DefenseNews had an interview with the Commandant. You can read it here. I will not repeat the Commandant’s responses here, but I will repeat one of the questions and add my own thoughts.
Admiral, you have said that the Coast Guard’s identity as an armed service is forgotten. Can you tell me what you mean by that?
The Commandant talks here about budget, but I think this starts with self image. We do SAR. We rescue sea turtles. Armed services are first and foremost ARMED. We are by law a military service, but we are currently inadequately armed for even our peacetime counter terrorism, DHS mission. We are less capable of forcibly stopping a ship than we were 90 years ago.
Do our people know what their role will be if there is a major conflict with the Chinese or Russians? You can bet Navy and Marine Personnel have a pretty good idea of their roles.
We have had a quarter century hiatus in a mono-polar world where no one could challenge American seapower. That is changing rapidly and it is time for the Coast Guard to see itself in a new light. Just as the nation has benefited from having two land forces (Army and Marines), it can benefit from having two sea forces. The Coast Guard is a substantial naval force. Certainly we will not replace the Navy’s sophisticated systems, but there is a need for a high low mix and the marginal cost of adding capability to Coast Guard vessels that are going to be built anyway is very small.
We are currently in an unrecognized naval arms race with China. It is time to give the Coast Guard back the ASW and ASuW capabilities it was building before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
When I reported to the academy in 1965, it had a gun lab, and we were taught ASW (badly) during swab summer. The Coast Guard had 36 ships equipped with sonar, ASW torpedoes and 5″ guns. The ships were old (not as old as now), but we were building a new fleet of 36 Hamilton Class WHECs equipped with a better sonar in addition to torpedoes and a 5″ gun. Being armed did not stop us from doing SAR, fisheries, or aids to navigation.
At that time (1965) in terms of personnel, the US Navy was about 25 times larger than the Coast Guard and had 287 cruisers, destroyers, and frigates. Now it is only eight times as large as the Coast Guard and has only 85 ASW equipped surface ships. We also had a powerful naval ally in Europe in the form of the Royal Navy. Now the Coast Guard is supplying personnel to the Royal Navy and in terms of personnel the Coast Guard is larger than the Royal Navy or the French Navy. Equipping our planned 33 to 35 large cutters as true surface combattants could make a real difference.
Even if we never go to war, preparation can make us better at our peacetime roles. Drug interdiction, migrant interdiction, and even SAR benefit from military grade ISR and C4I. Recognition of naval capabilities in the Coast Guard may justify additional resorces that have dual use for peacetime missions. Its a win-win.