U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Government Website

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Safely connect using HTTPS

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock () or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.


  1. Home
  2. News
  3. Testimony
  4. Testimony of Rear Admiral Vincent Atkins

Testimony of Rear Admiral Vincent Atkins, U.S. Coast Guard, before the House Subcommittee on Homeland Security, on Department of Homeland Security Air and Marine Operations and Investments

Release Date: April 19, 2010

Washington, D.C.
(Remarks as Prepared)

Good morning Mr. Chairman and distinguished members of the subcommittee. I am honored to appear before you today to speak about Coast Guard cooperation with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Office of Air and Marine. I will discuss our current cooperation in the areas of maritime drug and alien migrant interdiction as well as joint capabilities under development.

The Coast Guard is a military service and a branch of the armed forces of the United States. We are the only service given statutory responsibility and authority for direct law enforcement action. Since the founding of the Revenue Cutter Service in 1790, Congress has granted our Service expansive authority to board and inspect vessels at sea. After the Civil War, Congress removed geographic limitations on our boarding authority, directing the Revenue Cutter Service to enforce or assist in the enforcement of all applicable federal laws on, under, and over the high seas, in addition to waters subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. This worldwide boarding authority, codified in 14 U.S.C. § 2 and 89, is the foundation of the Coast Guard’s maritime law enforcement mission, and specifically maritime drug and migrant interdiction. Today’s boarding officers lead teams of two or more uniformed officers to “make inquiries, examinations, inspections, searches, seizures, and arrests upon the high seas and waters over which the United States has jurisdiction, for the prevention, detection, and suppression of violations of laws of the United States.”

As a component within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Coast Guard plans and coordinates mission execution closely with other DHS components including Customs and Border Protection (CBP). This partnership is most prominent in the execution of our shared counterdrug mission.

Maritime Drug Interdiction

The Eastern Pacific and Western Caribbean serve as the principal maritime threat vectors, followed by the Central and Eastern Caribbean vectors. Non-commercial maritime conveyances such as go-fast vessels, self-propelled semi-submersibles (SPSS) and fishing vessels are the drug smuggling conveyances of choice. Go-fasts and SPSSs account for approximately 47 percent and 27 percent, respectively, of the maritime movement of cocaine toward the United States.

The Coast Guard, in cooperation with our partners in CBP Office of Air and Marine, plays a pivotal role implementing the U.S. government’s strategy for disrupting the flow of illicit drugs. The Coast Guard is the lead federal agency for maritime drug interdiction in the transit zone, which covers a six million square mile area—roughly twice the size of the continental United States—including the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and Eastern Pacific. The Coast Guard strives to reduce the supply of drugs by denying smugglers the use of maritime routes and conveyances, principally from South American source countries. To cover these large maritime areas, the Coast Guard and CBP Office of Air and Marine deploy maritime patrol aircraft. We assign our largest cutters, which carry helicopters, small boats, and boarding teams, to the transit zone. Additionally, we deploy our law enforcement boarding teams (LEDETS) onboard US and allied naval ships as a force multiplier in the transit zone

The Coast Guard maintains its interdiction posture from the transit zone through the arrival zone with tactics integrated and focused on end-game prosecution. In the transit zone, maritime patrol aircraft survey large expanses of ocean and key geographical chokepoints for suspect vessels. Detecting a vessel of interest, the maritime patrol aircraft engages our cutter forces to initiate the critical interdiction phase. An armed helicopter launched from a cutter flight deck responds to intercept the suspect vessel and, with warning and disabling shots, brings it to a halt. Boarding teams from cutter-launched small boats then board the vessel, confiscate the drugs, and place the suspects in custody.

The arrival zone encompasses the coastal regions of the Southeast U.S., the Gulf of Mexico, and the coastal regions of southern California. From shore, fixed-wing patrol aircraft and helicopters, as well as patrol and interceptor boats, lay surveillance net to intercept smugglers on the last leg of their transit to U.S. shores.

This interdiction model has resulted in great success. In 2009, the Coast Guard experienced one of its most successful years, intercepting and preventing more than $5 billion worth of illegal drugs from reaching American shores. The Coast Guard armed helicopter interdiction squadron (HITRON), in fact, interdicted a record number of vessels – 32 – and is on an even stronger pace in FY 2010.

Though the Coast Guard is the lead federal agency for maritime drug interdiction in the Eastern Pacific and Caribbean transit zone, we could not do our job without the tremendous interagency and international cooperation that comes together under unified command and control at Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF South). This Task Force includes components from Coast Guard, CBP Office of Air and Marine P-3 airborne early warning and long range tracker aircraft, the Department of Defense (DoD), the Department of Justice (DOJ), and the National Security Agency, as well as liaison officers from 11 different countries to facilitate transnational cooperative counterdrug efforts. JIATF South is responsible for directing interagency detection, monitoring, and sorting of air and maritime drug smuggling events; fusing intelligence and law enforcement information; and planning and conducting flexible operations that enable the Coast Guard to interdict and disrupt drug smuggling throughout the transit zone.

