Including the Coast Guard in Navy Planning

There is a lot going on in Navy Department planning now, prompted by the rise of a real near peer competitor in the form of the Chinese Navy. In fact the Chinese Navy is currently building ships faster than the US Navy. The trend line is not favorable so, its time to think.

Defining a Coast Guard role in a major naval conflict could have major impact on our shipbuilding, our equipment, and our budget.

Force Structure Assessment:

There will be a new “Force Structure Assessment.” It seems we already have an answer for the total number, since 355 some time in the future, has become a law, but this one is expected to better detail the types of ships needed.

The Coast Guard fleet is a significant portion of the “National Fleet” and it needs to be included in the calculus of what will be available and how it will be used.

Surface Forces, the Sea Control Mission:

The Commander Naval Surface Forces has published a new document, “Surface Force Strategy, Return to Sea Control.”

The strategy describes the return to sea control and implementation of Distributed Lethality as an operational and organizational principle for achieving and sustaining sea control at will.

Reading it over, you might notice it says nothing about the Coast Guard. Despite the admission of Cuttermen to the Surface Navy Association, we are still largely invisible to the Navy.

Don’t expect to see a war winning strategy here. This is really an administrative strategy in an attempt to find out what that strategy should be. It is laced with buzz words and power-pointese. It does nothing to tell us how we will find, fix, and kill the other guy before he finds, fixes, and kills us. Still there are some indications.

The big change is that the Navy’s surface forces are saying they will no longer circle the wagons around the carrier and play defense while the aviators provide all the offense. They have begun to see themselves as offensive players. There are even those that now suggest that the carriers should be protecting the surface forces rather than the other way around.

The strategy talks about being Forward, Visible, and Ready.

It talks about the concept of Distributed Lethality:

  • Increase the offensive lethality of each warship
  • Distribute offensive capability geographically
  • Give ships the right mix of resources to persist in a fight

Then they talk about “four Ts”

  • Tactics
  • Talent
  • Tools
  • Training

Hopefully there really is a strategy somewhere in the classified material spaces, but this administrative strategy mostly says we are going to do a lot of good things that we all recognize as good things, and we will do them better than we did in the past. It says nothing about what they will stop doing in order to make time to do these additional things.

What is clear, is that, if the Coast Guard is going to play in the Sea Control game, we are going to need to be part of the network, otherwise, at best we may just get in the way, at worst, we might be road kill in a blue on blue engagement.

Really I think we have a lot to contribute to “sea control.” The Navy has the resources to contend for the opportunity to have control of the seas, but they don’t actually have the platforms to exercise control of the sea. That requires not only excluding enemy combatants–always a hard thing, particularly when those combatants are submarines, but also checking merchant ships to make sure they are not carrying out tasks for the enemy. You also have to protect your own logistics, resupply, and merchant ships and frequently those of your allies. The Chinese have figured out that attacking our logistics is a useful strategy.

Sea Control is many faceted and I have seen few explanations that deal with all aspects. Like a blind man describing an elephant we authors tend to see only certain aspects or elements of the problem.

Cutters will be needed for escort logistics vessels, for open ocean rescue, and for boarding vessels to determine their nature and intent. These are not things you want DDG and cruisers doing.

Even dominant naval powers face the possibility of submarine or unconventional attacks and will want to shutdown the enemies covert as well as overt use of the sea.

Gray Zone Conflicts: 

The Chief of Naval Operations has said that the Navy needs to be able to compete and prevail in ‘Gray Zone” Conflicts.

But is not really just the Navy, the Coast Guard is part of the National Fleet and a potentially important element in any response violations of norms of international conduct, and it can do so without raising tensions to extent use of Navy assets frequently engender

Additional Reading:

If you are interested in an insight into some of the issues shaping the strategy debate, US Naval Institute has published a pair of fictional future history scenarios that highlight some of the issues.

The first, and probably most important of these, is “How We Lost the Great Pacific War.” Like the author, I question the wisdom of having single carrier task groups forward deployed, where they may serve more as bait than deterrent.

