Credit: Terrell Jermaine Starr

U.S. Coast Guard Base Seattle—America’s maritime borders got a significant patrol boost Saturday afternoon after the Coast Guard officially commissioned the USCGC Munro (WMSL-755), the service’s sixth National Security Cutter. The cutter comes at a very critical time as the Coast Guard is catching record amounts of drugs at sea, but also bracing for budget cuts to fund a planned border wall that is expected to cost upwards of $10 billion.

But the Munro, which cost $695 million to build, will join a fleet of cutters that are already walling off billions of dollars in drugs and criminals before they touch the homeland.

The cutter, part of the Legend class series, will be deployed to South America and the Bering Sea to conduct missions that include protecting America’s maritime borders, guarding fisheries and intercepting drug cartels carrying heavy amounts of narcotics in the ocean or any other body of water. Basically, the Munro’s job is to intercept threats and potential law enforcement issues before they reach America’s borders.

At 4,600 tons in displacement, 418 feet in length, 54 feet in beam, the Munro is quite the intimidating ship for a potential criminal entity that isn’t backed by military-grade hardware.

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One of the first things you notice about the Munro is the 57mm Mk 110 gun mount on the front end, which fires up to 220 rounds per minute. Backing up the Mark 110 are two M240B 7.62-mm machine guns, four .50-caliber machine guns, and two Mk 53 Nulka decoy launching systems. The decoy “radiates a large, ship-like radar cross section while flying a trajectory that lures ASMs away from their intended targets.”

A close up of the 57mm Mk 110 gun mount. Terrell Jermaine Starr

“So there are five previous National Security Cutters that are out there supporting this mission,” Captain Thomas H. King, Commanding Officer of the Munro, told me after the commissioning ceremony. “Munro is number six to be able to contribute to that mission by having one additional asset out there that can patrol father offshore.”

The U.S. Coast Guard has treaties with more than 40 countries around the world, according to Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard. During my interview with him Friday afternoon, Zukunft said those treaties, many in South America, give the Coast Guard law enforcement powers that include boarding a ship in foreign waters, seizing drugs in those waters, arresting the occupants in drug vessels or, if it comes to it, using deadly force up to a foreign nation’s shoreline to stop a boat suspected of smuggling drugs.

The Coast Guard cutter Bertholf (WMSL-750), pictured, is also a Legend-class ship. Photo credit DHS

“A lot of these countries don’t have a Navy or a Coast Guard,” Zukunft said. “So it’s no secret that smuggles have no respect for borders. And the more porous the border, the better for them. So we’re trying to seal some of these borders off.”

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When a Coast Guard patrol does take drug smugglers into custody, it reserves the right to transport them to the U.S. for prosecution when OK’d by the suspects’ home countries. In many cases, these countries will tell the Coast Guard to take custody of suspected smugglers.

“Some of these state prosecutors have a prosecution rate of three or four percent,” Zukunft said. “These (drug smugglers) will put some money out or threaten to kill the judge, so (law enforcement agencies) let them go. Our prosecution rate here in America is nearly 100 percent. So last year, we extradited 585 smugglers back to the United States for prosecution.”

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Named after WW II hero Douglas A. Munro, the Coast Guard’s only Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, Munro will be one of the cutters taking on those tasks. (It’s also the second cutter named for Munro.)

With a range of 12,000 nautical miles, the Munro will go on 60 to 90-day patrol cycles. Say if the crew detects a suspicious boat that can travel faster than the 28 knots the Munro allows, it can deploy two smaller, high speed boats, like its OTH-IV (Over the horizon) or the LRI-11 (Long Range Interceptor) to engage it. Both can reach maximum speeds of 40 knots.

What if a smuggler boat needs to be engaged from the air? Well, the Munro can host up to two MH-65D helicopters that have their own hangers on the ship.

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They aren’t Blackhawks, but the MH-65D is more than capable of engaging a smuggler vessel. Usually what happens when a chopper is deployed to engage a smuggler boat is that warning shots are fired across the bow and if they don’t stop, the sniper aboard the helicopter fires rounds that stop it.

Here are the hangers for the MH-65D helicopters and its flight deck.

A few weeks ago, the Coast Guard got its 500th interdiction since 2000 using this tactic; the overall wholesale value of the busts exceed $16.7 billion. In case you are wondering if that’s as much as it sounds, consider that the Coast Guard only has 12 cutters patrolling the world, mostly the eastern Pacific. And they are doing all of this with 42,000 enlisted men and women and a measly budget of only $9.1 billion a year, making the Coast Guard the smallest service by far.

The Coast Guard interdicts at sea three times the amounts of cocaine seized at U.S. borders and within the country combined, according to the service’s figures.

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One source of pride many Coast Guard men and women take in their service being undervalued—as many told me begrudgingly during my four days here at Coast Guard Base Seattle—is that their work pays for itself.

For example, the National Security Cutter Stratton returned from a three-month deployment in which the crew captured 6 tons of pure cocaine with a street value exceeding $55 million. The Stratton costs $467 million. Already, the cutter has paid down a significant amount of the costs required to build it. In total, the Coast Guard removed nearly $6 billion in cocaine at sea last year before it reach the U.S. mainland.

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At the same time, the Trump administration mulls a budget proposal that includes a 14 percent cut to the Coast Guard’s efforts; these cuts are part of a series of other controversial cuts designed to finance his border wall.

You also can’t draw comparisons to the Coast Guard’s efforts and a border wall without raising the question of illegal immigration; that is something the service deals with on a daily basis. In fact, it claims 17 interdictions with undocumented migrants every day—more than 6,000 people a year. The service had been especially busy with Cuban immigrants attempting to flee the island nation to the U.S. via boat; for two decades American policy was to allow those who reached land to stay here, but the Obama administration ended this “wet foot, dry foot” policy in January in order to try and normalize relations with Cuba. Soon after, 172 would-be Cuban immigrants were detained after trying to enter the U.S.

The Coast Guard is also especially busy with the uglier side of illegal immigration, which is human smuggling. Here’s what CNN reported in 2014:

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And, since 2012, the Coast Guard says it has seen human smugglers use new routes to get migrants to America — namely, by avoiding Florida altogether.

In Cuba’s case, people on the island now have more freedom to visit other countries. So, an increasing number of Cubans are legally flying to smaller Caribbean islands near the U.S. Virgin Islands, then smugglers are bringing them over to the tiny American territory. “That’s a very short maritime distance. And so, it’s tough to combat that,” said Capt. Mark Fedor, the chief of response for the Coast Guard 7th District.

For Haitians, the new routes are longer and more dangerous. “There are organized smugglers that will try to lure them from Haiti through the Dominican Republic, and then into Puerto Rico. That never happened really, before 2012. And now, that vector accounts for 40% of all the Haitians leaving Haiti,” said Fedor.

I asked Zukunft if this planned border wall would help his service in any way; he flatly said no.

Furthermore, he explained that border patrol, as far as intercepting drugs, begins at sea, not on the mainland. As long as Zukunft has enough aircraft and ships to intercept the submersibles and other drug-carrying vessels at sea, he has the upper hand.

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“Will a wall keep drugs out? No. (Drug cartels) will come up with multiple ingenious ways of how to conceal drugs into otherwise legitimate commerce,” he said.

He continued: “You’re much more effective if you can get much closer to the source and don’t wait until it arrives in our cities.”

Indeed, as one Coast Guard captain told me of his service, “We’re the border wall of the sea.”