Looking Back on the Last 30 Years

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

The Coast Guard took full advantage of the “peace dividend” when the Soviet Union collapsed back in 1991 (the year I retired). All ASW equipment was removed. That was 30 years ago, so virtually every active duty Coast Guardsman has never been in the service when it had a defined war time mission.

The Chinese naval build up has changed the circumstance that made that shedding of capabilities logical.
The Navy decommissioned many ships. The Coast Guard retained its ships but no longer saw a need for Harpoon, sonar, torpedo tubes, etc.
For some reason they did retain Electronic Warfare capability and CIWS. I am not sure that makes sense unless there is a plan to reintroduce warfare capabilities.
The National Security Cutters are really to well equipped and more capable than their peacetime missions would require. Like the down graded post FRAM 378s, the NSCs have ESM/ECM, a first rate fire control system, helicopter support facilities that exceed our normal requirements, a  Phalanx CIWS, and a speed of over 25 knots. Those capabilities only make sense if additional upgrades are expected in time of war. We know that the NSCs were designed to accept 12 Mk56 VLS, but that alone does not make sense because that would only improve its defensive capabilities.
I sometime get the feeling we want our ships to look like warships, but we don’t really care if they are effective warships.
You don’t need to defend against cruise missile unless you are engaged in a warfare mission.
We do seem to have embraced Gray Zone missions, including Cyber. That is all to the good, but I still don’t see that we are actively engaged in “Defense Readiness,” which, to me means planning for how we can help in an existential conflict with a near peer adversary, specifically now China and/or Russia.
I also don’t see that we have fully embraced the counter-terrorism mission either, since we don’t have what it takes to deal with a terrorist attack on a US port using a medium to large size vessel. Our countermeasures are just too week. We are barely equipped to take on terrorist using personal watercraft.
Modular sensors and weapons and coordination with the Navy Reserve appear to offer a way to prepare at minimal day to day cost, but we don’t seem to be exploiting these options. Our reservist do deploy on military missions, but are we really prepared to reorder our mission priorities and assume a significant role in naval warfare? Do we have plans as to how we will upgrade our ships? How we will train operators of equipment we don’t currently have?
Shortly before I retired the US and its allies defeated the Soviet Union without going to war, because we were ready to fight. At that time we knew the Coast Guard’s missions would include escorting convoys to Europe. Since then we have had three decades without a significant naval challenge, but that has ended. It is time to embrace the fact that the Coast Guard is a military service at all times and find our place in the plans for any future struggle.

3 thoughts on “Looking Back on the Last 30 Years

  1. We should really block buy gear we are going to need. There is no sense in block buying ships and not block buying some of the GFE. Clearly demand for NSM is going to exceed supply for awhile. At some point we need to pick the actual ASW gear of the future in the surface and aviation space and get them on the water. And if they really want to grow the fleet, use open production lines. NSC is the easy win we are missing. We could have an FF making deployments by the time they start sea trials on Constellation. If we try.

  2. While the Coast Guard will be critical early in a war with China, it’s as commerce raiders sweeping the seas of Chinese shipping. Since that doesn’t expose cutters to much combat, I don’t see these limitations being relevant for the first few months of war. That gives us time to figure out how to arm the cutters based on how the war actually develops since surprises are a given.

    Also, most of the equipment you mention being removed is still in storage. It’s an open question how much of it still works and how much refurbishing/upgrading we’ll need to do, but it’s there if we want to bolt it back on.

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