The second which takes a different view and looks primarily at the Marine’s role is “How We Won the Great Pacific War.”

CIMSEC just completed a series of eight post on “Bringing Back Sea Control Week.” that was mostly interesting, but still short of comprehensive.

If you really want to get into it, there is a reading list here.

To me the best source is still Julian Corbett’s “Some Principles of Maritime Strategy.” You have to rethink the distribution of roles in light of new technology, but that is itself a useful exercise.

8 thoughts on “Including the Coast Guard in Navy Planning

  1. “Don’t expect to see a war winning strategy here. This is really an administrative strategy in an attempt to find out what that strategy should be. It is laced with buzz words and power-pointese. It does nothing to tell us how we will find, fix, and kill the other guy before he finds, fixes, and kills us. Still there are some indications.”

    “Hopefully there really is a strategy somewhere in the classified material spaces, but this administrative strategy mostly says we are going to do a lot of good things that we all recognize as good things, and we will do them better than we did in the past. It says nothing about what they will stop doing in order to make time to do these additional things.”

    I am laughing so hard I may need oxygen. I’ve never seen you be so sarcastically salty, Chuck. Great stuff!!

  2. OK, now that I’ve caught my breath…

    Even at a nearly-dismissive, after-thought level, the Navy can “buy” a tremendous capability from doing minor planning and equipping of CG Cutters. The addition of sonar sets, torpedoes, ASW helos (USN Reserve units for the latter, activated and assigned when needed), and a meaningful AShM would make the NSCs meaningful FFs probably for the cost of about one purpose-built frigate. In other words, 11 Frigates for the price of one… I’m surprised this is SO lost on Navy command…

    They sit and cry about limited funding, priorities, and a 355-ship (or whatever number) Navy, but fail to see a terrific resource. I think there is a lot of inter-service tension too. There are CG personnel and supporters who are distinctly antagonistic towards the military capability/mission too.

    And as we’ve discussed here before, equipping the Cutters after the war breaks out, very likely would be too late, not to mention the sudden, steep learning curve, which would undoubtedly drastically reduce performance.

    • Bill,

      Glad you found some humor. I tried to be fair, but I am dealing with a lifetime frustration, that for a small marginal cost we could have cutters that could make a major contribution to our national defense.

      Not only would these be better warships. With better ISR and networking, they would also potentially be better Coast Guard cutter.

      This might also be seen as additional justification for more assets, again making for a better Coast Guard.

      • You should be British. We have warships which for a small marginal cost could make a major contribution to our national defence……….

      • I was thinking about the Royal Navy and Britain’s plight, X. It’s ironic, but I think the USN sees the RN is a better partner than it does the USCG. I think it may amount to viewing the USCG as a competitor for budget dollars from Congress, whereas the RN has a separate budget. Also the RN is full-time training and operating for war operations (if one ignores things like the Gibraltor Sqdrn or the River class which have very CG-like purposes), as opposed to doing aids to navigation and pollution response. I was really impressed by the “Sloop-of-War” concept which was proposed/discussed a few years ago.

  3. Leaving the Coast Guard of war planning is nothing new. Following WWI the Coast Guard approached the Navy to talk about the next war. The Navy said, Nah. Following WWII, the Coast Guard asked again, also a larger Nah. This time the Navy said we’ll call if needed.

    In 1966, when NAVFORV came into being to justify a Navy flag billet, the Navy dismissed the in country Coast Guard units both administratively and operationally. Simply excluded. Oddly, no one in the Coast Guard seemed tor realize they had been left out and missed a large opportunity for more independence in Vietnam. It was not until 1969 that Captain Perkins, (RONONE) developed a plan to take the Coast Guard out from under the Navy and give command of Vietnam units to COMWESTAREA. Well, this would have necessitated a Coast Guard flag billet in Vietnam too. That plan bombed too because the Coast Guard wanted out of Vietnam. The next year the Coast Guard asked the Navy to remove the ASW mission from the cutters.

    The plans remain the same. We’ll call if we need the Coast Guard.

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