What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate

There have been several articles recently that argue for the new generation of Coast Guard assets, particularly the new ships, here, here, and here. None of them seem very confident that these assets are coming. The Coast Guard does seem to be “swimming up stream” trying to increase its AC&I budget, while the government as a whole is trying to cut funding.

Ryan Erickson at http://1790.us/ found perhaps the best in an article about how conventional thinking on acquisition backfires resulting in higher unit costs, “How to-Make USCG Modernization Unaffordable,” by former Thirteenth District Commander, Rear Admiral Jeffrey M. Garrett, UCG (Ret.). If you have followed what has happened to the Royal Navy (or the F-35) you have seen this mode of operation:

  • It begins with big plans for numerous units of an advanced type.
  • Substantial investment is made in research and development, but it will be amortized over many units.
  • Procurement is stretched out to cut annual expenditure, unit price goes up.
  • Workload is uneven, skilled workers are let go, when work begins again, new workers must be hired and trained. Unit price goes up.
  • Uncertainty about how many units will be produced, vendors hedge their bets, unit price goes up.
  • Number of units to be procured is cut to save money, unit price goes up.
  • Very few units are built, the unit costs are outrageous.

To some extent we have already seen this cycle with the National Security Cutter. I’m not sure there is a fix, but this seems to be a result of communications problems of several types both up and down, unwarranted assumptions, and perhaps a lack of historical background, that results in a mismatch of plans and execution.

The Coast Guard’s plans for large ship construction have been on the table for a very long time, and while there is still room for refinement, it seems late in the game for a complete rethink. If Congress and the Administration are not happy with what is being offered, while effected by the change of the fiscal condition of the country, it is also at least partly due to a lack of guidance on their part.

On the other hand, it appears the Coast Guard has not done its part to make a convincing case for these ships. Years after it was directed to provide one by Congress, there is still no Fleet Mix Study to support projected budget requests that the GAO calls unrealistic.

It seems there is no consensus on how many ships the Coast Guard needs or what their characteristics should be. The Coast Guard obviously sees these ships as warships on some level, otherwise the cost of redundancies and survivability features being sought would not make sense economically. If rumors are true, the DHS does not see it that way, and in fact they may not see sufficient justification for the Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC) program.

If the department really did not want the Coast Guard to build OPCs, they have not been honest and straightforward in their opposition, because the 2012 budget already has seed money to start the project. Perhaps they are simply assuming it will die, without actually arguing out an explicit decision. Meanwhile the Coast Guard is expending limited AC&I money beginning the procurement process.

I may have missed something, but at a time when the Navy’s fleet is shrinking and it is facing new challenges, the Navy seems conspicuously silent in support of the Coast Guard’s large cutter programs. Despite the “National Fleet” concept, the Navy does not seem to be advocating for ships for the Coast Guard that might be militarily useful. The Navy may see the Coast Guard programs as distracting from their own new ship programs, but that is highly unlikely, since effectively, the split within DOD, between the Air Force, Army, and Navy Departments has been essentially equal for many years and is unlikely to change so Coast Guard programs can complement, but do not threaten Navy funding.

The composition of the Coast Guard fleet does not seem to be considered in designing the Navy’s fleet. The Coast Guard contribution to the Naval balance is not generally recognized. When the Navy tells the Congress that the US fleet is 286 ships (give or take a couple), yes, they are counting CVNs, DDGs, and SSNs, but they are also counting the eleven patrol boats of the Cyclone class doing virtually the same job in Iraq as Coast Guard WPBs and will be counting the Joint High Speed Vessel which is little more than a high speed ferry. They don’t and will not count Coast Guard’s Cyclone class, the very similar Fast Response Cutters, or the more capable National Security Cutters. Why not? It is a “National Fleet” isn’t it?

The DOD is being told they have to trim at least $400B perhaps over $800B off there budget in the next ten years. The Navy alone will have to take cuts that will exceed the entire budget of the Coast Guard. Hopefully there may be opportunities born of the search for ways to make up the lost capability. As Winston Churchill is frequently quoted, “Gentlemen, we have run out of money. Now we have to think.”

The Navy needs to keep building carriers, submarines, and DDGs if we are going to maintain the construction capacity, but their is no real danger of the US loosing the capacity to build minor combatants as illustrated by the fact that twelve companies expressed an interest in building the Offshore Patrol Cutters. Perhaps it is time for the Navy, Congress and the Administration to recognize the Coast Guard as a Littoral Combat fleet in being that the Navy does not need to duplicate. With a little planning and coordination it could be even more effective in the role for at minimal cost. If a full and honest assessment of American security needs were done, they would find new Coast Guard vessels with Navy design input to meet both peacetime and wartime missions are a bargain.

The Coast Guard seems to have a serious problem communicating it’s value. To a large extent this is a failure of Congress and the Administration to look at it holistically. It is so many different things to different people. They look at the benefits individually, but when they look at the cost they see the whole cost.

The value of our SAR assets is widely recognized because it is seen on local news on a regular basis, but the Coast Guard is so much more. I like the Commandant’s explanation of the Coast Guard,

“We will protect the country against threats from the sea…
“We will protect people who use the sea…
“And, we will protect the sea itself.”

