“America Needs a Coast Guard That Can Fight”–Foreign Policy

James Holmes , professor of strategy at the Naval War College and author of “The Naval Diplomat” blog, makes the argument that the Coast Guard will need to prepare itself to again take an active role as a naval force, this time in the Arctic.

He argues that the Coast Guard already has the lead in the Arctic, and that the Navy and Marine Corp will continue to be preoccupied with China and Iran.

Professor Holmes sees changing the culture of the Coast Guard as being a greater challenge than getting the proper equipment.

I see it a little differently. Coast Guard personnel are nothing if not adaptable, and if they need to fight, they will learn how, just as they did in WWII–assuming the US Navy is willing and able to teach. The Coast Guard cannot make an not an overnight transition, but threats do not materialize overnight either. On the other hand, it does take time and planning to have the right assets available. The Coast Guard needs a clear vision of its wartime role and it needs to define its requirements with those roles in mind, even if it a case of “fitted for, but not with” the military capabilities. I don’t think we have that vision, and I don’t think the Navy has a plan for the Coast Guard either. It has not mattered much since the Soviet threat dissolved, but it is beginning to matter again. With the possibility that Chinese defense expenditures may equal those of the US by 2023, we may have a true peer competitor long before the assets we are buying today reach the end of their lives.

If the Coast Guard does not have a role in wartime, questions regarding why we have ships (NSC) that looks like a frigate and cost as much as frigate, but cannot do the work of a frigate may arise. The administration may ask why we should have large ships in the Coast Guard at all, if Navy ships using LEDETs can do CG missions in peacetime and also be ready for war.

27 thoughts on ““America Needs a Coast Guard That Can Fight”–Foreign Policy

  1. The Coast Guard is now culturally filled with individuals who like collecting full miltary benefits, but are not exactly as keen on ever putting themselves in a situation where they will be shot at. We have no kinetic capability by our own choice. The retirement of ADM Yost and the end of the Cold War gave some their golden opportunity to demilitarize the Coast Guard to what it is today: a maritime police force with a regulatory focus that conducts search and rescue as well.

    • A sad but accurate assessment – and I don’t intend this to be a disrespectful comment. Today’s Coast Guard is full of people who are more suited to the life of a 9 to 5 government bureaucrat than a true military organization. Other than the UCMJ, Navy refresher training for ships, pilot training courtesy of the Navy, and the dedicated but small number of personnel who try to remain proficient in the military arts, the Coast Guard is, as Timmy D notes, a premier maritime law enforcement organization – not a true military service.

      If those Coast Guardsmen who have successfully completed BUDS and a tour or two in the Special Operations community actually come back to the Coast Guard, I can only imagine how odd they will likely feel.

    • In a twentieth century context, the shift from the naval position began in 1970. This coincided with the shift to the Transportation Department and the rise of “specialist” over the “generalist” officer corps. Yost was an aberration and out of touch. He failed to get the service behind him in is quest to become a mini-naval service. All one needs to do is look at the idiotic IMLET program that soon wen off the skids with a couple untrained cowboys in charge.

      This is, once again, where the Coast Guard’s dismissal of its history as come back to haunt it. I bet less than a handful of people have a comprehensive view of what the Coast Guard, and its predecessor service, the RCS, were about and the causes for its yearn to be a naval force. How many biographies are there of past commandants? Just one and he was not the most important nor the best of the bunch.

      The lead post asks questions that have been asked since 1799. It is strange the Coast Guard looks at itself in a generational sense, where nothing happened before and nothing will occur after one’s career. There is something refreshing about asking the same questions time and again. The same answers never evolve. This is the Alice Through the Looking Glass principle, all is better on the other side of time and space.

      • Are you saying it may be time to fold up and quit the charade we are a military force, Bill? Become a civil service organization like the Light House Service once again?

  2. I think after ADM Yost, the US Coast Guard started to act more like the Canadian Coast Guard and not like the US Coast Guard during ADM Yost’s time.

  3. just my persanal opinion, i think the civilian mindset is much more prevelant shoreside, again just my opinion. the uscg needs to really push historical education among the troops. those of us that read and enjoy uscg history can see a great military tradition in our past. why isn’t this being driven home?

  4. Timmy D asked, “Are you saying it may be time to fold up and quit the charade we are a military force, Bill? Become a civil service organization like the Light House Service once again?”

    Who has said the civilian agencies taken into the Coast Guard have stopped being civilian service. The LSS is now the SAR bunch (including aviation) with some add on features that is not liked, cared for, or even wanted. The vestige of the past organization is very much alive. The have the Sumner Kimball Award to keep it all going. The LHS, BNM, and environmental functions are very much civil service. Just ask how many in AtoN and Marine Inspection how much they want to be connected to the Coast Guard. Not much. What real value do they offer to the Coast Guard? All could be easily adopted to civil service.

