A Very Different Coast Guard

In Science Fiction, an “alternate reality” is a common plot device. It allows you to think “outside the box” and sidestep some of your preconceptions. A recent post, “Maritime Security Operations and the ‘Myth’ of Piracy,” allowed me to look at how Coast Guard missions are done in an alternate reality, the UK. I’d like to recommend it, not because I agree with the conclusions, but because they are so different.

What would be Coast Guard missions in the US, are fractured among several agencies in the UK. Many are done by the Royal Navy and fixed wing Maritime SAR has been done by RAF Nimrod ASW aircraft (Just as it is done by CP-140 Auroras in Canada). Deep defense cuts in the wake of a defense review, are taking away many of the resources that have done these missions. The RN is loosing many of its older smaller frigates that have done law enforcement. Towing vessels are being discarded. The new generation of Nimrods, now almost finished at great expense, are to be discarded. This raises the question, how will these missions be done in the future?

They have a Maritime and Coast Guard Agency, but it is very small, unarmed, civilian, and relies heavily on volunteers. They do SAR with surface assets, Merchant Vessel safety, and marine pollution prevention, but no drug or fisheries enforcement and no buoy tending (this seems to be handled locally although there seems to be a bill to establish nationwide funding and oversight). They have a UK Border Agency (analogous to Immigration Customs Enforcement) that works with police to do drug and migrant interdiction, and they have more than one fisheries enforcement agency including a separate one for Scotland. None of these agencies appear to operate aircraft.

Among the comments were calls for an American style Coast Guard, but the post proposes something the author considers less radical, using the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA, a rough equivalent of the Military Sealift Command, MSC) to man ships and put them under the authority of the Coast Guard, Customs, and Fisheries Agencies, “In UK waters Fisheries officers could be carried, and Customers officers in the same way.  In the Caribbean or off Somalia I would suggest the boarding parties should be made up of Royal Marines.

And rather than use small Offshore Patrol Vessels, he proposes using Naval Auxiliaries, “I am not a big fan of smaller less flexible vessels, so lets go to the other extreme and examine the use of really big RFA’s for these maritime security operations.

“As the RN surface fleet has shrunk, RFA tankers and the auxiliary landing ships of the Bay Class have been used on the Windies Guard Ship’ and other duties. While some have questioned the veracity of using a tanker to do anti-drug runner ops’ I say “so what?” – it’s a flexible asset, use it for whatever you can.

That is a very different view. There has been a lively response to the post with over 90 replies. We have had our own experiment with manning ships for other agencies. Depending on the National Science Foundation to fund the Icebreaker program is what got us in the current situation.  The poster never addressed who he expected to do air ops for his coast guard.

Looking at this alternate reality makes me appreciate what we have in terms of the opportunities for synergy, flexibility, coordination, and efficiency.

“Navy at a Tipping Point,” What Does It Mean to the Coast Guard?

The Navy is shrinking and will have to make some hard choices. How will this effect the Coast Guard?

March 1, 2010 the Center for Naval Analysis published a now widely read and quoted treatise, discussing how the Navy can best reorder its priorities to deal with the new realities of a shrinking fleet and the rise of new potential competitors, particularly China, ” The Navy at a Tipping Point: Maritime Dominance at Stake?” It is available as a pdf and can be downloaded here.

It accepts that the Navy will shrink to approximately 230 ship from its current level of approximately 285 and outlines five alternative futures.

  • 2 Hub–continuously maintaining forward deployed Carrier Strike Groups (CSG) in the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean (IO) at the expense of engagement (nation building/maritime policing) and forcible entry (amphib) capability.
  • 1+ Hub–maintaining a forward deployed CSG in the Western Pacific and a tailored task group based on amphibs in the IO
  • Shaping–emphasizing maritime policing, Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HS/DR), and engagement with friendly navies/coast guards at the expense of combat capability (trying to create a more peaceful world but compromising warfighting ability)
  • Surge–Emphasizing strong combat capability but with much reduced forward deployment/engagement
  • Shrinking Status Quo–trying to continue doing all the same things with less

In the sparest terms their impact on the fleet are outlined below (ref. p 43):

  • 2 Hub–fewer amphibs and low end assets, more Aegis and SSNs
  • 1+ Hub–fewer CSG, more low end assets
  • Shaping–fewer CSG, Aegis, and SSNs, more amphibs and low end
  • Surge–fewer amphibs, low-end, and logistics, more Aegis and SSNs
  • Shrinking Status Quo–less of everything

Relative to their emphasis on the high end to low end spectrum the resulting fleet looks like this:

High End–2 Hub, Surge, Shrinking Status Quo, 1+ Hub, Shaping–Low End


The study doesn’t explicitly address some missions.

  • ASW protection for merchant shipping (and the attendant need for frigates), once a core mission of the Navy, wasn’t considered at all.
  • ASW operations against SSBNs wasn’t explicitly addressed
  • Nor were changes to our nuclear deterrents (SSBNs)
  • Possible future requirements to impose a blockade, if considered at all, were only addressed in nebulous terms of establishing “Sea Control” and the large number of low end units required was not addressed.

The USN doesn’t seem to regard coastal defense of the US as a mission that it needs to concern itself with. (I suppose that’s why we have a Coast Guard.) It is mentioned in the study only as a “wild card” that might constrain future options (page 22).

The Coast Guard performs many of the missions that Navies do in most countries. This has relieved the Navy of the requirement to maintain large numbers of low end assets. Unlike most countries, the US essentially has two Navies–the High End Navy and the low end Coast Guard. Since the USN has abdicated the low end tasks, expecting the Navy to mentor low end Navies around the world may be unrealistic anyway.

What I think will happen:

The Navy will make every effort to keep their high end assets–Carriers, Aegis equipped Guided Missile Cruisers and Destroyers and Submarines–exemplified in the  “2 Hub”  option, perhaps with deployments pulled back from the Asian mainland in recognition of the dangers of a Chinese first strike.

Amphibs and low end forces will be cut back further. The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) will be truncated far short of the originally planned 55 units.

Navy support for drug enforcement will be reduced, as will “engagement” in terms of interaction with small navies and coast guards. The Coast Guard will be asked to fill in, in the engagement role.

In wartime, the need for small vessels to do inspections for contraband, either as a quarantine or blockade or off the shores of friendly countries, as we did in Vietnam in Operation Market Time, or to protect offshore assets, as we are doing now off Iraq, will fall increasingly on the Coast Guard.

What I think we should do:

That the Coast Guard has a defense role needs to be more widely recognized, planned for, equipped, and appropriately funded, meaning a marginally larger force.

While I personally doubt its effectiveness, it can be argued that reduced Navy commitments in support of drug enforcement will need to be replaced by less expensive Coast Guard assets.

The Coast Guard can do engagement missions cheaper and possibly better, but they need to be properly funded, because they do effect our force structure. The same may be true of counter piracy.

To make it happen, we really need the Navy to strongly support the Coast Guard, and if they choose the high end option, they have an incentive to do so, as a way of explaining why they can reasonably walk away from some of the things they have done in the past and “let the Coast Guard do it.”