The coordinated function of JIATF South is best described by an example. A typical case begins when JIATF South receives actionable law enforcement information from the Drug Enforcement Administration. This prompts cueing of a maritime patrol aircraft, either a CBP Office of Air and Marine P-3 or a Coast Guard C-130 aircraft, to detect and monitor a foreign flagged suspect vessel. JIATF South then vectors a Coast Guard cutter, U.S. Navy, or allied surface ship with an embarked Law Enforcement Detachment to intercept. When the ship arrives on scene with the suspect vessel, the operation transitions from the detection and monitoring phase to the interdiction and apprehension phase; tactical control is then shifted from JIATF South to the appropriate Coast Guard District (the Eleventh Coast Guard District for operations in the Eastern Pacific or the Seventh Coast Guard District for operations in the Caribbean). For a foreign flag vessel, the Coast Guard tactical commander implements a bilateral agreement or arrangement in force with the vessel’s flag state to confirm registry and to stop, board, and search the vessel for drugs. If drugs are found, jurisdiction and disposition over the vessel, drugs, and crew are coordinated with the State Department, DOJ, and the flag state. This process plays out every day with amazing effectiveness and efficiency, largely due to the unified command and control that JIATF South exercises across multiple partner agency assets.

In FY 2009, Coast Guard provided 4,036 hours, and CBP Office of Air and Marine provided 6,497 hours, of maritime patrol aircraft coverage to support JIATF South operations. In FY 2009, these hours of coverage resulted in surface assets being vectored to intercept 105 suspect targets of interest, resulting in the removal of over 156,876 kg of cocaine. For FY 2010, the Coast Guard has allocated 4,700 hours of maritime patrol aircraft coverage to support JIATF South operations.

Coast Guard and CBP Office of Air and Marine cooperation on maritime patrol coverage in the illicit drug smuggling transit zone is only one facet of our effort to produce efficiencies in areas of mutual responsibility. From leadership to the front line, Coast Guard and CBP Office of Air and Marine have engaged as partners to create a more unified purpose in operational, logistical, and administrative efforts. Coast Guard and CBP Office of Air and Marine executives meet quarterly as part of the DHS Senior Guidance Team to discuss agency-level issues, which include: small vessel strategy, joint unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), joint targeting, joint logistics cooperation, joint budget development and justification, joint specialized forces, mass migration coordination, and interagency operations centers.

Known as the “One DHS Air” initiative, the Coast Guard and CBP Office of Air and Marine staffs have developed over the last year a project team to specifically address potential economic efficiencies in departmental aviation operations. Subject matter experts in each agency are cooperating to study the costs and benefits of collocating nearby operational units. Business case analyses are ongoing for Puerto Rico and Sacramento and are scheduled for four additional locations. A unified information management system for existing aviation assets of both agencies is also being studied. Our goal is to have interoperable training, operations, safety standards, and information management for all of our aviation forces within the next several years.

We have initiated joint acquisition review of critical assets to evaluate them from a complementary perspective. A successful demonstration of this partnership is the UAS program. Cooperating in the development of requirements, our two agencies have created a joint operational program. As the Coast Guard continues to develop its cutter-based UAS program to address our specific capability gaps, we will build upon the knowledge gained in our joint land-based UAS program.

Interdicting Migrants at Sea

Illegal drugs are not the only threat to our national security moving via maritime means. Every year, people try to enter this country illegally via maritime routes, many utilizing organized smuggling operations. They often transit in dangerously overloaded, unseaworthy, or otherwise unsafe craft. This maritime flow of undocumented migrants onto America’s shores is both a threat to the lives of those who attempt the voyage and in violation of U.S. and international law. Coast Guard migrant interdiction operations are as much humanitarian efforts as they are law enforcement actions. Many of the migrant interdiction cases handled by the Coast Guard involve search and rescue actions, usually on the high seas rather than in U.S. coastal waters. The Coast Guard maintains a persistent presence of deepwater cutters and aircraft in the Florida Straits, Windward Passage, and Mona Passage to deter illegal immigration and conduct interdiction operations. Frequent pulse operations with these assets prepare us to respond during periods of heightened migrant flow.

Between 2004 and 2006, Dominican citizens represented the largest nationality group trying to enter the United States illegally. During this period, an estimated average of over 8,600 migrants per year entered Puerto Rico across the Mona Passage, the 90 mile expanse of water that separates the east coast of the Dominican Republic from the west coast of Puerto Rico. This rate dropped precipitously to only 1,268 migrants last year. Through constant, effective patrol presence, the Coast Guard estimates it has been able to interdict over 50 percent of those attempting to use the Mona Passage route.

