The Atlantic Area USCG Commander Looks at the World
10/13/2011 – In August 2011, Second Line of Defense sat down with Vice Admiral Parker in his office Portsmouth, VA to discuss the challenges facing the USCG in the Atlantic Area.
Vice Admiral Robert C. Parker assumed the duties as Commander, Coast Guard Atlantic Area (LANTAREA) in April 2010, where he serves as the operational commander for all U.S. Coast Guard missions within a geographic region that ranges from the Rocky Mountains to the Arabian Gulf and spans across five Coast Guard Districts and 40 states. He concurrently serves as Commander, Defense Force East and provides Coast Guard mission support to the Department of Defense (DOD) and Combatant Commanders.
Before assuming command of LANTAREA, he served as the U.S. Southern Command’s Director of Security and Intelligence in Miami, Florida. As the first Coast Guard officer to serve as a Director in any DOD command, he directed U.S. military operations and intelligence efforts, and coordinated interagency operations in the Caribbean, and Central and South America.
SLD: The USCG divides the world into the Pacific command and the Atlantic command. We have recently spoken to your counterpart, Vice Admiral Manson Brown and now we are talking with you. Generally, folks don’t realize that the Coast Guard is not a glorified harbor patrol, and actually operates worldwide.
Vice Admiral Parker: A lot of people including some folks in our own government think Coast Guard and the word “coast” really jumps out at them. So they expect us all to be right here standing on the beach or within sight of land. And a lot of people are surprised, including some of us when we came into the service, to find out just how worldwide the organization is and what all of our maritime operations are in the real world.
If you look at the issue in terms of protecting the marine transportation system, the flow of commerce, the big pieces we do inside our ports and in our inland waterways and along the coastal routes, that’s a big deal. And that’s a lot of daily activity that sort of goes under the radar of 99 percent of the American public but it’s 95 percent of the stuff that we do.
SLD: How do you and Vice Admiral Manson Brown divide the world so to speak?
Vice Admiral Parker: What Manson doesn’t have I do. While some would choose a river as a boundary, that is a transportation system for us, so we split at the Rocky Mountains and watch over the waters on either side of Central and South America, and then I go around and we meet on the other side of Africa and the Northern Arabian Gulf. And the way it’s split up in DOD’s Unified Command Plan, I work with five of the six geographic combatant commanders in terms of their areas of responsibility.
So I have closer involvement with our overseas operations and then port and waterway operations are done by our districts and sectors. We oversee their roles and look at trends and risk analysis and balancing missions and resources there.
We spend a lot more time on migration, drug trafficking and counter piracy operations in Atlantic Area. Right now we have ships off of the coast of Africa and in the Northern Arabian Gulf. I’ve got six patrol boats and seven crews and a port security unit helping out my US Navy brethren and the Fifth Fleet over there.
I spoke with two of the fleet commanders yesterday, one here in Norfolk and the other one over in Naples who is AFRICOM’s naval component and the Sixth Fleet commander. So I deal with these guys pretty regularly. It involves a fair amount of my time to work with that one partner (DoD). Because they’re in places that we care about and most of our missions are global, their partnership is very important.
We have cryptologists who are over in Afghanistan and some other interesting places as well, supporting another mission. And then we have liaison officers all over the world. But at any given time we’re in about 42 different countries with either training operations or liaisons in this part of the world.
SLD: What would you say to our readers who ask, “Why is our Coast Guard doing things all over the world”?
Vice Admiral Parker: In a nutshell, I would say we protect people from the oceans and the oceans from people and this worldwide reach is necessary to protect the United States from threats delivered by the sea; the oceans are world-wide, and they enable our economic system; so we can’t view the oceans as moats that protect or delay threats anymore. The oceans also present vulnerabilities to our economy and our nation. Let’s look at one international organization as an example. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) based in London has about 170 states as members. They set standards for maritime safety, maritime security and pollution prevention. These three areas are vital to our success as a nation, and we must be active participants in all these programs. We must ensure that ships arriving here or sailing near our coasts are safe, secure and environmentally responsible. Success in these areas requires informed participation with dozens of organizations and administrations.
