“The Coast Guard Does Not Exist Solely for Preparing for War” –USNI

USCGC Mellon seen here launching a Harpoon anti-ship cruise missile in 1990.

The US Naval Institute Blog has a post by Cdr. Shawn Lansing, USCG, that addresses the question of the Coast Guard’s proper place in the Federal government, specifically countering arguments proposing moving the Coast Guard to the DOD. The author also spoke against increasing the military readiness of Coast Guard assets, so let me address the two issues separately.

Should the Coast Guard be part of the DOD?

Here we agree with a resounding NO. Most of the Coast Guard’s missions are outside the DOD’s sphere of interest. (I do think it might be better if the Coast Guard’s budget were considered outside the DHS budget since half of the Coast Guard’s missions are outside the DHS sphere)

Most of the arguments in favor have as their underlying assumption, the DOD is awash in money so the Coast Guard will be well funded. Since Sequestration began in 2013, short term, the Navy seems to have done better in the budget battles than the Coast Guard, but taking the long view I see it otherwise.

I can remember when the Navy was, in terms of personnel, 22 times larger than the Coast Guard. Now it is only about eight times larger. I could not find figures to support the 22 times figure. It was about 50 years ago. It was during the height of the Cold War and the Vietnam War; the Navy had about 900 ships, but looking back at some of my older books, I found personnel figures for 1982, 1999, and 2013. (Numbers of Navy ships by year and type are available here.)

In 1982 the Navy had 555 ships and a total of 548,475 active duty uniformed personnel, the Coast Guard 33, 799, meaning the Coast Guard was 6.15% the size of the Navy, or  the Navy was 16.3 times as large as the Coast Guard.

In 1999 the Navy had 336 ships and a total of 372,696 active duty uniformed personnel, the Coast Guard 35,511, meaning the Coast Guard was 9.53% the size of the Navy, or  the Navy was 10.5 times as large as the Coast Guard. 

In 2013 the Navy had 285 ships and a total of 317,464 active duty uniformed personnel, the Coast Guard 42,190, meaning the Coast Guard was 13.3% the size of the Navy, or  the Navy was 7.5 times as large as the Coast Guard. 

The Navy has been in a long and steady decline, while the Coast Guard had enjoyed moderate growth. Over the 31 years from 1982 to 2013 the number of personnel in Navy fell 42% while the comparable number for the Coast Guard went up 25%.paralleling a US population growth of 36.5% for the same period.

Somehow I cannot imagine that if the Coast Guard had been part of the DOD during that period, that they would have grown the Coast Guard while the Navy and Marine Corps shrank.

Should the Coast Guard increase its Naval Mission Capabilities?

The author quotes the Coast Guard’s first Commandant, Commodore Ellsworth Bertholf,, “the Coast Guard does not exist solely for the purpose of preparing for war. If it did there would be, of course, two navies—a large one and a small one, and that condition, I am sure you will agree, could not long exist.”

For some reason the author seems to think that this idea rules out a more combat ready Coast Guard. Combat readiness is not the Coast Guard’s reason for being, but it is one of our missions.

Naval tasks are not the reason the Coast Guard exist, but the Coast Guard will do them because it is a ready asset that can be diverted from its normal missions when an urgent need exists, just as the Navy sometimes does humanitarian missions because it is a ready asset that exists for other reasons. To do them when required, with any expectation of success requires planning and preparation. 

It is true that combat readiness has a cost. It may require additional personnel and additional training, but the cost of adding a combat capability to a Coast Guard asset that would exist for other reasons, is far less than providing the same capability in an additional Navy asset in addition to a Coast Guard asset without that capability.

It is logical that the degree of effort the Coast Guard puts into readiness will vary with the apparent threat. That is why I find the decision to remove the Harpoon anti-ship missiles and ASW capabilities from the 378s after the collapse of the Soviet Union was logical. Now the situation is changing. The situation in the Pacific is starting to bare an uncanny resemblance to the situation in the late 1930s, except that China is potentially a much more dangerous adversary than Japan ever was. Unlike Japan prior to 1945, China has an industrial capability that approaches and in some respects, particularly ship building, exceeds that of the US. Russia is not the Soviet Union. It is now China’s junior partner, but if its weight is added to that of China, the balance looks even more challenging, and the trend line looking to the future does not look good.

So far the Navy and Coast Guard have not done much about planning the Coast Guard’s role in a near peer conflict. Creative use of Navy owned equipment on cutters and augmentation by Navy Reserves could lessen the impact on the Coast Guard budget. We could see a lot more synergy between the Coast Guard and the Navy Reserve. Planning the use of Navy Reserve ASW helicopters and crew augmentation by Navy Reserve sonar techs and ASW trained officers seem appropriate. They could also augment Coast Guard assets during more routine operations to exploit Navy capabilities such as towed array sonars for law enforcement operations.