    So, what of the Coast Guard? By reducing its mish-mash of missions and different cultural segments that have never quite jelled into one Service. It could concentrate on being what it should be, part of the national protection of revenue and commerce and doing it efficiently. This is what Oliver Wolcott wrote of the cutters in April 1798, “It ought however to be recollected that Congress are providing providing a naval force for the protection of the commerce, and that a principle but not a sole object of the Cutter establishment is the protection of the Revenue.” In the glow of brighter and jazzier missions, the people of the Coast Guard have forgotten, or dismissed, just from where they came and what is their core culture.

    A return to its quasi-naval/civil functions would provide the opportunity to begin again. The RCS spent its first one-hundred years in a state of confusion of what it wanted to be as well as the mismanagement of its limited resources. The second hundred years followed the first with a few bright spots from 1895-1905, some actions during Prohibition, and 1934-1945.

    • It is certainly true that some parts of the Coast Guard seem to be more “military” than others. During WWII the surface portion of the CG certainly seemed to adapt to the war time roles faster than the aviation portion. I found it difficult to understand why Coast Guard aviation did not manage to sink a sub during WWII while Coast Guard surface forces were disproportionately successful, when in general, aircraft were more successful in sinking subs than surface ships.

      One thing that surprised me, when I was researching the “Coast Guard’s” role in the Spanish American War (https://chuckhillscgblog.net/2010/04/25/the-coast-guard-in-the-spanish-american-war/), was how active the Light House Service ships and personnel were. I had never seen reference to that before.

      There is always going to be some friction when people with different priorities and agendas try to work together, but would it really be better for these people to be in completely different organizations, even different departments?

      • Chuck, the LHS had no “Coast Guard” function during the Spanish-American War. One of the problems within the Coast Guard today today is the attempt to include the actions of departments, bureaus, and agencies before they were part of the Coast Guard. Their clock started with the transfer. That is their history, not the Coast Guard’s. Imagine if Hebert Hoover and FDR were able to actually place the Customs Patrol and Border Patrol within the Coast Guard as they wanted too.

        As for Coast Guard aviation and sinking submarines, the aircraft had to be where the submarines were. This was not the case most of the time. The surface elements were where the subs were. It is a matter of target opportunity. Besides, Coast Guard aviation was not founded on military duties and service. To get it jump started, the Coast Guard pitched that the purpose of Coast Guard aviation was customs patrol and humanitarian work. They did this so they would not compete with the Navy. However, the U. S. Army had already proposed to take over these duties which made sense because they had the aircraft and the support in place. The Coast Guard did not until about 1926 – some ten years after CG aviation as authorized — buried deep in a Navy Department appropriation bill. This is an area not reported upon in the numbers of aviation histories available today. The first ten years are slide over as if they did not exist.

      • But the LHS ships and personnel did have a military role in the Spanish American war which seems to be at odds with the opinion that AtoN people never had a military role.

        Coast Guard aviation did expand during WWII. They flew PBYs out of Greenland. I don’t know the extent of the increase in CG aviation. If they expanded to the same degree as the surface side (I don’t know if they did), I would have thought they would have had at least a few of the approximately 200 U-boats sunk by US aircraft to their credit.

  5. Chuck the question of whether or not the LHS had a naval role in the SP-AM War would be cleared up by their being granted, or not, war bonuses. Not all the RCS did and many, those in service before the war, were not considered to be on the “naval establishment” during the war and therefore civilians and not eligible for bonuses or pensions.

    I believe one Coast Guard aircraft was initially credited with sinking a submarine in the Gulf of Mexico but this has been reconsidered in recent years. The aircraft carried but two depth charges (or bombs) so any hits at all would be more luck than accuracy.

    One of PBY aricrewmen is still alive and is a friend of mine. CWO3 Arnie Adams has some great stories about WWII aviation. He is about 95 and lives near Washington, DC. He is the most senior CWO3 on the retired list today.

    • During the war and for several years after the crew of a Grumman Goose was credited with a sinking, but the U-boat was subsequently found and it was determined to have been sunk by a Navy sub chaser.

      The breakdown for U-boat losses was roughly:

      UK and other allies air: 200
      UK and other allies surface: 200
      US air: 200
      US surface: 36

      Out of the those sunk by US surface vessels, Coast Guard manned vessels participated in the sinking of almost a third.

