Guarding Our Shores: Is Anyone in Charge?

By Commander John Patch, U S. Navy (Retired)

Yet, how can the tiny nation be so much better at this than the American superpower? First, rightly or wrongly, Tel Aviv continues to perceive that its national survival is at stake—homeland defense is an ingrained, daily effort of every Israeli citizen. Not so in the United States, where homeland security is largely viewed as an annoying and expensive post-9/11 background buzz and homeland defense is purely an unknown to most citizens.

Second, the Israeli Navy is neither an expeditionary nor a global force, and has as its first priority homeland defense (albeit with a comparatively small coastline). Again, this is not so with America, where the Navy is either deployed to forward areas, refitting from the last deployment, or preparing for deployment. For U.S. gray hulls in continental waters, maritime homeland defense is a part-time, peripheral mission at best. Put bluntly, the U.S. Navy is not truly committed to that mission, and mission efficacy suffers as such. 1

Thankfully, the U.S. Coast Guard is dutifully prosecuting the maritime homeland security mission to the degree that it can. The Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have an extensive architecture in place to screen people, cargo, and shipping bound for the United States, but it has limitations. The Coast Guard has no true capability to screen the voluminous inbound small vessels (less than 100 gross tons); many enter the country daily (the department's Customs and Border Protection estimated several thousand inadmissible aliens and other violators entered the country though ports of entry in fiscal year 2006). 2 Further, anyone even remotely familiar with maritime homeland security knows that there are nowhere near enough white ships and aircraft to accomplish those missions, let alone the maritime homeland defense mission.

Finally, the Coast Guard, while both a constabulary force and an armed service, has a moderate conventional military capability; however, it does not enjoy parity with the Navy in number of hulls or area-defense capabilities. Responsibility for managing the rapid emergence of threat requiring long-range ship-killing capability in U.S. waters thus falls to the Department of Defense.

It's Better Now. . . Right?

The layman might here breathe a sigh of relief recalling the establishment of U.S. Northern Command in 2002, with the homeland defense responsibility. Yet, NORTHCOM has neither assigned forces for maritime homeland defense, nor a maritime component under the existing combatant command structure. 3 Without permanent maritime forces or staff focused on MHLD, is it a wonder U.S. efforts pale in comparison to Tel Aviv's? In the maritime domain, NORTHCOM is effectively an unarmed sentry-a command with responsibility, but no authority or means. Examining why at seven years after 9/11 America is still without a coherent, viable maritime homeland defense solution helps answer this question.

First, this situation persists in part because of the dichotomy between the expansive language in existing DOD maritime homeland defense strategy and doctrine and actual U.S. Navy continental capabilities. For instance, "protecting the U.S. homeland from attack" is repeatedly mentioned as the "highest priority" of DOD, yet no naval forces are permanently assigned this mission in U.S. waters. 4 The 2005 Strategy for Homeland Defense and Civil Support also states that DOD will "ensure persistent wide-area surveillance and reconnaissance of the U.S. maritime approaches . . . in such a manner that an adversary cannot predict or evade observation." 5 However, neither U.S. Fleet Forces Command (FFC)—ostensibly the joint forces maritime component commander for NORTHCOM—nor the continental numbered fleets have such a capability in place.

Fleet Forces Command lists MHLD in its "Annual Plan" as merely an "Additional Capability." 6 The DOD is also responsible under the 2005 Strategy for compiling a common operational picture with accurate, timely, and actionable data. Yet, with virtually no Navy ships or aircraft routinely patrolling U.S. waters, the dearth of tactical information in that picture seriously dilutes its value. Simply stated, with the current resources, the maritime homeland defense mission is unachievable.

Second, NORTHCOM's area of responsibility and assignment, while directed from the executive branch, both suffer from ambiguities that affect unity of effort and command. In the U.S. exclusive economic zone (EEZ), for example, NORTHCOM relies on multiple agencies to detect, deter, and defeat threats en route, including Fleet Forces Command and its Second and Third fleets, the U.S. Pacific Command, the intelligence community, the Coast Guard, and "other domestic and international partners." 7

The danger with this shotgun approach is success absolutely depends on optimal coordination and information sharing across government departments and even national borders. The rule of thumb in Washington, however, is that if everyone is responsible, then nobody is responsible. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense Paul McHale, citing resource and capability shortfalls, admitted in 2005, "I do not believe that we have yet developed a mature concept of operations for the effective execution of a maritime mission within the Northern Command area of operation." 8

Three years later, not much has improved (largely for the same reasons). Consider also the DOD's Homeland Defense joint doctrinal statement that spreads responsibility for the conduct of maritime homeland defense across the combatant commanders of NORTHCOM, PACOM, and SOUTHCOM. 9 Unity of command and effort over U.S. waters is hard to imagine with such guidance. 

