What Might Coast Guard Cutters do in Wartime? Part 1, Navy Shortfalls

Many of the new generation cutters may be around for another 50 years so it is likely they will see some conflict as previous generations have. What might cutters be doing if we go to war? What sort of environments? What possible missions? What capabilities do they have? And what might we want to be added?

We need to start with the question, what limitations does the Navy have that might prompt them to call on the Coast Guard? Why would the US Navy, by far the most powerful in the world, need help from the Coast Guard? Let’s look at their missions and the forces available.

Navy Missions

The mission of the Navy is to maintain, train and equip combat-ready Naval forces capable of winning wars, deterring aggression and maintaining freedom of the seas.

Included in that might be:

Protecting the US and its allies from attack from the sea in any of a number of forms, overt or covert, by air, surface, sub-surface, or missiles (both cruise and ballistic).

Projecting power against hostile forces, by a similar diverse range of options.

Protecting US and friendly nations’ use of the oceans and the air above them for purposes including (but not limited to) both military and economic exploitation.

Denying that use to hostile powers.

Those objectives entail a huge range of subsidiary tasks. New missions, like defending population centers against ballistic missile attacks, have been added, but centuries old historic missions still must also be addressed.


The Navy currently has approximately 285 vessels, but not all these are combatant ships. The exact composition changes frequently but they have roughly:

  • 2 Fleet command ships
  • 11 aircraft carriers (there is talk that this may go down to 9. In the not to distant past 15 was the norm)
  • 28 Amphipbious assault ships (LHA/LHD/LPD/LSD)
  • 83 Guided missile Cruisers and Destroyers
  • 26 Frigates (soon to be decommissioned)
  • 2 Littoral Combat ships (LCS) (55 ships planned, expected to replace remaining frigates, the 14 mine countermeasures ships, and the 11 Cyclone class patrol craft)
  • 57 SSN and SSGN submarines armed with torpedoes and tactical missiles
  • 14 SSBN Strategic Defense Ballistic Missile submarines
  • 14 Mine Counter Measures Ships (MCM) (soon to be decommissioned)
  • 11 Cyclone Class Patrol Craft
  • 37 Underway replenishment ships

This is the fewest ships in the US Navy in almost a hundred years. Additionally in view of current budget limitations the size of the fleet is likely to shrink further. Nine cruisers and three LSDs are expected to be decommissioned including some as young as 20 years old, and since the “super committee” has failed to act, the entire LCS program may be in jeopardy, and the fleet may be reduce to approximately 230 ships.

Even if its budget is not cut, if it only remains static, the fact that ship prices are going up faster than inflation, and the Navy is choosing to concentrate more and more technology in fewer and fewer ships means the number of ships will likely continue to fall.


Most of these ships are individually superbly capable, but the US Navy has some known weakness.

  • Inshore
  • Mine Counter Measures (MCM)
  • Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW)
  • Naval Surface Fire Support (NSFS)
  • Sea Control
  • Base Security

INSHORE: The Navy has very few shallow draft patrol craft of a type useful for boarding and  inspecting coastwise traffic. This is why the Coast Guard has been in Iraq, and why 82s were sent to Vietnam. Fortunately recent requirements have been small because the Iraqi coast line is short. Almost anywhere else, controlling coastal traffic will be much more difficult.

MCM: Despite the fact that since WWII, mines have done more damage to US Navy ships than any other weapon, the US Navy’s MCM capability is modest and generally regarded as both more poorly equipped and less professional than their European counterparts. The LCS program has been expected to address this, but the mine countermeasures systems planned for the LCS are still a long way from maturity. Still the concept of add-on, portable, modular systems is appealing.

ASW: Anti-submarine Warfare capabilities were allowed to decline after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This was understandable under the circumstances, but now the ASW problem is reemerging. Historically ASW has been a “numbers” problem as well as a quality problem. Certainly the US Navy has the quality, but they no longer have large numbers. Not only is the number of escort vessels down dramatically including the impending total disappearance of specialized ASW escorts, carriers no longer have fixed wing ASW aircraft, and Maritime patrol aircraft numbers are way down. Reserve fleets have disappeared and additionally, allied fleets have also declined even more precipitously.

NSFS: Since the decommissioning of the Iowa Class battleships, there has been concern that there has not been enough Naval Surface Fire Support (NSFS) assets. This concern went as far as resulting in a Congressional mandate (Section 1011 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1996 (Public Law 104-106; 110 Stat. 421)). There have been several attempts to address this need including putting NLOS missiles on the LCS ships and a plan to build 32 “Land Attack” Zumwalt Class Destroyers with advanced gun systems. The NLOS missile has been canceled and the Zumwalt class has been truncated at only three ships. In a benign environment close air support can fill this void, but if there is an active air defense or air superiority is contested, NSFS may be essential.

