Safeguarding Our Hemisphere

By Vice Admiral Peter V. Neffenger, U.S. Coast Guard

In the next decade, some countries will prosper and grow while others will struggle amid increasing transnational threats. Initiatives to strengthen and fortify effective governance and cooperation in the Caribbean Basin, and Central and South America must address the destabilizing impacts of violence, corruption, terrorism, natural disasters, and trafficking in drugs, humans, and arms. The success and profit of illicit networks represents a cycle of compounding loss to free nations and markets. By some estimates, global yearly economic loss to TOC in illegal drugs, human trafficking, and illegal fishing (combined) exceeds $750 billion. 1 Networks that evolve and mature for one illicit purpose have become increasingly used for a variety of other emerging nefarious purposes. The lines between networks initially formed for illicit activities will continue to blur.

The Offense: Combating TOC Networks

Combating TOC is of paramount importance to the national security of the United States. In the recent Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime, President Obama’s guidance directed our national effort to employ “all elements of national power to protect the citizens and U.S. national security interest from the convergence of 21st century transnational criminal threats.” 2

In recent years, new developments in technology and communications equipment have enabled TOC networks to plan, coordinate, and perpetrate their schemes with increased mobility and anonymity. 3 TOCs have now evolved to form a crime/terror/insurgency nexus, with illicit activities that span drug trafficking, terrorism, human smuggling, trafficking in persons and weapons, piracy, environmental crime, intellectual property theft, and cyber crime. 4

The expansion and diffusion of TOC networks and their activities has led to a dramatic rise in the impact they have on free nations and economies. Moreover, they represent a significant threat to institutions, governance, U.S. economic competitiveness, and strategic markets. 5

Deploying a broad array of authorities and capabilities across diverse maritime missions, the Coast Guard is a versatile and critical resource for our nation’s larger battle against TOC. As a premier federal law-enforcement agency that is a member of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the armed forces, and the intelligence community, the Coast Guard also maintains the capability to project offshore presence where illicit networks are increasingly active.

TOC activities in the maritime domain represent significant threats across many traditional Coast Guard law-enforcement missions. But the focus of Coast Guard efforts against the networks should evolve beyond traditional service notions that have tended to view mission success through the narrow lens of specific enforcement areas (e.g., counter-drug smuggling success as a function of seizures). Indeed, illicit networks are converging previously discrete “lines of business” between terrorist activities, human, weapons, and drug smuggling, and even environmental crime. The Coast Guard must recognize its true value to the American public will be determined more by the impact it has on TOC networks than the specific laws it enforces. This effort will necessitate a broader understanding of illicit networks and their activities, a greater focus on identifying them, and increased efforts to help target and prosecute these organizations.

Understanding Networks and Fostering Network Culture

It takes a highly capable network to defeat another one. This universally accepted concept will guide the Coast Guard’s overarching effort to combat TOCs. There are many avenues to effective network strategies, operations, and tactics. They begin with a broad understanding of the nature of networks, and the ability of an organization to mirror the behavior of its adversaries. Additional critical concepts include: decentralized authority, highly adaptable members and practices, valuing competency above rank, perpetual self-analysis, shared “consciousness,” developing non-traditional partnerships, and achieving a national unity of effort. 6

The Coast Guard has a history and culture that promotes many positive network concepts, but the nature of the task ahead requires a continual review of best practices, along with a commitment to adapt our culture and behavior. The service should not only review network practices and culture internally, but also seek to better understand our larger team and actively promote the value the Coast Guard can bring to this collective fight.

Identifying Networks. TOC networks in the Western Hemisphere are expansive and diverse, and constitute a growing threat throughout the region’s maritime domain. To combat them, the Coast Guard should continually strive to identify the networks and activities as they evolve and adapt. This task will require extensive national, private, and international partnerships and capabilities, as well as creating new ones. It will also include enhanced Coast Guard capabilities in intelligence gathering, analysis, sharing, and dissemination.

Targeting and Prosecuting Networks. As both a military and law-enforcement service with assets, capabilities, authorities, and partnerships throughout the Western Hemisphere, the Coast Guard should aggressively pursue the interdiction of TOC networks and help lead our national effort in their prosecution. The service must maintain an effective interdiction presence, support ongoing and critical interagency operations, and engage in important international capability- and capacity-building programs to strengthen our partner-nation network.

