By Capt. Daniel W. Clark, Chief Atlantic Area Contingency Operations Branch, United States Coast Guard Reserve
The present-day Contingency Operations Branch (LANT-39) formed out of the need to provide contingency support to a few cutters deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Initially viewed as a contingency operational need to support those cutters, a solicitation for a handful of Coast Guard reservists was made in 2005. Those reservists would provide program management staff support to the Atlantic Area Operations Division for U.S. Coast Guard Patrol Forces Southwest Asia (PATFORSWA). The Atlantic Area (LANTAREA) Combatant Commander Operations Branch (LANT-3R5) was formed, ultimately becoming what we know as the Contingency Operations Branch (LANT-39).
This small and unique organization has been staffed by a continuous rotation of Coast Guard reservists for the last 16 years. The all-reserve component staff of LANT-39 will be properly relieved in the summer of 2022 by a wholly active duty and civilian workforce codifying the truly enduring mission of PATFORSWA and the Coast Guard’s prominent role in the Middle East theater of operations. This is how that branch as supported our mission in OIF for nearly two decades.
In October 2002, the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) requested Coast Guard support for its planned operations in OIF. Among the many Coast Guard personnel, units, and cutters to deploy to the Middle East in support of OIF, NAVCENT requested Coast Guard patrol boats to augment OIF coalition naval forces in the Persian Gulf.
The Navy saw the Coast Guard’s cutters and skilled personnel as ideally suited to naval operations supporting OIF. The shallow coastal areas and waterways of Iraq are subject to heavy silting. Strategists of the time believed that Iraq’s primary threat to American naval units came from small boats, patrol craft, and mine laying vessels. The Coast Guard was a prime operational vehicle to extend the U.S. Navy’s projection of power into littoral areas in the Northern Persian Gulf. Identified as the platform of choice for this mission, four Island Class 110-foot patrol cutters began preparations for their deployment in October 2022. Cutters Wrangell, Adak, Aquidneck, and Baranof were prepared for their new roles as the first Coast Guard PATFORSWA patrol boats to serve under NAVCENT operational and tactical control in OIF. The last time the Coast Guard deployed patrol boat forces to a combat theater was in support of the Vietnam War.
The provisional unit that would become PATFORSWA was established in the Kingdom of Bahrain in November 2022. The U.S. Navy moved of the 5th Fleet from Yemen to Bahrain in the wake of the October 2000 terrorist bombing of the USS Cole by Muslim militants associated with the al-Qaida organization. PATFORSWA was built as an ashore support unit for the deployed patrol boats. The unit was comprised of 44 active-duty members and six reservists from Coast Guard Cutter Sapelo, which was in dry dock at the time. These members were pulled from elements of the Coast Guard Mobile Support Unit and Equipment as well as 22 other Coast Guard Atlantic Area commands. PATFORSWA moved from its own small compound at the Mina Salmon port facility in June 2003 to Naval Support Activity Bahrain, and formally commissioned as a unit in 2004.
Today, PATFORSWA personnel and cutters form Combined Task Group 55.1 and are part of the Navy’s Combined Task Force 55 under the operational and tactical control of the NAVCENT Commander. Administrative control of PATFORSWA remains with the Coast Guard Atlantic Area commander. Working directly with the U.S. Navy but also equipped with a unique set of authorities, the Coast Guard fills a niche nicely between the diplomacy efforts of the Department of State and the purely defense operations of the Department of Defense in the Middle East. Here PATFORSWA has played a key role in regional maritime security and infrastructure protection operations, enforcing international maritime rules-based order, deterring and defeating violent extremism and strengthening partner nations’ maritime capabilities to promote a secure maritime environment in NAVCENT’s area of operations. PATFORSWA remains the Coast Guard’s largest unit outside of the United States.
As members and assets began deploying to the Middle East, Atlanic Area staff was in chage of coordination and development. Members assigned to LANTAREA were responsible for the training, medical readiness, and administration requirements of members deploying to the the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) area of operations. This same group of people were also responsible for the cutter maintenance and retrofitting as well.
Cutter Forces staff of the LANTAREA Operations Directorate initially improvised a training program and syllabus for the cutter and support crews. The nature of developing CENTCOM and Coast Guard-specific required training for Coast Guard members to deploy to NAVCENT resulted in a growing workload on the existing staff. The Atlantic Area Combatant Commander Operations Branch (LANT-3R5) under the Operations Directorate was created in May 2006 due to this need.
For the Coast Guard to receive Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding through the Congressional Homeland Security Appropriations Committees was key in supporting early Coast Guard operational and associated administrative efforts in CENTCOM. The funding provided flexibility for the service to employ the reserve Component to fill a variety of new roles and missions supporting defense operations overseas. This source of funding, now called Enduring Overseas Mission (EOM) funds, remains a crucial factor of the Coast Guard’s ability to surge reserve members to meet these overseas operations. Both OCO and later EOM funding were key in establishing the staff element at Atlantic Area to support the PATFORSWA mission since that work directly supported the Coast Guard’s overseas missions in the CENTCOM area of operations.
