Worried about the Size of the U.S. Navy? Rearm the Coast Guard–The National Interest

Navy photo. MH-60R “Knighthawk” helicopters conducts an airborne low frequency sonar (ALFS) operation during testing and evaluation

Navy photo. MH-60R “Knighthawk” helicopters conducts an airborne low frequency sonar (ALFS) operation during testing and evaluation

The National Interest has a post subtitled, “A new challenge for Trump: redefine the U.S. Coast Guard’s defense roles” you might find interesting.

The author, a Coast Guard Officer and Cutterman, wants to see our larger cutters better armed. He recommends specifically, provision for support of the Navy’s MH-60R

“The U.S. Coast Guard should explore adding the ability to embark, operate with, maintain and rearm these aircraft from both the National Security Cutter and Offshore Patrol Cutter. Only complete solutions that see cutters equipped with ordnance handling facilities, surge berthing for a full-maintenance detachment and sensor integration through data links should be considered.”

and the 5″ Mk45 for the National Security Cutter.

“The addition of a true major caliber-deck gun offers immediate utility, but the system’s real potential will be unlocked if efforts to develop hypervelocity projectiles bear fruit. If so, the National Security Cutter would emerge as a true utility warship capable of providing fires to forces ashore at substantial range and meaningfully contributing to air defense.”

070111-N-4515N-509 Atlantic Ocean (Jan. 9 2007) - Guided missile destroyer USS Forest Sherman (DDG 98) test fires its five-inch gun on the bow of the ship during training. The Sherman is currently conducting training exercises in the Atlantic Ocean. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Joshua Adam Nuzzo (RELEASED)

Atlantic Ocean (Jan. 9 2007) – USS Forest Sherman (DDG 98) test fires its five-inch Mk 45 mod4 gun during training.U.S. Navy photo 070111-N-4515N-509 by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Joshua Adam Nuzzo

He does, however, see the services culture as an impediment.

“The lesson of the twenty-five years following the Hamilton experience is that a challenge to maintaining the U.S. Coast Guard’s warfighting capability lies in managing the service’s perception of its character…

He also notes that previous concepts of the Coast Guards wartime environment may be unrealistic.

“Attempts to define the U.S. Coast Guard’s defense roles following the Cold War have been challenging. Published in 1998, Coast Guard 2020 proclaimed that the “Coast Guard will be prepared to operate in low-threat conflict environments, and to provide specialized functions at all levels of operation.” The notions of low-threat operations and service-unique specialization are obstacles to interoperability. While U.S. Coast Guard buoy tenders and icebreakers absolutely provide specialized capability, the major cutter fleet’s warfighting role was never—nor should it have ever been—unique to the U.S. Coast Guard. Rather, the major cutter fleet provided an active augmentation force trained and equipped to provide service in any theater of war. This should be the target for the fleet’s future employment as the community of nations returns to its more normal mode of great power competition. As for the limitation of a low-threat environment, U.S. Coast Guard cutters have deployed recently to Southeast Asia, the Black Sea, the Arctic and the Arabian Gulf. Saber rattling among great powers and the HSV-2Swift incident demand that we ask: which of these locations will qualify as a low-threat environment on the first day of a global or major regional war?

Generally I agree with the thrust,

“The immediate challenges are acquiring and integrating combat systems and training crews in their employment. These are not trivial tasks and will necessarily consume time and resources. Better to act with dark clouds forming on the horizon, however, than in the midst of the storm.”

It is a two page post. The first page is mostly history lesson on the Coast Guard’s participation in past conflicts, but if he gives the impression the Coast Guard was historically ready for these roles on day 1, that would be a mistake. The Coast Guard entered WWII terribly unprepared. The cutters had no sonar or radar and no depth charge racks. There is nothing new about our current lack of readiness for war, it is not the exception, it is the norm.