SEA CONTROL: Julian Corbett was the disciple of Sea Control and as he would say, Battle force ships make sea control possible, but cannot be exercised by “battleships” alone. There is the question of simple numbers.  At the end of WWII the Navy had 6,768 ships, including 1,600 ships of over 1,000 tons, and those ships were complimented by similarly large numbers of allied vessels. The number of ships in the Navy has been steadily declining and it appears they may decline even more. Numerically this is the smallest US Navy since World War I, almost 100 years. Salt water covers approximately 69% of the earth’s surface or about 352,103,700 km²–roughly 100 million square nautical miles (rounding down a bit). That is roughly 352,113  sq. miles/ship. If we look at only cruisers, destroyers, and the projected LCS force (less than 140 ships) then that is about 715,000 square miles per ship. Spread evenly across the ocean they would be more than 800 miles apart, but of course ships are not spread evenly across the ocean and they are not all underway all the time, and they have missions other than sea control. Our attempts to control the flow of Narcotics by sea and attempts to prevent piracy off Africa demonstrate how truly hard Sea Control can be. The US and its close allies no longer control the majority of merchant and fishing fleets. Potential enemies control substantial numbers of ships that could damage the US and its allies in a number of ways including landing agents, smuggling weapons, laying mines, or directly attacking assets. Russian attempts to market the “Club-K” cruise missile as a containerized system that can weaponize any vessel with space for a standard 40 foot container highlights the potential dangers of failure to control enemy shipping.

BASE SECURITY: Once the US Navy was present in virtually every American port and there were a host of small ships that provided security for these bases. Navy resources are increasingly concentrated and the flotillas of small craft are gone. The Chinese vision of how to counter the US includes attacks on vulnerable rear area and logistical support. In Adm. Liu’s vision. “In applying tactics to ‘active defense’ operations, we would act on the guiding principle that we advance if the enemy advances. That is, if the enemy attacked our coastal areas, we would attack the enemy’s rear.”…Liu recounts addressing a June 1984 forum. He was gratified that the navy had embraced “a unified guiding ideology for its combat operations. It had made clear the combat principle of ‘active defense, offshore battles’ and the combat forms of ‘positional warfare for firm coastal defense, mobile sea warfare, and sabotage guerrilla sea warfare.’”


When you start with only 120 to 140 surface combatants, after assigning ships to escort eleven carriers and ten Amphibious ready groups, assigning ships for Ballistic Missile Defense, and factoring in maintenance requirements, there simply is very little left for other missions.

22 thoughts on “What Might Coast Guard Cutters do in Wartime? Part 1, Navy Shortfalls

  1. While the USCG is certainly flexible and capable, my opinion is that there are three clear areas of augmentation the CG can provide USN:

    1) Port Security – historically, up to modern days, PSUs and their predecessors have actually provided the majority to entirety of this mission capability for the Navy.

    2) LIC augmentation – If something big brewed up with China, let’s say, the NSCs could take over some of the sea control mission in a low-intensity area, such as the horn of Africa or escorting non-combatants outside the area of major/intense conflict, thereby freeing up USN assets to go to the major theater. (Let’s face it, the Waesche class is not equipped to play in the main event without major supplements to its weapons, so to be useful quickly, this is the most-likely, non-suicidal mission.)

    3) Coastal patrol/control – Nobody does this better than USCG, and the CG has the assets to do it with. A no-brainer, again with historical precedence.

    MCM, NSFS, and ASW are pretty much non-starters, as the CG doesn’t have the systems, and in future wars there won’t be time to add them on and put in place trained people, before the war is over (most likely).

    • I’ll make my full response in part 2, but in answer to “in future wars there won’t be time to add them on and put in place trained people, before the war is over (most likely)” I would suggest that in virtually every case the assumption has been that the next war would be short, and how often has that happened?

  2. Oh, and I forgot one other point: and getting funding to begin CG capabilities in areas where there is no overlap with more traditional missions is also unlikely and therefore another handicap to the usefulness of the CG to the Navy. (And before you say, national defense IS a CG mission, let me say, I know, but the powers that be won’t buy that argument too far.)

  3. Here’s the $64,000.00 question, where is the US Coast Guard going to get the manpower if the US Navy decides to call upon the US Coast Guard to pick up some of the missions the US Navy is asking the US Coast Guard to do. Where is the money, ships, equipment and manpower going to come from. In light of the US Navy cutting the fleet down and cutting manpower. Where is the US Coast Guard gona get what it needs to do what the US Navy is asking. In this tight economy and budget constraints, where is the money gona be coming from. Where is the Manpower that is available and unless they are going to waive things for people, keep people in longer or bring back the draft. Where is the manpower for the missions that the US Navy is asking the US Coast Guard to do.

    • It does not matter where the funding comes from, it is required by law that the USCG maintain readiness to support the USN. It is in the US Code.

      • But how much is enough is very much up for interpretation. The Department of Homeland Security has its own set of priorities. The CG administration has theirs. The Navy has not really been very supportive and they haven’t really pushed for the CG to take a role in missions that they see as theirs.

        I suspect the future will force priorities to change radically realign.

