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In May 2003, Steve Dunham interviewed Coast Guard Commandant Thomas Collins for the Journal of Homeland ecurity. Copyright 2003 Analytic Services. Reproduced with permission.

Admiral Thomas CollinsAdmiral Collins became Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard in May 2002. He served as Vice Commandant from 2000 to 2002, when he created the Innovation Council, spearheaded service-wide process improvement initiatives, and directed system enhancements as the Coast Guard Acquisition Executive. He graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in 1968 and later served as a faculty member within the Humanities Department. He earned a master of arts degree in liberal studies from Wesleyan University and a master of business administration degree from the University of New Haven. He received the Coast Guard Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit (three awards), the Meritorious Service Medal (two awards), and the Coast Guard Commendation Medal (three awards). A native of Stoughton, MA, Admiral Collins is married to the former Nancy Monahan of New London, CT. They have two daughters, Christine and Kathryn.

Journal of Homeland Security: What difference has the transfer to the Department of Homeland Security made in the Coast Guard?

Adm. Collins: I don’t think any real wholesale changes in terms of our mission set; our mission portfolio is pretty consistent. It will remain, I think, fairly consistent. What the difference has been, I think, is a lot of work, a lot of effort by everyone in the new department on trying to frame the new department, establish the business rules of the new department, understand the—“division of labor,” I guess, is the right phrase to use—between the component parts. It’s just the fundamental organizational blocking and tackling that has to be done in any new organization, so, we’re in the middle of that. We have a number of detailees up into the department that are helping out, filling empty seats while the new department hires into new parts of the organization.

I guess the impact is the considerable amount of energy devoted to the evolution, formation, and formulation of the department. So in terms of our mission, our mission portfolio is pretty set, we are working hand in hand with the board on transportation security, the under secretary in particular, coordinating various functional areas. To give you an example: [with] the Transportation Security Administration, we’re working through documents ultimately leading to a memorandum of understanding that will clearly delineate our respective roles in transportation security and how we work together to avoid duplication and ensure effectiveness and all those kinds of things.

Journal of Homeland Security: Admiral Loy [Collins’s predecessor as Commandant] had mentioned that you would have a job to do in making sure that all the Coast Guard’s stakeholders—all the missions that the Coast Guard had before entering the Department of Homeland Security—are not neglected under the new department. Is there recognition within the Department of Homeland Security that the Coast Guard has a lot of established missions that the Coast Guard can do best, maybe only the Coast Guard can do, that have to be preserved?

Adm. Collins: The law requires the secretary to attend to those. If you read the homeland security bill that was signed last November, it delineates homeland security and homeland security missions, defines them in the law, which categories the respective missions fit into. It requires the secretary to attend to the full range of our missions and not substantially reduce any of them and also requires the department [inspector general] to make an annual assessment of our abilities to do the full range of our missions and [as to] the terms and conditions of the act being adhered to. In the law, that issue is framed very specifically.

In practice, [we’re getting] great support across the board by the secretary. If you read in some of the hearing statements where he talks about the Coast Guard, he’s always very careful to say that our full range of missions have to be supported. By word, and to me personally, both he and the deputy secretary understand the importance of our full range of missions.

Clearly, by law, by word, and, I think, by deed, the fact of the matter is that we have received fairly strong budget support by the new department, and one of the major policy themes in our ’04 budget is to clearly build out our homeland security capabilities, but also to modernize our capital plant, and third to have the ability to sustain our readiness posture across our full range of missions. Those goals and objectives have been supported by the department as reflected in our ’04 budget now up on the Hill. By law, by word, and by deed, I think there’s a positive answer to that one.

Journal of Homeland Security: Do you see any changes coming in the next few years as a result of the transfer from Transportation to Homeland Security?

Adm. Collins: I think the changes are a function not only of the move, but a function of the whole post–9/11 environment. I mean, that’s really what’s driving everything—the post–9/11 environment is forcing a sort of a rebalancing, adjustments across our missions: which ones get center stage, which doesn’t. Both things, obviously, in the history of our organization, they change over time. It’s a dynamic process. Depending where you are in time, and what the risks and the threats are, one mission may in fact be on the front burner, and one might be on the back burner. After Exxon Valdez happened [in 1989], in the early ’90s, with the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, that certainly was a major mission shift in emphasis in resources and rulemaking and so forth occurring.