The Defense: Securing Borders

The mandate to secure our maritime borders represents one of the Coast Guard’s greatest challenges over the next decade. The marine areas under U.S. jurisdiction are vast, consisting of some 4.7 million square miles of ocean area and more than 95,000 miles of coastline. The oceans contain vital national resources and are the essential conduit for the maritime commerce that is critical to the prosperity of our nation.

In the next decade, threats to our maritime borders will increase, along with globalization and population growth, which will expand maritime activity. Immigration policy reform and success in strengthening America’s land borders could also increase the attractiveness—and use—of our maritime domain by TOC smuggling networks and other illicit activity. Daunting as these challenges may seem, the Coast Guard must adapt and persevere.

To effectively lead the national effort to secure our maritime borders, the service should employ a defensive approach based on improving awareness, prioritizing threats, and maintaining an adaptive, defense in-depth posture.

Improving Awareness

Meeting the challenges of early detection, information gathering, the recognition of anomalies, and the prioritization of threats, are vital to securing our coastal borders. Maritime domain awareness (MDA) is a principal objective of the National Strategy for Maritime Security. 7 Effective MDA relies on the collection, fusion, analysis, prioritization, and dissemination of information to the proper decision makers who must then apply the full response to thwart maritime threats. 8

Prioritizing Threats. The Coast Guard uses risk-based analysis to focus efforts and resources for managing critical maritime threats to our borders, no matter where they manifest themselves. Mastery of the art of probability—the ability to focus efforts on the most likely target—is imperative, as is the understanding of the true impacts associated with various threat vectors. The goal of this capability is to better understand the likelihood of unacceptable loss, and based on that understanding, our response options. All threats are not created equal, and the Coast Guard must use its resources wisely. A full review of risk-based decision guidance regarding border threats will allow the Coast Guard to channel critical and scarce resources toward the risks that will dominate the maritime landscape in the next ten years.

Layering Defenses and Effective Interdiction. The National Security Strategy calls for extending security to prevent, detect, and defeat threats as far from our shores as possible. To that end, the Coast Guard employs a combination of operating forces to identify and defeat maritime threats in the inland, coastal, and offshore arenas. The initial layers of defense begin with programs such as International Port Security, which assesses the effectiveness of foreign port security and anti-terrorism measures.

On the sea and in the approaches to the nation, the Coast Guard relies on layered operating elements to conduct effective interdiction of threats. Coast Guard operating elements in each layer are essential to our success, beginning with a robust offshore cutter capability. Our operational forces make up a maritime trident of forces: (1) maritime patrol forces, (2) shore-based forces, and (3) deployable specialized forces. These are organized, trained, equipped, and stand ready to deploy. This trident, along with our other governmental, law enforcement, and civilian partners, are crucial to our success.

Special Teams: ‘Safeguarding Commerce’

Safeguarding commerce encompasses a broad set of missions that achieve several ends. Primarily, it ensures the safety of those who use the maritime domain for commercial and recreational endeavors, and helps preserve the economic security of our nation. In doing this, the Coast Guard also ensures effective and responsible stewardship of our oceans’ resources.

In supporting the broad objectives of the prevent-respond continuum, the service will safeguard commerce in the Western Hemisphere, efficiently channeling limited resources toward a more targeted and effective response posture. Our oceans, coasts, navigable waterways, inland rivers, and Great Lakes contain vital natural resources, serve as an integral part of the global highway for the maritime transportation system, and support extensive commercial and recreational maritime activities.

Protecting Lives. The Coast Guard will apply our unique authorities, capabilities, and competencies in efforts to identify, deter, mitigate, and counter threats to maritime commerce. That cannot be effectively safeguarded without protecting the lives of those who operate within the maritime environment, as unsafe conditions will discourage economic activity and impede commerce. Search and rescue, a traditional mission of the Coast Guard, must continue to be a mainstay and core competency.

Promoting a Safe, Secure, and Resilient MTS. The modern world relies heavily on the sea for commerce, and that reliance grows stronger with time. Approximately 90 percent of world trade in goods is shipped by sea.8 America’s maritime interests reach across the oceans where cargoes destined for our ports are loaded. As the MTS continues to expand and become more complex, to include exploration of—and extraction of resources from—the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS), we must increase awareness of OCS development, ship-design technologies, and industry innovation.

To meet the challenges presented by this complex and constantly evolving environment, the Coast Guard executes a core operational strategy of prevent–respond. Through this strategy, the service seeks to deter and interdict potentially dangerous or illicit maritime activities, as well as respond rapidly and effectively to protect the nation and minimize impacts when incidents do occur.