Trouble is, we tend to have a binary approach. Either we are at peace and could care less about war-time roles, or we are all in after an attack. We need a more measured approach that responds to changing circumstance.

We really need to do better at preparing for a transition from peace to war. 

I don’t necessarily think removing the ASW systems from the 378s following the collapse of the Soviet threat was a mistake. It was a rational response to rapidly changing circumstance. Since then, we have had a quarter century without a substantial ASW threat, and the 378s are now on their way out. We probably should have removed the CIWS too, unfortunately it did mean we lost all the Coast Guard’s accumulated expertise in ASW. Hopefully we can rebuild it with the Navy’s help if needed.

But circumstances have changed again.

To me, a major conflict now appears more likely in the next ten to twenty years than at any time since I entered the Academy in 1965. We have a true peer challenger, with a chip on its shoulder and a belief in its inherent right to rule, in China. If that was not enough, Russia is rearming and acting increasingly obnoxious. Iran and North Korea may be annoying, but they are really not in the same league, at least in terms of a naval threat. Dealing with them would not stress our Navy, so would not really require Coast Guard assistance. China is the real threat, and if Russia sides with them, things could get dicey. Even without the Russians, the Chinese are building credible surface combattants at least as fast as the US. They already have a local superiority in the Western Pacific. We have to spread our fleet out, while they can concentrate their forces. To concentrate our forces in the Western Pacific, the US will be fighting at arm’s length with long vulnerable supply lines.

I don’t necessarily think war with China inevitable, but we need to recognize the possibility and plan for it.

Theoretically the process should start with an agreement between the Navy and the Coast Guard about what the Coast Guard, particularly its vessels and aircraft, will do in a general war. I see few indications that is happening. Certainly the OPC Concept of Operations did not include anything beyond a simple contingency operation.

I may be wrong about this, since I am way out of the loop, but if the service had an established general war mission focus to prepare for, it should be generally known. It should be reflected in our procurements. Perhaps the Navy thinks it would be presumptuous of them to assign the Coast Guard missions, and the Coast Guard does not want to push itself into Navy planning, but this is too important for delicate feelings to get in the way. Right now the Coast Guard is probably proportionately larger compared to the Navy than at any time in the last 100 years. When I entered the service, the Navy was 22 times larger than the Coast Guard in terms of personnel. Now it is only eight times larger. A combat ready Coast Guard may be the difference between victory and defeat.


The Coast Guard has potentially important roles to fill in any general conflict. If the Navy cannot envision these roles, perhaps the Coast Guard should think for itself. Plans should include our aircraft as well as our vessels, but I will stick to the vessels for now.

What we need is not an overall strategy to defeat China, but a well developed range of options for employment and a good idea of what upgrades would be required.

In a major war, I see a major shortfall in open ocean escorts. Thirty years ago, when the threat was the Soviet Navy and the problem was projecting American power across the shorter distances of the Atlantic, the US had 36 cruisers, 69 destroyers, and 115 frigates (plus 12 WHEC 378s). Now they have 22 cruisers, 63 destroyers, and 8 LCS.

Then we had the advantage, that the Soviet Fleet was split into four parts and their egress to our supply lines was limited by the presence of powerful European Allied navies that restricted their access to our supply lines.

In a Pacific War with China, the distances are much greater, our allies fewer, and, with the exception of Japan and S. Korea, much weaker. Our Navy’s fleet, currently 274 ships, with ambitions of 355, is scattered across three oceans while China’s fleet, likely soon to be 500 ships, is geographically concentrated.

If we needed over a hundred frigates to cross the Atlantic, we probably need at least that many to push across the Pacific. As it is, the Navy cannot meet their current peacetime commitments, and replenishment ships cross the oceans unescorted and unarmed.