Just as we do in drug interdiction, we rely on technological innovation, unified command and control, and partnerships with other agencies, such as CBP Office of Air and Marine, to counter alien smuggling. In Coast Guard Sector San Juan, the effective interdiction of smuggling vessels in the Mona Passage and the deployment of a mobile biometrics capability on 110-foot patrol boats, combined with interagency support for prosecution, has proven extremely effective in reducing the flow of illegal migration in that location.

In 2006, the Coast Guard approached US-VISIT with a proposal to undertake a joint Proof of Concept in partnership with CBP that focused on collecting biometrics at sea. Since Nov. 17, 2006, the Coast Guard has been using biometrics to make positive identification of migrants interdicted within the Mona Passage. On April 15, 2008, the Coast Guard expanded the use of this capability to include biometrics collection aboard patrol boats operating in and around South Florida. Prior to biometric collection, there were very few prosecutions for illegal migrant activity across the Mona Passage. The Coast Guard’s use of biometric technology, in cooperation with our key partners (CBP, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), DOJ, and the Dominican Navy) has significantly improved the success for the migrant interdiction mission. We have seen an 80 percent reduction in the maritime migrant flow through the Mona Passage, collected over 2,700 biometric signatures, of which over 700 were found to have criminal records. Approximately 330 successful prosecutions have resulted from this program.

This impact would not have been possible without our partners, including CBP Office of Air and Marine, participating in a unified command and control concept now called the Caribbean Border Interagency Group (CBIG). CBIG works because each agency involved has committed its intelligence, maritime, and air assets to the unified command at Coast Guard Sector San Juan. It is the Coast Guard’s experience that a unified command across a specified joint operations area, such as the Mona Passage, with integration of intelligence, situational awareness, operational picture, and enforcement functions, will result in maximum effectiveness from available resources. This unified operating concept, coupled with coordinated detention, removal, repatriation, and prosecutions ashore, indeed has proven very effective. These partnerships also exist in other locations to counter other threats. The South Florida Maritime Border Interagency Group is similar in organizational structure, with the same outstanding results combating smugglers that operate in and around the Florida Straits. Both efforts are similar in concept, though smaller in scale, to JIATFs South and West.

Like drug traffickers, migrant smugglers have also profited from technological innovations, particularly high-speed, multi-engine, go-fast boats. Go-fast smuggling vessels have replaced rafts and rusticas as the preferred mode of transportation due to their increased probability of success. We estimate that the rate of success for a raft or rustica is never better than 50 percent and generally 25 percent or lower. By comparison, the rate of success for a go-fast vessel operated by a migrant smuggling organization is estimated at 70 percent. Migrant smuggling via go-fast vessels is a multi-million dollar enterprise that brings thousands of undocumented aliens to the U.S. at prices of up to $10,000 per person.

To address this threat, the DHS Boat Commodity Council jointly procured and deployed high speed pursuit boats, with crews trained in employing warning shots and disabling fire against non-compliant smuggling vessels. The Boat Commodity Council was established shortly after DHS was formed to foster a close working relationship between DHS components that operate boats, and to develop procedures to optimize efficiencies. The Boat Commodity Council is co-chaired by the Coast Guard and CBP Office of Air and Marine.

The Boat Commodity Council has facilitated a number of cooperative initiatives:

  1. Through an Interagency Support Agreement, CBP provides contracted preventative maintenance and casualty repair for the aforementioned high speed interceptor boat and conducts depot level maintenance on over 1,600 Coast Guard outboard engines. As a result, outboard engines are no longer one of the Coast Guard’s top operational degraders.
  2. CBP Office of Air and Marine and the Coast Guard share joint maintenance facilities at seven locations, thereby reducing expenses.
  3. Joint procurement of boats, parts, and personnel protective equipment allows the Department to leverage greater buying power in the marketplace.
  4. These initiatives have saved DHS approximately $9 million in procurement and maintenance costs since the Department’s formation.

The key to effective employment of Coast Guard and CBP Office of Air and Marine assets is unified command, control, communications, planning, and mission execution. This is well illustrated by the San Diego Maritime Unified Command. The Unified Command includes the leadership of the Coast Guard, CBPs Office of Air and Marine and Office of Border Patrol, the San Diego Harbor Police, and other port partners. Members of the San Diego Maritime Unified Command attend weekly Operational Planning Cell meetings, where the Operational Action Plan (OAP) is finalized and published for the following week. Senior managers receive a joint intelligence brief, provide strategic guidance, and then depart, leaving the agency tacticians to formulate an operational plan that supports the mission requirements, and is responsive to cued intelligence. Prior to the establishment of a unified command and the joint planning process, there was very little coordination among DHS components in San Diego, often resulting in overlapping operational areas and gaps in the maritime approaches that could be exploited by criminal organizations. The OAP has eliminated the parallel tasking which resulted in these gaps, and has maximized the widespread deployment of forces in a logical and organized manner. The OAP has also exploited the strengths of the assets that each agency brings to bear: the Coast Guard’s unique ability to both supply persistent offshore surface and rotary presence; CBP Office of Air and Marine’s interceptor boats and land side rotary capability; and CBP Office of Border Patrol’s ground forces. The OAP weaves these forces into a multi-layered defense in depth for the San Diego area of operations.

