“If the Coast Guard did not exist, it would be in the best interests of the country to invent it, quickly.” Such was the conclusion 13 years ago of the Interagency Task Force on United States Coast Guard Roles and Missions, a group convened to evaluate the future needs of the service. Task force members would be disappointed to learn that despite their endorsement, the Coast Guard of 2013 is increasingly underfunded, overworked, and undermanned, all while operating alongside fellow agencies in an inefficient and often counterproductive environment.
Today, America’s Coast Guard is in drastic need of reinvention.
Since the force drawdown following World War II, the service has never been whole. Over the years it has struggled unsuccessfully to field adequate manpower and the cutters, boats, and aircraft needed to perform all of its mandated missions; has wrestled with increasing regulatory and operational responsibilities; and has labored in the shadows of the larger military services, relegated to the backwater of government for three decades in the Department of Transportation. Now part of a more relevant Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Coast Guard competes for resources against agencies entrusted with immigration enforcement, land border control, and airport security—political hot buttons that trump maritime responsibilities.
‘A National Priority’
To carry out its missions effectively, the Coast Guard must have more funding, a stronger focus on operations over bureaucracy, and better alignment with the rest of government. In today’s constrained budget environment, such a reinvention will only come through innovative policy choices and political leadership willing to make support of a fully capable Coast Guard a national priority.
Reinvention starts at home. Chronically undermanned, the Coast Guard has an unbalanced tooth-to-tail ratio. Most visibly, the service still maintains an arcane, 19th-century organizational structure, with five layers of command—five—between smaller frontline operational units and top leadership. Boats work for Stations, which report to Sectors, which report to Districts, which report to Areas, which report to Headquarters. Each level has its own array of command centers, communications personnel, overseers, and managers. Such a command-and-control architecture is a dusty relic in the era of instant worldwide communication. Notionally, the entire Coast Guard operational enterprise could be run from a single central location; even stripping away one existing layer of command would free hundreds of personnel from their administrative and oversight duties to serve on the front lines. It is time to make such streamlining a reality.
The Coast Guard also has been slow to embrace modern technologies. For decades, the service’s adoption of modern telecommunication equipment has been sluggish (it did not shift to IBM-compliant computers until years after the other armed forces) and today still trails much of the federal government in cutting-edge equipment. While the rest of the government has jumped on the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) bandwagon—including other agencies within DHS—the service lags far behind, still investing primarily in far-more-expensive manned systems without a credible UAV program on the horizon. Of course, manned aircraft are essential for most of the Coast Guard’s aviation missions, but a healthy UAV capability would add great value, at low cost, to more remote offshore detection and monitoring operations.
Reinvention must continue at DHS. The Coast Guard’s relationships within the department provide another arena for reaping significant efficiencies. Most taxpayers would be surprised to learn that DHS fields three separate aviation and maritime branches—Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and Border Patrol—all entrusted with similar maritime responsibilities, but operating different types of ships and aircraft. This means that three distinct supply chains, training pipelines, acquisition programs, and maintenance regimes are in place to accomplish essentially the same thing. It is a cumbersome, duplicative, and expensive arrangement, and strong leadership from the department is needed to meld these three component fleets into a cohesive whole. One framework would be for the Coast Guard to serve as force provider for all such maritime resources, with assets assigned to CBP and the Border Patrol for agency-specific missions. The cost savings, operational improvements, and value to the nation produced by such a merger could be significant.
Where Did the ‘National Fleet’ Go?
Some areas of the Coast Guard’s relationship with the Department of Defense are also in need of reinvention. Development of common capital assets and operating systems is a prime example. Much lip service over the years was given to the Coast Guard and Navy’s National Fleet initiative, which was purported to assure close cooperation on major shipbuilding programs, particularly for the replacement of aging Navy frigates and Coast Guard high- and medium-endurance cutters. Somehow, instead of any semblance of commonality, the National Fleet yielded two variants of the littoral combat ship along with the national security cutter, three hull classes that could not be more different. Instead of common-sense collaboration—such as identifying a shared hull form that could be modified for the specific mission requirements of the two services, and could be produced at high-volume/low-unit cost—the nation is now burdened with three highly expensive production lines (operating at relatively low volumes) and three unique maintenance-and-supply architectures, wasting billions of dollars in the process. This is no way for two maritime services with significant mission commonalities, and a government that is $17 trillion in debt, to operate.
More broadly, the Coast Guard has much to offer DOD that has not been realized, although there have been some positive developments in recent years. The past decade has seen a gradual infusion of Coast Guard expertise at many of the combatant commands and close operational synergy in the waters off Iraq, where six Coast Guard patrol boats, crews, and maintenance personnel still operate under Navy command. There is much more that can be done in this realm, as the Coast Guard is extremely well suited for national-defense responsibilities related to coastal security, maritime interdiction, and offshore surveillance.
