The 2014 summer ushered in a sweeping transition in the U.S. Coast Guard’s top leadership. The turnover comes at a time of shrinking resources within the United States and among its traditional maritime-security partners, evolving public attitudes toward security and border-control issues, and a wide-ranging and still incomplete movement to rebalance elements of the federal government. As a result, the incoming Coast Guard leadership team will be confronted with a number of urgent strategic challenges.
On 30 May, Admiral Paul F. Zukunft took the helm from outgoing commandant, Admiral Robert J. Papp Jr. The new commandant and his leadership team bring intellectual, geographic, and operational diversity to the service, and their individual backgrounds reflect the service’s integrated, multimission character. The nation’s increasing expectations of government and the poor fiscal climate will sorely challenge the new team. While demand for Coast Guard services has never been higher, a national debt of over $17 trillion is forcing deep cuts in the federal budget. The latter concern, and the prospects of even deeper sequester-mandated budget cuts in Fiscal Year 2016, was presumably a key factor in President Barack Obama’s decision to slash over $360 million from the Coast Guard’s FY15 budget request to Congress.1
For the foreseeable future, no one should expect anything resembling a business-as-usual approach for the Coast Guard or any other federal agency. In fact, Congress’ decision to appoint an independent commission to study the U.S. Army’s force structure suggests that the Coast Guard would be well advised to preemptively conduct a self-study of the service’s value to the nation, its mission priorities and performance, and its size, asset mix (and cost), and organization. Such a study should enable senior leadership to confidently answer four questions.
The Right Strategy?
In the coming decades the Coast Guard must be strategy-driven, not budget-driven. Strategy enables the enterprise to align its programs, budgets, and organization; to identify leveraged, high-return opportunities; and to avoid or minimize risks to the organization. To put the Coast Guard on a secure path to successful strategic planning and implementation, the senior leadership team will need to promote a strategic culture and process and, like the Navy, develop and nurture within its ranks a cadre of strategic-planning and communication professionals.
The new leaders will almost certainly revisit the service’s strategic approach in light of its mission and geographic priorities. Their strategy-development team may, however, face a fatigue problem. The executive branch is already drowning in strategy documents and implementation plans. The Coast Guard operates under the National Security Strategy, National Military Strategy, National Strategy for Homeland Security, National Strategy for Maritime Security (and its eight supporting implementation plans); Department of Homeland Security Strategic Plan; National Strategy for the Arctic Region; and the National Ocean Policy. The Coast Guard, Navy, and Marine Corps jointly promulgated the Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, and the Coast Guard has its own Strategy for Maritime Safety, Security, and Stewardship and Arctic Strategy. Many of these documents were drafted during prior administrations or issued by former service chiefs and reflect a substantially different security and fiscal environment.
To regain respect for the strategic-planning process, the leadership team should avoid the increasingly common practice of substituting laundry lists of self-evident goals or self-flattering white papers for true strategy. Strategies must provide the intellectual foundation for ensuring that the service’s limited assets are deployed in the optimal location at the optimal time. Some may question, for example, whether significant additional investments in the Arctic—a region that garnered almost no attention in the 2014 Quadrennial Homeland Security Review (QHSR), a congressionally-mandated document requiring the department to prioritize its homeland-security mission areas—are reasonable in relation to other areas of immediate concern.2 For example, in the central Pacific or the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, a region where Southern Command commander General John Kelly warns that his forces—staffed at only 5 percent of the capacity needed—are unable to respond to 75 percent of the illicit trafficking events.3 While no one denies the Arctic’s strategic importance or that the Coast Guard has clear equities in the region, a budget-strapped service must allocate its time and energies to best meet the nation’s needs, and the needs along the southern border are both compelling yet under-resourced.4
The Right Mission Priorities?
Organizations practicing sound enterprise risk management periodically question whether they are carrying out the right missions and properly prioritizing each. The Coast Guard’s missions are determined by congressional legislation, as implemented or expanded by the President through executive orders and other presidential directives. Congress, and to a lesser extent the President, is free to eliminate any of the service’s assigned missions if it determines that allocation of resources to that mission is no longer warranted. Alternatively, Congress could choose to transfer one or more of the Coast Guard’s missions to another agency or to privatize it. Any such decision would presumably be based on a finding that the receiving agency would perform the mission more effectively, or at least as effectively, but with greater efficiency, notwithstanding the synergies an integrated Coast Guard brings to bear.
