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My Coast Guard
Commentary | Oct. 5, 2022

Coordinating combat exercise operations from the inside of the cutter 

By Petty Officer 3rd Class Matthew Abban, Coast Guard Academy external affairs 

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about a top-secret clearance? Is it men and women with shades and suits, or maybe a couple of briefcases and the occasional earpiece? How about a group of Coast Guardsmen cooped up inside a 270-foot cutter’s combat information center (CIC) 24/7; receiving and relaying information that is vital to both the operational success of their ship and the safety of their crew? Probably not what one imagined, but for a group of Coast Guardsmen aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Bear, that is precisely the level of responsibility they delivered during the recent Operation Nanook, a Canadian-led, multinational military exercise.

“Nanook is a joint military exercise to test our maneuvers and capabilities while working in a multi-mission platform with other nation’s warships,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class John Roberts, an intelligence specialist aboard Bear. 

Although nearly six years into his Coast Guard career, and three into his rating, this was Roberts’ first patrol on a medium endurance cutter making him a newcomer to the platform. 

“This time I got to see what it was like behind the shutters in combat,” said Roberts. “I had to go out of the range of what my job specialty would normally expect and require knowledge-wise. For instance, in one afternoon, I had to familiarize myself with manuals that read like an entirely different language.” 

Roberts is an intelligence specialist, and as the name holds, it is a job that typically gravitates around intel, whether it be receiving, analyzing, or disseminating. So in an operation that is largely devoid of the demand for these skills, Roberts was forced to shift gears and focus on seemingly niche areas that were crucial to Bear’s success in Nanook.

“Heading into the Arctic is a different platform for how you need to look at things,” Roberts explained. “You go up north and you’re looking for icebergs, storms, and heavy seas. So in this case, the command needed me to focus very heavily on the weather and how that could affect our plan of the day.” 

Training himself on the basics of meteorology, Roberts spent hours meticulously analyzing weather forecasts, looking at them alongside the next day’s planned exercise, referred to as “serials” by combat practitioners, and incorporating them into a brief which was given daily to Bear’s command. These serials were not small undertakings by the Nanook convoy, either. For nearly two weeks straight, every day was filled with evolutions that ranged from search and rescue and specialized law enforcement boardings, to gunnery exercises and narrow transits into ancient fjords. For the CIC team, vetting all of these variables and subsequently reporting them to their higher-ups was the weight they were tasked with carrying. This theme of adaptability was common not only for Roberts, but for the rest of his CIC shipmates too.

“We did a good job of getting everyone involved in some way, giving each member some piece of information to hone in on and become the subject matter expert,” Roberts said. “Between Chief McGriff, OS1 Gordon, OS2 Hidalgo-Fernandez, OS3 Abraham and OS3 Reese, as well as the unconditional support from the information systems technicians and electronics technicians, every single person had some hand in everything that was going on.”

This insight allowed for Bear’s crewmembers to not just observe, but also participate in areas outside of their comfort zone. For instance, Petty Officer 1st Class Kris Gordon, an operations specialist aboard Bear, was taken back to square one in Nanook with respect to familiarity.

“There were a lot of ways we were pushed as a team within the operations department,” he explained. “For me, I think it was getting acclimated with being on a cutter after being an ‘OS’ at a sector for most of my career. Being underway was really uncharted territory for me, no pun intended. Communications, especially the use of tactical signals to pass important information from ship-to-ship, was completely new to me with nearly 17 years of experience. But I would gladly do it again if I had the chance.” 

Learning tactical signals, or TACSIGS, Gordon refers to was no small feat either. TACSIGS are a lost form of communication the Coast Guard no longer teaches. Only as a result of CIC’s collective brain power was Bear able to engage in close-quarter maneuvering with other ships in the convoy— often times, only at moment’s notice. For perspective, these navigation signals harken all the way back to the 1940s, were used by a boat commissioned in the 1980s, and in an operation conducted in the 2020s.

On top of finding steady footing while moving at this whirlwind pace, Gordon was also responsible for running the operations specialists’ shop in the CIC, which made him both the point-of-contact and fallback figure while constantly tracking the command’s task fleet daily training schedule. However, due to the occasional miscommunication between the Canadian, American, French and Danish ships, when planned evolutions fell through, Gordon and his team would rise to the challenge and create training exercises for the entire fleet. 

“I’m proud of my shop for overcoming challenge after challenge in a high tempo environment. We mastered our knowledge of tactical signals and adapted well to the many changes we faced on a regular basis,” he said. 

Roberts, Gordon, and the entire Bear crew overcame many obstacles. The team poured countless hours into such arduous work, which was made more difficult due to the Coast Guard transfer season and the influx of new personnel. The unreliable internet capabilities to carry out critical tasking also challenged the crew. The cutter’s crew demonstrated steadfast dedication, amounting to bother operational success and the creation of unique memories that will forever live on with those who got the job done.

“Operation Nanook was eye-opening, challenging, and an overall unique experience,” Gordon reflected. “It shed light on how our brothers and sisters in Canada and across the Atlantic execute similar missions and provided foresight on future operations in the North Atlantic.”

When it comes to sea stories, Gordon happily recounted the experiences that he’ll be taking home with him.

“As far as being a unique overall experience for me, I met and swapped sea stories with Canadian, French, and Dutch sailors. I also had the opportunity to have lunch aboard the French  Warship Rhone and visit Greenland. I even got to explore a fjord for the day, I mean, what even is a fjord?! That’s what I would’ve said before this,” he laughed. 

Bear and its crew were deployed since July on behalf of U.S. Coast Guard Atlantic Area to participate in Operation Nanook, support the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization, deter illegal fishing, and increase maritime domain awareness in tandem with allied and partner nations. They returned to their homeport of Portsmouth, Virginia, Sep 20.