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  8. Bill Wells makes some interesting points in his first post. One of the problems for the CG has been identity (due to the amalgamations and added missions) combined with a failure of long-term, big-picture, strategic thinking about the CG. I was hoping the creation of DHS and post 9-11 philosophy would help, but the CG seems to have continued a Commandant-by-Commandant process of wandering without absolute clear focus (although it’s better-but mostly from legislation). This lack of mission focus from within, combined with a desire to politically please everyone, hurts the CG.

    The Marines have managed to fight off being absorbed into the Army with strong political capabilities, and they don’t suffer from much mission creep, either internally or being forced on them by external forces. The CG could do the same, but it will require vision and strength by a Commandant…

    In my opinion, the ATON branch of the CG could be combined with the US Army Corps of Engineers (civil engineering/waterways branch) and be made into a new semi-civilian service agency. This combination makes sense and creates clear focus in the new agency. (Put it in the Dept. Of Transportation, as it would be the nautical/maritime agency for that Dept.) While we’re at it, let’s put the CG office which investigates maritime accidents in the DOT as well, just as the NHTSA and NTSB are.

    As far as the CG being an LE agency, it always has been! RCS was formed to collect taxes. Other than US Marshals, that was the closest thing to law enforcement at the federal level in 1790!! It was LE before it had a military mission!

    If you’ve read my posts here at Chuck’s blog, you may remember my point that the CG has a military mission already: protecting the homeland! Combine the CG’s LE capabilities (boardings, inspections, EEZ enforcement, LEDETs, etc.) with the Maritime Defense Zone Commands (especially the new Intel. Centers, and the Sector Commands concept, but also some old stuff such as the Area Commanders being the MDZ Commanders [mission focus]), and there is a great “homeland security” synergy in capability and focus. This fits in great as well with drug and migrant interdiction. Air and small boat stations (the descendents of the LSS) are and should be an integral piece in this capability, not just WPBs, WPBCs, and OPCs. (It’s a defense-in-depth: OPCs at long range-edge of EEZ and beyond; WPBs & WPBCs at 50-150 miles out; small boats close in.) In addition, the SAR aspect gives great positive publicity to the overall benefit of the agency. (Read an article ever about a state trooper or other police officer saving someone, rather than arresting a bad guy? — Yep, all about the friendly “public servant” face on the LE agency.) Finally, the Navy will never be “jealous” of this capability/mission (as long as the CG doesn’t fail at it and allow a carrier or two to be sunk at their moorings in Norfolk…), so the CG wouldn’t have to fight off the Navy attempting a take-over of it’s assets.

    (Speaking of PR – Deepwater Horizon is a great example of how/why the CG should pass the environmental response baton to the EPA. CG doesn’t put enough emphasis on it, so when disaster strikes, the CG looks incapable. Bad!)

    Now, in the vein of Chuck’s posts about what the CG needs to improve it’s capabilities in the military sense, if you buy into my mission-focus premise on homeland defense, the CG needs:
    • An aircraft combining the ISR capability the CG needs for LE missions (EEZ & fisheries protection, drug & migrant interdiction), and both the ISR for MDZ mission (identification of vessels approaching US territory) as well as ASW (locate, identify, and track submerged contacts) along with an ability to prosecute surface and submerged contacts (Penguin, Harpoon, Mk-50, etc.). IMO, this should be a manned aircraft for MITL as well as better flexibility/capability considering the expansive range of tasks.
    • Littoral ASW and surface warfare capability on the OPCs & patrol boats.
    • Coastal/Harbor mine countermeasures capability.
    • Short-range Coastal/Harbor ASW capabilities, probably from an upgrade/module for the MH-60s. (In the mid-90s to 2000s, I felt this would be a great opportunity for the SH-2Fs the Navy was decommissioning. They could’ve created a CG Reserve Aviation Sqdrn. on each coast with these aircraft, which would have deployed to the major ports in war-time. They are probably all cut-up or unserviceable at this point.)

    • Bill, where do see a role for the Auxiliary and the Reserves and what do you think their Future roles and missions will be in 10 to 20 years down the road.

      • Thanks for the question, Nicky, but I’m not qualified to predict anything. I’m an interested and informed observer with a nack for analysis. Everything I wrote above is predicated on the assumption that the CG leadership agree with my point of view, so my opinions are probably not worth a cup of coffee. To me, what I’ve said makes the most sense given the context of this discussion and “the big picture” (past, present, and possible future).

