PATFORSWA Lessons Learned, Expeditionary WPCs

We have had some discussion recently about how lessons of expeditionary deployment of patrol craft are lost and must be relearned. I’m opening this post in hopes it will be a temporary repository for discussion of what went well and what needed improvement. There are a number of possible topics that come to mind.

Command Relationships
Personnel policies
Rules of Engagement

For starters I will quote Craig Allen Jr.’s comments on an earlier post:

“…the Coast Guard not capturing it’s lessons-learned from Vietnam–I agree! There is very little to document that extraordinary expeditionary USCG operation. I fear the same hard-won knowledge from 12+ years of USCG OCO mission in the AG will also fade into obscurity unless there is an effort made to preserve it. The skillsets for MIP/MIO/SFA and operating in semi-permissive environments should not have to be reinvented every time they’re required.

“There are some organizational obstacles to internalizing the PATFORSWA lessons-learned though. One is that the mission is tied to OCO funding, which the USCG does not know whether it will get or not. (Every year the rumor is that the new P4 crew will be the ones to turn out the lights and lock up when the mission stands down.) Investing the effort/$ into making long-term organizational improvements in training, equipment, tactics, etc. when the future of the mission is so uncertain can be a tough sell. Second obstacle is the one-year tour length. Makes it difficult to gain the experience/knowledge required to internalize lessons-learned. By the time a P4 team adjusts to the battle rhythm and can start to see where improvements can be made, its already time to start preparing for handoff to their reliefs. Does the CG have 12 years of recent OCO experience or 1 year of experience repeated 12 times?

“Right now there are a few hundred PATFORSWA vets with recent first-hand knowledge of an important niche mission for the CG (and some at LANTAREA who have managed the program and know how its evolved over time.) So… are there lessons worth capturing to better prepare the CG to fulfill similar missions in the future? Have they been adequately discussed and recorded? If not, how do we ensure that they are?

“One hopes that, ten years from now, we’re not trying to figure out how to do these kinds of missions all over again. My suggestion that the USCG and USN establish an expeditionary PC training facility was one idea for how we might keep the skills sharp in anticipation of their likely demand in the future.”

11 thoughts on “PATFORSWA Lessons Learned, Expeditionary WPCs

  1. I am not convinced that creating a training facility will do anything other than start empire building and doomed to eventual elimination. A joint service think tank would serve a greater purpose. However, to do this the Coast Guard would have to abandon its engineering outlook for some and begin training thinkers. In her covering of the Adolph Eichmann trial in 1961, political philosopher Hannah Arendt, wrote that Eichmann was not an evil man but one who did not think. Does the Coast Guard lack thinkers?

    What is learned from the past is done through history. I know, I harp on this all the time but look at what the great military leaders of the past read and how they used it. The nations, and Coast Guard, needs more sailor/scholars. Those few who will look into the past, record it accurately and provide analysis and criticism.

    The U. S. Marine Corps has one of the best oral history programs. They use it to first, record the personal experiences of individuals, and second, to create a composite of events as learning training guides.

    I was saddened to see that the very fine video of BM1 Ruggeio’s description of the death of DC3 Burkenthal was largely ignored for what it was –a failure of procedure and understanding the situation. Ruggeio made several insightful comments such as dismissing obvious signs that things were wrong and not acting on them.

    The first step in any endeavor is to write it down. As the old axiom relates, if it ain’t written, it never happened.

  2. Bill Wells, do you believe the CG is in danger of abandoning a propensity for its members to use their best judgment on scene in favor of a reliance upon “standard procedures”, checklists, “pre-planned responses” and TTP?

  3. Individual action is not dictated on checklists. Nevertheless, checklists do offer a cooling period in decision making. During the late 1960s the Coast Guard introduced the first of its so-called “Judgmental” shooting courses. It was crude using pellet guns and a 16mm film. I never thought that judgment could be taught the name of the course should have been “Iffy Situational.” In a manner, the responses to the current day are “preplanned.”

    I am not so sure that best judgment is the primary element today. There are too many looking over the shoulders of the commands. A “best judgment” may be a career ending one.

    This isn’t new. It began in the late 1890s with the installation of wireless radios. Before then the cutter captains had remained near autonomous. For the history buffs, this is one reason Mike Healy remained in Alaska. A tongue-in-cheek nickname used for him was “gentle Mike.”

    Another factor where best judgment was not used is in the little taught Kurdika/Vigilant incident. Perhaps, had there been some sort of preplanned response that incident would have turned into a win for the Coast Guard. I recently read the comments of an officer who was in Charleston, I believe, who acted decisively to get the National SAR Plan activated in the wake of the Challenger incident. This one made the Coast Guard look good.

    Nothing is wrong with “standard procedures”, checklists, “pre-planned responses” and TTP” Like an even treatment of internal cowardice they prevent people from doing stupid things.

  4. Mr. Wells,

    If I read your post correctly, you are making two arguments:

    1: The Coast Guard needs to develop more critical thinkers (and a joint service think tank would be a good means to do so), and
    2: The Coast Guard as an organization needs to understand, appreciate, and learn from its service history better than it currently does.

    To your first point, as I’m sure you already know, the Coast Guard does place several officers into joint think tanks including RAND fellowships, Brookings, Harvard Nat’l Security fellowships, CNO’s SSG, ONA at the Pentagon, etc. However, perhaps you mean that the process of developing critical thinking skills should start sooner, say, at accession point education?

