Special Ops Needs a New Player

By Lieutenant Christopher Forando, U.S. Coast Guard

With the Coast Guard's commitment to maintaining only multi-mission resources, DoD resources have become more proficient and capable in traditional Coast Guard mission areas. A majority of the large narcotic seizures are accomplished by Coast Guard law-enforcement-detachment (LEDet) boardings operating from Navy platforms. The Coast Guard has fallen behind technological advances and can no longer match the capabilities of alien and drug smugglers who are using the latest in navigational and communications technology. Unless the Coast Guard specializes for the ever-increasing threat of narcotics trafficking and related criminal maritime activities and advertises the Coast Guard as the agency for peacetime engagements in the maritime environment, it risks losing its unique relevance and faces becoming a search-and-rescue and marine-safety-oriented service.

Coates & Jarrett, Inc., an independent "futurist" firm, was recently contracted by the Coast Guard to analyze the forces and factors that will shape the future of the Coast Guard. Their analysis, first presented at a recent Coast Guard Flag Officers Conference, speculated that piracy, drug smuggling, terrorism, alien migration, and similar illegalities within the coastal zone will expand. The growth of both international and domestic maritime activities will offer the Coast Guard the opportunity to become a worldwide trainer for coastal maritime missions.

International crime organizations are becoming more organized, wealthy, and intent on smuggling contraband into the United States. The special-operations community has a history of international and domestic involvement in counternarcotics and counterterrorism operations. As the criminal factions expand their empires, special-operations forces will be called upon more frequently to preserve the security and sovereignty of the United States, thereby reducing the need for Coast Guard involvement and resigning the service to a support role, in place of the premier status it has enjoyed for so long.

Special-Operations Forces

Special-operations forces are specially organized, trained, and equipped military and paramilitary forces that conduct special operations to achieve their objectives by generally unconventional means. The special-operations forces of the Army, Air Force, and Navy and the special-operations-capable (SOC) forces of the Marine Corps are maintained to perform service and joint-mission tasking and long have been critical support elements of the National Security Strategy and the National Military Strategy. 1 These forces expand options, particularly in crises when diplomatic initiatives reach stalemate and the overt use of general forces may not be desirable.

The Coast Guard and the special-operations community already have a not-so-obvious commonality—both organizations do more with less. The primary factors separating the two are technology and force specialization. SOF are far more technologically advanced and trained than Coast Guard units. SOF are characterized by the abilities to conduct specific tactical operations by small units with unique talents, to deploy at relatively low cost with a low profile that is less intrusive than that of larger forces, to deploy rapidly to provide tailored responses to different situations, and to work closely with regional military and civilian authorities and agencies. SOF can achieve greater results in less time and with reduced manpower, risk, and cost than that associated with conventional forces. The characteristics of special-operations forces make them ideal conceptual forces for performing Coast Guard missions.

Coast Guard special-operations forces (CGSOF) should be developed. Their primary peacetime mission areas would be countering narcotic operations (in U.S., international, and foreign waters) and supporting counter-narco-guerilla and counter-domestic-maritime-terrorist activities. Also, CGSOF should be maintained as a valuable littoral-warfare component for wartime contingencies and would operate with and closely align with the U.S. Marine Corps and SOF organizations. The command-and-control infrastructure would be modeled after the Navy's SEAL teams and undergo similar training, developing proficiencies in riverine and underwater operations, small arms, small boat tactics, fast roping, and shipboard infiltration. The Coast Guard would tailor the Naval Special Warfare program to meet the requirements of Coast Guard missions.

Counternarcotic Activities

Counternarcotic activities are active measures to detect, monitor, and counter the production, trafficking, and use of illegal drugs. In this arena, CGSOF would perform interdiction and intelligence-collection missions. The addition of a special-operations capability to the Coast Guard inventory would open the door for joint counternarcotic operations with the Special Operations Command. The U.S. anti-drug efforts would be enhanced significantly with the addition of SOCOM assets and technology for conducting joint maritime counternarcotic operations.

Currently, the Coast Guard has no surface-speed capability for the interdiction of drug running go-fasts and Mexican lanchas (shark boats). The go-fasts long have been used for picking up airdrops and shuttling shipments from mother ships to shore-side contacts. Coast Guard law-enforcement efforts against these vessels generally are limited to chasing them with air assets and letting another agency complete the capture and arrest.

Mexican lanchas quickly are becoming a significant threat to our security. These vessels are emerging as the latest, and fastest, means of robbing U.S. waters of precious marine life, delivering narcotics and illegal aliens from across the border, and even for engaging in piracy in U.S. waters. They can reach speeds of nearly 40 knots, unmatched by any Coast Guard surface unit. Without the speed to catch them and limited by restrictive enforcement guidelines, the Coast Guard can only chase them back across the border. As the knowledge that the Coast Guard lacks the resources and capabilities to catch them increases, operations by such boats have grown. The Coast Guard must identify and implement preventive measures and demonstrate our commitment to stemming the flow of drugs into our nation and the illegal incursion of foreign fishing vessels into U.S. waters.

