Business Insider reports on the Commandant’s response to a question posed at a Navy League event. It was hardly a ringing commitment, but the Commandant did say,
“If there was a requirement that was at the joint Coast Guard-Navy-[Department of Defense] level that said, ‘Hey, there’s an urgent need to bring that capability back in Coast Guard,’ I’m not saying we couldn’t revisit that,”
“I’m not so sure I see an immediate return to that mission space here, but again, I don’t close the door on anything since we live in an increasingly complicated world … and requirements change,” Schultz added
We have had an almost 30 year period when the Coast Guard’s Defense Readiness mission has been limited to low level requirements that had little impact on the majority of Coast Guard members. It happened because of the virtual disappearance of any significant naval threat after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but there has always been the possibility that a more active role might reemerge in the future.
If we have no defense readiness mission, there is no reason the Coast Guard should be military. There would be no reason for our ships to have sophisticated fire control systems, electronic warfare systems, or Phalanx CIWS. There would be no reason for defensive systems, because if we were irrelevant in a military conflict, why would an enemy bother wasting ammunition on us.
Many countries have no coast guard or their coast guards are limited to coastal SAR. In many nations their regular navies and air forces, that do have war time missions, also do fisheries protection, drug enforcement, migrant interdiction, coastal security, and SAR.
If our large cutters do not have a wartime defense readiness mission, it is illogical for us to build ships that are 80 to 90% of a frigate or corvette, with 80 to 90% of the crew of those types, when more numerous, much less capable ships could do the non-defense related missions much more economically.
Schultz and other officials have also said new Coast Guard ships will be able to adapt for future missions.
“We’re putting in what we call space, weight, and power to be able to plug and play for all kinds of mission support,” Shannon Jenkins, senior Arctic advisor at the Coast Guard’s Office of Arctic Policy, said at an event in August when asked about arming icebreakers. “It certainly will have the capacity and the abilities to add in whatever we need to execute our national missions, not just Coast Guard missions.”
( I think you mean Coast Guard non-defense related missions, because defense is a Coast Guard mission?)
If conditions are favorable and no conflict appears likely for a long period, then it may make sense to adopt a policy of “fitted for but not with” or a more open weight, space and power reservation approach, but at some point we are going to need leadership in the mold of Admiral Wasche to recognize the need for the Coast Guard to again step up and fill its military role.
Adding an ASW capability will take time. It has become more complex than it was in WWII and we no longer have a lot of ship building and repair facilities capable of quickly upgrading our ships. How good are we at predicting the future?
Even in WWII we began the war terribly unprepared. Cutters were assigned to escort convoys that had neither sonar nor radar. Some ships that got sonars had no trained operators. Although more U-boats were sunk by aircraft than by ships, our air assets failed to sink any submarines (although one sinking was credited, it turned out not to have been the case).
The Navy may be hesitant to ask that the Coast Guard start preparing for possible armed conflict. There are many in the US Navy who might see asking the Coast Guard to shoulder some of the responsibility for naval defense as a diversion of attention from the Navy’s needs. But the Navy has several communities that compete for dollars. If the Coast Guard can provide some surface escorts it may mean more Navy money available for submarines or aircraft, so we may also have support from within the Navy. We really need to talk about the Coast Guard’s role in a major conflict when our non-defense related missions will have a lower priority.
The international environment is starting to take on an ominous resemblance to the late 1930s. The US needs to deter aggressive action. The Coast Guard can play a part in providing a credible naval deterrent, but only if it is seen as capable in the near term. We really need to start thinking about this before the need becomes urgent.