COAST GUARD BASE HONOLULU — For the first time, a U.S. Coast Guard national security cutter oversaw American and foreign navy ships during high-end military drills, including an anti-submarine warfare scenario.

The service’s cutters stationed in Hawaii have used naval exercises and deployments over the last year to show how it can punch above its weight while the U.S. Navy implements its distributed maritime operations vision.

During the recent Rim of the Pacific exercise, which ran from June 29 to Aug. 4, the Coast Guard cutter Midgett commanded an international task force overseeing maritime interdiction operations, while also providing its deck to a U.S. Navy helicopter in a display of joint service collaboration.

Another RIMPAC participant, the fast response cutter William Hart, last fall deployed to American Samoa for a mission with a 10-day transit time that well exceeded the typical range of that ship class. During last year’s Large Scale Exercise, the vessel embarked with Marines to establish a joint force communications node — showing across the two events how small cutters can play a pivotal role as the eyes and ears of the military in places the Navy visits less frequently.

The Navy envisions a network of joint and coalition assets scattered around the Pacific to contribute to an overall common operating picture of the region. The more of these assets that are lethal, the better, the thinking goes: given a single adversary couldn’t target all the coalition assets that pose a threat, these distributed lethality and distributed maritime operations concepts could provide a deterrent effect.

But the Navy can only keep so many ships sailing around the Pacific at any given time, which means partners and allies are key, as are Coast Guard ships and aircraft, something that was highlighted in the 2020 Tri-Service Maritime Strategy. The document specifically asks the Coast Guard to conduct freedom of navigation operations to challenge excessive maritime claims; conduct law enforcement operations against terrorism, weapons proliferation, transnational crime and piracy; and enforce sanctions through maritime interdiction operations.

Vice Adm. Andrew Tiongson, who commands Coast Guard Pacific Area, told Defense News the service implemented that strategy by deploying Coast Guard liaisons on Navy ships as well as training with and operating the Navy’s equipment to bolster interoperability.

“As we prepare for high-end joint operations in the maritime domain, we will support naval efforts with complementary capabilities throughout the Indo-Pacific with port security units, strategic asset escorts and other unique strengths to augment capacity. The more intertwined our services are prior to conflict, the easier we will adapt when needed,” Tiongson said.

Commanding a task force

Midgett and William Hart, along with other cutters based in Honolulu, are going beyond requirements of the tri-service strategy.

The former’s RIMPAC experience was unusual, achieving several firsts for the Coast Guard and pushing its own boundaries in terms of lethality and joint force interoperability. For example, Midgett commanded a RIMPAC task force — something no Coast Guard cutter has ever done. Its commanding officer, Capt. Willie Carmichael, led Combined Task Force 175 ships, including U.S. Navy destroyers Chafee and Gridley, French Navy frigate Prairial and Peruvian Navy frigate Guise.

This task force oversaw maritime interdiction operations for the combined maritime force at RIMPAC, and it also conducted anti-submarine warfare drills — something a Coast Guard cutter cannot do, but that Midgett was able to oversee through advanced Link 16 network connectivity.

“These national security cutters are built to interface with — from the technology, and the command and control, and the communication links — to fall right in line with the Navy and [Defense Department] counterparts. So these RIMPACs are awesome opportunities to exercise that,” Chief Matt Masaschi, a spokesman for Coast Guard Pacific Area, told reporters during a tour of Midgett.

Carmichael said during the tour that he spent nearly four weeks preparing to take command of the task force, which involved hosting Navy subject matter experts on the ship ahead of RIMPAC “to help us integrate more at a higher level for those higher-warfare areas.”

Midgett will soon depart Hawaii for a Western Pacific patrol under the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet, highlighting the importance of that service interoperability.

Hunting submarines

Midgett also carried a Navy MH-60R helicopter for predeployment training, and then for the whole duration of RIMPAC. This was the first time that helicopter type embarked on a Coast Guard ship.

Carmichael said the MH-60 can fit in a national security cutter’s hangar if it folds up its blades and tail. The capability and range of the MH-60 could be of great value to the ship during law enforcement missions. And the Navy could benefit from this experience by conducting MH-60 anti-submarine operations from a cutter’s deck.

This experiment was partly meant to determine how to “sustain that particular airframe, how do you support it for a long-range, two-month or three-month deployment,” Carmichael said.

Midgett also showed off its lethal traits, taking what it learned from the MH-60 and Link 16 system to serve as an adversary in another at-sea scenario of RIMPAC.

The cutter collaborated with other opposing force ships to track and hunt vessels, earning nine “constructive kills,” which involved providing targeting data to allied assets that resulted in immediate simulated strikes.

Midgett also participated in a shooting competition among RIMPAC participants. Though a cutter would typically employ its weapons for self-defense or in a law enforcement context, this shoot-off gave participants a GPS coordinate for a simulated island and asked them to conduct a land-attack mission.

“That’s not typical for us, island targets,” said the ship’s weapons officer, Ensign Matthew Pindell, adding that the ship used its 57mm MK 110 cannon with an 8-mile range to go after the target.

Pindell said the crew recently used its Phalanx close-in weapon system to shoot at a missile target towed by a Learjet, noting that this type of experience is important for the upcoming deployment to 7th Fleet’s area of responsibility.

‘Filling a gap’

As Midgett pushes the boundaries of what a Legend-class national security cutter can do, the service has found areas that require improvement, Carmichael said. For example, the ship and its crew lack “the ability to plan and execute long-range planning efforts that are very complex in a maritime environment. So we’re learning some of those lessons from our Navy counterparts as well and their best practices. We actually brought some of their subject matter experts onboard” so the crew could learn and then share those lessons with the other ships in the class.

The Coast Guard’s fast response cutters in Honolulu — roughly a third of the length of national security cutters — have taken on presence missions in Oceania that were once conducted by much larger vessels.

Cmdr. Cynthia Travers, the commanding officer of William Hart, said her ship and crew of 24 — along with the two other fast response cutters based in Honolulu — have had an outsized impact on American presence in Oceania.

Though the ship class is usually called for law enforcement, search and rescue, and environmental protection missions around the Hawaiian Islands, “last fall we operated between Oahu and American Samoa. It’s about a 10-day transit for us, so it’s sort of doing a larger-ship mission with a small Coast Guard cutter,” she said.

That transit was uncomfortable for the crew, she acknowledged, and the cutter had to sail at just 10 knots (12 mph) to conserve fuel and ensure it could make it to American Samoa without refueling at sea, given no assets were available to sail with William Hart or link up midway.

Fast response cutters out of Hawaii and Guam are more likely taken on these longer-range transits.

During William Hart’s trip to Oceania last fall, it operated alongside ships from the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and France to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. Though the mission itself wasn’t high end, it put the cutter in a location in which U.S. Navy ships were unlikely to operate, creating an opportunity for the joint force.

And during Large Scale Exercise 2021, William Hart and a team of Marines combined their sensors into a single, common-operating picture of the battlespace. Ships and aircraft the Coast Guard saw with its sensors were shared to the Marine Corps network, using both the Coast Guard’s Rescue 21 system and the Marines’ satellite communications technology, building a clearer picture for maritime domain awareness.

“We’re sort of filling a gap that exists right now. There are some larger cutters that are under construction that we’re hoping will be able to take on this mission in the years to come, but for right now the fast response cutter is the tool that we have here that can respond to that need,” Travers said.

Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.

More In Naval