The Navy seems to have belatedly recognized this with moves toward a new frigate to be based on one of the LCS designs, but even if they complete all 52 small surface combattants currently planned, less than half will be completed as frigates, and if based on the LCS designs, they will have limited range, survivability, and crew size. The Independence class LCS will likely be permanently employed as mine countermeasures (MCM) vessels (There were 22 of those in 1987). The Freedom class will likely be employed in enforcing a blockade (perhaps with help from Webber class WPCs). Even with some backfitting of LCS  25-32, that leaves at most 28 frigates in the current plan. 35 ASW equipped cutters could make a huge difference.

The Cutters:

Cutters should be designed with wartime roles in mind, even if they will not be initially fully equipped with combat systems.

In the Bertholf class and Offshore Patrol Cutters, we will have most of the elements of modern warships. To not be prepared to add the few systems necessary to make them effective warships, if the nation were engaged in combat, would be criminal. If we do not already have plans to upgrade the Bertholf class National Security Cutters and the Offshore Patrol Cutters to give them significantly improved ASW, AAW, and ASuW capability we should start those plans.

At some point perhaps we should prototype an installation of these capabilities on at least one NSC and one OPC. Then we need to wring them out by deploying with the Navy and getting feedback on their performance, and periodically update plans for mobilizing their war-time potential.

The People: 

Just as we have marine inspection, fisheries, and drug enforcement specialist, the Coast Guard needs a cadre of officers in the Office of Counter Terrorism and Defense Operations Policy (CG-ODO) who have a deep understanding of the needs of modern naval warfare, who will advocate for naval capabilities consistent with both wartime missions and the Ports, Waterways, and Coastal Security (PWCS) mission. Likely this means revival or strengthening of officer exchange programs, Tactical Action Officer training, and War College education.

Perhaps the longest lead time item in mobilizing the Coast Guard for war would be the senior enlisted we would need for rating not currently found in the peacetime Coast Guard. It might be possible for the Navy to identify some reservist to augment the crews of Coast Guard cutters upon mobilization, but even a small cadre within the Coast Guard, founded on prototyping systems on at least a couple of cutters would provide valuable continuity and advice in defining required capabilities.

Bottom Line–When we get in trouble, we cannot make it up as we go along. Sweat now, saves blood later.

Thanks to Lyle for bringing this to my attention.

13 thoughts on “Worried about the Size of the U.S. Navy? Rearm the Coast Guard–The National Interest

  1. Building on points in other nearby postings, rather than moving CG entirely into DOD, NSCs and perhaps OPCs could be assigned to CVBGs or other Navy task groups routinely. As opposed to an officer exchange program, the entire crew would get used to operating the Navy way. This would be good training for wartime-like operations, and also would force some mindset change on everyone from the Captain to the greenest seaman. The disadvantage would be loss of the cutter for Homeland Security missions, which is another argument for increasing the size of the CG fleet.

    • We certainly should do some of that. I think Amphibious Ready Groups are most appropriate, but there is a problem with that approach.

      Unless it has been upgraded, no one on the cutter will get to use any of the additional equipment the cutter would need in wartime, No towed array, no arming helicopters, no hunting submarines, or launching missiles.

  2. I see NO need to merge the two services. Their missions and purpose are basically divergent. And I would observe that unlike prior history the USN seems to have given up Most of the missions and platforms which patrolled US waters and were engaged in last line of defense roles. Not as many MPA flying, no DDG searching for subs, no amphibs in the Carib.
    I do see a need to improve the weapons and sensor suites on current and planned cutters. Yes the peer adversaries are much better equipped assuming one wants to be an expeditionary service?
    Another down side to closer connections to the Navy is cost. Compliance with NVR, spec for HM&E from NAVASEA would likely increase platform costs by 25%. Hasn’t the Coast Guard had enough problems getting its cutters funded?

    IOW beware of dancing with elephants for one might get stepped on

  3. I think we will be woefully short of interdiction and security vessels in any major conflict. I would prefer to see an emphasis on that rather than ASW.

