The Coast Guard is often overshadowed by the Navy and Marine Corps’ much larger presence in San Diego, but its work covers large geographic and mission territories, and its effects are visible in many San Diegans’ lives.
Capt. Sean Mahoney, former commanding officer of Coast Guard Sector San Diego, described the area of responsibility as the coast from the U.S. border up to the San Diego County line, and inland to the Colorado River system, including the state of Arizona, southern Utah and southern Nevada.
Mahoney, who retired July 31 after three years in command, and Capt. Jonathan Spaner, who has just taken over the CO role, discussed the Coast Guard’s mission in San Diego, its recent work and what lies ahead.
The Coast Guard sector, with a workforce of 330 active duty, 145 reserves, 600 volunteer auxiliaries and 13 civilian members, is home to four large patrol boats or “cutters,” several smaller vessels that will respond within 30 minutes notice around the clock to any maritime needs, and three H-60 helicopters.
The Coast Guard is responsible for drug and human smuggling interdiction, inspecting commercial vessels — particularly cruise ships and sports fishing boats — investigating incidents, handling port traffic, conducting search and rescue missions, and serving as the law enforcement body on the seas, a role the Navy cannot play.
This law enforcement capacity is why the Coast Guard is responsible for making interdiction arrests and escorting Navy aircraft carriers and submarines as they transit the channel. Mahoney said the sector also works with the Navy for offshore smuggling threats.
During his command, Mahoney said smuggling was the sector’s biggest challenge and biggest accomplishment.
“I think the primary challenge we had was the constant smuggling that occurred offshore, both people — migrants — and narcotics,” Mahoney said, describing the sector’s move to allow smaller, faster boats to chase down the smuggling vessels known as pangas, to travel well beyond their normal 50 nautical-mile limit.
“Our patrol boats go well offshore, but the small boats that are faster and can do interdictions of the pangas, we were able to push them well beyond 100 nautical miles by providing asset packages of aircraft cutters and small boats offshore. That was a huge success for us,” Mahoney said.
Marijuana interdictions across all Southern California agencies increased from 25,000 pounds in 2011 to 117,000 pounds in 2012, he said, reflecting both increased smuggling efforts and innovative responses to the problem.
Spaner, who comes to San Diego from his most recent role as director of Coast Guard’s Office of Emerging Policy in Washington, D.C., said that because the sector is well-equipped to handle smuggling, thanks to Mahoney’s work, he will turn his focus to other areas.
“This sector is prepared and trained and proficient at dealing with that threat. What concerns me, or what I’ll remain focused on, is how that threat evolves,” Spaner said.
“Capt. Mahoney did an exceptional job pushing that out. What concerns me is the convergence of threats that might come together. ... If you have a vessel that can take drugs or people or anything like that, it’s a conveyance of sorts. I want to be sure that we interdict it every time as best we can because they do carry different things, and we know that threats over time do tend to converge.”
Spaner — whose title includes the duties of captain of the Port of San Diego and federal maritime security coordinator — will also handle cybersecurity, professional and personal development on base, and leveraging technology for improved results.
Having been in command for less than a week, Spaner said he will work with business leaders at the Port, and his counterparts at the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice and Department of Defense — a communication line that he says has already impressed him — to learn how the Coast Guard can maintain cybersecurity.
“I worked in my last job on developing the cyberstrategy for the Coast Guard … There definitely are cyberthreats we could have to deal with with the maritime infrastructure, and I want to be sure the port’s as prepared as it can be for something like that,” Spaner said.
“Cyber is a new and emerging field. We’ve heard about it for a long time but it’s a very complicated issue and the role of government I think is very important when it comes to cyber as well. What can and should our proper role be? How that’s implemented in a port environment like this takes a lot of discretion.”
Sensors and monitors
On the technology front, increasing the use of sensors and monitors to take the search out of search and rescue not only improves response times, but also increases efficiency in personnel use — something the Coast Guard, like all other military services, is having to consider as budgets decrease.
Spaner used Rescue21 as an example of how the Coast Guard is already doing this. The telecommunications tool allows service members to more accurately triangulate the location of distress calls by interfacing and listening to maritime users, thereby improving response times and results.