    To the second, one observation I’d offer is that the Coast Guard lacks a comprehensive officer PME program (nor does it require JPME). A few years back, the Midgrade Officer Leadership Analysis identified several areas in which midgrade Coast Guard officers were considered behind the mark. The biggest gaps identified were in strategic thinking, vision development and implementation, and political savvy. Those shortcomings suggest a need for a well-implemented O-PME program, but so far no movement has been detected on that front. (Interestingly, the enlisted force has one…)

    By contrast, the other services use PME as a means of reinforcing service history, ethos, desired skills, etc. The Marine Corps even takes it a step further and incorporates martial arts and physical fitness into their comprehensive “warrior ethos” development program.


    Back to the expeditionary patrol boat question- I still think a joint training facility is a worthwhile investment. Concept development requires innovative thinking, as Mr. Wells points out, but also experimentation and practice. Consider the Marine Corp’s development of amphibious warfare doctrine in the 20’s and 30’s. Visionaries like Lejeune and Ellis and a circle of thinkers at Quantico laid the intellectual groundwork for concepts that were then tested and retested through dozens of fleet exercises in Panama, Culebra, etc. Absent those exercises, it’s unlikely that they would have refined the doctrine and developed the equipment (like the LVT) that paid off in WWII. Are OCO PC ops unique enough to require their own doctrine? Perhaps. Some of the thoughts out there about using them in distributed maritime ops (Chris Rawley over at Information Dissemination talks about this a lot) or flotillas (see Captain Rubel in USNI Proceedings), etc. point to a potential renaissance in how the platform can be used in the future. Who is developing these concepts?

    Last observation: the Navy prepares its PC crews very differently than the USCG. Much less emphasis on CQC and more on fighting the ship in ROE scenarios. They use a “laser tag” system during simulated combat situations that records hits from an OPFOR boat on the PC and vice versa. After each situation, you can see who scored the first hit, how many, etc. That may have changed with most of the CONUS PCs now forward-deployed, but at any rate, both services have certain parts of the OCO mission that we excel in and could offer the other. If we’re going to be on similar platforms doing many of the same missions, it makes sense to combine resources and expertise for the train/equip portion of the mission. Another upside for the Navy is that, if they decide they want PC-type vessels in the fleet mix long-term, more joint ops w/ the USCG gives them meaningful employment when not needed for OCO missions while keeping some “small warship” knowledge/understanding within the SWO ranks.

    • Craig,

      I know there is a NATO school for small vessel inshore ops hosted by the Germans in the Baltic. I think it is more about missile boat tactics, but from what I saw of the description of the course it looks like the Coast Guard might have some useful input.

      For the sake of some of our readers (including me in some cases) please spell out acronyms he first time you use them.

  5. Over the decades I have read any number the reports from Rand and others. However, these reports seem to never influence policies or operations. They are, for the most part, just reports that sit on the shelf.

    Yes, critical thinking skills. Starting from day one and continuing at all levels. I’ve known some very bright people over the years who thought all the time. However, the people they worked for did not think critically. PME would help but this is what Captain Shoemaker wanted for his officers in 1894. This is where history would be more than helpful in understanding why the Coast Guard does not do more on these lines. A hint is in a 1928 report of then Commander Waesche. He headed gunnery training in CGHQ and noted that many of the cutters did no training at all because they considered the Coast Guard a “humanitarian” service and not a war fighter. That job belonged to the navy. Culture and how the Coast Guard views itself play a large role in thinking of the future. As I noted before, where are the lessons learned from the Vietnam squadrons? As far as I know, no Squadron One commander or any of the division commanders ever wrote about their experiences and observations.

    I know the CGA has begun teaching a formal USCG history course (1-hour) to first year cadets, but what are they getting? An overview? Popular history? Romanticism? I am not sure the people teaching it have the research background to know the service much less teach it. Coast Guard history is a specialty just as any other subject historical area and should be required for every year level with increasing emphasis on critical analysis — you know, like universities are supposed to do.

    The differences in patrol boat training styles between the Navy and Coast Guard is not new. I will have to say the Navy has gotten better at it. I remember how amateurish they conducted small craft operations in Vietnam. It was all “run and gun.” The Coast Guard looks at its patrol boat operations as slow, long-term affairs. A good historical example is the Hudson/Winslow incident at Cardenas during the Spanish-American War. People may know of the action but do they know how the commanding officer of Winslow got himself in the situation in the first place? How the slow plodding Hudson (Hudson had no guns until just a few weeks before going to Cuba) got him out of it?

    I’ve read some of the articles about the Inter War years. However, the USMC had to abide but the USN operational standards of landing boats in rather sheltered waters. Driving in the surf was more problematic which as you probably know gave rise to the Mulberries and other berries. How many Coast Guard officers have read the Navy war diaries from the Normandy Invasion?

    The Coast Guard has had some great officers and thinkers in the past. I cannot help to think that when there were fewer they were better or the few gave less to choose from.

    • The most productive period of thought in the US Navy was when the service was in poor material condition and largely neglected, eg Alfred T. Mahan’s books and creation of the Naval War College. Perhaps the CG is bound for a Renaissance.


    Chuck has mentioned the possibility of naval mortars and I was curious about it. Just came across this article and wanted to post it here because I thought it might interest some of the people here.

    Then I noticed the author’s name. Good stuff, interesting piece of history I didn’t know about. Enjoyed reading it.

  7. Pingback: More Lessons Learned, “Guardians of the Gulf: A History of Coast Guard Combat Operations in Support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, 2002-2004″ | Chuck Hill's CG Blog

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