The USCG Faces Personnel Reductions in the Face of the Gulf Oil Crisis

Credit Graph: Admiral Ed Gilbert

By Retired Admiral Ed Gilbert

The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) is the smallest of our military services (“The runt of the military litter”, said one highly biased anti-military pundit.) Although it has 11 missions assigned by statutes, most of us see it executing the vital search and rescue mission, responding quickly to major incidents such as Hurricane Katrina where it saved more than 30,000 lives, earthquake in Haiti where it was “first in and last out”, and of course the current work in the Gulf of Mexico. It has vessels on patrol in many places like a cop on the beat to deter illegal immigration, drug smuggling, and provide security to our coastal regions and ports. It enables our marine highway system with thousands of aids to navigation. Although little noticed in the Katrina aftermath, it surveyed ports along the Gulf coast, marked and reopened them in record time. A high percentage of the nation’s cargo flows through these vital waterways.

In an era where dramatically increased attention is being focused on the Arctic, our Coast Guard has the nation’s only Arctic icebreaker capability – a scant three vessels and two are down for repairs that should have been funded years ago. The Russian Federation has 25.

Most of the world’s navies resemble our Coast Guard, which is very active around the world doing training and cooperative programs, especially in less developed nations. It has a large contingent of personnel in Iraq assisting with Coast Guard type missions. “Soft power” was being done long before the term was coined.

Wrestling with personnel reductions should be the last of its concerns; not so, it is a major issue as developed below because of the Obama Administration’s budget submissions for FY11 and anticipated budgets thereafter. The Coast Guard’s work force has about 42,000 military, 7,600 civilians, and 7,500 reservists. Follow on articles will address reservist and civilians.

Thirty thousand volunteer USCG auxiliary personnel make unique and exceptionally valuable contributions. These are qualified to Coast Guard standards and do much operational work for the Coast Guard and training for the boating public.

A Military Personnel System Needs

  • Members striving for greater responsibility and leadership positions.
  • A normal “up or out” approach.
  • Training, which is critical to maintain competencies and ensure mission execution.
  • Adequate flow to avoid stagnation.
  • Few if any peaks and valleys, which are not good for the system.

Members enter the service by a variety of ways, but most officers come from the Coast Guard Academy or Officer Candidate School. Enlisted members start at boot camp in Cape May, NJ with a four-year service contract, and officers incur length of service obligations when commissioned or provided special education or training. Enlisted members often, “re-up” by extending their contracts.  These contracts and obligated periods of service inhibit quick reductions in the force.

Retention is another large factor. The steady-state systems are built on a predicted retention percentage based on historical trends. Retention is unusually high for the Coast Guard for a number of reasons, first and foremost, the Coast Guard offers an attractive career as a great place to work and do many worthwhile things very well. Economic conditions are another factor affecting whether people stay or leave. Retention rates are at a record high as shown below:

Enlisted System

  • 10 year average attrition – 12.5%
  • FY09 attrition – 9.5%
  • FY10 forecasted attrition – 7.5%
  • For every 1% decrease in attrition – 330 personnel remain in the service

Officer System

  • 10 year average – 6.81%
  • FY09 attrition – 5.54%
  • FY10 forecasted attrition – 5.50%

Because of 9/11 and other reasons, the service had been growing, and in April 2009 growth was predicted to be 10,000 over the next five years.   In a growth environment, carrying additional personnel allows the organization to keep up with the growth demand (chart 1).

Credit Graph: Admiral Ed GilbertCredit Graph: Admiral Ed Gilbert

By October 2009, FY11 forecasts had the USCG reducing personnel by approximately 1,100. This was about a 3,000 – almost 10% – billet swing; all within the same planning cycle.   This also occurred during the worse economic conditions in decades.  The normal out-flow of personnel was drastically reduced because of economic conditions in the private sector. Next year’s budget request is expected to reduce the force by another 1,000.


Officer System Actions:

  1. Total accessions reduced by about 25.
  2. Maximum reductions allowed by laws were in the number of Flag Officers.
  3. Increased attrition by reducing the opportunity of selection for all ranks (for example reducing the selection from 0-5 (Commander) to 0-6 (Captain) to 50%. Historically the Coast Guard and other organizations have had great difficulty in sorting with the level of cuts – many good experienced and vital performers do not make it.
  4. Zone sizes were adjusted to keep promotion points in range.
  5. Extended Active Duty and Continuation Contracts cut drastically.
  6. Academy class of 2014 – target reduced to 185 graduates.
  7. Obligated service for retirement was waived in some cases.

Enlisted System Actions:

  1. Selective Reenlistment Bonuses – Reduced to zero.
  2. Accessions were reduced in FY10 to 2,250.  The lowest ever.
  3. Extended active duty programs were cut.
  4. Professional Growth Points (time in service for promotional opportunities) were reduced.

In the future, if the service returns to its pre-2011 level of personnel, a “valley” in the workforce will have been introduced that will continue through the system for the 30 year life cycle. This will require a return to paying substantial bonuses to encourage a higher percentage to reenlist since we will be short of capability at the mid grade level.  Also these people will be frustrated because of slow promotions due to inadequate flow; they will have a propensity to want to leave the service.

One might ask: “Why are these cuts being made when the Coast Guard is busier than ever dealing with the oil spill and executing countless other jobs for us while we waste money on ‘jobs creation’ programs that don’t create jobs and run up the deficit?” The answer is quite simple: silly priorities by our elected officials. The solution is obvious.


***Posted on August 8th, 2010