Who's in Charge?

The recently assigned North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) Maritime Warning mission is another example of ambiguous assignment to achieve an arguably unachievable mission. This binational defense treaty assigns the role of maritime threat warning in all U.S. waters (including internal waterways) to NORTHCOM without defining the threats or providing any forces to accomplish it or authorities over the Coast Guard to implement it. Understandably, NORAD and NORTHCOM struggle with this new mission not only because of its complexity and scope, but also because of its nebulous wording.

Ostensibly, Fleet Forces Command would be partly responsible for carrying out this mission, yet Norfolk is gainfully employed with myriad Title 10 train-and-equip missions. The NORTHCOM commander's recent comments on maritime warning illustrate the mission's challenges: "We're past the point where a single service, where a single agency, can deal in this domain and be effective. We have to do this as a joint team. We have to do this as an interagency team. We have to do this as a coalition team." 10 A team effort wherein the coach has no direct authority over the players, however, is a recipe for mediocrity or failure.

Third, NORTHCOM's organization is not optimized for maritime homeland defense. For example, Fleet Forces Command is listed as a "supporting command" and, notably, not a component command under NORTHCOM. The command has subordinate Air Force and Army components, but lists none for maritime. Further, while current FFC and continental numbered fleets' objectives reflect continued planning and coordination on the conduct of MHLD, these remain nascent at best-one must begin to wonder about the urgency of these efforts seven years after 9/11. Alongside the absence of assigned maritime forces, the maritime homeland defense mission indeed appears wanting.

The Government Accountability Office cited these deficiencies in 2008, stating that NORTHCOM "faces uncertainty about which DOD forces or capabilities are available to it to respond to a mission requirement. Although DOD stresses that homeland defense is a major priority, it has routinely chosen not to assign forces to NORTHCOM." 11 Contemporary doctrine and strategy only require that NORTHCOM execute periodic command and control of Navy forces, as appropriate. Effectively this equates to "recurring exercises," but not to consistent joint patrols, despite the strategic requirement for "persistent wide-area surveillance and reconnaissance of the U.S. maritime approaches." 12

Fourth, DOD is overly dependent on active forward defense in a layered defense strategy to prevent any threat from reaching the United States. This is especially true considering how unrealistic it is to expect a Cold War Navy force structure to identify and prosecute homeland-associated asymmetric and nontraditional threats. The units, even the most capable strike groups, remain optimized for conventional war. Defense transformation resulted in an effort to establish maritime fleet headquarters equipped for this mission, but the initiative is still embryonic and the capability is pinned to unproven technology and concepts and overly optimistic assumptions about interagency and multinational information sharing.

What if. . . ?

Finally, a frightening scenario that might rapidly negate the active forward defense strategy's efficacy altogether involves, ironically, an attack on the major homeland fleet hubs. Imagine the impact of a well-orchestrated attack on the Hampton Roads area, including civilian communities-how effective would a strike group be then? The 2001 anthrax scare was not such an attack, but it did mark the first strike group deployment since World War II when warship crews worried more about their families' safety than their own. Considering the intentions of state and non-state adversaries to pursue asymmetric, indirect attacks, the argument for forward deploying the majority of naval forces to address maritime homeland defense begins to look specious. Considering the localized threats and largely unpatrolled U.S. waters, the question of why at least a small fraction of Navy units are not assigned to full-time maritime homeland defense duties begs an answer.

In fairness to both NORTHCOM and Fleet Forces Command, there are plans in place—some in moderately advanced stages—to address several of the shortcomings. Significant Coast Guard and Navy surveillance assets are coming on line soon to address maritime domain awareness requirements in U.S. waters. Still, these assets will surely fill many other roles and the torrent of new maritime domain awareness data will need people, systems, and procedures to process and integrate into the larger effort. Standing Navy-Coast Guard agreements exist to assign forces to each other as the mission demands, but in practice, this rarely occurs. Fleet Forces Command also reportedly continues to refine theater security cooperation plans as well as NORTHCOM's joint forces maritime component commander's standard operating procedures, tactics, and techniques.

Similarly, newer strategy seems to approach homeland defense with more realistic expectations. The language in the 2008 National Defense Strategy , for instance, is a refreshing change toward the realm of the possible, acknowledging that America will never have the resources to accomplish everything and that the country must accept risk in some areas. The Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower also better articulates the value of forward deployments vis-a-vis theater engagement, designed to address underlying causes of state instability and extremism. Still, it suffers when it fails to qualify the Navy's inability to engage everywhere it is needed.