Recently, Congress appeared ready to consider reassigning some of the Coast Guard’s 11 statutory missions, perhaps shifting selected ones to other federal agencies or handing them over to the private sector.5 The Coast Guard has so far rejected the suggestion. At a 2013 Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation hearing, for example, former Vice Commandant Vice Admiral John Currier admitted that in FY12 the service met or exceeded only 48 percent of the performance measures used to track its success in meeting its mission goals.6 He explained to the subcommittee that it is presently impossible for the service to meet the performance criteria because they assume a higher level of funding. Subcommittee chair Duncan Hunter (R-CA) responded that the Coast Guard’s missions will need to change and be prioritized because the service’s budget will not increase. It will therefore fall to the incoming leadership team to address the sub-par performance across the service’s 11 missions.
As maritime activities proliferate, public and political attitudes toward drug use and immigration evolve, and budgets shrink, it would be folly to not prioritize assigned missions. The Coast Guard has long understood that while the nation’s maritime interests are enduring, priorities change over time. In fact, the service has always been forced to prioritize among its missions. Every area commander who sends a cutter to the Windward Pass instead of Georges Bank, or the Chukchi Sea instead of a counterdrug patrol off Central America, or who surges forces from one operating area to another is assigning priorities. The question therefore is not whether the Coast Guard will prioritize among its assigned missions in the coming years, but rather the criteria to be used in assigning those priorities and how those priorities will drive strategic planning.
The Right Organization?
The impulse to reorganize to more effectively and efficiently execute its missions was embedded in the Coast Guard’s DNA long before the “reinventing government” movement became de rigueur inside the Beltway. Reorganization is always possible, but seldom as popular or effective as its architects imagined. In an era of rapid technological change, power diffusion, compressed decision and response times, and shifting public sentiments and election cycles, however, an organization will falter if it loses its flexibility.
To support its operational forces, the Coast Guard has adopted a layered command-and-control structure that provides oversight, coordination, and a follow-on stream of resources scaled to support mission requirements. The command-and-control layers run from Coast Guard headquarters through 2 area commands, 9 regional district offices, and 35 sectors. While that multi-layered organization has proven to be robust throughout a number of national and regional emergencies, it has also been called a “dusty relic” by some commentators.7 One such writer recently urged that the Coast Guard flatten its organizational structure by closing its nine district offices (while adding a third area command for the Gulf of Mexico) and consolidating some of the sector commands.8 Such an option is worth considering; however, the economies of scale and expertise provided by intermediate-level commands must be considered.
Area and district commands have the ability to allocate and surge both operational and mission-support resources across jurisdictional boundaries. Specialized area- and district-level command, control, communications, and computing; intelligence; logistics; interagency coordination; legal advice; and public-affairs support also allow sector and patrol resources to concentrate on core operations. At the same time, the cost of those multiple command, control, and supporting layers and the potential drag a multi-layered bureaucracy can have on operational effectiveness, efficiency, and responsiveness must be weighed in the balance.
The Right Fleet Mix?
In times of austerity, sea services are sometimes said to be thrust onto the horns of a dilemma: allocate resources to best provide for a large fleet, or alternatively, a ready fleet. In practice, however, fleet size, capability, and readiness are all important factors. Persistent presence is critical, and even the most capable asset cannot be in two places at once. While not all fleet components will be equally capable, presence without the capability to safely execute the follow-on mission—or worse, presence by assets unable to defend against reasonably foreseeable risks—will at best be a source of embarrassment to the nation.
Fleet size matters, but only reliable components should be included in the count. Some will recall that when the Coast Guard responded to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that leveled Port-au-Prince 10 out of 12 of the deployed cutters suffered significant mechanical problems, and 3 were forced to suspend relief activities to undergo extensive repairs. Although vessel service lives are commonly extended well beyond their initial projections, eventually aging fleet components must be retired and recapitalized if the service is to meet its mission-performance goals.
Admiral Papp made recapitalization a top priority throughout his tenure as Commandant. The goal was to bring the right mix of speed, endurance, agility, scalability, and interoperability to optimize mission performance while minimizing life-cycle costs and manning requirements. The Coast Guard’s current recapitalization plan calls for 8 Legend-class 418-foot national security cutters (NSCs) to replace the 12 retiring 378-foot high-endurance cutters; 25 offshore patrol cutters (OPCs) to replace the 13 retiring 270-foot medium-endurance cutters (MECs) and 14 retiring 210-foot MECs; and 58 Sentinel-class 154-foot fast-response cutters (FRCs) to replace the remaining 41 Island-class 110-foot patrol boats (the Fleet also includes more specialized buoy tenders, ice-breaking tugs and harbor tugs, as well as nine classes of boats).
Obtaining the necessary appropriations to fund the Coast Guard’s recapitalization projects and to then contain costs within those programs will be a continuing challenge. An April 2014 Congressional Research Service report on the recapitalization plans estimates that the NSC, OPC, and FRC programs will have a combined acquisition cost of about $21.1 billion.9 The report then highlighted seven issues of possible concern to Congress, including whether the Coast Guard’s plan represents “the best mix of cutters that could be procured for roughly the same total amount of acquisition funding.”
