Coast Guard Engineer John Leadford, left, and Boatswain's Mate 2nd Class Michael Bradford stand watch while patrolling Honolulu Harbor.

Coast Guard shifts tack

Its border-protection role requires
revamped technology and staffing

Coast Guard Boatswain's Mate 3rd Class Nate Letro sat at the helm of a 41-foot utility boat traveling at 5 knots through the calm blue waters of Honolulu Harbor, looking for any suspicious activity.

"We spend a lot of time doing patrols," said Letro, who is part of the Coast Guard's search-and-rescue unit. Two other crew members, Boatswain's Mate 2nd Class Michael Bradford and Engineer John Leadford, sat in the rear of the boat.

"We're the main resource for controlling who comes in and who comes out, so it's our job to make sure the people that are supposed to be in there are there, and the people that aren't don't go in," Bradford said.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Coast Guard -- which recently celebrated its 215th anniversary, making it the nation's oldest maritime agency -- was pushed to the forefront in nationwide port security. In Honolulu, where more than 95 percent of the state's commerce arrives on ships, the Coast Guard plays a pivotal role in security.

Hawaii is part of the 14th Coast Guard District, which covers more than 20 million square miles of the Pacific and includes Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands, among others.

"Our area is the largest than any other district in the Coast Guard, but we have the fewest members of people in the district," said 14th District Chief of Staff Capt. Paul Zukunft. About 1,400 Coast Guard personnel and 150 reservists are stationed in Honolulu.

As part of post-9/11 security measures, more than 75 security team members stationed in Honolulu are equipped with six high-performance armed boats to protect Hawaii's port, Zukunft said.

Nationwide, Coast Guard staffing increased by at least 10 percent as its focus shifted to homeland security.

"Before 9/11 we might do a couple of patrols a week. But now it's one, maybe two a day," Bradford said. Crew members of the Honolulu-based search-and-rescue units spend 50 percent of their time on patrol.

Curtailing drug trafficking remains an important part of their job. In November a Coast Guard law enforcement team aboard the Honolulu-based cutter Rush seized almost 5,000 pounds of cocaine worth $43 million from a boat near the Galapagos Islands.

Also, the Coast Guard has since been included in the National Intelligence Program.

"Before, we were an end user of what the other agencies would provide. But now we are a stakeholder in the national intelligence community, at the Washington, D.C., level right down to the port level," Zukunft said.

Collaborative efforts among city, state and federal agencies also have been strengthened to ensure that all respond to the same event simultaneously. "We didn't have that synergy before 9/11," he said.

Still, the Coast Guard faces new demands to boost port security, including the ability to detect potential threats beyond harbors, which means acquiring better technology.

All aircraft on international and domestic flights, for example, have transponders that enable air traffic controllers to track their location, he said. "We don't have that for all the ships involved in domestic and international trade."

As part of the new regulations, ships arriving from foreign ports must notify the Coast Guard at least 96 hours before they arrive at a U.S. port. That gives officials time to investigate a ship's records to determine whether it poses a threat.

"We want to make sure that if we board it, that we board it out at sea, and then if we need to stop it, that we stop it at sea as well," he said.

Before 9/11, ships gave only 24-hour notice, mostly to check their safety equipment and documents, Zukunft said.

Now officials need to know what is out there, 1,000 to 2,000 miles out at sea, so the Coast Guard can confront the enemy at a comfortable distance instead of 15 to 20 miles from the coastline, Zukunft said. "That's where we need to focus our next effort on: pushing our borders, our protective fence, further out."

"We're not there yet. Nationally, that's still an area we need to improve upon," he said.

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