While Spaner and Mahoney agreed that experimenting with techniques like the Navy’s minimal manning concept and transition to more civilian contractor work aren’t in the Coast Guard’s immediate future, Spaner said the service’s new commandant, Adm. Paul Zukunft, is acutely aware of the funding problem, and is considering several solutions — in addition to technological improvements — to increase efficiency.
“He’s looking at options to manage our human resource system differently, or in a more innovative, smarter way,” Spaner said. “For example, could you rotate people less often — give them more geographic stability — and then they become even better experts in the region and community they serve?”
He said stability must be balanced with the need for personnel’s diversified experiences in order to be prepared for unforeseen circumstances, but is still a worthwhile idea.
“Working smarter, more deliberately makes you more efficient and saves money,” Spaner said. “We’re going to keep leveraging technology, and I know they’re going to take a look at things like geographic stability to try to contend with some of that.”
One of Spaner’s major focuses is personal development and community engagement. He said his mentor in the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization — an Air Force pilot — was a big influence in his life as he grew up in a single-parent home. He has been matched with little brothers several times, and has served on the organization’s board to ensure other children have positive influences.
In his first few days as CO, Spaner met with all of the Coast Guard petty officers and commissioned officers to detail his development goal, which he said is already in full effect at Sector San Diego, but something he will continue to advance.
“I want people to not only work well together as a team, but they came into public service with the idea that they could leave the world better than they found it. If they have a cause … I want them to have time to do that,” he said.
“I want our people — and their families — to achieve their ambitions, whatever those are. And I have a responsibility to be growing the next set of Coast Guard leaders, and that’s something I take very seriously.”
Spaner said he is a proponent of leading by example, and makes a point of fitting flying — he’s a pilot by trade — into his schedule several times a week, along with training and taking the same tests his subordinates must pass.
“I always take the first evaluation flight, and whatever my result is, I post it on the door,” Spaner said. “We have rescue swimmers here who are the folks who jump out of helicopters, and this is always hard for me, but I do train up and I take their test as well. I hope I’m going to finish last, but I’m going to train, and if I beat you — I wouldn’t want to lose to the captain!
“I think you should lead by example is my point, so people can see you’re imperfect, we’re all imperfect, but we do the best we can. I think transparency is huge.”
On a personal level, Spaner said he is interested in the Arctic and the connection between climate change and national security.
In his post in D.C., he developed the Coast Guard’s strategy in the Arctic, an area that will require increasing Coast Guard presence as ice melts and water areas grow. Spaner said he looks forward to delving into any effects particular to Sector San Diego in the area of climate change and security.
To fit all of this into a 24-hour day, Spaner arrives on base at 5 a.m. and runs down Harbor Drive before his 8 a.m. intelligence and threat briefing. He said mornings are typically full of meetings and administrative work.
In the afternoons he’ll focus on the operations side of things by walking around base, flying or getting underway on a patrol boat or smaller vessel. The CO comes in for an intelligence briefing every single day, including weekends — “I feel like I owe that to the community.”
The San Diego community is one of the main reasons why both Mahoney and Spaner requested to serve here, and why Mahoney will remain local in his retirement.
“I could have moved with the Coast Guard somewhere else, but my wife — we’ve been married 27 years and she moved nine times with me, which is very nice of her — but my daughters are both here, my wife’s here of course, they all love San Diego and I do, too. So we decided it was a good time to transition.”
Not only is Mahoney transitioning from a military to civilian role, but he’ll also be transitioning to a second career, after he gets a few days of use out of the fishing pole the officers and chiefs gave him.
“You know, for me I never had to do that — look for jobs — because I did when I was 17, and I’ve been in the Coast Guard for so long,” Mahoney said. “I’d like to do something close to the maritime environment, maybe with security or logistics or IT management.”
While he’s looking forward to this next step, Mahoney said he will miss the people and mission of the Coast Guard.
“I’ve been very proud to be part of the Coast Guard, and the crew here’s been just fabulous — they impressed me every single day,” Mahoney said. “I’ll miss coming on base, and the smiling faces and the excitement and the pride of being in the Coast Guard and the excitement about the missions that we do.”