A Project of the Coast Guard Aviation Association

2003 – Coast Guard Transferred to the Department of   Homeland Security

The President of the United States signed into law the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which created the Department of Homeland Security. Under this legislation, the U.S. Coast Guard was transferred from the Department of Transportation to the new Department on March 1 2003.

On September 11, 2001 America experienced a shocking demonstration of asymmetric warfare: — a strategy that self proclaimed enemies of the United States, unable to prevail by means of conventional military power, adopted to achieve their agenda. The use of hijacked airliners to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon visibly demonstrated that we were at war with a global network of forces, as well as groups and states that support them. The weapon of choice was terrorism directed at civilian populations.

One of the first responders to the attack was the United States Coast Guard and due to the proximity to bodies of water the response was port centric both in New York and throughout the major ports of the United States. Every port was working this national emergency minutes after it happened. The Captain of the Port (COPT) was the central authority and the operational assets needed by the COTP to exercise their authority were immediately made available.

In the weeks and months that followed the Coast Guard embarked upon the largest port security operation since World War II. More than 2,800 reservists, including four Port Security Units, were called up to support security operations at designated ports.  In addition the Coast Guard deployed 55 cutters, 42 aircraft, and hundreds of boats to establish port and coastline patrols. Port security related operations, which had accounted for two percent of Coast Guard activities prior to 9/11, expanded to 56 percent of operations by the end of September. The Coast Guard, in large part due to its multi-mission organization and the individual competence of its personnel, was able to effectively transform itself into what was needed.

Recognizing the complexity of providing effective security against further attacks to the homeland a new Cabinet level position, the Director of Homeland Security, whose job it was to coordinate the national effort to defend the homeland against terrorism and threats that feed it, was established. The Coast Guard’s contribution to the nation’s security was widely accepted but at issue was whether the Coast Guard should remain in the Department of Transportation or be transferred to another federal department or agency. Some Coast Guard supporters, noting the Coast Guard’s national defense mission and that Coast Guard programs had to compete for limited Department of Transportation (DOT) funding against highly popular highway and transit projects, proposed transferring the Coast Guard to the Department of Defense (DOD). Other observers, noting the Coast Guard’s homeland-security operations, proposed incorporating the Coast Guard into the newly created Cabinet level homeland security agency.

Regardless of the Coast Guard’s future location it was becoming apparent that it possessed the expertise but lacked sufficient assets to effectively perform its assigned missions. The explosion of new duties the Coast Guard was fulfilling came immediately after a difficult budgetary climate during which the service suffered significant asset, monetary and personnel reductions.  The Coast Guard, in order to perform its duties prior to 9/11, had received seven emergency supplements during the preceding 10 years as well as approximately $400 million from the Department of Defense to support its national defense and military responsibilities.

The President’s proposal to create a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on June, 2002, included a provision to transfer the Coast Guard from DOT to DHS. Coast Guard officials supported the proposal. Some members of Congress, in particular Senator Stevens, (AK), Congressman Young (AK) and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, were opposed because of concern that transferring the Coast Guard could lead to reduced focus on what they termed as more traditional missions such as Search and Rescue, fisheries law enforcement, and marine environmental protection. Congressman Young, Chairman of the House Transportation Infrastructure Committee stated that “the Coast Guard provides a long list of services to average citizens and has limited responsibility in the area of security.” This view supports an evolution and de-militarization of the Coast Guard which took place during the period that the Coast Guard operated in DOT. It, however, does not accurately reflect the Coast Guard as established in the U.S. Code or its long history of providing support for the national security of the United States.

The House passed the final and expanded version of the Homeland Security bill, which included many more agencies than originally proposed, on July 26 transferring the Coast Guard to the DHS stipulating that the Coast Guard be maintained as a distinct entity within the Department. The Senate version of the bill had authorized the transfer and in response to congressional concerns relating to non-homeland security duties assigned the Coast Guard; required that the Commandant report directly to the DHS secretary rather than an undersecretary for security, designated homeland security missions and non-homeland security missions, and prohibited the DHS Secretary from modifying the designated non-homeland security Coast Guard missions without prior congressional approval. On November 25, 2002 President Bush signed the Homeland Security Act into law and the Department of Homeland Security was created.

