The U.S. Coast Guard should be adequately resourced to deploy as an essential agent of our maritime strategy.
In 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt deployed a great white fleet of 16 modern battleships around the globe to demonstrate America’s arrival in the world sea-power arena. The voyage heralded America’s turn to “big stick” naval diplomacy, and the Fleet’s composition reflected the premium on capital ships advocated by the 20th century’s most influential sea-power theorist, Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan. A century later, the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard released A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power (CS-21), which articulated a vision of sea power evolved for a more globalized world.1 Many of the priorities identified in the new strategy, such as fostering international partnerships and preventing global disruptions, implied a requirement for naval forces that can engage dispersed irregular threats and work alongside maritime partner nations. Changes in the geostrategic and fiscal environment have since prompted a review of CS-21 and incited a fierce debate to define the optimal future force structure. One solution to balance the competing demands for high-end capability and low-end capacity is to shift more of the onus for the latter to the Coast Guard.
A 21st century great white fleet deployed to demonstrate cooperative sea power must include a sizeable force adapted for maritime-security and engagement missions. Of the three sea services, the Coast Guard is the most natural fit for that role. Given the Navy’s trend toward concentrating more combat power into fewer ships, the Coast Guard should serve as the strategic bridge between the Navy’s high-end capabilities and the demands of steady-state security missions articulated in the maritime strategy. To do so, the Coast Guard must be resourced to more effectively confront the critical maritime challenges emerging in the Western hemisphere and further integrated into forward-deployed naval fleets to provide needed security and engagement capacity.
Where to Engage?
America’s sea power is stretched thin by ever-increasing threats and constricting resources. The Middle East has dominated U.S. military focus for over a decade, and it will remain a high-resource priority even as the country rebalances to the Pacific. The emergence of China as a potential near-peer competitor and the inevitable maritime nature of any future conflict in the Asia-Pacific has prompted a shift in force allocation to the region. Meanwhile, terrorists, pirates, transnational criminal organizations, and various armed maritime groups pose a widely dispersed threat to the maritime commerce network that provides the economic lifeblood to the global economy. Confronting this hydra requires high capacity for security cooperation, force assistance, and other low-intensity missions. Although the Arctic, Latin America, and Africa are unlikely theaters for a major power war, they are certain to haunt the United States if they are not carefully engaged.
The Arctic will see one of the most significant geostrategic transformations of this century. The retreat of perennial sea ice will alter the pattern of global commerce and prompt a contest to claim the vast hydrocarbon and mineral resources there. As an Arctic nation and primary guarantor of rule of law on the high seas, the United States has a vested interest in promoting peaceful development and lawful conduct in the region. In May 2013 the White House released the National Strategy for the Arctic Region, outlining three priorities: advance U.S. security interests, pursue responsible Arctic stewardship, and strengthen international cooperation.2 Our resources, however, may be insufficient to execute the strategy.
The Coast Guard owns the nation’s only Arctic-capable icebreakers, but currently only two of the three are operational. By contrast, Russia possesses the world’s largest fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers, and President Vladimir Putin has announced plans to build three more before 2015.3 Additionally, China is building an icebreaker fleet that will soon eclipse that of the United States, as well as a fleet of ice-capable merchant vessels and aircraft.4 Unless the United States makes a commensurate investment, it will find itself a second-rate Arctic power vying for influence with at least two nations with a history of aggressively pursuing controversial territory and resource claims.
The Monroe Doctrine notwithstanding, Latin America has been a low-resource priority for the United States since the end of the Cold War. When sequestration cuts took effect, the Caribbean was one of the first places where assets were pulled, including a 30 percent reduction in Coast Guard assets allocated to the counter-narcotics mission.5 At the same time, the security dynamic of Latin America is rapidly evolving, bringing new threats to America’s doorstep. China is aggressively expanding its influence in the region through economic investment and diplomatic engagement, and Hezbollah, with a secure foothold in Venezuela, is penetrating into other Latin American countries.6 Meanwhile, narco-violence continues to fuel instability in Colombia; the tri-border region of Paraguay, Brazil, and Bolivia; and Mexico.7 Narco-traffickers are developing increasingly sophisticated submarine technology that challenges counter-drug efforts, while raising the chilling specter of their potential employment by terrorists.8 With the expansion of the Panama Canal to allow larger ships to transit, its significance as a geo-strategic choke point also increases. All this occurs at a time when the Coast Guard cannot provide enough cutters and aircraft to meet its mission mandates in the region and the Navy has little excess capacity to commit ships in support.