Our vessels must comply with the same requirements as the safe, secure and environmentally responsible vessels calling here. Absent this framework, international commerce would falter, and our economy would collapse with the consequential loss of millions of jobs. Providing all this framework requires us to participate around the globe with knowledgeable people. Also, it requires fully responsive training delivered here and in host countries when they don’t have the resources or experience to do it yet. Additionally, most navies throughout the world are much more like our Coast Guard than our Navy; they do much of what we do—save lives, enforce laws, guard against illegal migration, protect fisheries and execute environmental prevention and recovery programs.
SLD: Could you explain the difference among the command levels?
Vice Admiral Parker: The districts are more tactical and at the lower operational level of things. And clearly at the sector they are very tactical and very hands-on in mission execution. And then by the time you get up here, we’re very much in the operational world (balancing risk across missions). So most of what we do is plan for contingencies and crisis and then figure out how have the best effect across the various regions and missions with the resources we have. So I have a lot of oversight. But I have some operational things our staff works directly as I discussed above.
SLD: In a period of financial constraints and strategic re-definition what does the USCG bring to the table?
Vice Admiral Parker: When times get tough, people tend to retrench into a more defensive posture which makes it tougher sometimes to get in the national collaborative mode. Such collaboration is in our DNA. This may also explain why we wind up in leadership positions in these large operations– when things go bad we look around to see who we have and who can be helpful and then get after it as a team.
And whether that’s presence, authorities or capabilities or capacity, whatever it is, if it works we want it. We’re sort of agnostic about those things.
We have our own moments where we want to do it ourselves, but we just live in a world where we simply must collaborate whether it’s in the ports, or off shore, or whatever. And we are eager to tap into national systems. So we’re naturally curious to go around and see who else can help there. The other thing that is often undervalued is the vast portfolio of authorities that we bring to the table.
SLD: Could you discuss the challenges of maintenance and keeping the older fleet operational?
Vice Admiral Parker: The sustainment challenge across the board is evident everywhere I go. When I travel, I see the same thing. I see old stuff, sometimes relieved to find new stuff, but still see the herculean challenge faced by the individuals trying to maintain those older platforms.
We need to do a service life extension program on the 140s. (Note this is the Ice Breaking Tug Class vessel; there are nine vessels in the class; most are stationed in the Great Lakes.) The inland waterways assets need replacement—river tenders and construction tenders that mark our dynamic marine highways in the heartland. There’s no relief on the horizon for those and I just don’t know how you squeeze that in with the priorities here right now and the fiscal realities.
The Coast Guard Cutter Forward sits moored at Base Support Unit Portsmouth just before sunrise Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2009. Behind the Forward are two other 270-foot Medium Endurance Cutters homeported at the base, the cutters Legare and Bear. In total there are six of these cutters sharing the same responsibilities, allowing their crews to enjoy a two-month inport period and a two-month deployment period. Some of those responsibilities include: Search and Rescue; Enforcement of Laws and Treaties; Maritime Defense; and Protection of the Marine Environment. They most often deploy between the Coasts of Maine and Florida and throughout the Caribbean, but at times cross the Atlantic or visit the Pacific Ocean. (Credit: USCG Atlantic Area, 12/30/09)
SLD: How do you think we need to shape an ability to get the different players on the same page in a crisis? How do we leverage IT and other systems to get the decision making focus on the right page? You really need a collaborative knowledge system to shape a proper C4ISR D response? For us the point of C4ISR is to enable better decision making not to just collect information for maritime domain awareness in and of itself?
Vice Admiral Parker: I was afraid you were going fall in that regular trap that I have to face all the time. And I was afraid you were going to stop at the IT thing because that’s where everybody runs to …that the IT is the solution, and it really isn’t.
