Heavy Weather Ahead for the Coast Guard

By Captain Jim Howe, U.S. Coast Guard (Retired) and Lieutenant Jim Dolbow, U.S. Coast Guard Reserve

It is in this shifting and uncertain environment that the Coast Guard's strategic course must be set. To achieve much-needed stability, avoid diminished performance, and lock into stone its mission responsibilities, a series of important questions must be asked, the answers to which can help the service navigate through the rocks and shoals ahead.

Stretching the Budget

It all starts with money. After 9/11, the Coast Guard's "bottom line" grew at a very fast clip, doubling from the $4.9 billion appropriated for Fiscal Year 2001 to the $9.7 billion requested in FY 10. The service has seen a 20 percent growth in personnel since 9/11 and, as part of the operationally-focused Department of Homeland Security, garnered massive increases in the wide-ranging Deepwater acquisition, from an annual baseline of $500 million per year to the roughly $1 billion provided each year since 2006. 1 Meanwhile, the service has added 12 75-person Maritime Safety and Security Teams, built dozens of new 87-foot patrol boats, and embarked on a complete replacement of its 41-foot utility boat fleet, all state-of-the-art programs.

At initial glance, this much-needed infusion of scarce taxpayer funds is a good news story. But in reality, this funding growth masks the severe degradation the Coast Guard's budget experienced throughout its tenure as a component of the Department of Transportation (DOT). After transfer to DOT in 1967, both the executive and legislative branches of government ignored their constitutional responsibilities to provide for the common defense and allowed the service's air, surface, and shoreside infrastructure to age and atrophy at the altar of highways, mass-transit, and pork-laden grant projects. The funding provided during the Bush administration helped right a sinking ship, but one still riddled with holes and in need of rescue by President Barack Obama and the 111th Congress.

Unfortunately, it appears that the world's premier maritime search-and-rescue organization won't be getting rescued itself anytime soon. FY 09 and 10 are essentially "peacetime" budgets that don't reflect wartime reality. On this glide path, future years will see a reduction in the Coast Guard's relative capacity and capability. This all starts at the top, where the overarching funding level for the Department of Homeland Security has reached a plateau and, like DOD, is forecast to be a bill-payer for more pressing domestic priorities between now and 2015. 2

Working at cross purposes to the Coast Guard are the other high-cost funding priorities of DHS. The past three years have seen explosive budget growth for several non-maritime missions such as securing the southwest border and a commitment to solid funding streams for grants, transportation security, and a variety of other programs with limited Coast Guard equities. Politically, neither the administration nor the Congress has the courage to reduce funding for imperatives with large constituencies such as land border security and homeland security grants. This leaves the Coast Guard unable to seek a larger slice of the DHS budget pie.

This fiscal pressure is exacerbated by the long-overdue need to replace the aging, technologically obsolete, and increasingly unsafe fleet of medium- and high-endurance cutters, patrol boats, and aircraft. The 1960s-era Hamilton-class WHECs have become floating time bombs, suffering recurrent engine room fires and losses of structural integrity. But shipbuilding costs have skyrocketed, with new National Security Cutters priced well over $500 million per hull, nearly twice their original pre-9/11 estimate. 3 The same is true for the Sentinel class of patrol craft, which only three years ago were forecast to cost about $30 million per hull but now cost around $60 million. 4 The next cutter class, the Offshore Patrol Cutter, is the largest single component of Deepwater and will undoubtedly be far more expensive than originally thought. Coupled with the need to recapitalize a crumbling shore infrastructure, these increased costs are a major factor behind the coming budgetary crisis.

More Missions

Meanwhile, the workload of the Coast Guard continues to grow, pressing the Commandant, Admiral Thad Allen, to quietly pose the need for expanding the service's end strength, notionally by 8,000-10,000 personnel. Admiral Allen deserves to be commended for his modesty. A leading think tank in Washington, D.C., has for several years now called for doubling the Coast Guard's active-duty and reserve end strength to carry out its mandated missions.

There is no shortage of growth for the Coast Guard's missions, both new and old. Examples of the new include an evolving partnership with the U.S. Special Operations Command, the development of a highly-trained Maritime Security Response Team to handle high risk security operations, and the protection of the recently created 1,200-mile long Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, to name just a few. Moreover, the surfeit of post-9/11 homeland security responsibilities continues to extract a significant effort from the Coast Guard, as it escorts liquefied natual gas (LNG) tankers and nuclear-powered submarines through crowded waterways, provides point defense of critical infrastructure, and boards inbound vessels to verify the identities of crew and the safety of dangerous cargoes.