The emerging complex maritime-security challenges in Africa also require greater U.S. engagement. For example, the notorious pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia revealed the devastating impact that enterprising thieves—with only small arms and fishing boats—can have on the global economy. Somali piracy evolved from the government’s inability to protect its maritime boundaries from illegal fishing by neighboring nations. A local issue, which may have been resolved if the country benefited from a functioning coast guard, instead escalated into a global epidemic. The value of ransom payments, insurance premiums, and commerce disruption soared into the billions, even as a coalition of some 20 warships patrolled the area. On the other side of the continent in the Gulf of Guinea, where a growing offshore oil and gas industry has added a lucrative but vulnerable node in the global economy, piracy has become rampant. Additionally, Western Africa is developing into a major hub for narco-trafficking between Latin America and Europe, further destabilizing the region and raising fears of a brewing Mexico-like internecine drug war.
Meanwhile, the full impact of the Arab Spring and its aftermath on stability in the region remain to be seen. Securing Africa’s maritime domain is necessary to mitigate many of its endemic problems and transition it into a net security provider. To achieve this, a constabulary force capable of closing maritime-security gaps and an effective training and advisory effort to cultivate professional coast guards are needed.
Valuable ‘Hulls in the Water’
The security challenges of this century will demand more of the Coast Guard than any other time in the nation’s history. However, America will not gain the leverage it needs from the Coast Guard unless the service is given a higher priority in resource-allocation decisions. The harsh cuts looming for the Department of Defense reinforce the arguments for enhancing the Coast Guard’s ability to quell emerging threats.
Coast Guard cutters should provide more security and engagement capacity to complement the Navy’s combat-centric fleet structure. Their employment in light-footprint presence missions aligns with the vision to pursue complementary, non-redundant capabilities underscored in the National Fleet Policy Statement signed by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert and former Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Robert Papp.”9 America sorely needs more capacity for maritime engagement and security coopertion missions. Robert Kaplan posited that “hulls in the water” will increasingly replace “boots on the ground” as the relevant yardstick of American engagement.10 The Navy’s surface Fleet, though, has contracted from close to 600 hundred hulls in the 1980s to less than half of that today, and its composition overwhelmingly favors large, high-tech warships.
Efforts to boost capacity by acquiring smaller platforms, such as the littoral combat ship, have faced contrary winds due to concerns about their combat relevance. Despite agreement among several Washington think tanks that the Navy should eliminate some carriers to gain capacity in other areas, the White House recently rebuffed a proposal to reduce the carrier force. It does not appear likely that any major shift toward a more balanced high/low fleet mix will happen anytime soon. Expanding the Coast Guard’s cutter Fleet, then, is a logical, cost-effective alternative strategy to gain more littoral capacity.
Coast Guard cutters are better adapted and more economical for many steady-state missions than larger, more expensive Navy warships. The Navy currently employs major surface combatants in roles for which their sophisticated combat capability does not add much value, such as security cooperation and counter-narcotics and piracy patrols, because there are not enough Coast Guard cutters to perform the missions. Using Coast Guard assets for the same purpose can free up scarce Navy resources for missions better suited to their more advanced capabilities. In addition to being cost-effective, the Coast Guard has unique status and remains the only branch of the armed forces with law enforcement authority, and its expertise in maritime security, search-and-rescue, and environmental-protection missions makes it ideally suited for mentoring multi-national maritime forces.
Ambassadors of Maritime Diplomacy
Coast Guard cutters are ideal for engaging politically sensitive areas. Their white hulls and trademark racing stripe distinguish them from naval combatants and make them less likely to heighten anxieties in regions wary of U.S. military presence. Innocuous presence is a significant advantage in gaining access to foreign waters and ports and deescalating international disputes, a quality especially valuable in the Asia Pacific.