Retired Capt. Doug Heugel who served as the division’s first chief from 2006 to 2010 described the early mobilizations to fill staff roles in the LANTAREA Combatant Commander Operations Branch, “these mobilizations included enlisted reservists in the yeoman and storekeeper rat[ings] as well as an O-5 branch chief and O-3 staff officer. Early on these reservists help the LANTAREA Cutter Forces staff who had assumed the role of managing PATFORSWA as a new collateral duty.”
Like their counterparts, the Combatant Commander Operations Branch staff stood watches and assumed a variety of necessary staff duties, especially during domestic crisis. “It was not uncommon for these reservists to support LANTAREA hurricane response efforts, act as liaison officers to other government agencies like FEMA and served as project officers for special events. Enlisted staff moved back and forth between duties as the Coast Guard reorganized administrative functions creating Servicing Personnel Offices (SPO) and many early mobilized reservists served support functions for SPOs, LANTAREA domestic cutter management, and for PATFORSWA in the Middle East.” Heugel went on to say. This “jack of all trades” willingness to assume new roles to fill personnel gaps remains today a typical trait of mobilized Coast Guard reservists. Today’s LANTAREA Contingency Operations Branch work effort is more highly focused on PATFORSWA support and management, however staff continue to augment their staff peers when needed to surge to meet operational demands domestically. Similarly, other LANTAREA staff elements such as Cutter Forces Branch (LANT-37CF) and Deployable Specialized Forces Branch (LANT-37DSF) routinely provide collateral support to PATFORSWA management when needed.
As the global geo-political situation shifted over time, so have the operational requirements of PATFORSWA cutters, crew, and support staff in the Middle East as well as the associated programmatic management staff support needs at LANTAREA. Operationally, PATFORSWA cutters have evolved from operating predominantly in the Central and Northern Persian Gulf to joint and combined patrols with multi-national boarding teams extending into the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea.
The U.S. Coast Guard’s Redeployment Assistance and Inspection Detachment (RAID) Team administratively assigned to PATFORSWA, operated from 2003 through May 2015 from Camp Arifjan in Kuwait and was co-located with the headquarters of the 595th Transportation Brigade, U.S. Army Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command (SDDC). The RAID team assisted the SDDC units assigned to CENTCOM with redeployment of containerized Department of Defense cargo and hazardous materials. RAID supported Operation Iraqi Freedom and later Operation New Dawn with some of the most inland combat zone deployments for the U.S. Coast Guard. They inspected nearly 20% of all containers, approximately 2.2 million pieces of equipment, that were moved out of Iraq.
Retired Capt. Mike Ferullo who served as the division’s fourth chief from 2016 to 2021 commented, “When RAID was disestablished in 2015 we were able to reprogram some of their billets to plus up the Maritime Engagement Team (MET). This included a full time supervisor which we hadn’t had before.” In response to the continued shifting requirements to meet our national objectives in the Middle East, the Coast Guard continues to follow on the RAID team legacy with the Navy requesting to provide special, enhanced Coast Guard experience to bring to bear on the problem sets of the day in support of NAVCENT missions. Coast Guardsmen fill critical roles on ever-changing special teams such as the Combined Task Force 150, the Advanced Interdiction Team, and the MET. These teams support the combined maritime forces operating in CENTCOM enforcing international law and sanctions, conduct pattern of life multi-national vessel boardings on the high seas, facilitate deployed Coast Guard member’s required tactical training, and provide a myriad of subject matter expert exchange opportunities to enhance partner nation interoperability in the Middle East.
As the Coast Guard’s operational contributions in the Middle East shifted over time, so did the programmatic staff support back at LANTAREA. Initially, the reservists who were the Combatant Commander Operations Branch (LANT-3R5) staff focused on coordinating the development of training required for Coast Guard members to deploy to the Middle East in support of CENTCOM missions. This took on a new level of complexity as the members who deployed needed to meet CENTCOM Non-standard Forces Training Requirements (NSFTR) for mobilization to the area of operations. They also needed to meet Coast Guard requirements for operating in the area under novel circumstances and often with novel equipment. This developed into a Pre-deployment Training (PDT) curriculum that has been constantly modified to meet current requirements, and is still mandated today for Coast Guard members deploying. Topics such as weapons qualifications, tactical combat casualty care, improvised explosive devices, emergency egress, and a plethora of administrative requirements have been taught and delivered over the years. Today, the Coast Guard’s Special Missions Training Center (SMTC) administers the training, which occurs three times annually and remains required training for those who deploy to meet CENTCOM and Coast Guard Middle East deployment requirements.
Another significant function the PATFORSWA Program Managers assumed was coordinating the vast amount of administrative and personnel actions required to maintain the force presence and readiness in NAVCENT’s area of operations. Training continues to be a constant hum in preparation for deployment and while members are deployed in CENTCOM and the movement of personnel in and out of theater through assignments is a primary driver of administrative needs. Tour lengths for PATFORSWA are typically one year, unaccompanied and about 33% of the unit’s staff rotate in and out every four months. The PDT classes are similarly repetitive to accommodate the ebb and flow of assignments.
