The heavy icebreaker Polar Sea will rejoin the fleet after it completes testing in 2013, but the service is still asking for money to begin procurement of a new icebreaker. (PA3 Andy Devilbiss / Coast Guard)
It was a busy year for the Coast Guard in 2012: Coast Guardsmen spent their first fully operational summer in the Arctic with the national security cutter Bertholf, the service commissioned its first fast response cutter, and a rescue mission into the teeth of Superstorm Sandy saved 14 of 16 people aboard the sinking tall ship HMS Bounty.
The new year is shaping up to be even busier. Here's what's on the horizon for 2013:
New ships coming
There's no question the cutter fleet is getting old. Commandant Adm. Bob Papp said that recapitalization of the fleet in 2013, especially surface assets, will be his top priority.
"I need to be focused on annual budget cycles, but I also have to take a long view as well, because ships and boats and aircraft are all very expensive, and they have to last for many, many years," Papp said in a Dec. 11 interview with Navy Times. "I'm looking down the line and trying to say, ‘What does the country need from its Coast Guard 40 years from now?' because we have to be building that right now."
Two milestones to watch out for:
The fourth FRC, Robert Yered, will be commissioned in February, according to a Bollinger Shipyard release, and will be homeported in Miami. It'll join the three ships commissioned in 2012 the first-in-class Bernard C. Webber, the Richard Etheridge and the William Flores.
FRCs have more advanced weapons and larger berthing spaces than the Island-class patrol boats they will replace, and a rigid-hull inflatable boat that's easier to access.
The national security cutter Alexander Hamilton will be christened in 2013, but an exact date and a home port have yet to be determined. NSCs are faster and can go farther than the high endurance cutters, built in the 1960s, that they are designed to replace.
The heavy icebreaker Polar Star was taken out of dry dock and moved to its permanent moorings Dec. 21 after the completion of a $56 million renovation at Vigor Shipyards, according to the shipyard's website. The ship is homeported in Seattle.
The icebreaker will begin sea trials soon, according to Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Paul Rhynard, and is set to be reactivated late in fiscal 2013.
However, even two operational icebreakers aren't enough for the service's Arctic mission. The Coast Guard requested $8 million in its fiscal 2013 budget request to begin procurement and development of a Polar-class icebreaker, which could cost up to $1 billion.
Polar-class icebreakers can continuously cut through up to 6 feet of ice; the research icebreaker Healy, the service's only oceangoing icebreaker in service, can break only 4½ feet of ice continuously.
The Coast Guard is planning to accept delivery of the new Polar-class ship within 10 years, according to a Congressional Research Service Report on Coast Guard Polar icebreaker modernization.
The Coast Guard will be heading back to the Arctic this summer.
Shell got a late start in 2012, drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas last summer, and it again will be up to the Coast Guard to ensure environmental regulations are being followed and workers are safe during drilling efforts. Coast Guardsmen in the Arctic also are called on for search-and-rescue cases in intense weather conditions.
In the summer of 2012, Shell had more than 200 people a week coming and going from the small town of Barrow, Alaska, according to Vice Adm. Peter Neffenger, deputy commandant for operations.
While the Coast Guard eventually will look to add permanent infrastructure on land, Papp is not ready to start investing there. That means Coast Guardsmen will have to make do next year with operating from national security cutters and living in outdated barracks.
Fitness test review
The service is getting closer to having a physical fitness test. Exercise recommendations from a charter group are due in mid-January to Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Michael Leavitt.
The group making recommendations includes a Coast Guard physical therapist and physician with a specialty in sports medicine, as well as representatives from the Health, Safety and Work-Life directorate; Training Center Cape May, N.J.; and the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., according to Master Chief Bobbie Sisto, executive assistant to Leavitt.
After recommendations are submitted, the exercises will be tested at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington and at the Cape May training center.
Leavitt could not provide a timeline of when the PT test will hit the fleet, but he said it's one of his top priorities in his remaining two years as the service's enlisted leader.
Leadership program expansion
In 2012, the service introduced a new leadership program for E-4s and below who didn't attend "A" school and are striking into a rating.
The Apprentice Leadership Program will expand this year to include two more classes, with the goal of training the instructors in the fall.
One class will begin Jan. 22 in Astoria, Ore.; one will begin in February in Port Angeles, Wash., said District 13 Command Master Chief Jason Vanderhaden, who helped design the program.
In the fall, the Coast Guard will begin training two or three chiefs from each district, who will then lead courses. It's up to each district to set course dates.
Papp said another one of his top priorities for 2013 is to reinforce that the identity of a Coast Guardsman is distinctly different from a sailor.
"We don't want to be another Navy, and that's part of our character as well," Papp said at a Navy League breakfast Dec. 6 in Arlington.
Papp also wants his troops to be called "Coast Guardsmen" instead of other past nicknames such as Hooligans, Guardians, Lifesavers and Coasties.
It's unclear what specific ideas Papp may have to correct the identity problem, or drop the numerous nicknames. It's guaranteed to remain a talking point of his, however.
"We are proud to be Coast Guardsmen, and that's a particular culture," he said. "It's something that I'm trying to emphasize. It seems like we've really struggled for identity over the years back and forth. What I believe is that all the missions we do make us Coast Guardsmen."