I think it’s the whole post–9/11 [environment], and it means that homeland security becomes center stage, along with search-and-rescue, becomes the preeminent mission. Although we’re not neglecting any, you have to attend to those, and why? Because it means protection of lives. And any of the missions associated with the protection of lives are going to be on the front burner. So that’s the emphasis, and it’s reflected in our budget. If you look at the ’04 budget, you’ll see that the increase in the budget is going to search-and-rescue and it’s going to homeland security. I see that over the next several years: our continuing to build out those capabilities and partner with other organizations within Homeland Security, refine those relationships, improve those relationships, and that’s the whole reason behind the Department of Homeland Security, of course, is to have that unity of effort, a collaborative approach to security, and I think the department has the framework to give it that. Reshaping those relationships in the interest of the nation is one of the things that’s going to occupy our time, as they should.

The other thing: when people think about this department, they think in terms of counterterrorism, which clearly is the main focus, but there’s other homeland security issues that are going to benefit from, I think, the new department. The counterdrug effort clearly is a homeland security issue. There’s nothing more central to the security of our nation, I think, than stopping the flow of drugs into our country. Illegal migration is also a homeland security mission, as it could be connected to counterterrorism, depending on who’s coming in. All those missions, I think, will be beneficiaries of the department.

Journal of Homeland Security: You mentioned search-and-rescue. The Coast Guard has been modernizing the response system, correct? Could you address that a little bit?

Adm. Collins: Sure. You’re probably referring to Rescue 21. Before I address that, I might say that we’ve been making investments in the search-and-rescue part of our business over the last two or three years beyond Rescue 21. It includes Rescue 21, but we’ve been investing in boats, enhanced training, better personnel protective equipment, for cold-weather operations and other types of things, in harsh environments. We’ve increased the search-and-rescue part of our organization by over a thousand people in the last two or three years. So we’ve been making investments across the board recognizing that it is, again, one of, I think, our premier programs; certainly when most people think of the Coast Guard, I think they think in images of lifesavers, which is a great image, and I say it’s the right image, and I think we do it very, very well. But we want to continue to invest in it, a whole host of investments, including Rescue 21.

Rescue 21 is a distress and calling system, and it replaces an old, tired one, an old, tired analog system that we have. So it’s basically an emergency communications system. A boater in distress can call in to this communications system if he’s got a problem and so forth. The older system had basically a series of towers around the coast and you have communications coverage through these towers and the medium is VHF FM—that’s the communications band. A boater with a VHF radio can call in on channel 16 (which is the distress channel) and there are other channels that can be monitored. This existing system is an old, tired system with geographic gaps in coverage, an analog system with a marginal recording capability. No direction-finding capability. So the new system is digital. It will eliminate the vast preponderance of the gaps. It can monitor several channels—up to six—simultaneously. It has direction-finding capabilities. When that distressed boater calls in, you can triangulate on the signal and position him, which is a huge advantage, taking the search out of search-and-rescue. You’re in the rescue business, and you don’t have to be engaged in the search part. And of course in these emergency situations, time is of the essence, and sometimes time means life saved. So it’s a tremendous, tremendous enhancement for the nation. Right now, I think, it’s a $617 million project to be finished by fiscal year ’06. We’re building it out as we speak. We’ll build it out in chunks around the country in a phased way.

It’s also our command and control system for our coastal assets. So it’s how we communicate with our boats, aircraft, and so forth in the coastal environment. It’s a system that supports coastal areas out to 50 miles—where most of the action happens from the search-and-rescue standpoint. So it’s also a command-and-control node for us as well, a great enhancement for us. And obviously it allows you to have more information, more transparency in the marine environment, and what’s going on there. It also has security implications, because it’s also a tool that can be used in that mode as well.

Journal of Homeland Security: I was going to ask how it harmonizes with the common operational picture being developed under Deepwater [a major acquisition project].

