Historically there have been two reasons to arm Coast Guard assets. Since 9/11 there is clearly another. Historically Coast Guard units were armed for law enforcement and to act as a naval reserve. The rationale added since 9/11 is to stop a maritime terrorist attack, and while there may be overlaps with the law enforcement and naval reserve mission capabilities, there are differences as well.
In terms of law enforcement, machine guns and other automatic weapons are usually adequate to convince perpetrators that fighting is not profitable. We need only demonstrate that fighting is not a good prospect compared with their chances in court. The medium caliber gun on our cutters reinforce this point.
In the past we have armed cutters to make them potentially useful as warships, or we have operated ships that had been built for the Navy and they retained some or all of their naval capability. For instance, 378s don’t look impressive as warships now, but when built, they were equal or even superior to many of the Navy’s destroyer escorts. They would have been welcomed additions to any convoy escort.
The Navy operates ships for no other purpose than to be prepared for war. 100% of the cost can be attributed to that goal. If the Coast Guard can, for a small incremental cost, operate a ship that is useful both for peacetime missions and for wartime naval missions, it is a bargain for the country.
In other countries, their navy handles coast guard type mission. Mine countermeasures ships do fisheries patrols. Frigates do law enforcement. We see a little of this when LEDETs embark on Navy ships to do drug enforcement or even conduct fisheries while transiting through the South Pacific. Some people, not recognizing the benefits of a separate service, may see this as a way to achieve savings by letting the Navy do Coast Guard work in peacetime. We have already had a call to move the Coast Guard into the DOD.
The need to defend against terrorist attack adds an additional, but in some ways very different rationale for arming Coast Guard assets. Specialist units like MSSTs have been created, but they are not a complete, or perhaps even the best answer to the threat. We are unlikely to have actionable advanced intelligence of an attack and terrorists may choose to use vessels of virtually any size, from canoes to super tankers. The most robust counter is for a variety of geographically diverse Coast Guard units to be prepared to respond. As long as terrorists choose to use small vessels for an attack, the way our units are armed for law enforcement is probably adequate, but if they choose a larger vessel, stopping it will require something more.
Unlike Coast Guard units that might expect to operate as part of a Navy task force units, units that find themselves in a counter terrorism situation are unlikely to have any support from Navy units. It is likely to come as a surprise, at close range, probably beginning with what appears to be a routine boarding. There may be hostages. Innocent civilians may be in the vicinity. Our own boarding party may be on board, either as hostages or in an ongoing firefight with the terrorists. Precision in application of force may be required.
On the other hand, terrorists are not likely to have large, long range, weapons or sophisticated countermeasures. Their most sophisticated weapons are likely to be man portable air defense and anti-tank missiles and most likely nothing more than automatic weapons and RPGs. Properly equipped, using appropriate tactics, units that might not be appropriate for operations with Navy strike groups can be adequately armed to deal with a terrorist attack, even those using a large ship. Extreme range is probably not required.
Right now we aren’t arming our assets to function as a naval reserve, the NSCs can move with a Navy task group, but they just don’t have the weapons to contribute much. If the Coast Guard is to remain relevant as an armed force, and fulfill its role in DHS, at the very least we need to be armed to deal with the terrorist threat.
I’m sure there are others, but in addition to the common automatic weapons, the systems I see as most appropriate for the counter terrorism mission, are:
- the Mk 38 Mod 2, both for its precision compared to crew served weapons and its electro-optic, night vision, surveillance capability.
- a reprogrammed light weight ASW torpedo for the capability to destroy the propeller(s) of any size ship.
- a laser designator paired with either the Raytheon Griffin or 2.75 inch, 70mm rockets with a laser guidance upgrade for their precision and light weight and the ability to give even small vessels the punch of a medium caliber gun.
All three of these systems could be mounted on units as small as 87 foot WPBs, although Fast Response Cutters, which are already getting the Mk 38 mod 2, probably should have priority.
In different circumstances, these capabilities could also prove useful in dealing with piracy and against swarm tactics.