“Navy at a Tipping Point,” What Does It Mean to the Coast Guard?

The Navy is shrinking and will have to make some hard choices. How will this effect the Coast Guard?

March 1, 2010 the Center for Naval Analysis published a now widely read and quoted treatise, discussing how the Navy can best reorder its priorities to deal with the new realities of a shrinking fleet and the rise of new potential competitors, particularly China, ” The Navy at a Tipping Point: Maritime Dominance at Stake?” It is available as a pdf and can be downloaded here.

It accepts that the Navy will shrink to approximately 230 ship from its current level of approximately 285 and outlines five alternative futures.

  • 2 Hub–continuously maintaining forward deployed Carrier Strike Groups (CSG) in the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean (IO) at the expense of engagement (nation building/maritime policing) and forcible entry (amphib) capability.
  • 1+ Hub–maintaining a forward deployed CSG in the Western Pacific and a tailored task group based on amphibs in the IO
  • Shaping–emphasizing maritime policing, Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HS/DR), and engagement with friendly navies/coast guards at the expense of combat capability (trying to create a more peaceful world but compromising warfighting ability)
  • Surge–Emphasizing strong combat capability but with much reduced forward deployment/engagement
  • Shrinking Status Quo–trying to continue doing all the same things with less

In the sparest terms their impact on the fleet are outlined below (ref. p 43):

  • 2 Hub–fewer amphibs and low end assets, more Aegis and SSNs
  • 1+ Hub–fewer CSG, more low end assets
  • Shaping–fewer CSG, Aegis, and SSNs, more amphibs and low end
  • Surge–fewer amphibs, low-end, and logistics, more Aegis and SSNs
  • Shrinking Status Quo–less of everything

Relative to their emphasis on the high end to low end spectrum the resulting fleet looks like this:

High End–2 Hub, Surge, Shrinking Status Quo, 1+ Hub, Shaping–Low End


The study doesn’t explicitly address some missions.

  • ASW protection for merchant shipping (and the attendant need for frigates), once a core mission of the Navy, wasn’t considered at all.
  • ASW operations against SSBNs wasn’t explicitly addressed
  • Nor were changes to our nuclear deterrents (SSBNs)
  • Possible future requirements to impose a blockade, if considered at all, were only addressed in nebulous terms of establishing “Sea Control” and the large number of low end units required was not addressed.

The USN doesn’t seem to regard coastal defense of the US as a mission that it needs to concern itself with. (I suppose that’s why we have a Coast Guard.) It is mentioned in the study only as a “wild card” that might constrain future options (page 22).

The Coast Guard performs many of the missions that Navies do in most countries. This has relieved the Navy of the requirement to maintain large numbers of low end assets. Unlike most countries, the US essentially has two Navies–the High End Navy and the low end Coast Guard. Since the USN has abdicated the low end tasks, expecting the Navy to mentor low end Navies around the world may be unrealistic anyway.

What I think will happen:

The Navy will make every effort to keep their high end assets–Carriers, Aegis equipped Guided Missile Cruisers and Destroyers and Submarines–exemplified in the  “2 Hub”  option, perhaps with deployments pulled back from the Asian mainland in recognition of the dangers of a Chinese first strike.

Amphibs and low end forces will be cut back further. The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) will be truncated far short of the originally planned 55 units.

Navy support for drug enforcement will be reduced, as will “engagement” in terms of interaction with small navies and coast guards. The Coast Guard will be asked to fill in, in the engagement role.

In wartime, the need for small vessels to do inspections for contraband, either as a quarantine or blockade or off the shores of friendly countries, as we did in Vietnam in Operation Market Time, or to protect offshore assets, as we are doing now off Iraq, will fall increasingly on the Coast Guard.

What I think we should do:

That the Coast Guard has a defense role needs to be more widely recognized, planned for, equipped, and appropriately funded, meaning a marginally larger force.

While I personally doubt its effectiveness, it can be argued that reduced Navy commitments in support of drug enforcement will need to be replaced by less expensive Coast Guard assets.

The Coast Guard can do engagement missions cheaper and possibly better, but they need to be properly funded, because they do effect our force structure. The same may be true of counter piracy.

To make it happen, we really need the Navy to strongly support the Coast Guard, and if they choose the high end option, they have an incentive to do so, as a way of explaining why they can reasonably walk away from some of the things they have done in the past and “let the Coast Guard do it.”