It appears likely that the Coast Guard will reach its program of record goal of eight NSCs. Its proposed FY15 budget requests $638 million for the program, including $558.7 million for the eighth ship.10 Congress has funded 30 FRCs (out of the 58 planned), with an average procurement cost of $73 million per cutter, through FY14. Surprisingly, however, the Coast Guard’s FY15 budget request only included funds to build two more FRCs, when six would be necessary to offset planned retirements of the Island-class patrol boats. Achieving the 25-vessel program of record for the OPCs may prove to be the new leadership team’s greatest challenge, as Admiral Zukunft recently acknowledged.11 The OPCs have a projected average procurement cost of about $484 million per ship ($12.1 billion for all 25). So far, however, only modest funds ($65 million) have been appropriated for preliminary design work on the OPC, which could take up to 18 months to complete. It appears that even if Congress appropriates the funds to support the OPC program, the Coast Guard will be forced to further extend the aging medium-endurance cutters or attempt to fill the vacuum left by their retirement with less capable FRCs.
The Coast Guard’s statutory missions include polar and domestic icebreaking. In response to the severe 2013–14 winter that dropped Midwest temperatures to as low as -37 degrees Fahrenheit, the Coast Guard launched its 160-day long Operation Taconite—the largest domestic icebreaking operation in its history. Those icebreaking responsibilities fell to the Great Lakes icebreaker Mackinaw (WLBB-30) and the service’s nine Bay-class 14-foot icebreaking tugs, which were commissioned between 1979 and 1988. Icebreaking in support of U.S. activities in the Arctic and Antarctic falls to the Coast Guard’s Polar-class icebreakers. A 2010 High Latitude Region Mission Analysis prepared by ABS Consulting for the Coast Guard determined that the service needs three heavy and three medium icebreakers to fulfill its statutory duties.12 The same study concluded that to maintain the continuous presence called for by the Naval Operations Concept, the Coast Guard would need six heavy and four medium icebreakers. Presently, it has two Polar-class icebreakers: the 38-year-old heavy icebreaker Polar Star (WAGB-10), which was returned to service in 2013 after extensive repairs, and the medium icebreaker Healy (WAGB-20), which was commissioned in 2000. A third breaker, the 37-year-old heavy icebreaker Polar Sea (WAGB-11), was taken out of service in 2010 following major engine failures. Although Vice Commandant Vice Admiral Peter Neffenger recently expressed the view that Polar Sea should be repaired and restored to service, its future remains uncertain.13
Assuming polar operations remain a national priority, recapitalization of the Polar-class icebreaker fleet will present a daunting challenge. A March 2014 Congressional Research Service report identifies six icebreaker modernization issues of possible concern to Congress, including the number and capabilities of Polar icebreakers the Coast Guard will need, whether to provide the needed capability through construction of new ships or service life extensions of existing vessels, and the fate of the Polar Sea.14 A 2011 study estimated that a single new Polar-class icebreaker would take eight to ten years to design and build and would cost at least $800 million, while others estimate the cost would be closer to $1 billion.15 In FY13 and FY14 Congress appropriated a combined $9.6 million for icebreaker design work.16 The Coast Guard’s proposed FY 2015 budget requested $6 million to continue initial acquisition activities.
Any Coast Guard fleet decision must be mindful of the service’s national defense commitments and the Navy’s declining fleet inventory. The United States’ “National Fleet” consists of both Navy and Coast Guard assets.17 Naval affairs commentator Bryan McGrath projects that over the next 25 years the Navy’s fleet will shrink to two-thirds of its current numbers, with proportionately larger reductions in its surface ships. As their respective fleets age and their numbers shrink, the Navy–Coast Guard National Fleet Board may be compelled to aggressively reassess the National Fleet Plan’s integrated plan of action to wring out additional efficiencies, such as adopting a common design for the Navy’s littoral combat ship and the Coast Guard’s offshore patrol cutter.18 Opponents have argued though that the resulting compromise would be too costly for the Coast Guard and not sufficiently lethal or survivable for the Navy.
Remaining Semper Paratus with Less
Most would agree that America’s vast coastal, inland, and Great Lakes maritime domain is important enough to warrant a dedicated agency, one with broad competencies and a high state of readiness. The Coast Guard ably fills that role, as its value to the nation is not in its ability to perform any single mission, but in its versatile, highly adaptive, multimission character. Moreover, the defining attribute of the service is its readiness. For the Coast Guard, its semper paratus motto is no mere Baron Münchhausen brag. Like the Marine Corps, the Coast Guard prides itself on being most ready when others are least ready.