One option for the Coast Guard, as part of CGSOF, is SOCOM's Mark V Special Operations Craft (SOC). The Mark V SOC is 25 meters long, with a beam of 5.3 meters, and weighs 57 tons. A draft of only 1.5 meters fully loaded allows the Mark V to operate in extreme shallows and even to beach the bow of the craft if required for pursuit onto land. Able to reach speeds in excess of 50 knots, the Mark V would be the ideal platform for CGSOF in combating illegal activities in U.S. waters. The vessel is powered by two Deutsche Aerospace MTU diesel engines with a twin Kamewa hydrojet drive system. The Mark V can survive Sea State 5 and can conduct sustained operations in Sea State 3 at a top speed of 35 knots. Operational ranges at this sustained speed are in excess of 1,100 kilometers. The Mark V can carry a crew of 5 and 16 passengers. 2 The SOC was developed primarily for the insertion and extraction of SEAL teams. Its secondary role is in coastal patrol and interdiction missions, an area in which the Coast Guard has experience and expertise. The Mark V's capabilities make it the ideal platform for performing several Coast Guard missions.

Drug smugglers use fast vessels that have a low profile and dark color that together conceal the vessel from visual and radar detection. They are mono-mission platforms, giving them an advantage over our multi-mission platforms. To catch criminals, we must be able to think and act like them. The Coast Guard should establish its own squadron of Mark Vs (or Very Slender Vessels, another SOCOM initiative), attached to a high- or medium-endurance cutter (WHEC/WMEC) operating well forward. This specialized squadron would consist of high-speed, dark-colored, low-profile vessels with one mission—interdiction. They would operate primarily at night, in coastal waters or open ocean, directed by aerial assets that detect suspect vessels using APS-137 radars and thermal-imaging units. Once word got out that the U.S. Coast Guard is operating a "phantom squadron," smugglers would think twice about making the next trip.

Currently, the Coast Guard's speed capability lies in the air. The HH-60 and HH-65 helicopters can outrun any high-speed surface vessel, but they can't stop and board suspect vessels. Until CGSOF becomes a reality, the Coast Guard should concentrate its efforts on acquiring a high-speed surface capability, then focus on product improvements for these platforms. A surface platform with high-speed capability provides more options than any aircraft. With the money and weapons available to the cartels, how long will it be until a Coast Guard helicopter, without on-scene surface support, is fired on? At the very least, Coast Guard helicopters engaged in counternarcotic operations should be outfitted with a retractable crew-served weapon. An M240 machine gun or a GAU mini-gun would provide adequate self-defense capability and serve as a visual deterrent. A surface-to-air missile scenario is hypothetical at present, yet possible, and made more likely by the fact that Coast Guard aircraft have no self-defense capability. Unless we have technology that predicts the future and reads the intentions of criminal minds, we must be semper paratus .

Another proposal is for SOCOM to provide Mark V craft and crews with an embarked Coast Guard LEDet aboard for the enforcement of laws. The Coast Guard currently deploys LEDets aboard U.S. and foreign naval ships, as part of a multinational effort to stop the flow of drugs through the Caribbean. Someone on Capitol Hill eventually may ask why the Coast Guard needs any surface platforms at all. If the Coast Guard is to remain at the forefront of maritime drug interdiction, it must have a stand-alone interdiction capability. Otherwise, it is destined to become a service of personnel only, transported from mission to mission by Navy "taxis."

Using Navy platforms and Coast Guard personnel might be more plausible if the world were a static environment, and threats and difficult situations never evolved. However, as dangers and risks to the United States increase (as they will) and all the services experience some degree of downsizing and budget reductions (as they have), scant resources will be reallocated to accommodate reprioritized mission areas. DoD forces will be deployed more frequently for projecting overseas presence and will be involved in sporadic low-intensity conflicts. They will become less inclined and less able to assist the Coast Guard in fighting maritime drug trafficking and other missions. As DoD assets become less available, the Coast Guard will be left to stand on its own, resuming the struggle to match the capabilities of the smuggling community. It is in the Coast Guard's best interests to create its own multi-mission special-operations teams.

Search and Rescue

If there is one mission inherent to the Coast Guard, it is search and rescue (SAR). This mission has epitomized the humanitarian aspect of the Coast Guard since the creation of the U.S. Lifesaving Service. The Coast Guard always has prided itself in being the model for maritime SAR. However, there are instances when the Coast Guard is incapable of rendering assistance and must request the services of another agency.

Recently, a fisherman on board a sailing vessel more than 1,000 miles south of Hawaii suffered a minor puncture wound from a fishhook that developed into a life-threatening infection. Coast Guard SAR controllers decided to bring medical attention to the vessel by transporting several members of a Navy SEAL team to the location on a Coast Guard C-130 aircraft. Once on scene, the SEALs parachuted to the vessel, administered emergency medical attention, and sailed the vessel 200 miles to an island where another C-130 was standing by with an Army medical team for further transport to an adequate facility. The man was hospitalized and recovered, but had it not been for the SEALs, this story may have had a different ending.