As a result of the successes of the unified command and the Coast Guard’s ability to relevantly function in both the DoD and the civil law enforcement arenas, Coast Guard Sector San Diego has become the point of integration for Joint Task Force North and its Defense Support to Civil Authorities law enforcement support. Recognizing the validity and success of unified operations, Commander for the Navy’s Third Fleet, based in San Diego, has directed his forces to establish a continuing relationship with the Coast Guard, primarily providing persistent detection and monitoring westward of the international sea boundary. In addition to our civil law enforcement port partners, the San Diego Maritime Unified Command now integrates U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Air Force, and DoD special forces into homeland security and law enforcement operations. The success of the joint planning process has been recognized as a best practice. Coast Guard Sector San Diego planning officers have exported the process to both Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles / Long Beach and to CBP Office of Border Patrol Yuma Sector.

The following case is illustrative of multi-agency coordination in a Coast Guard unified command and control structure.

On the evening of Feb. 5, 2010, a U.S. Navy aircraft located a suspect panga vessel with its lights out in the Pacific Ocean approximately 30 nautical miles west of La Jolla, CA. The naval aircraft tracked the suspect panga until a CBP Office of Air and Marine vessel was able to intercept it near Oceanside, CA. After a brief pursuit, the CBP marine asset fired warning shots, after which the suspect vessel stopped. The subsequent CBP Office of Air and Marine boarding resulted in the apprehension of 23 illegal aliens and seizure of the vessel. The alien migrants were transferred onto a Coast Guard patrol boat and transported back to shore for removal by Office of Border Patrol agents. The vessel's Mexican national operator was interviewed and detained by ICE for possible prosecution. The panga vessel was towed back to the San Diego Marine Unit for seizure. The Coast Guard Sector Command Center in San Diego coordinated the entire case across the Navy, Coast Guard, CBP, and ICE, under the governance of the established maritime unified command.

Whether operating thousands of miles down range off South and Central America, or operating in our nation’s littorals, the Coast Guard is playing a critical maritime border security role countering a broad range of illicit activities in established smuggling routes throughout the maritime domain.

There are several key principles that leverage success with our partners such as CBP Office of Air and Marine:

  • Unified command, control and communications across defined joint operating areas;
  • Integrated intelligence, situational awareness, planning, and operational response; and
  • Common platforms, doctrine, tactics, and training.

The successes I have described in the Eastern Pacific, Mona Passage, and off Southern California demonstrate the effectiveness of the Interagency Operations Center (IOC) concept that is being developed and deployed around the country by the Coast Guard. The San Diego center is a prototype wherein multiple port partners from DHS, DoD, state, and local agencies work in unity to coordinate mission planning, execution, and monitoring. Directed by the SAFE Port Act of 2006, the Coast Guard is the Department’s executive agent for the establishment of IOCs in high priority ports. These IOCs will have the mission and capability to improve unified command and control, and execute integrated situational awareness and response, among all DHS components and other port partners. Critical elements of IOCs include a concept of operations where relevant partners have established protocols to achieve interagency planning, coordination and operations; direct access to the WatchKeeper IOC information management tool, or other similar displays in order for IOC member agencies to achieve enhanced situational awareness; joint awareness and coordination of planned vessel inspection activities between Coast Guard and CBP; operation under a unified command structure; and adherence to the best practices described in the Maritime Port Operations Handbook and IOC Concept of Operations, as appropriate.

I have focused on the interdiction of drugs and migrants, because these are the missions in which we have significant synergy with CBP Office of Air and Marine. However, those missions are but two of the eleven missions the Coast Guard conducts daily for the safety and security of the American public. Day and night, in good weather and bad, 24-hours a day and 365 days a year, for over 219 years, our young men and women are on watch, ever-vigilant, always ready. The Coast Guard actively seeks to defeat those who would do harm to our great nation, rescues mariners in distress, facilitates safe travel and trade by maintaining our marine transportation system, and ensures effective stewardship of our marine resources.

It is our unique authorities, capabilities, competencies, and partnerships, both foreign and domestic, which enable the Coast Guard, along with our fellow DHS components and the other branches of the armed forces, to consistently and effectively execute our mission as America’s maritime guardian.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today. I will be happy to answer any questions you may have.

Last Updated: 02/15/2017
Was this page helpful?
This page was not helpful because the content