Collins said the "fifth armed service," and the only one to fall under the Department of Homeland Security, is making its largest commitment to port- security operations since World War II. At the same time, the Coast Guard has deployed its largest contingent of Coast Guard members and assets overseas since the Vietnam conflict, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
At the height of the conflict, Collins said the Coast Guard deployed 1,200 men and women, 11 ships and a port-security unit to the theater to conduct maritime-interception operations and coastal-security patrols. The port- security unit and five soon to be six patrol boats remain on duty in the northern Arabian Gulf, where they work closely with the Navy and Marine Corps under the command of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command.
"In terms of the overall Department of Defense footprint, ours is fairly small," Collins acknowledged. "But we're putting our competencies to certain niche areas on the 'away game.'"
In this capacity, crew members from Coast Guard Cutter Adak captured the first maritime prisoners of war in the conflict. Coast Guard patrol boats and law enforcement detachments helped intercept and seize Iraqi mine-laying vessels, ensuring waterways weren't threatened and relief ships could safely deliver their cargo to the port of Umm Qasr. In addition, the Coast Guard provided port security in key logistics ports in Kuwait and Iraq and at Iraqi oil terminals in the northern Arabian Gulf.
Meanwhile, on the home front, Collins said, the Coast Guard's coastal and port- security mission "has been taken off the back burner and put on the front burner with the flames turned up."
In support of this mission, the Coast Guard has conducted more than 35,000 port-security patrols and 3,500 air patrols. Coast Guard teams have boarded more than 2,500 "high-interest vessels," interdicted more than 6,200 illegal migrants, and created and maintained more than 115 maritime-security zones.
In addition, the Coast Guard established new maritime safety and security teams to respond to terrorist threats or incidents in domestic ports and waterways, and sea marshals to prevent ship hijackings. "These are 100-person teams that can surge into ports or other high-risk areas when called and provide additional force structure (and) security presence for deterrence," Collins said.
To keep up with these missions, Collins said the Coast Guard is expanding its force to about 41,000 men and women in uniform, with most of its new capability to be dedicated to security missions. In addition, he said, the Coast Guard has called close to 50 percent of its 8,500 Selected Reserve members to active duty.
The commandant said these enhancements, "developed for the country in very, very short order," are helping to close security gaps that make the United States vulnerable to attack.
The Coast Guard's enhanced security capability got put to the test in late July when a Coast Guard security team boarded a Turkish ship Collins said had a history of "security discrepancies" near Philadelphia. After the ship's captain told Coast Guard inspectors that a bomb was onboard the vessel, a Coast Guard security team escorted it away from port and ultimately expelled it from U.S. waters.
The ship's captain was taken into custody and charged with criminal behavior. "We take that stuff very, very seriously," Collins said.
The Coast Guard celebrated its 214th birthday Aug. 4.