The Coast Guard needs the capability to provide timely SAR assistance to remote areas where cutters and helicopters cannot provide time-critical response. In this SAR case, Navy SEALs were the critical mission execution component. But the Coast Guard cannot afford to rely on the SEALs to fill shortfalls. It is naive to think that this situation will not occur again. When it does, and a SEAL component is not available, what do we tell those who are requesting emergency assistance?

Littoral Warfare and Waterways Management

As the Navy's surface fleet decreases, the Coast Guard must claim certain wartime coastal warfare mission areas to prevent similar shrinkage. Retired Navy Rear Admiral George Worthington, former Commander Naval Special Warfare Command, stated that "in our littoral strategy, a combined joint approach will be less expensive and more effective than unilateral, aimless steaming around restricted waters, offshore, in sight of land, with no 'targets' in view." 3 Special boat squadrons can fulfill a littoral presence at a fraction of the cost of a battle group.

The Coast Guard currently maintains the deployable port-security units (PSUs) for deployed port operations security and defense. Nevertheless, the PSUs are reserve components and are called upon only for contingency operations. The Coast Guard could convert the PSUs from reserve components to active-duty units with reserve augmentation. The PSUs are probably the best-equipped units in the Coast Guard, but, ironically, the least-tasked. The PSUs would become a "critical missions response" element—CGSOF—and would be capable of rapid deployment to any operating area. CGSOF could conduct counternarcotic operations in Port Isabel, Texas, provide time-critical SAR off Hawaii, deploy to Latin America or Southeast Asia for riverine training with the U.S. Marine Corps, provide waterside security for VIPs, and still support the unified commanders-in-chief initiatives and contingency responses. Harbor defense and port security would remain core mission capabilities. But unlike the single-mission PSUs, these new "teams" would be multi-mission and would be composed of the most dedicated and professional members in the Coast Guard. Coast Guard assets once dedicated for reserve functions could be engaged more effectively filling mission area gaps in the active forces.

The special operations forces of the Coast Guard and the other services engage in very similar missions, although the scale of operations and level of involvement generally are much smaller for the Coast Guard. SOF perform missions and collateral activities including counterdrug activities, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and peacebuilding. 4 These are all areas where traditional Coast Guard forces have been and where the PSUs effectively could be employed. CGSOF would perform the same variety of missions and provide those services to and with the maritime agencies of host nations. The Coast Guard recently stood up the PSU Training Detachment at Camp Perry, Ohio, which will be responsible for the development and delivery of PSU training, review of doctrine, and deployment support. Camp Perry could be modified to be an ideal joint training forum.

CGSOF, having assumed the roles and missions of the PSUs, would be a valuable asset in the brown-water regions during wartime engagements. Not only could these Coast Guard forces provide deployed port-operations security and defense, but they also would have the capability to conduct riverine operations and coastal patrol and interdiction, provide fire support for amphibious landings, and support naval special warfare initiatives. CGSOF would offer additional capable forces for supporting wartime and peacetime engagements.

Anti-Terrorism and Force Protection

From the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York to the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical, and biological) are quickly emerging as today's primary threats to global security. Under the direction and vision of its Commandant, General Charles Krulak, the U.S. Marine Corps has taken a step to meet this threat with the creation of the Chemical-Biological Incident Response Force. Similarly, the services' special-operations units maintain the capabilities to conduct or support counter-terrorism activities. CGSOF would maintain a support capability from a maritime perspective, focusing efforts on combating piracy and hijackings on our nation's waters, the high seas, and—when requested—in foreign waters.

The reality for the United States and USSOCOM, proven by a 1993 Congressional Research Service study and documented in Special Operations: An Assessment by John Collins (1993), is that there are "too few SOF and too many tasks." The concepts in this article attempt to remedy that situation. Essentially, the Coast Guard special-operations teams' primary mission areas would mirror the collateral mission areas of SOCOM forces. The Coast Guard would perform more at the low-threat/peacetime engagement end of the spectrum. This would allow SOCOM forces to concentrate on their primary mission areas, creating an equilibrium between available forces and tasks at hand (peace, conflict, and war).

The Coast Guard, SOCOM, and the United States all would benefit from the creation of a Coast Guard special-operations force. This force would incorporate qualities and characteristics of the SEALs and Special Boat Units of the Navy, the pararescue teams of the Air Force, and the air survivalmen of the Coast Guard to create a highly trained, highly skilled, multi-mission Coast Guard element capable of performing various peacetime and wartime missions. This core group of individuals would symbolize the Coast Guard's commitment to jointness, becoming a critical support element of the National Security and National Military Strategies, and reaffirming the Coast Guard motto, semper paratus .

1 U.S. Special Operations Forces 1996 Posture Statement.

2 Jane's Defence Weekly, "Immediate impact for SEAL missions," 29 May 1996, p. 29.

3 G. R. Worthington, "Forward. . . to the Beach," Proceedings, September 1996, p. 12.

4 U.S. Special Operations Forces 1996 Posture Statement.

Lieutenant Forando is a 1992 graduate of the Coast Guard Academy, where he currently works. He served on board the USCGC Sherman (WHEC-720) and was previously assigned to the Office of Defense Operations at U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters.


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