But as clear and succinct as that statement is, it still does not make clear the magnitude of the job. The message I think we need to hammer home is that the Coast Guard is the “Department of Emergency Service,” Police, Fire and Rescue, and Emergency Medical Response, for an area larger than the land area of the entire country. Even that neglects the Coast Guard’s regulatory and aids to navigation missions, but right now our large ships are the part of the organization most in jeopardy, so this is the most urgent message. Complexity is the nature of the beast.

I hesitate to suggest that we need a slogan, because our communications problems are much deeper than that, but as part of a larger communications effort I think we do. In Brendan Flynn’s recent post, “A Global Force for Good?” and the associated comments, we had some discussion of this. I’ll offer one and ask for other suggestions, “The Coast Guard–America’s Blue Chip.”

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11 thoughts on “What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate

  1. “The Coast Guard obviously sees these ships as warships on some level, otherwise the cost of redundancies and survivability features being sought would not make sense economically. If rumors are true, the DHS does not see it that way, and in fact they may not see sufficient justification for the Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC) program.”

    In my opinion, this is the biggest arguement for the Coast Guard not being in DHS. I have a lot of respect for our fellow DHS agencies and what they do, but they do not have a military tradition, history, and mission like we do. I spent 10 years in civilian law enforcement, and although it is similar in some ways, it is very very different from a military service. I don’t think the DHS knows quite what to do with us, and they have little to no investment in furthering our National Defense mission. Its my understanding that DHS has a lesser level of direct control over Coast Guard operations than they do the other agencies, which is a good thing.

    So where should we be? Thats the million dollar question…We don’t fit anywhere perfectly, but if I was doing the organization chart, I would put the Coast Guard in DoD under ideally a department of the Coast Guard, but more realistically under theDept. of the Navy similar to the Marine Corps. Yes, DoD comes with a whole new set of challenges (especially a mind numbing amount of buerocracy (sp)) but we could live handily on scraps of their budget, and we would have a better environment to make arguements like the ones in the article above.

  2. I think that there is a great opprortunity for the Navy and Coast Guard to benefit mutually from an expanded Coast Guard fleet with greater military capabilities. We could get better, more capable, and more numerous cutters out of the deal, the Navy could concentrate on their major combatants and missile platforms etc.

    However, for it to work we would have to get the actual support to do it. That means money, ships and people. Especially in the current environment, that is the real problem. Especially if the Navy had to give up some of those commodities for us to get them….

    Also we would have to deliberately cultivate our littoral warfare skills, to include seeking out real world combat experience wherever possible, and actively training in coastal warfare, hurt-people-and-break-things stuff.

  3. This is an excerpt from the essay I am writing about the history of Coast Guard History. It is about selling and the Coast Guard has always done this poorly.

    “The Coast Guard is an organization of small works and smaller self-recognition. One nineteen seventies advertising and recruiting slogan typified that smallness is in a bumper sticker, “Small Service, Big Job.” It was the myth of soft sell. Nineteen-seventies advertising executive, Draper Daniels, advised that the purpose of advertising is not hard or soft but to sell and there was no such a thing as soft sell advertising. However, soft sell the Coast Guard did and smallness was the core of it. Nevertheless, the historical works, all small, failed to explain or expand upon the nature and scope of the “big job”. ”

    Daniels is the real-life model for the television character Don Draper in “Mad Men.” The Coast Guard should adopt the sell factor and forget the level of hardness or softness. Perhaps more used Coast Guard salesmen are needed on the congressional lot.

  4. Two years ago, a friend of mine still on active duty told me that the Coast Guard would never get all of the planned NSC cutters. Well, according to GAO, he may be right. If you look at the last paragraph of the GAO report summary that Chuck gave us a link to, it doesn’t look good for the NSC.

    “GAO is making recommendations to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that include identifying trade-offs to the planned Deepwater fleet and ensuring the Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC) design is achievable and to the Coast Guard that include identifying priorities, incorporating cost and schedule best practices, increasing confidence that assets will meet mission needs, and reporting complete information on risks to Congress in a timely manner. DHS concurred with the recommendations.”

    Note the last sentence. I hope everyone who jumped on the “DHS will be good for the Coast Guard” bandwagon see this, and consider what it means for the service.

      • I remember when the transfer to DOT was about to take place. You can transplant what was said then with what was said before the move to DHS. Once again, no one apparently looked into what took place during the move to DOT. That the leadership does not know its own history comes as no surprise, however.

  5. One thing is for certain. The United States Coast Guard is completely underappreciated. When I was discussing CG with my parents and brother, they thought they only did SAR and occasional law enforcement. A teacher once told me to capitalize on the strengths and mitigate the weaknesses. The Coast Guard needs to create a favorable, likable, look-up-to, not cheesy ads that will captivate and rally the American people. This is not naive or unrealistic, it is what is needed.

    • Chuck is right, what is needed is a “department of emergency services” theme. Police, fire/rescue, emt oriented. Something that the people can relate to…can understand. “The US’s Emergency Service”.

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