As the cutter crews, support staff, and special teams in Bahrain have swelled to over 300 people total, program staff back at LANTAREA serve as the lead coordinators with key stakeholders that deal in human resource issues. In this instance, this handful of reservists serve as the “HR Division” to facilitate all personnel support needs to ensure the operational commitment is fulfilled at PATFORSWA. This duty also entails coordinating site visits by hundreds of essential Coast Guard and interagency partner staff, distinguished visitors and contractors who support PATFORSWA and the NAVCENT mission sets. Program staff help travelers comply with CENTCOM country clearance requirements and help control purpose-based meaningful visits for mission accomplishment while maintaining superior working relationships with NAVCENT.
A third strategic “bucket” of responsibilities the program managers have oversight of is the coordinated management of PATFORSWA equipment and assets. This task is exceptionally complex and requires coordination with yet another group of key stakeholders for success. These include entities such as Headquarters Office of Cutter Forces (CG-751) and associated divisions, Surface Forces Logistics Center (SFLC) and a myriad of contractors. Coordinated procurement and moving parts and supplies, equipping crews with the latest national defense equipment, and maintaining of a constant supply of weapons and ammunition are examples of routine requirements that program managers address.
A significant administrative lift over the past several years has been the Coast Guard’s transition from 110-foot Island-Class Patrol Boats in PATFORSWA to the 154-foot Sentinel-class Fast Response Cutter. The PATFORSWA Program Manager at LANTAREA have been pivotal in championing, developing, and implementing the transition to these advanced and highly capable assets. The full transition to FRCs in PATFORSWA will be completed at the end of 2022 when the last of six total, arrive in Bahrain. A special FRC Transition Team assisted with the monumental task of coordinating the Coast Guard acceptance, commissioning, and transit of each of the six new FRCs to Bahrain. Three transit trips with major cutter escort will have covered more than 30,000 nautical miles and included numerous international engagements with partner nations along the way when the mission is fully complete this fall. With the FRC transition comes the decommissioning and ultimate transfer of the six patrol boats still in Bahrain. PATFORSWA Program Managers are coordinating the decommissioning and transfer of cutters Adak, Aquidneck, Baranof, Maui, Monomoy and Wrangell after decades of faithful service to our nation and they will go on in service to partner nations through our Foreign Military Sales program.
Teasing apart the web of duties and responsibilities the LANTAREA PATFORSWA Program Managers have, there are predominantly two major lines of effort. First and foremost is to provide dedicated and exceptional “customer service” to our Coast Guard men, women, and assets in PATFORSWA so they can accomplish the mission asked of them by NAVCENT. Few other places on earth and arguably no other place our Coast Guard personnel are assigned is more dangerous or important than in the Middle East. They are routinely in harm’s way. The second line of effort is to provide real-time pertinent briefings, operational information, and recommendations to the Atlantic Area commander and serve as his/her expert on Coast Guard Middle East operations. The first line of effort is maximized and better realized by exercising proficiency in this second line of effort.
Retired Rear Adm. Scott McKinley who served as the third chief of the division from 2012 to 2016 noted, “There is a powerful story in these reservists who provided this critical manpower bridge for the Coast Guard. I was frequently impressed when I heard active duty members comment they hadn’t realized we were reservists.”
Of note is there is no Coast Guard Headquarters parallel to the LANTAREA Contingency Operations Branch (LANT-39). That said, the PATFORSWA Program Managers at LANTAREA enjoy and rely upon an expansive network of important stakeholders throughout the enterprise for operational success. Since PATFORSWA stood up almost 20 years ago, the enterprise program managers for the largest Coast Guard unit outside the United States has been a small group of volunteer reservists who have quietly rotated through their assignment’s all the while laser focused on accomplishing those two main lines of effort. This staff has rarely ever been more than five to eight people at a time and only five reserve captains have served as the branch chief since 2006, one going on to be a flag officer and Senior Reserve Officer of the Coast Guard Reserve Component.
The future of PATFORSWA and the Program Managers at LANTAREA is bright. The inclusion of EOM funding into the Coast Guard’s base, the transition of Patrol Boats to FRCs and movement of Program Management staff positions to an all-active duty and civilian workforce are key indicators of the realization the Middle East mission is enduring and not just a contingency. OIF set the stage for the Coast Guard to demonstrate our professionalism, dedication, reliability, nimbleness, adaptability, and value as a partner to the Navy and regional nations. We have never been more in demand than we are today and with that opportunity comes the continued challenge of sourcing that demand. We continue to fight an uphill battle internally and externally to ensure we receive the requisite resources to do important missions safely and effectively such as those PATFORSWA is tasked with. The certain part of the puzzle is it is in our cultural fabric to say “yes” to the mission and to execute it with distinction.