Adm. Collins: I think it’s a part of—how would I describe it?—brethren systems. We have a concept called maritime domain awareness [MDA], which is the idea of having architecture of [command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] systems that allows you to have—the goal is total transparency of the maritime environment. You know who’s there, you know where they are, and you know what they’re doing. It’s all about, from a security perspective, a layered defense, pushing the borders out. It’s all part of that. It’s part of our maritime homeland security strategy. It is a primary component of our strategy: to build out the concept of maritime domain awareness, and there are several systems that allow us to get that—systems and subsystems. A vessel traffic system in a way is an MDA subsystem. Rescue 21 I view as an MDA subsystem. Deepwater is a an MDA subsystem. Deepwater, they think, is ships, planes, and helicopters, and they should—that’s what we’re buying—but what we’re really buying in Deepwater is MDA. We’re buying a network-centric system. It’s tied together with real-time data from the UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] to the surface platform to the fixed-wing [aircraft] to the shore base and it’s all going to be part of that system, and that real-time data access can flow. So Rescue 21 is going to be interoperable, you’re going to be able to move information into the command quarter. We’re going to have operating centers that are going to take the communications signals and positioning signals from Rescue 21, just like we’ll be taking a picture from Deepwater and all those things that have to be blended together. It’s a terrific capability.

I’ve said that the magic for us (getting back to that previous question)—the issue de jour, every hearing I’ve been to—is “Oh, my God, Coast Guard, how are you going to do all your full range of missions?” The activity level in the fisheries enforcement is going down—measured in boat-hours and ship-hours and plane-hours—and my answer then is, I said there’s three magic words: capacity, capability, and partnerships. If you’re going to bake this cake for success, those are the three magic ingredients. Capacity meaning you have enough ships, you have enough people, and you have enough boats to tend to the full range of missions. You build the right capability into the asset base you have—i.e., Deepwater, Rescue 21, and so forth. And, third, you partner like hell with your stakeholders. You were talking about stakeholders earlier. The stakeholders in the maritime arena—with the United States Navy, the Department of Defense, and with other countries. So you leverage everyone’s capabilities, and this is a huge mission, and it requires strong strategic partnerships.

Those are the three things, and we’re working very, very hard at all three of those. And I think we’ve been tremendously successful on the partnership end on a couple of fronts, particularly with the international security code and with our counterdrug efforts down in the Caribbean working internationally and with the Navy to put assets there and to continue even though our own ship-days over the last couple of years or 18 months have gone down a bit because they’ve been allocated somewhere else. We’re able to keep the same level of performance because of the partnerships.

Journal of Homeland Security: Could you discuss the [Coast Guard’s] relationship with the Navy? I think that in the past few years—has there been more contribution by the Navy? I think there was a loan of Cyclone patrol boats, for example?

Adm. Collins: Immediately after 9/11, within a matter of a week, the [Chief of Naval Operations], the [Vice Chief of Naval Operations], myself, Admiral Loy (I was the Vice Commandant at the time), and the Secretary of Defense met just to match point on where we are and how we could continue to evolve our partnership in the face of heightened terrorist risks to the home front, and I think that time was one of those transition points, because up to that point, most Coast Guard assets moved to the Navy to support Department of Defense operations in tightly defined scenarios, agreed-upon scenarios—little niche areas, if you will: marine intercept operations, port security operations, etc. By agreement, we would augment the Navy, and we were written into various national war plans and contingency plans for overseas operations. We’d been working, supporting that kind of relationship for decades and decades. In the Arabian Gulf, we’d been over there for 10 years or so, in and out with ships and boarding teams and port security teams and the like. What changed in the aftermath of 9/11 was a one-way street became (not saying that in a pejorative way at all, just describing it—it was a flow of assets, based upon an agreement) a two-way street, where Navy assets would flow to us as the lead agency for maritime homeland security, in clear recognition that in maritime homeland security, the Coast Guard has the lead, but there were many cases where we didn’t have a particular capability or we didn’t have sufficient force structure to deal with an issue, so that [the] Navy support should flow our way. They were very willing, the [Chief of Naval Operations and the Secretary of Defense] pledging their support. So it’s a terrific partnership. With that we got PC-170 [Cyclone patrol boat] support, we got humint [human intelligence] teams support, port [explosive ordnance disposal] teams and other support that have come our way under certain scenarios, and in turn we supported operations overseas. Now some were questioning, “Why, Coast Guard, are you sending eight patrol boats, two high-endurance cutters, a buoy tender, four port security teams, and several members of our strike team over to the Arabian Gulf and the Med?” The question was “Coast Guard, why are you sending those over when there’s a two-front war?” That’s a concern—you know, we had Orange/Liberty Shield going on in the United States.

My answer was “Number one, it’s not a huge amount of our force structure, it’s a little under 3%. Second, it is those skill sets that we’re bringing to the table that we do very, very well,” and it’s recognized by the commanders over there. We didn’t go knocking on their door, saying, “Please send me over there.” They came to the Joint Staff and said, “Here’s my war plan, we need these kind of competencies, folks to help execute it, and we’d like the Coast Guard in these particular areas.” That’s how that evolved, and it’s based upon the work we’ve been doing over there for over a decade.