        I know the reserves have shrunk in size significantly since the 80s, and other than the couple PSUs, the current reservists are augmentees to the active units. It seems to me the budget and CG leadership need to see a worthwhile role for the reserves to expand and be more significant than they are now. I’m not sure in the current budgetary situation anything will get better in this regard, unfortunately. Now, if we’re dreamily speculating… 😉

        As far as the Auxiliary, I believe it is growing, becoming more “professional,” and is a key ingredient in several CG mission areas. I think it could play a bigger role in training the regulars, playing an OpFor role, but as long as the limitation on LE authority and prohibition against military operations is in place (and I think they should be), the Aux. is pretty well maxed out. (Which is not to degrade the quantity or quality of the Aux.’s roles and contributions.) Another area they may find a Homeland Security role is as coast watchers, if a need for a formal program becomes a priority.

      • After rolling your question around in my head, I thought of another idea for the Aux. The port security mission has a need for divers, and there are a lot of qualified civilian divers who may be able to apply their skills and equipment operationally to the port security mission, but I think it would be in an augmenting role to military divers. Still, a very useful/meaningful addition to CG capabilities, if it were instituted.

      • Bill.
        I envision the future where the Auxiliary takes on more of the reserve roles such as Medical, Disaster response, Search & rescue, Foreign Language and more Instructor training role. I also think within the next 10 to 20 years, the Auxiliary side could pick up the Port security roles and coast watch roles. Even stand up Auxiliary Diver rescue and underwater recovery teams.

    • I hope I don’t upset you, but the RCS job was to protect the revenue of the USA not collect taxes. The laws of 1797 and 99 were the ones that militarized the cutter service. What makes me pissed is all the money we spend/waste in search of a identity to compete with the other services for money. And jobs that we are forced to do that have nothing to do with our core mission.

      IMHO history has shown that the mission of the Coast Guard in times of peace and war is the same. And that mission is maritime security, or MSO. Where as the Navy’s mission is maritime defense, or in other words take the fight to the enemy. A good example of this the when the navy was away dealing with the Barbary pirates nations, the coast guard was dealing with the pirate bases along the southern US and later Caribbean.

      Mine sweeping I feel should be part of AtoN. You could very easily convert a Buoy Tender into a mine sweeper. How many people here know that during the 80’s and 90’s one of there planned national defense roles was supporting minesweeping operations.

      ASW should be a coast guard mission. How can you protect the merchant/auxiliary fleets from submarines if you don’t have that capability. Sure the navy has it but in war time they are going to be to busy worrying about the battle fleet instead of all the soft targets that need protected. and without them you cant win the war.

      DOG(deployable operations group) I would put down and get a new DOG. What I would do first is get rid of MSST and create a program based on the marines FAST program, but go one step further and have the marines themselves do the program. Sort of like how we based our rescue swimmer program on the navy’s, but adapted it for the coast guards unique conditions. and turn the MSRT into a elite unit of that. PSU would remain the same so would the LEDET.

      The biggest thing I would do besides firing all the desk admirals that the coast guard have is make the coast guard part of the Department of Defense and put it under the under secretary of defense for homeland security along with the chief of the national guard. He would be a under secretary that reported to two head secretaries which are defense and homeland security.

      Tired time to go to bed.

  9. Hi Lyle,
    You’ve said nothing at all to upset me! I was over-simplifying. RCS didn’t collect taxes itself, but my understanding was that at least part of the mission was to prevent smugglers from avoiding the customs collection, so I mis-stated it, but I think my overall point is still valid – RCS, and hence CG has always been an LE agency.

    I concur with many of your points, and indeed tenders could be dandy MCM platforms, but during their peace-time role (which in the 20th century was 91% of the time), they are a huge chunk of “mission drift” from a core LE/maritime defense mission. I think they fit great with the Army Corps of Engineers, which itself, in turn, doesn’t really fit the Army’s mission focus anymore…

    As far as moving into the DOD, I see two major problems.
    1) Posse Comitatus. In DOD, CG would lose it’s legal authority as a civilian LE agency. This is an insurmountable problem, considering the political atmosphere, and frankly, I’m on the side that would oppose it on these philosophical grounds.
    2) The CG does not have the political force of the Marines. As it is, the CG has fought off absorbtion/take-overs by the Navy on a few occasions, and if it was in DOD, doing a “coastal” or “close-in” version of what the Navy does (which is how the uninformed would perceive it), the CG would not survive as a separate service. Look at many aspects of the Navy’s new Expeditionary Warfare Command — very Coast Guardy. The Navy would make a pitch that a lot of money could be saved through efficiency by combining the CG with Expeditionary command, and, poof, no more CG. I don’t like that scenario!

    • My fear is not that the Coast Guard, if part of DOD would no longer do law enforcement, but rather that it would become simply the Master at Arms force within the Navy. The Navy’s law enforcement specialists with a few on each ship to do boardings (LEDETS to their logical conclusion).

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