From the bridge of the Bertholf: Eastern Pacific counter-drug arena

As one of the Coast Guard’s newest assets, the national security cutters bring operational capabilities the fleet needs for mission success. Compass has asked the wardroom of Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf, the service’s first NSC, to share their unique perspective on how the fleet’s newest class of cutters will perform in the world’s most challenging operating environments, and this week’s update comes from the ship’s commanding officer, Capt. John Prince. You can also also stop by Coast Guard Alaska for the view from the deck plate, focusing on Bertholf’s day to day operations that make their missions a success.

Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf, the service's first national security cutter, transits in the Eastern Pacific. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf, the service’s first national security cutter, transits in the Eastern Pacific. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Written by Capt. John Prince, commanding officer, Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf.

Greetings from Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

We are in port replenishing the ship, performing maintenance and the crew is enjoying some well deserved liberty. Our operational period here in the Bering Sea will come to a close soon and we will be replaced by another ship.

While our current patrol of the Bering Sea provides us with yet another opportunity to refine our use of ship sensors, command and control, helicopters, small boats, crew compliment, speed and endurance – what we call improving the “speed of the system” – I find myself reflecting on the impact this class of ship has already had in the Eastern Pacific counter-drug arena, and the impact it will have for other missions such as high seas drift net enforcement, Western and Central Pacific fisheries enforcement and disaster response.

Capt. John Prince has completed seven sea-going assignments and is the current commanding officer of Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Capt. John Prince has completed seven sea-going assignments and is the current commanding officer of Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

In our patrols of the Eastern Pacific, we successfully disrupted three of four panga style vessels detected simultaneously in the dark of night, using two small boats, the cutter, our Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron asset and a maritime patrol aircraft. We also partnered with a Navy frigate and her SH-60 helicopter, along with our HITRON helicopter and small boat, to interdict a go-fast vessel off the coast of Costa Rica. During our most recent Eastern Pacific deployment, we successfully engaged the full spectrum of illicit trafficking threats – self-propelled fully-submersible, self-propelled semi-submersible, single engine pangas, high speed multi-engine go-fast vessels and fishing vessels – disrupting or interdicting nearly half a billion dollars in cocaine.

In each event, our command and control systems, electro-optical and infrared sensors and radars allowed us to coordinate the efforts of multiple assets, document the actions of the suspect vessel on video, safely navigate the ship in close proximity to shoal water and affect a positive outcome. Our speed and sea keeping allowed us to respond quickly to all tasking, including a three-day run at 20 knots on the main diesel engines that only used 25 percent fuel as compared to nearly 70 percent fuel that would have been used on a high endurance cutter due to the need for its turbines to achieve such speed. Additionally, we made two interdictions in the territorial waters of a partner nation, through the support of a ship rider, enhancing our international partnerships.

Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf uses forward-looking infrared radar, or FLIR, in pursuit of go-fast vessels. The above image shows Bertholf in night pursuit of a suspect go-fast vessel. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf uses forward-looking infrared, or FLIR, in pursuit of go-fast vessels. The above image shows Bertholf in night pursuit of a suspect go-fast vessel. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

One event stands out in my mind as a testimony to these capabilities. We were patrolling the territorial waters of a partner nation with our helicopter out of commission. Our small boat was patrolling in the territorial waters and the cutter was close to the border. As we went to recover our small boat at 1 a.m., we spotted a fast moving contact on radar. The combat information center watch immediately vectored the small boat in pursuit and the go-fast bill was set. From the bridge, the officer of the deck started the gas turbine and within two minutes we were in pursuit at 26 knots.

Standing in front of the helm console on the bridge, I had the forward-looking infrared, common operating picture for blue forces and maritime domain awareness, surface radar and command display and control navigation displays all in clear view. On the overhead fiddle board I had the true wind, speed over ground, true heading, depth and rudder angle. From the keyswitch integrated terminal unit in the console I could monitor all communications between combat information center and the small boat, and could communicate directly with combat information center, main control, the small boat or our tactical commander if necessary.

In the middle of the night we were able to pursue, coordinate assets, safely navigate at high speed within three nautical miles of shoal water and watch the suspect vessels actions, all without having to move around the bridge or ask for information, and with a tremendous degree of safety and situational awareness. Over the next 45 minutes or so, our small boat and cutter wore the twin outboard 35-knot suspect vessel down and they were safely brought to a stop for law enforcement action.

That operation, and many of my experiences aboard Bertholf, gives me a high level of confidence that we will be similarly successful on high seas drift net and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing missions, as well as Western and Central Pacific fisheries missions covering hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean.

This image, captured with Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf's forward-looking infrared, or FLIR, shows the national security cutter moving in on a suspect vessel. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

This image, captured with Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf’s forward-looking infrared, or FLIR, shows the national security cutter moving in on a suspect vessel. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The Eastern Pacific area of responsibility stretches from the coast of Chile to the US/Mexico border, and seaward for hundreds of miles. Search and rescue in the Pacific crosses nine times zones and the international dateline. Threats to our homeland can originate in many areas and use the wide open expanses of the Pacific as shelter. The speed, endurance and capabilities of the national security cutter will be invaluable in every Coast Guard at sea mission, but most critically in the Pacific where these capabilities are a necessity.

As the first of the national security cutters, every patrol Bertholf undertakes is in some way historic for the Coast Guard and I’m proud to be a part of that history and even more impressed with the outstanding crew who are bringing this ship to life and contributing mission excellence on a daily basis.

I look forward to continuing to share stories and perspective from the bridge of the Bertholf.

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