So my answer is, I think it’s the right thing to do, we’ve got the right capability, and—oh, by the way—it’s a pretty nice trade: I mean, we’ve got eight patrol boats over there, we’ve got eleven of the Cyclone class (PC-170s) the Navy has tactically shifted to our operations, so it allows some offset, balancing, and—oh, by the way—the PC-170s have the best fit for the mission here, the 110-foot patrol boats are the best fit for the mission there. The PC-170s have better seakeeping capabilities, a better command and control suite, so they’re better for offshore boarding, delivering boarding teams, doing offshore work than the 110-foot patrol boats. We said, “Here’s the mission, here’s the operational envelope, here’s the best fit given the capabilities and experiences of the team. It’s a terrific team, and it’s terrific teamwork that’s going on. We’re just going to keep maturing that. I think it’s the right thing to do.”

We have a document we call a National Fleet Policy, and it’s signed by myself and Vern Clark [the Chief of Naval Operations], and it just pledges that we will acquire, maintain, and deploy our assets synergistically. So we’ve defined how we fit together and how we’ll go forward together, and it’s a general concept, philosophy type of statement. I think it captures the essence of it. It’s a real good stewardship thing. It’s saying, “Hey, American public, there is such a concept as a National Fleet.” There’s a bonus to it: We’re going to avoid duplication and overlap and all kinds of things, so we’re going to develop it so it makes sense. It’s a terrific thing, and not too many countries have that kind of cooperation between the maritime services.

Journal of Homeland Security: In terms of the operational picture being generated by the new search-and-rescue system (Rescue 21) and the other information gathered by the Coast Guard: how does that fit into the Homeland Security Department’s intelligence gathering?

Adm. Collins: This new department is not—although there’s some collection—they are not the main collectors of intel. The FBI and the CIA remain the preeminent collectors, although there is some collection capability and responsibility within the department. We are a collector, we are a member of the Foreign Intelligence Community, we have to be so, established by a law Congress passed that fall right after 9/11 and we are now a member of the Foreign Intelligence Community and we have a seat at that table. Our ships are at various places where other ships of our country are not, and so we have some collection capabilities and responsibilities. But mostly the department will be into assessing, gathering, analyzing intel and information and making it actionable. That’s the [responsibility of the] new Under Secretary [for] IAIP—Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection, a brand-new entity—and the Under Secretary will run it, and that’s where that information is fused, if you will. So we become a maritime input to IAIP, and other elements of the department will also provide input. They’re also overseeing vulnerability assessments, security assessments, and part of our job is to do assessments across all our ports. We will direct that, orchestrate that, and provide all that information to IAIP. And then there’s TTIC—the Terrorist Threat Integration Center—and that’s a new entity made up of FBI and CIA with the CIA in the lead, that was established by the President, and the department will plug into that, so in fact there will be a homeland security staff element right in TTIC for liaison purposes back into this IAIP. And the Coast Guard, we have folks on staff with this new Under Secretary in the new department well as in TTIC. Hopefully there will be good information flow and cross-fertilization. This is clearly one real stock in trade of the new department. This is about information. This is probably the most prime commodity in the new department, information—how to acquire it, how to analyze it, how to distribute it, because you’ve got to distribute it back to the private sector, and to state and local, and so forth. That’s a huge stock in trade of the new department, and this new element of the department—we moved 22 agencies or so over into the new department, but some organizational elements of the new department are brand-new entities, and this is one of them. The Under Secretary for Science and Technology is a second one—a brand-new entity. And those have to be grown from the ground floor up. We’ve only been in the department since 1 March, so they’re still filling seats and doing all those kind of things there. That’s just a high-level view of how that fits together.

Journal of Homeland Security: A couple of years ago, maybe even more recently than that, the Coast Guard was looking at closing air stations, retiring cutters, a lot of budget cutting. With the new acquisition program, Deepwater, have those cuts been rescinded until the assets can be replaced by Deepwater?

