As reported here earlier, PACAREA Commander VAdm Fagan expressed concern that the Coast Guard might be seen differently if its ships were better armed. “… the reaction might be different if the Coast Guard were to sort of look like the Navy combatant.”
I have a lot of respect for Adm. Fagan. PACAREA has taken some bold initiatives in law enforcement, operating Webber class far from home.
The Coast Guard is welcome in many places where the Navy is not, so this is a valid concern.
But (there is always the but) I will argue that the difference is because of the Coast Guard’s history and reputation, not because of how are ships are armed and add that, in fact, peacetime missions of law enforcement/counter terrorism, at least as much as military readiness, requires that our ships should be better armed. Meanwhile, the deteriorating international system indicates this is a time when the Coast Guard needs to prioritize its military capabilities.
A Personal Perspective:
There are a few places, notably in Central America where the Coast Guard is welcome, but the US Navy is not. Several Central American countries have had history with the US military, that has left an unfavorable impression.
I am most familiar with the situation in Costa Rica, although my experience was long ago, when I visited there to arrange joint exercises. Since then I have seen information that Coast Guard cutters were allowed to visit and replenish in Costa Rican ports, but Navy ships were not.
Costa Rica’s distrust in of the US Navy is probably most firmly routed in their distrust of the military in general. In 1948, following a civil war, they abolished their military and the ban was included in their constitution in 1949. But, they do have a Coast Guard, last I heard, their uniforms were modelled after that of school children, but it is well provided with small arms. When I visited, long before there were regular drug interdiction operations in the Eastern Pacific, there was a US Coast Guard liaison officer there, as there had been for many years. That long relationship of mutual understanding is probably the most important reason of the current level of trust.
What is it that a foreign national sees when he or she sees a Coast Guard Cutter? Do they feel threatened? They know it is a warship because it has a gun on it. Most will not know how powerful the gun or other weapons might be. The color, white, rather than gray does look less menacing.
Would they recognize vertical launch tubes for Hellfire that can be painted white, are no more than about eight feet high and look like uptakes. Would they consider a towed array on the stern or torpedo tubes threatening? Would it make a difference to them?
Simply put, most people are not qualified to differentiate between a well armed warship and one not so well armed. When vertical launch tubes first appeared on ships, I remember people saying that they made the ships look less well armed. The people that are qualified to make the distinction know that even an up-armed cutter is not a ship that you would send to overthrow a government or subjugate even the smallest country. ASW equipment that might be appropriate to defend our ports and shipping, in particular, presents no danger to anyone on land.
We need more capability for counter terrorism:
Terrorism can come to the US from the sea. The weapon could be a jet ski or a giant LNG tanker. They might bring a weapon of mass destruction or simply a platoon of suicidal zealots armed with explosives and small arms. They might bring mines or launch cruise missiles from containers. We have seen the attack on the USS Cole, the attack on Mumbai, and attacks on shipping using remote controlled explosive motor boats in the Red Sea. Unmanned Air Vehicles (drones) present new challenges.
The US Navy is not positioned or prepared respond to such attacks They have surface warships in essential only five of the dozens of ports or port complexes in the US. They don’t patrol our coasts. DOD doesn’t have ships or any other weapons on standby ready to respond.
The Coast Guard is well distributed to meet this Homeland Security threat, but is armed only with small arms, and 25mm, 57mm, and 76mm guns that are too small to deal with medium to large merchant ships and which present a danger of collateral damage if employed in or near a US port.
The ability to forcibly stop a vessel, regardless of size, is fundamental for a maritime law enforcement agency. And we need to have that ability widely distributed, not just on the largest cutters that are unlikely to be available when the capability is needed. We do not have that ability.
We also need to be able to reliably stop small, fast, highly maneuverable boats. Crew served machine guns mounted in the bow of an RB-M don’t really qualify. They are inaccurate. They have the potential for inflicted collateral damage, and there is a good chance the intruder will be able to kill the gunner or coxswain before it can stop the intruder. Even a WPB armed with .50 cal. or a Webber class FRC with a 25mm may not be sufficient. Small guided weapons, like Hellfire, are a much more accurate and reliable, though still inadequate to stop the largest threats.
The vessels that really need to be up-armed are the WPBs and WPCs that protect our ports. Only relatively short range weapons are required. They should have no influence on the perception of the Coast Guard by other nations.
Changes in the Geopolitical situation:
The US is slowly loosing all of the areas that it used to be able to assume would be safe. Those area used to go almost to the shore of hostile countries but ship killer ballistic missiles, more nuclear submarines, and longer ranged aircraft carrying longer ranged missiles are shrinking our “safe space.”
It is starting to look much more like the Cold War world before 1990 when Coast Guard cutters were routinely armed with 5″ guns and anti-submarine warfare equipment and even anti-ship cruise missiles.
The Chinese have about 60 conventionally powered submarines and about 19 nuclear powered subs, including six SSBNs and 13 SSNs. Apparently they are planning to increase the number of nuclear submarines. They are doubling their capacity for building nuclear submarines so it is likely they will ultimately double the size of their fleet of nuclear submarines.
The Russian Navy includes 12 SSBNs, 9 SSGNs, 14 SSNs, and 22 conventionally powered attack boats, and six special purpose submarines, mostly nuclear powered including two or three capable of deploying the Poseidon, a huge 6200 mile range nuclear armed and powered torpedo sometimes called the “Status Six.” The increased aggressiveness has prompted a revival of the Atlantic Fleet as a separate command.
Both the US Navy and US shipbuilding capacity has been in slow decline since the fall of the Soviet Union. So far our build rate is far below that of the Chinese.
These systems present a serious challenge to US Navy capabilities.
In wartime, it is unlikely the Coast Guard would need long ranged anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM). Cutters are not likely to square off against Chinese surface warships although we are likely to have many interactions with Chinese flag or controlled merchant ships at the start of any conflict with the PRC.
On the other hand, they are one way we might be able to address the potential threat of terrorist controlled merchant ships. The Navy does want to put ASCMs on almost everything, “If it floats it fights.”
ASCMs are an addition that might cause unease in a small country, because in many cases they can be used against targets on shore. There is, however, a simple way to alleviate this anxiety if it proves to be a concern. Using deck mounted launchers, as would be the case on cutters, it can be clear whether missiles are actually on board or not. If our friends have misgivings about a cutter with ASCMs, then simply do no load them, if the cutter is going to be in an area where that is a concern.
The system upgrades we need to counter terrorists are small and relatively innocuous (like Hellfire and very light weight torpedoes). They are really most needed by vessels that usually don’t venture into foreign waters.
The upgrades our large cutters need are primarily anti-submarine systems and present no threat to small nations.
Even if we did add the capability to have anti-ship cruise missiles, which I see as much less important, it would be easy enough to leave them ashore when going to destinations that might be sensitive to that capability. Empty missile launch cradles would be an obvious signal of lack of aggressive intent.