawaii -- would be deployed to the neighbor island to provide anti-ship missile cover for a U.S. Navy ship, when a Chinese "fishing fleet " then shows up.

A Coast Guard fast-response cutter with Marines on board "could provide flexible options to identify, interrogate and address the challenge " compared to the Marine Littoral Regiment trying to handle the Chinese fishing fleet on its own.

"If Coast Guard forces integrate with Marine Littoral Regiments, operational commanders get a whole new toolbox," the authors wrote. "And here, the intent would be to give the Chinese vessels an off-ramp to de-escalate the situation and withdraw."

* * * * *

Photo caption: Coast Guard Cutter Kimball plies the Pacific Ocean after launching a small boat near Hawaii during its final pre-commissioning sea trials. (Chief Petty Officer John Masson/U.S. Coast Guard)


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