Adm. Collins: As late as the ’02 budget, which was passed, worked on, just before 9/11 happened, in the same timeframe, that summer when Congress was acting on that ’02 budget, that budget did in fact have ships laid up and aircraft put in the desert [for preservation from rust], and that kind of thing. Then, what happened is, later, after 9/11, in the aftermath, there was a supplemental passed, the ’02 supplemental budget; the ’02 budget gave us some relief, so we filled in some of the budget holes that we had with the ’02 supplemental. And then the ’03 budget represented a significant increase for us—over 20% in our operating expense budget—and then the ’04 budget another 10%.

So between the ’02 supplemental, the ’03 and the ’04 budgets, and the ’03 supplemental, by the way (which is helping to fund our involvement in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Liberty Shield), between all that, we will grow by 30%. By the end of ’04, if the budget gets passed as requested—still an if at this point, because Congress has not acted on it—if it gets passed as requested, we will have grown 30% in our operating expense budget, and we will have grown by 4100 people on a base of 36,000 personnel. So it’s starting to build out capability and capacity, two of the three key ingredients for us maintaining operational excellence across all our missions, and that budget is going to help us move along the capabilities and capacities. In this ’04 budget, for example, there’s $500 million for Deepwater, to keep building that out, and it has $134 million for Rescue 21. So we’ve got some money for both those efforts to keep moving forward.

Journal of Homeland Security: What will the Coast Guard be doing to work as partners with the private sector?

Adm. Collins: Clearly, that partnership piece is terribly important. We have done a couple of things. One, we have worked internationally to develop an international security code for ports and vessels. And we’ve worked hard to ensure that the domestic counterpart, domestic legislation, was framed in the same frame of reference as the international code, so we were successful in last November with the President signing the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002—a substantial piece of legislation. The reason I bring these new protocols up is because they will in many ways help define and shape the relationship that we have with the private sector and the private sector’s role in port security. We have a regulatory effort under way right now in creating the associated regulations to set this act in motion. What it does, it says that the private sector has a heavy role in the security of the nation. The federal dollar is not going to underwrite every single security need in the maritime environment. It’s a shared responsibility—feds, states, local, and private sector all have to step up to the table in the form of security plans, port assessments, and resourcing those plans, and exercising those plans. For instance, every designated waterfront facility in our ports and waterways is required to have a security plan. Every vessel coming in over a certain tonnage will have to have a security plan and a security officer assigned. Every port will have an overarching port security plan and that will be the responsibility of the Coast Guard captain of the port to develop that in conjunction with the private sector. (There are over 45 captains of the ports—47, I think.) Every one will have a port security committee. There will be public and private entities on that committee, and that will be a coordinating mechanism and a clearing mechanism for these plans.

What it is, is developing partnerships, we’re leveraging everyone’s capability, and in the 55 major ports of the country (“major” meaning volume, density, level of activity, etc.), there will be a formal port security assessment done. This is a contracted effort in partnership with Northrop Grumman to produce an overall security assessment of each of the individual 55 ports. And that will be used as a source document for the port security committees and the development of plans and [deciding] what do you invest in first, second, and third in terms of mitigating risk and addressing vulnerabilities in the port. It’s a structured, methodical, system approach to securing our ports and waterways that brings all players together—the private and the public sectors. I think it’s a terrific model. It goes into the rules and regulations. Interim regulations will be out in July. Final rules will be out in November. It will be implemented July 2004.

Journal of Homeland Security: Are those the rules that were being proposed in public hearings around the country recently?

Adm. Collins: Yes. We had seven public hearings around the country. There was significant interest, a lot of input, a very ambitious timeline for this thing. We’re working things in parallel, not in series. We’re briefing everyone around town and back, trying to ensure that everyone gets their oar in the water and we get a good product out the other end. A lot of interest in it. I think it’s a fairly significant effort. Every plan has to be reviewed and approved prior to 2004—developed, reviewed, and approved.

Journal of Homeland Security: Is there something you’d like to emphasize in closing?

Adm. Collins: This is a tremendous time for our service, for us to add value. We have capability and experience. We can add value in a lot of parts of this homeland security business as well as our other missions. My major emphasis is to ensure the operational excellence of the Coast Guard. We’re going to do that in every mission area; hopefully with the help of Congress and the Administration we will be given the resources we need to do that. To date, there’s been just tremendous support. The 30% growth in our budget, through the ’04 budget, that’s just an unprecedented growth increment for us. That’s a tremendously good signal, and my expectation is that the support will continue. We’ll continue to build out our capabilities and ensure the operational excellence that the American public expects from the Coast Guard. We’re going to provide that.