As technology compresses geography and reaction times, maritime-domain awareness backed by effective border control will be increasingly important to the nation’s security. The Coast Guard must resist being forced by budget constraints to retreat into what retired Vice Admiral James Hull called the pre-9/11 “boat-in-the-barn” approach to maritime security and safety.19 The danger of that reactive approach was demonstrated by the following incident:
In October of 2002, a scant thirteen months after the 9/11 attacks . . . [i]n the middle of a weekday afternoon, a fifty-foot long boat pulled up near the Rickenbacker Causeway in Miami, Florida, and offloaded 220 illegal aliens directly into the heart of downtown. Naturally, a news helicopter was overhead and the event was almost instantly broadcast nationwide. The U.S. Coast Guard is supposed to play a leading role in preventing these kinds of incidents, and the commandant of the Coast Guard at the time, Admiral Thomas Collins, ended up briefing the secretary of transportation. After he was told of the incident, the secretary, in some disbelief, asked Admiral Collins, “How in the world did they get through?” The Admiral’s reply was “Sir, with all due respect, how did they get through what?”20
Let us hope that, throughout his term, Admiral Zukunft will be able to maintain the necessary maritime domain awareness and Coast Guard presence to provide his secretary with a more reassuring answer on behalf of America’s maritime border security service.
1. Opening Statement of Rep. Duncan Hunter, Chairman, Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, Hearing on “President’s Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Request For Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Programs,” 26 March 2014.
2. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, The 2014 Quadrennial Homeland Security Review, 18 June 2014, http://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/qhsr/2014-QHSR.pdf.
3. Molly O’Toole, “Top General Says Mexico Border Security Now ‘Existential’ Threat to U.S.,” Defense One, 5 July 2014.
4. VADM Peter V. Neffenger, “Safeguarding our Hemisphere,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 139, no. 10 (October 2013), 18–23.
5. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation hearing titled “Coast Guard Mission Execution: How is the Coast Guard Meeting Its Mission Goals?” 11 December 2013.
6. Written testimony of U.S. Coast Guard Vice Commandant, Vice Admiral John Currier, for a House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation hearing titled “Coast Guard Mission Execution: How is the Coast Guard Meeting Its Mission Goals?” 11 December 2013.
7. CAPT Jim Howe and LT Jim Dolbow, “Reinvent the Fifth Armed Service, Quickly,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 139, no. 8 (August 2013), 28–31.
8. CAPT Dennis L. Bryant, “Doing less with less,” Maritime Reporter & Engineering News, April 2014, http://www.brymar-consulting.com/wp-content/uploads/MREN/MREN140400.pdf.
9. Ronald O’Rourke, Coast Guard Cutter Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress, Congressional Research Service Report No. R42567, 9 April 2014.
11. Meghann Myers, “New Coast Guard boss sets course for service,” Navy Times, 7 July 2014.
12. ABS Consulting, U.S. Coast Guard High Latitude Region Mission Analysis Capstone Summary, July 2010.
13. Kyung M. Song “Coast Guard makes case to refurbish idled icebreaker,” Seattle Times, 18 June 2014.
14. Ronald O’Rourke, Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress, Congressional Research Service Report No. R34391, 28 March 2014.
15. Stew Magnuson, “Sticker Shock: $1 Billion for New Icebreaker,” National Defense, June 2013.
16. O’Rourke, note 14.
17. U.S. Navy–U.S. Coast Guard, The National Fleet: A Joint United States Navy and United States Coast Guard Policy Statement, June 2013, http://www.uscg.mil/seniorleadership/DOCS/National%20Fleet%20Policy%20%20signed%2025Jun13.pdf.
18. U.S. Navy–U.S. Coast Guard, The National Fleet Plan, March 2014, http://www.navy.mil/strategic/Fleet_Plan_Final.pdf. Eric Jackson Labs, Congressional Budget Office, Options for combining the Navy’s and the Coast Guard’s small combatant programs, July 2009. The RAND Corporation conducted a similar study in 2009. Rand Corporation, “Analyzing Alternatives for the Offshore Patrol Cutter,” 2009, http://www.rand.org/capabilities/solutions/analyzing-alternatives-for-the-offshore-patrol-cutter.html.
19. CAPT Bruce Stubbs, “Multimission Costs Too Much,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 130, no. 8 (August 2004), 30–4.
20. RDML Joseph L. Nimmich and CAPT Dana A. Goward, “Maritime Domain Awareness: The Key to Maritime Security,” International Legal Studies, vol. 83 (U.S. Naval War College, 2007), 57.