There is also the side benefit that the sensors required for Naval roles may make the cutters more capable in low enforcement, migrant interdiction, and SAR.

The Coast Guard proudly claim to be a military service at all times, once again it is time to act like one.

Bertholf’s argument, quoted above, did not mean he did not send cutters to escort convoys in WWI.


11 thoughts on ““The Coast Guard Does Not Exist Solely for Preparing for War” –USNI

  1. During WWII the Coast Guard was under the Navy Dept. My dad was in the CG in WWII and served on a troop transport / hospital ship in the South Pacific for part of his service, he was also stationed in the Gulf of Alaska and Bearing Sea.

    And I have some fiends that were in the Navy in Viet Nam and talk about the CG white cutters that also patrolled – they always felt safer with the CG around.

    The big problem as you have noted is the budget – the CG has not always articulated their needs well to congress and others.

  2. Chuck… thanks for reading and presenting counters to points I make in the article.

    Bertholf’s observations are really only germaine to the reasons why the CG should not be a component of DoD. This is not to say the CG should not carry the water in its defense readiness function, they absolutely should. However, “combat” functions and defensive functions are not the same, and each vary on how one should man, train, and equip. Lots of room for debate on what the sensors and weapons mix should be, but that should be driven by what functions the service is expected to carry out. Preparing everybody to do everything in every contingency is a losing stern chase and has a significant cost on the people who at the end of the day carry that water.

    Furthermore, whereas I argue the CG should focus and build prowess in its coastguarding functions, I would also argue the USN is eroding their readiness by participating in what before the fall of the Soviet Union had been considered more constabulary functions. “Toward a New Maritime Strategy” by Capt Peter Haynes (USN, ret.) speaks to how the USN strategy shifted over time; how “forward presence” and it’s associated activities grew for the service after the end of the Cold War. It’s still debated whether today’s maritime strategy was borne out of the geostrategic environment or the domestic political environment in order to to leverage during budget fights. The implications of the current strategy on the readiness of the sea services was also a focus of the discussion last year at the Kiel Seapower Series. Many believe navies need to focus more on command of the sea over their lower order functions.

    Finally, I can assure you the Coast Guard and its DoD counterparts (not just the Navy) are quite involved in developing concepts of operations and plans for addressing the shifting operational environment. They are factoring the Coast Guard capability into the phases and mission types that take advantage of its core strengths rather than as a naval auxiliary. I’m failing to see how the CG is not acting like a military service if they are focusing on the functions that DoD is expecting and planning for?

    • I think we believe more similarly than different, but there are a couple glaring errors in logic in your argument.

      First, you make a distinction between “combat” (ostensibly offensive?) and defensive operations, and tie that argument to discouraging weaponizing. This is false logic. Weapons are weapons. How they are used makes them offensive or defensive. Using a gun, missile, or torpedo to prosecute a hostile contact on the initiative is offensive. Using the same gun, missile, or torpedo system to prosecute a target attacking you, is defensive. The weapon (or sensor) system doesn’t change; just the circumstances in which it is used. An NSC in the western Pacific when war breaks out may be tasked with offensive or defensive operations, simply because it is there (Pearl Harbor,etc…). America has rarely initiated hostilities; therefore, time, place, and circumstances are the advantage of the enemy. This issues is readiness. Where have I heard that? oh yeah. Semper Paratus…

      Second, a significant stand on your argument is discussions between the Navy/DOD and what they expect of the CG, and in your article you mention homeland security, SAR, and even ATON among, basically, all the peacetime missions of the CG. Had you ever considered the one-way nature and direction of these statements? It sounds a lot like “big Navy” patting the CG on the head and condescendingly saying, “yes, you are important, now go run along, do your normal peacetime missions even during wartime, and don’t elbow in on our appropriations.” How do you reconcile this with the CG asked to participate in WWII, Vietnam, and currently in the Persian Gulf? How do you explain Cutters being integrated in CVBGs occasionally since at least the 80s? How about CG’s participation and leadership in RIMPAC?

      I really do agree that the CG should serve as a primary defender of CONUS and Alaska, including during wartime. However, there are CG assets, particularly the largest cutters, which *will* be called on to supplement the Navy in time of war, whether any of us agree, disagree, or anticipate it. History proves this, repeatedly. Would you be happy deploying to combat on any cutter, say, on Monday? In addition, if the CG is used to defend the homeland and not for offensive operations, how do you propose the CG do this with “constabulary weapons and training?? Name one CG vessel with the systems, training and weapon to successfully even attempt to prosecute an ASW mission through the cycle. (After all, Subs are going to be the primary homeland threat during any war with a foreign nation.)

