The ScanEagle unmanned surveillance aircraft is set for its third demonstration flight early this year. (Coast Guard)
Students at boatswain's mate 'A' school in Yorktown, Va., are held to fitness standards, but the service as a whole does not have a fitness test — yet. (PA2 Dan Bender/Coast Guard)
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Change is on the horizon for the Coast Guard in 2014, starting at the very top.
A new commandant will take the helm, assisted by a new master chief petty officer of the Coast Guard. They’ll run a service that’ll take delivery of a new national security cutter, continue to expand its aviation options — and possibly institute a first-ever servicewide fitness test.
Here are a few things you can expect to see in the new year:
Coast Guard commandant Adm. Bob Papp is set to retire in May after four years as commandant and 39 in the service.
The service’s top enlisted man, MCPOCG Mike Leavitt, is also moving on, leaving the Coast Guard in search of new leadership.
“Any admiral can send his/her package to the [Homeland Security secretary] for consideration,” Coast Guard spokesman Jordan St. John said of the commandant search. “The secretary usually sends a short list, two or three names, to the president for selection and appointment.”
As for MCPOCG, Leavitt’s successor will be chosen by the new commandant from a pool of applicants. Master chiefs interested in the job should consult servicewide message ALCOAST 460/13, which outlines application guidelines.
The front-runners are yet to be compiled for either post, a Coast Guard spokesperson said.
The Coast Guard is getting a big present from the Air Force this year, in the form of 14 C-27J Spartan planes for use as maritime patrol aircraft.
The number is enough to fully outfit three air stations, Papp said in an October television interview for “This Week in Defense News with Vago Muradian.”
The Spartans have a reduced operating cost compared with the service’s current C-130H Hercules aircraft and will save $500 million in acquisition costs, St. John, the Coast Guard spokesman, told Navy Times.
“The Coast Guard plans to establish an Asset Project Office to initially operate the aircraft,” he added. “The office will determine how the Coast Guard can best field and missionize the aircraft to support Department of Homeland Security and Coast Guard missions.”
Work to convert the aircraft for Coast Guard use will begin this year; the planes could be in operation as early as 2016.
Also this coming year, the cutter fleet will do its third demonstration with the ScanEagle unmanned aerial system for help in drug interdiction.
While tests continue, the aircraft, which measures 5 feet by 5½ feet and can hit speeds up to 80 knots, has already seen action: The national security cutter Bertholf interdicted more than a half-ton of cocaine off the coast of Central America in May with help from ScanEagle, which can track fast-moving boats and send video back to NSCs.
New cutter coming
The fourth national security cutter, christened Hamilton in October, is on its way to the fleet in 2014.
Meanwhile, construction continues on the fifth and sixth NSCs, Joshua James and Douglas Munro, at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Mississippi, and a deal for long-lead materials on the seventh was signed with the shipbuilder in June.
The service has planned for eight national security cutters in all, Papp said, but the next commandant will have to make the case for them as Congress works on its 2015 budget.
“They have consistently put long lead money in addition to the construction money for these ships, sending a signal that they want all eight built,” he said in the October TV interview. “But we’re still in an annual process, and I have to go back and fight that battle each year.”
National security cutters are bigger, more technologically advanced and more versatile than the high edurance cutters that preceded them.
They’re designed to take on all of their predecessor’s maritime security roles, with additional capabilities for response to national emergencies, like underwater sonar that can scan ports for explosive devices.
Polar icebreakers are also one of Papp’s priorities. Polar Star, the service’s only operational heavy icebreaker, completed refurbishments this year and set sail for an Antarctica cruise in early December.
However, the update will only give it seven to 10 more years, according to the Coast Guard’s acquisition directorate. Preliminary plans are in place to build another heavy icebreaker to put into active duty, which Papp has said could cost up to $1 billion.
Fitness test's future
About 200 Coast Guardsmen were selected in August to participate in the Coast Guard’s pilot of its first mandatory physical fitness test.
The trial is divided into two phases: The first mirrors the boat forces fitness test, with a 1.5-mile run, pushups and situps. The second is a new six-element test that includes pullups, standing long jump, inverted row, a “T-Drill” test, side bridge and 300-yard shuttle. (Get details on the exercises at navytimes.com/coast-guard-pt.)
The pilot runs into February; Coast Guard officials said earlier this year that if the trials go well, the test could go servicewide as early as May.
The test will be a first for Coasties, who report twice a year to have their height and weight measured, but don’t take a mandatory PT test like the other branches of the military. They also do not have a mandatory servicewide conditioning program, which could change if a fitness test is instituted.
Back in 2012, when plans for the test started coming together, Leavitt said that while Coast Guardsmen are generally fit, there will always be some who need the extra motivation to stay in shape.
“We need to perform at the top of our game,” Leavitt said. “It’s a matter of life and death, and a matter of inches in some cases.”
And, he added, he hopes a test will cut down on the number of Coast Guard members on probation for busting tape.
“We want to create a healthier workforce,” he said. “There is life after the Coast Guard, and this will create healthy habits for retirement, too.”
Expanded Arctic mission
As the Defense Department puts together a plan for managing the increasingly open waters in the Arctic, the Coast Guard is preparing to take its maritime security role to the next level.
In 2014, the service is teaming up with the Washington Homeland Security Roundtable to engage private industry on solutions and strategies for maritime cyber capabilities, the Western Hemisphere and the Arctic.
“I started my career up there, and I know what the ice looked like in July of 1976, and I know what it looks like now,” Papp said in the October TV interview. “And there is significantly less. There is much more open water, and there’s a whole heck of a lot more activity going on up there right now.”
While the Navy is looking at ways to manage the increased activity, Papp said that his service is the natural fit to take the lead.
“There is one service in the United States that’s responsible, that has the capabilities and experience, to operate up in those waters and that’s the United States Coast Guard,” he said.
For now the, the service can rely on a national security cutter to patrol the waters during the most navigable times of the year. The ship has four small, launchable boats, two helicopters, buoying teams and an emergency response vehicle, Papp said.
“In effect, it becomes a mobile, adaptable Coast Guard sector,” he said. “Normally, we have Coast guard sectors on land, but this is one what we can move up there in the summer and position to take care of all Coast Guard responsibilities.”