PORTSMOUTH, Va. — The Liberian-flagged tanker Cupid Feather doesn't look out of the ordinary. It is old and rusting, and its deck is deserted as it tosses at anchor in the wind-whipped swells of Chesapeake Bay, awaiting clearance to enter one of the nation's most strategic and target-rich waterways.
"Let's take a look," says Cole Hayes, captain of the Coast Guard patrol boat Tempest. His radioman on the bridge nods. "Cupid Feather," he says, picking up a microphone. "This is Naval Warship 2. Switch to channel zero-niner. We are dispatching a Coast Guard detachment to board you. Have your pilot ladder ready."
An inflatable Zodiac, launched from the Tempest, bounces over the top of the 6-foot swells toward the Cupid Feather, carrying six "Coasties" armed with 9-millimeter pistols and dressed in ski masks and cold-weather suits to protect them from a sub-zero wind chill. In minutes, they are up the ladder and on deck to check the passports of the crew of 24 hired in Taiwan, inspect cargo, look into spaces where a person could hide, talk to the Indian captain and determine whether the vessel represents any threat to homeland security.
Welcome to the post-9/11 Coast Guard, the smallest of the five U.S. military branches and the one whose role has been most dramatically altered by the war on terrorism. No longer does anyone joke that the Coast Guard's motto -- "Semper Paratus" (Always Ready) -- really translates as "Simply Forgot Us."
Traditionally an underfunded orphan of the military establishment, the 39,000-member agency -- only slightly larger than New York City's Police Department -- has been transformed from an emergency response outfit that rescued fishermen and interdicted drugs into a 24/7 combatant using preemptive, aggressive actions to secure the nation's 95,000 miles of coastline and 361 major ports.
"We used to have one boat in the barn, so to speak, and we'd bring it out and respond when called upon," says Vice Adm. James Hull, commander of the Atlantic Area. "It was a firehouse response. Now we're proactive. I want the bad guys to see our presence, to see our boats, to see our planes, to know we rely on intelligence and technology and say, 'Geez, I'm going to go someplace else. This isn't worth it.' "
The Coast Guard -- which was downsized by 10% in 1996 -- used to have a budget that often didn't keep up with inflation.
Even though it is a branch service, like the Army and Air Force, it was assigned to the Department of Transportation. Its armada was the sixth largest in the world but was, by some estimates, the 41st oldest, with the average age of its large ships 28 years. Some cutters patrolling off Alaska dated to World War II. In Congress, the Coast Guard had few advocates.
"All that changed suddenly and dramatically with 9/11," said Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.), chairman of the House subcommittee that overseas the Coast Guard. "Let me give you an example. On September 10th of 2001, 1% of the guard's budget was going to port and homeland security. September 12th, it was 60%.
"Because of the new role the Coast Guard has, in addition to its traditional missions, we've been able to put together a coalition of members of Congress who advocate the funding to get the job done," LoBiondo says. "There's no question the Coast Guard can do the job if it has three things: more money, more manpower, more modern assets."
The agency has diverted resources from some of its traditional duties, such as monitoring fisheries and maritime environmental protection, to meet its new goals. But senior officials said the guard's primary nonmilitary duty -- search and rescue -- has not been adversely affected.
The Coast Guard's 2003 budget included the largest increase for operating expenses since World War II, and its 2004 budget of $6.9 billion was up 13% from the previous year. A 15% manpower increase has been authorized and a team from Lockheed Martin Corp. is working to modernize the guard's fleet. The Coast Guard now has a full seat at the intelligence table and reports to Homeland Security instead of the Transportation Department.
No port has been closed because of intelligence that a terrorist attack was planned. And there are no "bad guys" on the Cupid Feather -- the captain's paperwork is in order and the vessel is cleared to proceed to Newport News to pick up a load of coal.
In fact, although a ship was kept at anchor in the harbor last March when a boarding party found two Iraqis among the crew (they were soon determined not to be terrorists and were cleared along with the vessel), very little out of the ordinary has been happening at the nation's ports.