Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp discusses his recent overseas trip during a Dec. 11 interview with Navy Times in his Washington, D.C., office. (Thomas Brown / Staff)
Commandant Adm. Bob Papp recently visited Coast Guardsmen stationed overseas and addressed their No. 1 concern: whether their jobs would still exist as budgets are slashed and the war in Afghanistan ends.
The verdict: Some jobs in Bahrain that support the war effort may be at risk, but many billets in foreign ports are safe.
Papp returned stateside Dec. 1 after a 13-day trip to Malta, Bahrain, Singapore and Guam. He sat down with Navy Times on Dec. 11 for an exclusive interview about his trip, during which he met with many of the 379 Coast Guardsmen presently deployed overseas.
Among them are 250 personnel with Patrol Forces Southwest Asia and 27 inspectors with redeployment assistance and inspection detachment teams.
Papp said he is uncertain how many Coast Guardsmen will remain in Bahrain. That will depend on how long U.S. Central Command needs them and how long Congress will fund them. The funding used to support these operations is requested by the Defense Department.
Patrol Forces Southwest Asia protects infrastructure in the Persian Gulf, such as Iraqi oil terminals, and supports Navy aircraft carriers and minesweepers in 5th Fleet. Coast Guardsmen also work with foreign navies to share best practices.
And they'll have to continue to perform such duties with their six Island-class patrol boats. Many U.S.-based patrol boats are being replaced with new fast response cutters, which have guns that can be operated from inside the cabin, a rigid-hull inflatable boat that can be easily launched, and accommodations that sleep up to four people per room.
Papp said the older patrol boats will remain in 5th Fleet until the mission is complete.
"Those six boats are in pretty good shape," Papp added. "We've been able to invest in them while they're over there and get good work done on them. I think on a couple of them, they don't even have any of the original hull plating left; we've almost rebuilt them completely while they've been over there."
Other Coasties in Bahrain serve on RAID teams, which inspect shipments of hazardous materials, including weapons and tanks, heading back to the U.S.
Papp said that he expects this mission to wind down, but not right away.
"Once we do the drawdown [in Afghanistan], there won't be these large amounts of equipment that need to come back," he said. "But that will probably go on for a couple more years because there's a lot of equipment over there, and it'll take some time to get it out."
Once the mission is done, the RAID teams will be moved to a new, yet-to-be-decided mission.
Coast Guardsmen stationed in foreign ports will not be cut, regardless of the budget, Papp said.
"We inspect other countries' security operations before they load cargo that's coming to the United States, so it's a very small investment with very high return because we are able to be that first line of defense," Papp said.
If jobs do disappear, it is unlikely any Coast Guardsmen will be forcibly removed from the already undermanned fleet that stands at more than 43,000 active-duty personnel. Rather, their jobs will be redistributed across the country to where they are needed most, Papp said.
"We're just not getting any more people," Papp said. "Now, we might be able to reallocate people around the Coast Guard if we get a new mission, new tasking or something like that. For instance, there are new fishing vessel safety regulations that have come out and we have to have fishing vessel inspectors to be able to do that. So we are getting some new billets for that, but when you look at the balance, we're losing some billets in other places. We pretty much stay even."
Other trip goals
Papp said the Coast Guard has long held a presence in the Pacific, and he's glad to see other services ramping up their efforts there.
"We're delighted that the president has changed the country's focus toward the Pacific and that the Department of Defense is increasing their activities out there as well, because we need partners," Papp said. "It's a force multiplier for us to have that new attention to the Pacific."
The most interesting part of the trip, Papp said, was his visit to Singapore, where he got to observe port security and interdiction operations. Papp said he was eager to observe how the island nation controlled cargo and provided security.
Papp picked up some tips while watching the Singapore coast guard perform interdiction operations. He said he wouldn't share them, because "they would be tactics and other things we might want to employ, and we don't want to tip our hand."
Partnerships at home and abroad will be especially important in the face of tightening budgets, Papp said: If a partnership is strong enough, the U.S. can have assurances that foreign ports will be secure without having to station Coast Guardsmen there.
Papp also talked Arctic ice melting while on his trip. The opening of the North Sea Route could change which cities or countries are the main points of distribution on trade routes throughout the world. Because of this, the Arctic is a concern for all the countries Papp visited, especially Singapore, a trade hub.
The trip was originally planned around the North Pacific Coast Guard Forum, an annual meeting of the coast guards of Canada, China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the U.S. This year's meeting was set to be held in China in September but was postponed twice before being canceled due to conflict about ownership of islands in the South China Sea between China and Japan.
"We were making inroads with China, and I hope we don't have a setback right now because that's certainly the signal that I receive from [the] cancellation," he said. "I've always thought if you have a dispute, the best way to take care of it is by having discussions and working together."