Preserving the Marine Environment. Despite significant challenges, we must pursue a responsible approach to the marine environment to maintain and enhance the commercial ventures relying on healthy and productive oceans. Restoration and conservation of our ocean, coastal and inland rivers, and Great Lakes ecosystems are crucial to sustaining products and services on which our nation’s maritime commerce and other marine-related activities depend.

Crisis Management. Proficient and expert incident management is critical to the effective application of the prevent-respond continuum in the effort to safeguard commerce. The Coast Guard must maintain the ability to quickly and effectively respond to maritime incidents of national significance, for prolonged periods of time. The service must also share this core competency with other organizations, states, and stakeholders to expand our nation’s ability to minimize the impacts of incidents that negatively impact maritime commerce.

Ensuring Long-Term Success

There are several cross-cutting initiatives that will be crucial for the Coast Guard’s success in meeting its strategic objectives in the next ten years. Some of these may necessitate separate planning efforts to ensure optimal success, while others might benefit by a full review of best practices. Examples of these include the following:

A ‘One DHS’ Approach. The Coast Guard must continue to leverage established partnerships with other DHS components including U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security investigations, the Transportation Security Administration, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to bring a unified effort to the front lines of the Western Hemisphere. Ultimately, unity of effort, situational awareness, integration, and synchronization of planning will be essential at every level of coordination across the DHS enterprise.

Leveraging Critical Partnerships. The Departments of State, Defense, and Justice in particular bring distinct authorities and capabilities in support of the Coast Guard in the Western Hemisphere. The service should continue to collaborate and team with DOD to increase awareness of threats, build competencies of partner nations by maintaining and expanding international training and exercise programs, and synergize strategies and operations for identifying and interdicting threats through established task forces. The Coast Guard must also expand partnerships with the Justice Department, recognizing the significant impact of prosecutorial efforts in the battle against TOC networks, as realized through past successes in interdiction and extradition efforts. In addition, the service must build on and leverage State Department coordination with important regional security initiatives, and look to expand international agreements and the resultant authorities to better enable Coast Guard forces to identify and interdict threats in high-risk areas.

Offshore Presence. The Coast Guard must maintain an effective, adaptable, and networked offshore presence to support its strategic objectives. An offshore capability that maintains operational and prolonged presence across the high-risk areas of the Western Hemisphere is essential, as is networked access to the most sensitive and actionable intelligence.

A Broad Array of Capabilities, Featuring Cyber

The Coast Guard must develop the capability to detect and counter adversarial cyber activity. As the sector-specific agency for maritime critical infrastructure, the Coast Guard must work with our DHS and other partners to ensure the security of public and privately operated cyber systems that are critical to our national interest. Moreover, the service must optimize its internal cyber defenses to ensure operational readiness and take advantage of emerging capabilities and authorities to combat illicit threats to the homeland.

As conditions change, so must the Coast Guard. Our service has a rich and successful history of adapting to diverse risks that threaten our national-security interests. It protects those on the sea, the nation from threats delivered by sea, and the sea itself. As new global challenges continue to test the nation’s increasingly strained security resources, the Coast Guard must refocus its strategic efforts in our primary operating theater—the Western Hemisphere. By combating networks, securing borders, and safeguarding commerce, the Coast Guard will ensure that our nation, our markets, and our oceans remain secure and prosperous.

1. Justin Picard, “Can We Estimate the Global Scale and Impact of Illicit Trade?” Convergence (Washington, DC: NDU Press, April 2013), 57.

2. Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime, White House, 19 July 2011, 1.

3. Ibid., 24.

4. Ibid., 6–7.

5. Ibid., 5.

6. GEN Stanley McChrystal, “It Takes a Network: The New Front Line of Modern Warfare,” Foreign Policy , March/April 2011,

7. The National Strategy for Maritime Security, White House (2005),

8. International Maritime Organization (2011), International Shipping Facts and Figures-Information Resources on Trade, Safety, Security, Environment . .

Vice Admiral Neffenger is the U.S. Coast Guard’s Deputy Commandant for Operations. Previously, he served as Commander of the Ninth Coast Guard District responsible for operations along the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway, including multinational security operations with Canada. He also served as Sector Commander, Captain of the Port, Federal Maritime Security Coordinator, and Officer-in-Charge of Marine Inspection for the ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach and as deputy national incident commander during the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill response.


Conferences and Events

View All

From the Press

23 February - Seminar

Sat, 2019-02-23

David F. Winkler

3 March - Lecture

Sun, 2019-03-03

Stephen A. Bourque

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 140 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership