Rear Admiral Lee: The Sound Side of Things
09/27/2011 – The Second Line of Defense team sat down with Rear Admiral Lee to discuss his district, which runs from New Jersey through North Carolina. We met with him shortly before Hurricane Irene hammered the East Coast and many of the areas affected were in his district.
Rear Admiral Lee was very visible on the media during this storm and for those of us affected badly by this storm, his leadership was deeply appreciated. While media were seen standing on the wrong side of where the storm did damage, Rear Admiral Lee and his team understood the sound-side flooding impacts of such a storm.
Rear Admiral Lee became Commander of the 5th District earlier this year. Rear Admiral Lee’s prior operational assignments include: Commander, Deployable Operations Group (2009-2010); Commander, Sector North Carolina (2005-2007); Commander, Coast Guard Group Fort Macon (2000-2003); Commander, Group Monterey, California (1995-1997); Commanding Officer, Station Atlantic City, New Jersey (1988-1991); and Assistant Operations Officer at Group St. Petersburg, Florida (1981-1984).
His most noteworthy and personally satisfying staff assignment was as the Chief, Office of Boat Forces at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, DC from 2003 to 2005. His responsibilities included program management and oversight of the Coast Guard’s 1,800 boats, including the development of operational doctrine, training requirements, and safety parameters related thereto. His duties also included oversight of the National Motor Lifeboat School, the only training facility in the nation specifically dedicated to Heavy Weather boat operations and Surf Training.
SLD: Could you give us a sense of the area covered by the District and some of the challenges faced in the district?
Rear Admiral Lee: My AOR (Area Of Responsibility) is from New Jersey down through and including North Carolina. I have the mid-Atlantic region of the East Coast including 1.5 million square miles of the Atlantic Ocean. Unlike some other Districts which you have already visited, I don’t contend with the significant alien migration and drug trafficking issues common to my counterparts on the southeastern and southwestern borders.
That said, I do however have a unique mission up in the National Capital Region; a mission which none of the others have – Rotary Wing Air Intercept. In this capacity, I play a supporting role to the Northern Command (Northcom) by providing our MH-65D helos to intercept low and slow airborne intruders in the restricted air space around Washington DC. In short, we are part of the layered defense in the region, and we are extremely proud to be part of the interagency team that makes this all happen.
SLD: Could you talk about the challenges off of North Carolina?
Rear Admiral Lee: It is called the “graveyard of the Atlantic” and for good reason. The outer banks of North Carolina are notoriously treacherous given the shoals extending miles into the sea off Cape Hatteras, Cape Lookout, and Cape Fear. There are few places to seek refuge for deep draft vessels when things go bad – particularly in the area between Cape Lookout and Cape Hatteras; leading to a considerable number of high-end search and rescue cases. Some of these cases push our people and our assets to the limits.
Upgrades in rescue equipment and sensors have improved our Search and Rescue efforts in the AOR. Our helicopters are more powerful and have better sensors (MH-65D). Our radio towers have better coverage, overlap, redundancy and can “hear” further off the coast (R-21). Our rescue boats are bigger and more capable (47’s & RBMs). The Fishing Vessel SHEILA RENEA case on January 2nd, 2010 is an example of our sensors, equipment and personnel working together near Oregon Inlet to save the lives of 3 fishermen last winter.
(For a discussion of the impact of new assets on USCG operations in the East Coast see
SLD: To do the missions in your District what new capabilities would you like to have available?
Rear Admiral Lee: There are many needs; too many to address off the cuff. The first that comes to mind involves the mission in the National Capital Region. I need to provide my pilots in the NCR with the technology used by fighter jets to intercept aircraft who have intruded into the restricted air space. The current method of vectoring them in by radio is archaic, outdated, and I submit – dangerous.
As for surface vessels, we are currently looking ahead at the next generation of response boats to replace the aging fleet of 25 footers currently running nationwide.
SLD: What about the fisheries challenges in the District?
Rear Admiral Lee: We are an integral part of the East Coast fishing consortium; we work closely with NOAA, NMFS, and the commercial fleet to ensure, as best we can, that the regulations are appropriately enforced, while not crossing the line into what some would call “excessive enforcement”. We are always mindful of the fact that the men and women engaged in this dangerous trade are working hard to make a living in an industry that has taken some hard hits over the years – fuel prices and dwindling stocks notwithstanding.
However, without Coast Guard enforcement efforts, certain species would likely be over-fished to the point that the entire industry could collapse, and the American public would no longer enjoy access to plentiful seafood. It’s a delicate balance.
SLD: Could you talk about your role in tending the waterways?
Rear Admiral Lee: We mark the nation’s waterways much like the highway department marks our highways. This is what keeps commerce flowing in and out of our major ports. Without access to the ports, the economic engine of our country would soon come to a grinding halt. We exist, by and large, on trade and more goods are carried by ship than any other mode of transportation. We accomplish this mission with an aging fleet of buoy tenders, constructions tenders, and small boats. It is an un-sexy, under-recognized, and under-promoted mission that we do everyday — day in and day out. I simply can’t overemphasize the impact that this critical mission has on the nation’s commerce.
(For an earlier posting of the economic impact of these USCG activities see
SLD: And this is a constant activity, one requiring monitoring and re-setting the buoys when, for example, storms come through?
Rear Admiral Lee: Yes, it is definitely not a “one-of” activity. When we have a hurricane come through, it does two things. It can blow your aids to navigation away, or change the channels so those aids that remain no longer are accurate.
We can’t allow ships to start coming into port and off-loading their cargo until we have verified that there is in fact a shipping lane for them to safely transit through.
As you know, Wal-Mart and most of America has now shifted to a new business model which relies on “just-in-time” delivery. For every day we hold a ship offshore at anchorage waiting for the waterway to open; it costs the shipper tens of thousands of dollars. It quickly adds up as more and more ships arrive off the coast waiting for the channel to open. As the line backs up, people ashore quickly start to feel the effects.
For example, you have the local contractor waiting for the Italian tile that he needs to finish the house down the street. No tile, no work for his crew. You can replicate this example across the spectrum of commodities. You see? The impact can be global when the supply chain is interrupted. That’s how critical our ports are; and that’s why the aids to navigation mission is so critical to the nation.
SLD: Could you discuss some of your environmental enforcement activities?
Rear Admiral Lee: Part of our job is protecting people from the ocean, and the ocean from the people. To that end, we do a lot of things, some of which are little known and seldom publicized. An example is the prosecution of “magic pipes.” I hate magic pipes. A magic pipe is an implement devised by certain unscrupulous operators that is used for the specific purpose of bypassing machinery designed to separate oil and other waste in the bilges from what they pump into the ocean.
By using a magic pipe, the operator is seeking to by-pass a functioning oily-water separator (to save time and money). The magic pipe shoots the oily waste directly overboard into the ocean. We catch a number of folks doing this each year. Last year we had 4 or 5 successful prosecutions. And the fines can be in the millions. Nothing to sneeze at.
SLD: It sounds like you enjoy your job a lot.
Rear Admiral Lee: I absolutely do, we are doing vital missions very well with great people; it’s a joy coming to work every day. Being on duty around the clock would be a chore in some jobs, but not this one. This is pure privilege.