You don’t want the IT guy to be the one that does your knowledge management. It’s like giving over control of the architecture of your house to the plumber; you have all the toilets right inside the front door and it’s locked. Completely un-useful to the person in the house but very convenient for the plumber who wants easy access and wants to keep that part of the house secure. so in the knowledge/information/data world the IT may actually work in day to day activity but you know what happens in a crisis? We can’t pull what we need in a way that is helpful under stress and compressed decision cycles or it is so secure we can’t get it in the hands of our first responders on scene.
You’re going to make decisions anyway, and if they’re ill-informed, or worse they’re informed by bad data, you’re really in difficulty when these events unfold on flash media on a national or world stage.
The importance of getting the right information quickly has been illustrated by the recent Gulf oil spill. The national response center command center is supposed to keep track of all the boom we have in order to respond. There are lot of different types of boom as it turns out.
But we needed to know specifics such astell me where all my 18-inch hard ocean boom is, because that was the big thing in demand. That was the coin of the realm in the decision making center. How many miles of this do we have, you know, pick a number. Didn’t matter, the number was wrong because it was an aggregate of going to every oil spill response organization in the country saying “how much boom do you have?” And they’re obligated to have on-call for an operation ”Y” amount of boom.
So they would go out and contract with contractor “X” and say, “I am obligated to get 10,000 feet of boom within 24 hours, can you meet that so I don’t have to warehouse it?” And they would all say, “yes.”
So seven different organizations all go to the same guy, so when we get done, “okay I need 200,000 feet of boom,” and you get 10,000 because it was all the same guy counted 20 times.
OK. We have got a real problem here: how fast can you make this stuff?
But when you think back through the IT approach, it violated the first rule of information: data management. Where is the authoritative source for that data and how do you manage that?
This was similar to the same thing I had down in SOUTHCOM during Haiti. We just could not tell the chairman how that bottle of water got from Keokuk, Iowa all the way down to that Haitian’s hand.
Seemed irrelevant to me but he wanted to know this information. But I had no way to track that.
So we went to folks like FedEx and DHL and UPS and said, “How do you guys do this?”
And that’s where I learned about authoritative source. Authoritative source for every bit of data is hugely important. So how many authoritative sources do you think roughly we would have in a Coast Guard? So I asked this question. The answer I got: 362. There is absolutely nothing authoritative about that number.
And what we haven’t done as operators is put an operational requirement demand on information to make decisions in crisis. The core need is to aggregate information during crisis. This is a huge issue for us and is mind numbingly hard to get under control, especially in times of tight budgets.
SLD: Your focus is upon building proper knowledge management tools. Could you explain your thinking about the way ahead?
Vice Admiral Parker: To repeat, the knowledge management piece really gets confused often times with the IT, the technology side of things. And that’s just the tool.
You have to design with the focus upon having to make decisions during contingency and crises as your center point before you go into the design of all these systems. Everything we have, whether it’s personnel or logistics, all these systems are built for day-to-day operations, and activities and they tend to fail us during contingency and crisis.
So the first thought you have to get into people’s brains is what are the decisions that I’m going to have make during crisis, what contingencies, and what information do I need to have and then how do I feed that information and catalogue that on a regular basis in a way that I can retrieve that easily and with great veracity and repeatability?
Which was a real problem for us during the DeepWater Horizon response because if you have more than one source the data doesn’t upgrade at the same pace; you’ve automatically got a problem in terms of whether people believe you or not.
I think the first thing we must do is change the mindset to get way from just letting every individual program run where their information goes and figure out what it is that serves the mission. The best way to test that I think is to stress test that and put it in a contingency and crisis.
Whether we’re doing it during exercises or lessons learned from actual events and operations, I think we really have to go back and look at what decisions we need to make and where that information resides and then how we collect that as a whole service.
SLD: And there is obviously a cyber-security part of this problem as well?