Finally, the most significant post-9/11 success in maritime interagency coordination deserves mention: the Maritime Operational Threat Response plan. While the Navy was slow to embrace the process, its numerous positive outcomes—aided by the Coast Guard—led crisis response group formed under this plan-indicate that collaborative maritime homeland security and defense are achievable.

Fix the Problem

For now, though, the Navy has no holistic capability to surveil, patrol, and respond to maritime threats that exceed the Coast Guard's capabilities. Instead, new organizations, unproven technologies, marginal interdepartmental coordination, and responsibility spread across numerous agencies seem to be the accepted way ahead. Why not, then, consider the effective Israeli model, applied gradually beginning in areas deemed at highest risk? Perhaps apply it alongside existing initiatives, but with clear organizational authorities to enhance unity of command and effort. Some recommendations include:

  • Apportion a permanent Navy maritime patrol force to NORTHCOM for presence, maritime domain awareness, and response duties. Conduct aggressive 24/7 exclusive economic zone queries and approaches to ascertain vessel identity, position, and intentions; assign a small Coast Guard law-enforcement detachment on each combatant. 
  • Exchange Canadian and U.S. officers on both nations' naval units with full sovereign combined-patrol authorities for operating in contiguous waters; make similar arrangements for Great Lakes law enforcement patrols. Expand this initiative with Mexico over time.
  • Establish a DOD netted architecture of space-based and coastal over-the-horizon sensors to achieve a true national EEZ maritime tracking capability.
  • Merge this sensor data with threat assessments from national/binational and Fleet maritime intelligence centers; fully integrate this with DHS/Coast Guard and Canadian maritime regulatory vessel arrival reporting and screening efforts.
  • Maximize automated correlation of sensor, threat, and ship self-reporting information to exploit the speed of information processing and dissemination.
  • Cull the number of suspect or unidentified vessels to a reasonable number for prosecution by patrolling units; prioritize them and work with the Coast Guard to conduct interceptions/boardings on the most apparent threats.
  • Balance maritime domain awareness technology initiatives with sufficient production of enough small, single-mission, combatant hulls to patrol the U.S. exclusive economic zone (admittedly, this equates to a sea change in Navy budget priorities).

America will not sufficiently address maritime homeland defense until it adequately balances resources, authorities, and mission requirements. Yet, tiny Israel demonstrates daily that it can be done. Washington would do well to consider a new model for safeguarding the maritime approaches that puts the "homeland" back in "maritime defense."


1. See CDR John Patch, USN, "The Navy's Homeland Role: Vigilant guard or Homeland Defense?" U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings (May 2007), pp. 58-62.

2. Richard M. Stana, U.S. Government Accountability Office, Border Security: Despite Progress, Weaknesses in Traveler Inspections Exist at Our Nation's Ports of Entry (Washington, DC: U.S. GAO, 13 November 2007).

3. U.S. Fleet Forces Command, "2008 Annual Plan: A Framework for Action" (undated), .

4. U.S. Department of Defense, Strategy for Homeland Defense and Civil Support (Washington, DC: Office of the Secretary of Defense, June 2005), p. iii. The 2008 Maritime Strategy cites homeland defense and defeating enemies in war as the "indisputable ends of sea power." The 2008 National Defense Strategy describes homeland defense as DOD's "core responsibility."

5. Ibid, p. 22.

6. USFFC, "Annual Plan."

7. Strategy for Homeland Defense and Civil Support , p. 3.

8. Roxana Tiron, "Northern Command Not Directing Enough Attention to Maritime Defense," National Defense (January 2005), .

9. U.S. Department of Defense, Joint Publication 3-27, Homeland Defense (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, 12 July 2007), V-9.

10. U.S. Northern Command, "Transcripts from General Gene Renuart's presentation to the 37th IFPA-Fletcher Conference on National Security Strategy and Policy," .

11. GAO, Homeland Defense: U.S. Northern Command Has Made Progress but Needs to Address Force Allocation, Readiness Tracking Gaps, and Other Issues (Washington, DC: U.S. GAO, April 2008), p. 6.

12. Strategy for Homeland Defense and Civil Support , p. 22.

Commander Patch is a retired surface warfare officer and a career intelligence officer. He directed the National Maritime Intelligence Watch at the Office of Naval Intelligence and is an associate professor of strategic intelligence at the U.S. Army War College.


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