SPECIAL REPORT: Coast Guard Packs a Punch at RIMPAC
This is part 3 of a 3-part special report on the Rim of the Pacific Exercise.
SAND ISLAND, Hawaii — While many think of the Coast Guard as a law enforcement and maritime safety force that operates close to America’s shores, the service showed during Rim of the Pacific 2022 that it has capabilities that could bolster the military in an Indo-Pacific conflict.
The Coast Guard National Security Cutter USCGC Midgett commanded Combined Task Force 175, which included ships from France, Peru and the U.S. Navy. The force conducted missile defense, gunnery, mass rescue and anti-submarine warfare exercises during RIMPAC 2022 in July.
“It is a unique opportunity to be in charge of a particular task force, and that certainly fits right into our ability to interoperate with the U.S. Navy and partner nation navies as well,” said Capt. Willie Carmichael, commander of the Midgett.
The Coast Guard typically operates on its own and has to respond quickly to crises. Therefore, it doesn’t focus on long-range planning the way the Navy does. Also, even though National Security Cutters are the largest and most advanced ships in the Coast Guard fleet, they don’t sail with the same network and communications platforms used by the military, Carmichael said.
The exercises began with an integration phase, during which the Midgett’s crew focused on learning their way around the planning approach and systems used by the Navy and partner forces, he said.
“We were the first national security cutter to have the Link 16 [tactical network] system installed on board,” he said. “Just the value that provides, being able to share a maritime picture with other assets — U.S. and our foreign partners as well — that was tremendous.”
The Midgett used the Centrix communication system for the first time during the exercise. “A lot of our partners use that Centrix system, so the better we are at using that particular system, the better we can communicate, the better we can plan. It ultimately gives us higher-level execution in complex maritime environments,” he said.
The 418-foot Midgett also sailed with a Navy MH-60R Seahawk helicopter on board. Unlike the MH-60T models used by the Coast Guard, the “R” variant has a folding tail and rotors that allow it to fit into the hangar on National Security Cutters. That means the aircraft can stay aboard for a long deployment, which the “T” variant can’t do, he said.
“I think that was a huge success,” he added. “Being able to integrate with a Navy aviation platform like that, understanding the maintenance support that’s required for that particular asset, and leveraging how they look at operations,” helped the crew understand the capabilities of the aircraft and how it can benefit the service.
“All that feedback that we learned from these three short weeks with that airframe on board is actually being pushed back up to our headquarters as they look at … acquiring 60 airframes that have that blade-fold, tail-fold capability,” he said. The Coast Guard is developing doctrine for the deployment of MH-60s on National Security Cutters, he added.
“That was the added benefit of having that airframe on board,” he continued. “I’m starting to see that effort progress in the right direction.”
RIMPAC also confirmed one known weakness that needs to be addressed on the cutters — insufficient internet connectivity while underway.
“If the pipeline doesn’t increase, it definitely creates some challenges as far as moving information on and off the ship,” he said.
Once RIMPAC transitioned to the operational phase, the Midgett, armed with a 57mm gun, had a chance to show off its capabilities, Carmichael said. The ship landed seven shots during the sink exercise — firing on and sinking a decommissioned ship — and led the opposition force during the tactical phase of the exercise.
“They took us out pretty quick,” he said. “But I told everybody, ‘Do not go down to the bottom of the sea without emptying out your barrel,’ and we did that. … Midgett had five confirmed kills before we were killed, and we showed them how capable and adaptable of a force we were.”
Despite being virtually sunk, the exercise was a win for the Midgett on many levels, he said. The degree of interoperability developed during the exercise allowed the cutter and its task force to be innovative in challenging the RIMPAC forces, “so they could actually test their capabilities and test their interoperability, and also have some fun along the way as well.”
It was a confidence boost for the Coast Guard. He said his boss recently noted that in the past the Coast Guard used to say it punched above its weight. “But now I think a lot more people inside the Coast Guard, outside the Coast Guard, recognize the value that we bring to joint naval operations. So, we’re no longer punching above our weight class. We’re part of the varsity force,” he said.
And the Midgett will be joining the varsity force — specifically the 7th Fleet — on a Western Pacific deployment in the months after RIMPAC, he said.
“I know now that the Navy values the Coast Guard capabilities,” he said. “I think we will be that much more effective on this [Western Pacific] deployment because we understand the battle space, the area that we’re going to be operating in, much better.
“We can communicate and ask questions and provide insights into how to maximize our own organic capabilities and be a value added to the fleet commander there,” he said.
Part 1: Allies Flex Muscles During RIMPAC Exercise
Part 2: Unmanned Systems Make a Splash During RIMPAC
Topics: Maritime Security