A U.S. Coast Guard cutter is headed out on a six-month deployment to the Western Pacific for the first time in years, amid a heightened focus on the region and ramped-up tensions with China.
The 170 Coast Guardsmen on board have no idea when they, and their families at home, will see their next paycheck.
The legend-class maritime security cutter Bertholf departed its Alameda, California homeport Sunday, the 29th day of a partial government shutdown caused by an impasse in budget negotiations over funding for the construction of a wall on the U.S. Mexico border. The Coast Guard, which falls under the Department of Homeland Security, has continued to work, but lacks funding to continue to pay its members. Coasties missed their first biweekly paycheck Jan. 15.
As the Coast Guard trims operations down to the essentials, it was determined that this rare lengthy deployment to the Pacific should nevertheless proceed, Lt. Cmdr. Stephen Brickey, a spokesman for U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area, told Military.com.
"In the Coast Guard, we've curtailed operations to those that have to do with national security, protection of property and life," he said. "This deployment was an important national security objective, and we felt that this mission should continue."
During the deployment, Bertholf will be under the tactical control of U.S. 7th Fleet, operating in coordination with the Navy and sometimes joining Navy assets for maintenance and logistics availabilities. While Brickey declined to specify which stops the cutter would make, he said the vessel will visit multiple countries in the Indo-Pacific region and Oceania, conducting professional exchanges and land and sea capabilities demonstrations. More generally, he said, the cutter will be used as an asset to further U.S. strategy in the region.
"We haven't done a big deployment like this in about 10 years, this scope. There's been a renewed interest in that part of the world over the last decade for sure," he said.
For many partner nations in the region, he added, the U.S. Coast Guard represents many of the maritime capability sets they care about, including law enforcement, coastal and fisheries protection, and anti-smuggling efforts.
"Most countries in the world, they want to look like the U.S. Coast Guard," he said.
Brickey would not comment directly on whether Bertholf might find itself tasked with conducting a freedom of navigation operation, or FONOP, an increasingly common mission for the U.S. Navy in which ships sail through territorially contested waters in observation of international transit norms. These FONOPs, typically conducted in the South China Sea and East China Sea, are intended to challenge China's claims in the region.
"I can't talk about specific operations," Brickey said. "Really, they'll be under the tactical control of 7th fleet and they'll operate as directed. In general, U.S. forces operate in the Indo-Pacific on a daily basis, including the South China Sea."
While the extent of the cutter's mission set while deployed may be uncertain, the position of Coast Guard families at home is far more so.
"The typical feelings of leaving your family behind are just a thousand times more amplified when you're unsure what the status will be of pay," Brickey said.
In the days prior to the deployment, he said, local branches of support organizations and members of the community have come together to organize food drives and provide help to families in need of assistance.
"We need to exercise intrusive leadership and make sure our folks are taking care of themselves," he said. "There's the Coast Guard ethos of helping other people. Sometimes we forget to take care of ourselves."
While being under tactical control of the Navy will help the Coast Guard sustain the cutter's operations during the deployment, uncertainty surrounding how long the shutdown will drag on still overshadows the mission.
"I think, given the situation assessing operations is something that we're doing on a daily basis," Brickey said.
In a statement Sunday night, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz held up Bertholf's deployment as an example of the service remaining faithful to its mission despite all circumstances.
"These U.S. service members will sail halfway across the world to protect U.S. national interests while their loved ones try to cope with financial challenges at home in this unprecedented time," he said. "Our unique authorities and capabilities make the U.S. Coast Guard a military partner of choice in the Indo-Pacific theater that strengthens international alliances, enhances fair maritime governance, and projects U.S. power across the Pacific. Our Coast Guard service members are voluntarily going into harm's way without a paycheck. Alexander Hamilton would be proud."
-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.