Vice Admiral Parker: The Marine Transportation System vulnerabilities are just unknown in the cyber world. So I’m teasing that out.
I’m doing a number of different speeches and a couple of different articles between now and November. I’m trying to excite the nerve in different places. I’ve gone around and I’ve talked to the Houston Port partners and I’ve talked to New York port partners at length and what is clear is that everybody has become accomplished in thinking of security in terms of what’s inside my fence line and my facility. Or, you know, ships, or the places they go. And then what the external physical threats are.
Cyber is very different, and it doesn’t takesomebody doing a malicious act to break up systems now. With the automatic control systems you have at container terminals or locks, and dams, or any number of things, a loss of power, phone line or computing capability can have acascading effect through this system.
So we don’t fully understand what their accidental interdependence is in the cyber world in ports. So just understanding that, exploring that a little bit to understand what the vulnerabilities are, never mind what threats might be, but just knowing where the vulnerabilities are I think will be helpful.
We’re trying to pick a few ports that are interested in doing this. Houston certainly was interested and it’s a place where the port partners have already worked past the competitive thing to understand that if one falls, all fall. They have clearly figured this out. And it’s very impressive to see.
SLD: You recently co-authored a piece with Vice Admiral Manson Brown on the need for the National Security Cutter. Could you address how the NSC fits into the Atlantic area strategy? Or put a different way, if you received three NSCs tomorrow, what would you do with them.
Vice Admiral Parker: Well they’d be welcome and immediate helpful. Both because we have a shortage of ships because things are getting old, and we have serious sustainment issues for the current fleet. The youngest ones are over 20 years old, and that’s not young.
When I give change of command speeches, to give perspective I talk about what life was like when these ships were built. And the cheapest gas from the newest platform when they were built was a dollar twelve and the cost ranges down to 32 CENTS a gallon. Many of the ships were built before the legislation that impacts the bulk of their current mission.
No question our ships are all getting old. But beyond that, the National Security Cutters certainly represent more than just a replacement for high endurance cutters in the USCG. It can and will have capabilities when it’s finally flushed out that will create a much larger impact and effect to coordinate operations, not just be a point in the ocean from which you operate, but from which we can control sizable pieces of the ocean on waters that we regulate.
SLD: If you had them for the Haiti events, how would you have used them?
Vice Admiral Parker: That would have been huge. The Coast Guard of course was first in due to our regular presence there, but we couldn’t sustain it. Certainly DOD brought a lot of muscle to the operation.
If I’d had an NSC at the front end of Haiti, the USCG could have controlled the Air Space in there as well for the critical first days. They would have had a full appreciation for what was going on in and around the littorals and you could have done a lot of command and control for all the little different parties we were putting on the beach because Comms were gone.
They were just completely out down there. Best thing I had when that happened as the J3 down in SOUTHCOM was we had a cell phone with the aide to the deputy commander who was in the earthquake that lasted about 36 hours and then it went dark.
That was kind of an awkward period there where the ship down there was the best way I had information, but what they didn’t have was connectivity back to different people.
With the NSC you will have a significant bubble around the ship for C4ISR D and with the bigger bubble you have a much greater ability to control things. And that is true whether that’s further down range or in a place where you’ve stripped out communications and command and control architecture that normally exists. Whether it’s a Katrina, or a Haiti, or any other calamity where you lose comms and related capabilities.
Another key piece is to understand the aviation and related assets, which you can fly off of the ship, which gives you greater range and operational capability. A ship deployed forward without a helicopter or without a maritime patrol asset overhead, really controls only 12 mile radius of ocean. With the helo, you can get that out to about 75 miles pretty cleanly and then you put the over-the- horizon boat in the mix you’re actionable radius goes out to about 100 miles.
The speed and endurance of the NSC operating within a much larger C4ISR D bubble allows the USCG to increase significantly its operational area and its ability to anchor the AOR whether sea-oriented or land-oriented.