      • So where will the US Coast Guard get the funding to pay for the missions that the US Navy may task the US Coast Guard to do. Also where will the US Coast Guard get the Manpower and personnel to meet the task and missions that the US Navy asking the US Coast Guard to do. What about equipment, do we have the equipment or ships for that matter.

        Like you said Chuck, “I suspect the future will force priorities to change radically realign”. I think in the future the US Coast Guard may pick up littoral/coastal warfare duty or may make the US Coast Guard fill in the Frigate role for the future. Seeing how the US Coast Guard is an expert in littoral and Coastal environment and the Us Navy may ask the US Coast Guard to be in charge of Littoral/Coastal Warfare.

        As for what the US Coast Guard cutters may do in wartime, I suspect they may fill the Littoral/Coastal Warfare area. The only thing with that is going to happen, they may need to upgrade the NSC to frigate standard and put off the shelf frigate/corvette systems and off the shelf on the fly weapons such as Stingers missiles,XM501 Non-Line-of-Sight Launch System with the Griffin Missile, a Box full of Hellfire missiles, Harpoons, AMOS 120mm mortar, Lightweight torpedoes, and dipping or towed sonar.

    • A very good question. The old Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation, the Lighthouse Service, the Lifesaving Service – they were all non-military organizations. There is no legal reason for those functions to be carried out by a military organization. I suspect we could have a very lively debate on the pros and cons of splitting the Coast Guard into a service that carries out non-military responsibilities, and one that does not.

      • The CG itself has shown it has no interest in carrying out combat functions since Adm Yost. It reeps what it sows with this tacitly anti-military culture. Why else does it get so many greenies from civilian colleges and retreads coming over from DOD in order to avoid being deployed?

  4. “retreads from DOD” – I haven’t heard that for a long time, and I’m not sure I agree with the assertion. I served with several senior QMs and BMs that were prior Navy, and each one of them came to the CG not to avoid deployment, but to seek better opportunity. As one of them put it, “I spent 10 years afloat in the Navy, most of it below decks on an aircraft carrier. Here, I’m the XPO of a patrol boat, and with any luck, I’ll make warrant and possibly get my own command.”

    That said, the CG culture is somewhat muddied by the division between the regulators and the warriors. When part of the service is told “be friends with your industry partners” and the other part is charged with arresting them, it makes for interesting choices.

  5. Pingback: What Might Coast Guard Cutters do in Wartime? Part 1, Navy Shortfalls - CGBlog.org

  6. mr. roddy, as a former dod retread, en2, usn, uss milwaukee (aor-2) i must say i must have really screwwd the pooch going to the uscg because after 4 years in the nav, 3 1/2 at sea, i did another 3 sea tours for a total of 10 years sea time, nav and cg. i was away from home just as much in the guard as i was in the nav, though the increments were different. with the exception of an epo billet at an ant team, i much prefered the sea duty. speaking of being the epo at an ant team, that made me the chief engineer, responsible for 4 vessels, 21′, 45′, 49′, and 55′ along with a 40′ diameter large navigational buoy and about 25 thousand dollars in department funds every year. my c.o. was an e-7, i was an e-6. as an e-6 engineman in the navy i never would have gotten that much responsibility. silly me, trying to skate away in the guard. i know 1 or 2 retreads who did switch because they thought they could skate, they left after 1 tour, wasting their time and ours. i see on your site you like to follow the money, stick to that, were you a storekeeper in the nav? leave the reading of retread minds to gypsies. respectfully, mk1 retread

  7. Mr. Bigelow I think the people who think the USCG doesn’t punch above it’s weight don’t know their history and don’t know the unique capabilities that it brings to the table because it has a strong peacetime mission too. I’m thinking of how the USCG fired the first shot from a warship from a cutter off of Charleston in the Civil War, how a cutter was at Manila Bay for the first shots of the Spanish American War and then how the crew of a CG tug pulled the Navy out of danger in Cuba. I could go on, but if you just focus on the current hot spots the CG has done a magnificent job on the Africa Partnership Station working with the various navies, coast guards and mariners off of western Africa training them and in the Persian Gulf they have done an outstanding job protecting the oil infrastructure and training the Iraqis to pick up the job. Impressive work. I think invaluable as well.

  8. Pingback: InformationDissemination 5th year Celebration/Tactics and Strategy–Consider how the CG might fit - CGBlog.org

  9. Pingback: What Might Coast Guard Cutters do in Wartime? Part 2, Coast Guard Roles | Chuck Hill's CG Blog

  10. The challenges to the Navy are growing. Attention has been focused on China, but looks like war in Europe is increasingly possible.

    If it happens, upgraded cutters will be the easiest addition to the escort force.

    If the linked post is correct, “– Finally, the war will go on much longer than you think. Though you may think that it is industrial capacity that is going to be your greatest challenge, it may actually be your ability to find competently trained personnel fast enough.” Coast Guard personnel and training facilities will be gold.

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