10 thoughts on ““Navy at a Tipping Point,” What Does It Mean to the Coast Guard?

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention “Navy at a Tipping Point,” What Does It Mean to the Coast Guard? - CGBlog.org -- Topsy.com

  2. We will never get the number of low-end ships we need (neither USN or USCG) unless they can be made inexpensively. Carrying on with our current procurement systems will never get us there. What we would LIKE to have is not necessarily the same as what we NEED to have. The CG will always have a few higher-end cutters. What we need is larger numbers of cutters that have a more limited capacity and endurance. Like police forces learned, you cannot suppress crime with a few patrol cars – you need the beat cops. We have an enormously long coast line. To effectively patrol that huge area, you need a lot of presence. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it has to be fairly high density.

    • If we actually had the ships we have planned, I would not be worried about our capabilities around most of the US coast (there would still be problems in the Arctic). When I joined the Service, all the large cutters were used on ocean station and for little else. The 210s were just coming into service, and they were far larger than the 125s and 165″B” class we started calling WMECs. The workhorses were 36 95 footers and 44 82 footers (25 more were built 1966-70 to replace those sent to Vietnam).

      The 58 Fast Response Cutters will be very capable. Much more so in every respect than the 125 and 165 foot “WMECs” and faster and with better “situational awareness” than either the 210s or 270s as built. The 72 Marine Protector Class 87 footers are faster and have better boat handling capabilities than either the 82s or 95s.

      If everything goes as planned, all together we will have a total of 163 patrol vessels:
      8 NSCs, 25 OPCs, 58 FRCs, and 72 WPBs.

      The problems I see are:

      1. The existing fleet will be long since have been worn out before this new fleet is delivered. At four boats a year, the last FRC won’t be delivered until 2026. At two ships a year the last OPC won’t be delivered until 2031.

      2. If the Country needs to do an operation similar in nature and size to Market Time, it no longer has number of vessels required. That could easily require the equivalent of half of the Coast Guard’s patrol fleet, plus supporting ships and aircraft. Yes, it can build something similar to swift boats on short notice. The Coast Guard could probably contribute patrol boats and small ships in numbers comparable to what it did during the Vietnam War, but the Navy no longer has the large number of small destroyers, destroyer escorts, and minesweepers that they had at that time. In 1968 the Navy had 932 ships. Now they have less than 290. Quantity does have a quality all its own.

      • Chuck – with all due respect, we don’t need to plan for a second Operation Market Time any more than we need to plan for a Normandy-size invasion support force. Those two scenarios are in and of the past, and the Coast Guard would do itself and the nation a disservice by trying to convince Congress otherwise.

        Given the current budget climate, the Coast Guard will be lucky to get the 8 NSCs, 25 OPCs, 58 FRCs, and 72 WPBs currently planned for. If the current OMB staff gets its way, those numbers will be far smaller.

      • Consensus views of what the next war will be like have been notoriously inaccurate, and a list of the of times statements that “We will never do that again.” have proven wrong would be very long, so I tend not to rule things out too hastily.

        Moreover I think you may have mistaken my intention. In the original post I wasn’t advocating more hulls specifically on the basis of a “Market Time” scenario. I was advocating the Navy support our needs based on whatever tasking they have planned for the Coast Guard. Remarks about Market Time were in reply to William Powell’s statement, “We have an enormously long coast line. To effectively patrol that huge area, you need a lot of presence. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it has to be fairly high density.” I have no great problems with what we have planned. Mostly I have a problem with how fast we are getting there. In the past we have frequently had ships reach 40 years old in service, but I think it’s fair to say that the large cutter fleet is now the oldest, on average, it has ever been and it will get much worse before it gets better. More than half of our large cutters are over 40 years old and only two are less than 20 years old. I share your concern that even the current plans will not be fulfilled. We need to counter the idea we can get by with less.

        As to the probability of another Normandy Invasion or Market Time operation. Certainly we aren’t likely to have to invade Europe again, and we have not done an opposed amphibious landing since the Korean War, but the Navy and Marine corp have both gone to great expense to retain the capability to do an opposed amphibious assault, and the Brits did do one in 1982. I wouldn’t completely write off the possibility yet, and I certainly would not try to tell the Marines another opposed amphibious assault is impossible.