Having operated closely alongside partners in the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific for decades, and more recently throughout the Persian Gulf, the service is adept at forging maritime partnerships. Its participation in the multilateral North Pacific and North Atlantic Coast Guard Forums enabled cooperative dialogue to continue even during periods when military-to-military relations were suspended. Years of joint operations, mutual assistance, and cross training have yielded a high degree of international cooperation and resulted in several bilateral agreements that vastly increased the Coast Guard’s access and ability to operate in foreign waters. As former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead observed, people and assets can be surged, but not trust.11 Gaining trust through steady state engagement will yield partners who are more amenable to future requests for access or assistance.
Forward deploying Coast Guard units has proven highly successful for more than a decade in the Persian Gulf. In 2002 the Coast Guard established Patrol Forces Southwest Asia in Bahrain to augment the Navy’s 5th Fleet. Since then, six Coast Guard Island-class cutters have operated alongside Navy Cyclone-class patrol craft in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn. Coast Guard and Navy patrol craft provided a continuous security presence around Iraq’s critical offshore oil terminals from 2003 to 201l. In 2004, a joint Coast Guard–Navy boarding team from the USS Firebolt (PC-10) thwarted a waterborne suicide bomb attack on the Khawr al Amaya oil terminal, losing one Coast Guardsman and two sailors in the action.
Cutters conduct infrastructure-protection missions, security boardings, and counter-piracy operations, and patrol the disputed Iran-Iraq maritime boundary, engage allies in security cooperation exercises, and mentor Iraqi maritime forces. Other Coast Guard units provide law-enforcement training and redeployment assistance throughout U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility. The ongoing success of the partnership is indicative of the potential value of expanding the concept to cover other vulnerable areas.
While naval combat prowess remains as important today as in Mahan’s era, it is insufficient for a sea power strategy adapted to 21st century realities. Wielding effective, globally influential sea power requires a Fleet that can dominate, intimidate, or cooperate as the situation demands. The presence of a carrier strike group or amphibious ready group with a Marine Corps Air Ground Task Force embarked reassures allies and reminds potential adversaries that America commands the sea. A task force delivering humanitarian aid to victims of a natural disaster reminds the world that sea power serves a humanitarian purpose. And U.S. Coast Guard cutters participating in an anti-smuggling coalition with maritime security forces from several developing nations sends the message that America values the contributions of its maritime partners and relies on them to do their part in achieving cooperative security. The Coast Guard is an essential component of implementing a cooperative sea power strategy, yet its full potential remains to be realized.
2. The White House. National Strategy for the Arctic Region, May 2013. http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/nat_arctic_strategy.pdf.
3. “Russia to build new-generation nuclear icebreaker by 2015,” RIA Novosti, 2 October, 2010. http://arctic.ru/news/2010/10/russia-plans-new-nuclear-powered-icebreaker-2015-2016-%E2%80%93-ivanov.
4. Shiloh Rainwater, “Race to the North: China’s Arctic Strategy and its Implications,” Naval War College Review, vol. 66, no. 2 (Spring 2013).
5. John C. Marcario, “Drug Trade vs. Budget Cuts: Coast Guard says limited funds, resources hamper interdiction efforts,” SeaPower, vol. 56, no. 10, (October 2013) 36-37. http://www.seapowerdigital.com/seapower/october_2013?pg=38#pg38.
6. Rush Doshi and David Walter, “China’s Rising Tide in the Caribbean,” The Wall Street Journal, 1 October 2013. Hezbollah in Latin America-Implications for U.S. Homeland Security. Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, One Hundred and Twelfth Congress, First Session. 7 July 2011. Serial no. 112–35.
7. Martin Arostegui, “Bolivia’s Triborder Zone a Haven For Terror Funding,” 13 July 2010, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2010/jul/13/bolivias-triborder-zone-a-haven-for-terror-funding/?page=all.
8. Mike O’Brien, “Drug Interdiction: The Rise of Terror Group’s Narco Submarines,” Institute for Defense and Government Advancement, 5 June 2013. http://www.idga.org/homeland-security/articles/drug-interdiction-the-rise-of-terror-groups-narco.
9. ADM Jonathan W. Greenert, USN and ADM Robert J. Papp Jr., USCG, National Fleet Policy Statement, 25 June 2013.
10. Robert Kaplan, “America’s Elegant Decline,” The Atlantic, November 2007, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2007/11/america-s-elegant-decline/306344/
11. A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power, 11.