Coast Guard’s Role Within Department Of Homeland Security

Section 888 of the Homeland Security Act specifically requires that the Coast Guard be maintained as a distinct agency with the Commandant reporting directly to the Secretary of Homeland Security.  Functions, authorities, and capabilities of the Coast Guard to perform its missions shall be maintained intact and without significant reductions.  It further delineates specific homeland security missions and non-homeland security missions.

        The term homeland security mission means:

  • Ports, waterways, and coastal security.
  • Drug interdiction.
  • Migrant interdiction.
  • Defense readiness.
  • Other law enforcement.

        The term non-homeland security mission means:

  • Marine safety.
  • Search and rescue.
  • Aids to navigation.
  • Fisheries law enforcement.
  • Marine environmental protection.
  • Ice operations.

The Secretary may not reduce the missions of the Coast Guard or the ability of the Coast Guard to perform these missions except by changes in existing law.  Additionally, the Inspector General of DHS shall conduct an annual review that will assess the performance by the Coast Guard of all missions of the Coast Guard with a particular emphasis on examining the non-homeland security missions.

The Coast Guard Mission Since Transfer to DHS

The Coast Guard faced major challenges in effectively implementing its operations within the Department of Homeland Security. The difficulty of meeting these challenges was compounded because the Coast Guard not only moved to a new parent agency: it also substantially reinvented itself. It still performed the missions it had been doing but in addition its resources were deployed to provide national security as well as the military buildup in the Middle East.

As would be expected, since September 11, 2001 the Coast Guard has placed a special emphasis on security, security measures and security assets. Initially, to accommodate the rapid expansion of the security mission, other mission responsibilities, with the exception of Search and Rescue and aids to navigation, were performed at reduced levels. Drug and migrant interdiction efforts returned to pre 9/11 levels by 2003 and by 2005 all non-security missions were again at pre 9/11 levels. In the interim the security missions have continued to increase in size and effort. The Coast Guard budget request for 2007 was $7.1 billion, a six-percent increase over the 2006 level and an 87 percent increase since 2001. During this same period 7,000 active duty personnel and 5,000 civilian members were added.

The Coast Guard has learned much and accomplished much since its transfer to the Department of Homeland Security. It has done its job well. A full accounting is beyond the scope of this narrative but there are several changes and adaptations that have significantly impacted Coast Guard operations.

  • The Coast Guard, unlike in the past, now reports directly to the Secretary of the department in which it is placed. This has proved to be of substantial benefit.
  • In the past the Coast Guard was only allowed to endorse the administration’s budget as it was submitted to Congress. Acting under new authority, provided in the Homeland Security Appropriations Act, the Commandant now directly submits his list of unfunded priorities for consideration during the makeup of Administration’s proposed budget.
  • The Coast Guard has long been recognized as a superb tactical organization. In large part this is due to the competence and empowerment of its personnel at the operational level. Conceptually the Coast Guard was reactive in nature which carried over into future planning. The advent of the large and complex Homeland Security mission has in some cases forced, and in other cases allowed, the development and implementation of strategic skills to effectively address what has not yet but is apt to take place. The combination of these two attributes is and will continue to be of significant benefit to the Coast Guard and the nation it serves.
  • There has been a cultural change within the Coast Guard with respect to using armed force. This came about due to the recognition that the nation finds itself in a situation where the line between law enforcement addressing criminal acts and military operations to protect the nation continues to become more blurred.

Changes and adaptations that are aviation specific are:

  • Expedited upgrading of current aviation assets occurred.  Commonality of command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems was obtained as was interoperability with outside agencies and upgraded and newly acquire Coast Guard surface units.
  • Coast Guard defense and security capabilities have been substantially expanded by arming its helicopters and training armed security teams to rappel from helicopters into a hostile environment. While maintaining its search and rescue capabilities Coast Guard aviation has transitioned into a more militarized force aimed at stopping terrorists.

It is too early to determine the long term effects of transferring the Coast Guard to the Department of Homeland Security but in the short term it has proved to be very satisfactory and a dramatic improvement over the years spent in the Department of Transportation.

The Present Era