There could not be a mission better aligned with Coast Guard competencies, for example, than the multinational effort against Somali pirates, yet the service has had only a limited role in those operations. Instead, the Navy burns holes in the ocean with its most expensive warships, searching for skiffs and dories, while the Coast Guard’s expertise searching for and interdicting similar vessels, sharpened through decades in the drug war, goes essentially unused. A well-equipped Coast Guard expeditionary force could solve this problem: It’s likely that procuring a dozen Sentinel-class cutters for expeditionary operations such as counterpiracy would be far more operationally effective and cost-efficient for the nation than the current paradigm of employing cruisers and destroyers to do a patrol boat’s job.
Likewise, the Coast Guard’s relationship with the non-defense seagoing agencies should also be examined. Most notably, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) operates a modest fleet of single-mission research vessels; these over time could be folded into the Coast Guard maritime fleet to reap long-term cost savings and increase government efficiency. The well-traveled NOAA ships could retain their primary missions but be used as multi-mission assets to help reduce the huge gap in operating hours needed for marine resource protection, such as ensuring the survival of endangered migratory species or in safeguarding the delicate ecosystem of the recently established Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, the world’s largest marine sanctuary. At a minimum, breaking down the stovepipes between the operations of NOAA, Coast Guard, and Navy fleets would improve awareness of vessel traffic in the far reaches of the oceans. There is already slight movement toward closer cooperation, with the recent decision to relocate NOAA’s officer-training program to the Coast Guard Academy. But much more needs to be done.
Reinvention ends at the top. The biggest problem facing the Coast Guard, year after year, is a tremendously insufficient acquisition, personnel, and operating budget. In 2004, the service was asked by Congress to evaluate its operational needs for cutter and aircraft hours, and compare those needs against the hours available. The results were staggering. For patrol boats, fixed-wing, and rotary-wing aircraft, the service had only half the hours available to meet its statutory requirements. Even spending a billion dollars a year on new cutters and aircraft to replace 40- and 50-year-old assets, as the Coast Guard has done in recent years, has not helped reduce these gaps, and on the current acquisition schedule there are no prospects that the gaps will be closed in the coming decades.
In a nutshell, the Coast Guard needs to double its available patrol hours just to break even, which means it needs to dramatically expand the size of its aviation and cutter fleets. This will take billions of dollars. As for personnel, the service has a superb cadre of officer, enlisted, and civilian members. There just aren’t enough of them. By conservative estimates, another 10,000–15,000 active-duty personnel are needed for the Coast Guard to get a real handle on its set of missions. Here, hundreds of millions of dollars are needed.
It All Comes from the Top
Funding levels for federal agencies are the result of policy decisions made within the executive branch: If an administration saw a need to grow the Coast Guard, it would ask Congress to appropriate the requisite funds. The last significant pre-9/11 growth in the service’s operational fleet occurred during the Reagan administration, when a number of older Navy vessels were transferred to the Coast Guard, and the Island-class patrol boat and surface-effect ship (hovercraft) acquisitions were made. It is inconceivable that federal dollars would not flow freely if a study showed the nation had half as many airport screeners, meat inspectors, or air-traffic controllers needed to protect the public. In fact, that is exactly what happened following 9/11, when Congress created from whole cloth the Transportation Security Administration, which now employs 55,000 people at an annual cost of more than $7 billion.
Yet for the Coast Guard—nothing. The service saw a modest post-9/11 bump in funding and resources, but those gains were offset by even greater growth in its day-to-day homeland security responsibilities. Today, the Coast Guard is traveling the downhill side of the funding mountain, and the current administration—while spending billions on what should be lower-priority items—has proposed for 2014 a budget that continues to shrink the service. And what a missed opportunity. There is no better way to help on the employment front than actually bringing people into the service (jobs created) and by increasing the currently lethargic build rates of national security cutters, fast-response cutters, and response boats (growing the manufacturing sector). Instead, next year the Coast Guard’s recapitalization funding will shrink by 37 percent, should the administration’s request be approved.
It is the responsibility of the nation’s civilian leaders, as a Constitutional duty, to provide for the nation’s defense. They do so by fielding a fully manned, well trained, and properly equipped military—including the fifth armed service, the U.S. Coast Guard. With growing Arctic maritime traffic, increasing exploitation of fisheries, a belligerent North Korea, no letup in drug trafficking, persistent migrant smuggling, increases in commercial shipping, an undiminished search-and-rescue caseload, an unabated threat of weapons of mass destruction proliferation, continued instability in the Middle East and Africa, uncertainty in Cuba, and dozens of terrorist groups intent on inflicting harm on our nation, this is the time to build the Coast Guard to at least a minimum standard of capability. Doing otherwise increases risk for the nation and potentially invites disaster.
The Coast Guard needs to be reinvented, and reinvigorated, to face the multitude of threats in an increasingly complex world. The service needs internal efficiencies, better alignment with the federal family, and a broader role in the nation’s defense architecture. Most important, it needs a much larger stable of capital assets and personnel to serve the American public across its wide swath of missions—and the political support to provide those resources. So far in the 21st century, no national executives have made the Coast Guard a priority. It is to be hoped, then, that the current political leaders in Washington will become the first.
Lieutenant Dolbow is editor of the 10th edition of The Coast Guardsman’s Manual, published by the Naval Institute Press in 2013.