Old missions have not pulled back on the throttle, either. Counterdrug and migrant interdiction operations have seen smugglers undertaking creative new methods for moving contraband and people, including the use of self-propelled semi-submersibles to transport cocaine from Colombia into Central America, requiring more intensive patrol efforts to find these stealthier vessels. Countless theater security cooperation missions continue around the globe. Marine safety mission demands have grown steadily, in pace with the expansion of the maritime industry. Even in the distant Arctic, melting sea ice has vastly increased the need for the Coast Guard's presence, but no significant funds are available to recapitalize the service's antique fleet of icebreakers or to bring other needed assets to bear. In none of these arenas is there any sign that mission requirements will fade. Continued growth is the name of the game.

Culture Clash

Overlying the Coast Guard's impending readiness crisis is the culture clash between the Coast Guard's operational and regulatory missions. Designed to increase operational prowess and move the service toward a more common culture, the merger of the legacy Groups and Marine Safety Offices into Sector commands instead shone a light on the systemic differences between these two communities. The merger has created its share of bumps and bruises, from maritime industry complaints that Sector commands are too strict in enforcing minor regulations and too unwilling to work collaboratively with them, to the opposite, where Sectors have responded poorly in life-and-death situations due to a lack of operational experience among their leadership. The unfortunate result has been a barrage of criticism from the Congress and other stakeholders, engulfing the passions and energies of the very same institutions that should instead be looking after the interests of the Coast Guard.

Externally, the Coast Guard is under increasing pressure from other agencies and institutions as they wrestle over mission ownership. A prime example lies in the growth of piracy off the Somali coast and the U.S. government's attempts to quell it. A variety of federal agencies play key roles in this response-the Navy, FBI, three-letter intelligence agencies, and others-but the breadth of and rationale behind the Coast Guard's involvement remains unclear. The same is true for broader maritime counterterrorism efforts, such as those of the Maritime Security Response Team, which can deploy significant counterterrorism capabilities but whose role has yet to be aligned with those of the Navy's SEALs and the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team. Even within its own department, the Coast Guard is in subtle competition with its fellow agencies. At some point inquiring minds will want to know why DHS fields more maritime surface forces (Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, and U.S. Border Patrol) than the Department of Defense and two separate maritime air wings (Coast Guard and CBP), all of which patrol the same waters while executing the same missions.

There is simply no way to accommodate the Coast Guard's growth needs under the current fiscal environment. The likely scenario is that procurements will be strung out over longer periods, much-needed recapitalization will slow, operational pressures will continue to build, and each Coast Guardsman will be asked to do more with less. The service has been here before, and the result is predictable: the Coast Guard's performance will degrade, service to the public will suffer, and people will die.

To avoid this train wreck, the nation's decision makers should now contemplate and answer the tough questions to help put the Coast Guard on a stable course.

A Fresh Look

The first imperative is to determine with clarity the dimensions of the Coast Guard's role across the wide swath of its missions. Despite the fact that D.C. is drowning in studies, the Coast Guard's dire situation leaves no choice but for the administration to initiate a formal roles-and-missions study, chartered by the President and with the participation of interagency partners as well as non-federal and non-governmental stakeholders. A similar study commissioned in 1999, the Interagency Task Force on the Roles and Missions of the United States Coast Guard, is widely credited with helping the service survive dark budget realities, particularly in regard to the nascent Deepwater program. Such a new study is long overdue, considering the massive changes that the service has undergone since the attacks of 9/11 and the uncertainty that surrounds these changes.

The charter of a new study, however, should be expanded over that of the 1999 effort, which focused primarily on Coast Guard operations in the offshore environment. The new study should evaluate all of the service's missions to determine not only the appropriate role of the Coast Guard, but also those of its partner agencies, including at the state and local level. For example, for the homeland security mission of providing security to LNG shipments and other dangerous cargoes, the study could offer guidance concerning the respective responsibilities of the Coast Guard and the host of other involved agencies. Such a determination would help clarify an increasingly muddied situation where no real standards exist and responsibility for these security missions is designated on a port-by-port basis.

The new study should also evaluate the Coast Guard's national-defense missions. Since 9/11, the service's connectivity to DOD has grown significantly in the field, at the headquarters of the combatant commanders (particularly NORTHCOM), and in the policymaking arena. Since the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, a half-dozen Coast Guard patrol boats have served in theater, providing security in the coastal region and protecting Iraq's high-value offshore oil platforms. Joint operations in the counterdrug effort are more robust than ever. Before 9/11 few would have foreseen the Coast Guard's close synergies with the Marine Corps at the Special Missions Training Center at Camp LeJeune, or the service's participation with the Navy and Marine Corps in writing and signing a new maritime strategy, or the entry into Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training of a small contingent of Coast Guard personnel.


The question now is: how far should this increasingly healthy relationship go? Should the Coast Guard establish more formal linkages to DOD, or potentially even be transferred to this department, as it was during World Wars I and II? It is plausible that the Coast Guard could add great value to the defense community in areas such as special operations, but it will take a thorough analysis to determine if that is the proper road ahead for the nation. Finally, it would be appropriate for the study to evaluate whether several of the Coast Guard's regulatory missions, such as marine inspection, bridge administration, and the licensing of merchant mariners, should remain in the service or find a better home elsewhere in government.

In 2007, Representative Jim Oberstar (D-MN), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee floated the idea of removing the marine safety function from the Coast Guard and transferring it to a new agency within the Department of Transportation, creating a relationship akin to that between the FAA (a DOT agency focused on aviation safety) and the Transportation Security Administration (DHS). The Coast Guard fought hard to stifle this proposal, arguing that the regulatory and operational/security missions of the service were deeply intertwined and that removing any piece would degrade mission performance and increase costs. Nonetheless, others have argued that by removing purely regulatory functions, the Coast Guard could focus more intently on its operational portfolio and better develop a common, operationally based culture. An independent review of this important question is in order.

The results of this study, once ratified by the administration, would provide a road map for the Coast Guard's linkage with its fellow DHS, DOD, and other agency partners, and help Coast Guard leadership ascertain the most cost-efficient and productive operational field structure. Most important, it could help drive future budgetary decisions of the administration and provide the funding blueprint to rebuild the service. This would help answer the most compelling question: how big is big enough?

It All Comes Back to Money

The current questions regarding the service's personnel end strength are not sufficient. An evaluation must also be made about the number of capital assets-cutters, aircraft, and the systems that support them-needed to perform the duties validated by a roles-and-missions study. Most Americans would be dumbstruck to learn that today the Coast Guard has only half the aircraft patrol hours it needs to carry out its missions, and that it will take nearly a dozen years for this gap to be closed through the procurement of new Deepwater assets.

Even more troubling is that the current acquisition baseline for Deepwater is based on operational requirements that are a half-decade old. The number of required aircraft patrol hours does not include emerging missions such as patrols in the Arctic region, an expansion of effort against high-seas drift-net fisheries, or the additional hours needed to locate stealthy semi-submersibles engaged in the drug trade. Should the roles-and-missions study affirm the Coast Guard's role in these growing areas, then the number of required patrol hours will be much higher than currently forecast, with a requisite need for an increase in the number of aircraft to provide these patrols.

Which brings us back to money. In the final analysis, any impartial re-examination of the Coast Guard's roles and missions must come with a commitment by the administration to properly fund the service based on the study's findings. In an era of billion-dollar bailouts and trillion-dollar health care proposals, it is hard to justify not providing the full suite of personnel and hardware needed by the Coast Guard to tend to its life-and-death responsibilities. Funding is the crucial element that will determine whether the Coast Guard of the future will be capable, strong, and efficient, or will go the way of the Royal Navy, continually struggling to survive in a miasma of competing obligations.

In 2000, the Interagency Task Force on Roles and Missions concluded that "If the Coast Guard did not exist, it would be in the best interests of the country to invent it, quickly." 5 Fast forward to 2009, where the best support the nation's leadership can provide for this vital service is to give it firm task direction and the resources to carry out those tasks on behalf of the American people. 

1. Fiscal Year 1998 dollars

2. http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/

3. Increases are due to the markedly higher costs of labor and materials in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, as well as several upgrades to the NSC's capabilities (e.g., addition of a more robust warfighting suite).

4. United States Coast Guard Fiscal Year 2010 Congressional Justification, U.S. Coast Guard, Washington, DC, May 2009, pp. 69-73.

5. The U.S. Coast Guard of the 21st Century, Report of the Interagency Task Force on United States Coast Guard Roles and Missions, Washington, DC, January 2000.

Captain Howe was a career cutterman and retired in 2008, following 27 years of commissioned service. A member of the U.S. Naval Institute's Editorial Board, he is a Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Department of Homeland Security. Lieutenant Dolbow is also a member of the Editorial Board and holds an M.A. in Statecraft & World Politics from The Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C.

Jim Dolbow is a veteran congressional defense staffer, Coast Guard Reserve officer and a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and The Institute of World Politics.

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