        Market Time on the other hand was a much smaller operation, and something similar seems much more likely. In many parts of the world, including much of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, coastal shipping is still the most advantageous way to move goods. As long as that is true, if you are fighting an enemy on that terrain, you will want to deprive him of that advantage. If all of the traffic is enemy then perhaps you will have a free fire zone and can sink anything you see, but in the more likely case of an insurgency, you have to stop and inspect. To do that you need something like Market Time. The most recent example is the Sri Lankan Civil War. Defeating the Tamil Tiger separatist movement required a force very similar to Market Time.

        Patrol vessels at sea are like infantry on land. They are the boots on the ground. They hold the territory and deny the enemy access.

      • I agree with the concept of “never say never,” but one simply cannot make a case for another large scale Normandy-type invasion. As far as the Marines go, while I wouldn’t tell them they need to abandon their amphibious role entirely, recall that at one time they proposed an amphibious attack on Iraq, and that idea was quickly shelved when the reality of mines were faced. The same with Market Time. That was overseas, and there isn’t a current credible chance that we are going to face an enemy that can mount a serious coastal attack on the continental US – that is why OMB is raising such strong opposition to the Coast Guard’s plans to recapitalize their surface fleet.

        Those of us who served afloat understand the need for hulls on station. Unfortunately, the immediate past and current leadership hasn’t been able to make a compelling case for replacing the current cutter fleet with equal numbers, and the reality of the economy makes it highly doubtful we are going to win this battle.

      • Certainly the case for large cutters has to be made primarily on the basis of Coast Guard missions, not solely on the basis of usefulness as a Naval Auxiliary. We build the ships to do Coast Guard mission, but it may make sense to upgrade them to make them more useful as a naval vessel, if the return on the marginal cost justifies it.

        I would argue that while there is no overt threat of anyone invading the US, covert attacks from the sea, such as the Mumbai attack, are quite possible. There are other, even more lethal covert attacks from the sea that are possible, but that really has nothing to do with the large cutter fleet, since they don’t hang around our ports, and there are cheaper ways to deal with those types of threats. (India has decided to triple its Coast Guard since the Mumbai attack.)

        The large cutters are used primarily for drug enforcement, migrant interdiction, and fisheries, and to a lesser extent for SAR and MEP, primarily as command and control platforms. If we stopped doing distant drug interdiction we could certainly do with fewer large cutters, but that is a question of national strategy and priorities. I doubt if anyone is going to advocate stopping migrant interdiction, but again, do we do it short range, or well out to sea?

        The only way we can do with fewer ships is to stop doing some of the things we are doing now. If that’s what they want to do. They should tell us now so that we can decommission some ships right away.

        Meanwhile the LCS program is looking less like a weapons procurement program and more like a jobs program. The reasons Congress builds ships sometimes seem to have nothing to do with the future use of the ships. They help provide employment and they keep alive a critical industry necessary for the national defense.

        When we did Market Time, we were providing security assistance to a friendly government. Certainly that was and is a DOD mission, but then as now, the Navy did not have the appropriate resources. That scenario may play out again, but this time the Navy has even fewer of the resources they would need.

  3. FY 2011 BUDGET: If Congress and the Executive Branches can bother to finish all their required basic work from LAST term, ie; pass this year’s complete budgets for Navy and Coast Guard fully, then you will notice something interesting and very overdue:

    in the current Fiscal year 2011 budget, besides money for NSC cutter # 5, as well as funds for 4 more FRC cutters at Bollinger shipyard, there is $45 million for “the selection of a design for the offshore patrol cutter”.

    Want to wager a bet when the final detailed designs will be completed for the first of the 25+ new 3,000 ton WMSM class ? My money is that the winning shipyard(s), won’t begin OPC construction and complete the first one until 2020. So, if any of us last that long, we might see WMSM #1 doing sea trials in the year 2020. Maybe. But don’t hold your breath. The drug runners and human traffic smugglers all know this already, most likely. We can only hope that whatever new WMSM design is selected and built, that this much needed class of CUTTERS is not a “dog” while underway.

  4. The changes we saw in the last election suggest that it may be time (actually way past time) to accelerate the ship building program. Republicans who are strong on defense and law enforcement and Democrats who want to create jobs can use ship building as a way to satisfy both aims.

    Meanwhile, why haven’t we funded the forth National security Cutter yet? Funds were in the 2008 budget. Maybe they can do a two ship contract for both #4 & 5.

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