      • “Where have I heard that? oh yeah. Semper Paratus…”

        Wow! This whole response is riddled with condescension. Let’s get back to the basic point that the Coast Guard should not be moved into the DoD for funding purposes. It would only be a matter of time until DoD began asking why it has “two navies” and started dismantling the longest continuous seagoing service in the United States. Just recall how hard the Marines had to fight off questions as to why DoD needed both the Army and the Marines. I’m glad the Marines survived. The Coast Guard does not need to put itself in the same position. Keeping its identity as a Coast Guard is the most important step.

      • “riddled with condescension”? Hardly.

        My first point out of the gate is that I agree with him more than we disagree. As I point out in my whole last paragraph, though, there *is* both a wartime homeland defense role and deployed-in-combat-zones role for which the CG is perfectly suited for, but only partially equipped for.

        If your take away of the main thrust of the article was not moving USCG to DOD, fine. My take away, from the title through the specific arguments the author made, is that the CG should not and does not have a war-time combat role, looking at CG as primarily a constabulary force. This is foolhardy. As history shows, when the feces hits the oscilator, the CG will be in the thick of it. The Navy, and the nation, will look at those NSCs and OPCs and send them.

        To shun the National Defense mission to a tertiary level of importance and advocate not equipping, manning, and training for it, perpetuates a mindset which will get Guardsmen killed. If you wish to dismiss that as “condescension,” be my guest. I will advocate for a wiser approach.

  3. Reading over the article again, I think I see why we are failing to plan for a near peer conflict.

    He notes, “The broad structural changes to DOD have shifted the responsibility of planning and executing the fight to functional and geographic combatant commanders, and placed the role of manning, training, and equipping the forces upon each of the individual military services. (emphasis applied–Chuck) The Coast Guard supports DoD in much the same way, negotiating support levels on an iterative cycle and providing combatant commanders with ready forces.”

    That means the Combatant Commanders can only plan to use Coast Guard assets as they are currently configured.

    “DoD planners are asking for cutters, aircraft, deployable specialized forces, intelligence specialists, and marine safety professionals to conduct maritime interdiction, ice operations, homeland security and counterterrorism, search-and-rescue, marine safety (including aids to navigation), and counter-trafficking functions.”

    Because that is what we are capable of doing now. That is not planning for a major conflict that is planning near term operations in peacetime.

    No one is tasked with insuring that Coast Guard assets fulfill their potential as useful units in a major conflict.

    The Navy is not going to ask the Coast Guard to step up.

    We need the Commandant to push the idea as Waesche and Yost did, and ask the Navy to help us reach our potential.

    Not only could we provide additional ASW escorts at a far lower marginal cost than the Navy. We were going to build these ships anyway, we just need to add some systems to ships that in every other way are already Frigates. The addition of those escort vessels to the National Fleet provides a strong rationale for building ships, perhaps more ships, we wanted to build anyway.

    I certainly don’t expect Cutters to lead the charge into the South China Sea against a storm of ballistic and cruise missiles, but even if we just escort shipping from the West Coast to Hawaii, we could expect to encounter submarines and some of them might employ cruise missiles in small numbers.

    We should expect one of our first jobs in a major conflict is to seize potentially hostile merchant ships that might be used to mine the approaches to our harbors or drop off agents, or perhaps simply ram our replenishment ships. We are not even equipped to forcible stop these ships if they prove to have hostile intent.


      I would add that a near-peer conflict would also see submarines deployed near our ports or in cruise missile range of strategic targets. While USN Patrol Squadrons would carry a lot of the load to search and prosecute these targets, who do we suspect will be given the primary job of the waterborne part of the team? It will not be the Navy who would be marshalling available resources to be a barrier or to go on offensive operations.

  4. I still think we refuse to embrace the reality of gray zone conflict as a form of modern warfare. It’s a lot funner to prepare for high end conventional conflict that we would win. It’s similar to our desire to move on from insurgency warfare and focus on near peer conflict (exactly like we did after Vietnam). Yes, obviously there has to be a balance, and without a doubt some high level stuff has suffered due to Afghanistan and Iraq.

    But, if you want to curtail Chinese domination of the South China Sea, you need to do trade deals like the TPP. You need to set up fishery enforcement with the USCG and regional coast guards and navies. You need to set the expectation that the rule of law will be followed. I would far rather spend money on that than building a 12th aircraft carrier.

    That’s not to say the USCG doesn’t have a role in high level warfare, it obviously does. But it has a key role in Gray Zone conflicts right now, and it is being underutilized and underfunded.

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