    ASW is freaking expensive. And I’m not sure traditional convoy escort is practical anymore. Frigates are a billion each, there is no way you’re going to have enough of those to send them with merchant convoys. I think your best bet is to bomb their submarine pens, mine the surrounding waters, and then focus your ASW resources at choke points or around high value assets like CVNs and LHAs.

    • We are only short of ocean escorts becaues the USN gave up buying them giving prefernce for a new ship type LCS unsuitable for the missions intended. So going forward corvettes and cutters don’t need full ASW suites and porbalby can use the ASW packages from LCS. Frigates and destroyers need a full ASW suite. Both types should have some escort capabaliity. Since the USN won’t buy real patrol ships i.e OPV than he devolves to the USCG to have OPV for patrol, as station ships, and to handle the numerous peacetime and low phase order combat missions that occur in far higher numbers than full blown combat.

      • I don’t think cutters will need hull mounted sonars, but without towed arrays there is no way to cue the Helicopters. They are getting closer to being large area search assets, but don’t think they are ready to fully assume the search function.

      • “Full blown combat” has come and gone in the history of the U.S.; sometimes very foreseeable, sometimes suddenly and surprisingly. It is my opinion/belief that we are approaching another episode. China and Russia are problematic bullies and btw, militaristic. No. Korea and Iran are not huge problems militarily, but if they take advantage of a crisis we’re more deeply worried about with China/Russia, they could stretch the US’es resources VERY thin…

        If the Navy is footing the bill for equipment, training, and extra personnel, where is the disadvantage to the CG to be more capable?

        China’s shipbuilding program for their CG and PLAN is significant. Quantitatively, they are nearly at parity (fairly behind in quality though). Even if the DOD budget spending the money is a “waste,” because there is no conflict, there is the argument that upgrading CG capabilities and adding more hulls to both CG and Navy may back them down, thus preventing the conflict. (Yes, back in the 80s I had a “Peace through Strength” t-shirt…)

        Like it or not, if someone presses the war button, the CG is in it. At that moment, do you want the CG to be capable or targets?

    • We will be doing interdiction and offshore security, but I think that will fall primarily on the Webber class and WPBs.

      I don’t expect we will try to convoy everything but their will always be high priority shipping that will need protection including fleet logistics ships, maritime prepositioning ships, and high priority cargoes. If we have allies in the South China Sea (eg Vietnam) we may need to convoy some of their shipping in order to keep them in the war.

      ASW is not cheap, but it is a lot cheaper to equip a cutter to do it than to build another Navy vessel to do it,

      Also ASW equipment ould come out of the Navy budget.

    • They have done it on rare occasions. There was a 378 deployed with a CSG during the last Gulf War. While the rest of the Carriers escorts were away, the 378 tucked in behind the carrier to provide a tacan for returning aircraft since the carriers tacan was out.

      • As the NSCs get deployed I would expect more cutters in task groups. The real question is WHY is a USCGC doing what a USN vessel should be there to do?

  4. I understand and mostly agree with what you guys are saying. I guess my primary point is that billion dollar frigates built by the scores as advocated by the CSBA study just isn’t practical. It’s 2017 and the world is a much smaller place. A flight of bombers from Guam with lrasm could threaten the whole PLAN South China Sea surface fleet for example. And I think a model of building high end ASW frigates in Cold War quantities rather than investing in P8s, T-Agos ships, USVs, and UUVs is folly.

    In theory I’m not opposed to ASW on coast guard cutters, it just isn’t where I would place a priority. How bout we appropriately arm cutters in theater right now before worrying about that? Or get an ISR UAV program off the ground finally?

    • JamesWF, If you are thinking about up arming the WPBs based in Bahrain, I would agree. Replace the Mk38 with a mod 2 or 3, maybe add a second one aft and SeaGriffin like the Cyclone class, or maybe replace the 110s with upgraded Webber class.

      Looks like the NSC shipboard UAV program is getting started, still no real progress on land based UAS, but maybe the Navy program will cover the US coasts

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