Shift the Coast Guard to DoD

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

The seventh time’s a charm. A permanent move to the Department of Defense (DoD)—specifically as the third naval service within the Department of the Navy—would position the Coast Guard to become more robust, efficient, and combat ready than ever in its history. 2

Benefits of Moving to DoD

Stability. Uncertainty is highly disruptive to the planning and execution of complex defense operations. But uncertainty is what the naval services face when, by law, the Coast Guard sits outside DoD in peacetime and is poised for transfer to the Department of the Navy during war.

Permanent placement of the Coast Guard within DoD would eliminate the possibility of a disruptive transfer to the Navy at the height of conflict. It would allow for consistent relationships among the five armed services, with no ambiguity as to who does what in the continuum of maritime operations, in peace, times of tension, and war, and would create numerous efficiencies between DoD and the Coast Guard. All five armed forces would be organized, trained, and equipped as they fight.

Operational Effectiveness. The Coast Guard is the best in the world at many of its non-defense missions, but it often has been a second-class citizen in the national security arena. This is the result of a systemic lack of resources and the relative infrequency with which defense missions are carried out. Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have increased Coast Guard warfighting skills, but these gains will atrophy once the United States withdraws from combat operations in the region. Serving full time within DoD would capture this recent boost.

The past 13 years as an agency within DHS—a civilian organization—have demonstrated how such a position keeps the Coast Guard from reaching its full potential. Being the only military service among civilian law enforcement and administrative agencies dulls the service’s warrior edge. The Coast Guard’s culture, worldview, operational focus, training regimes, maintenance programs, and work ethos are similar to those of the DoD services but markedly different from those of the Transportation Security Agency, Citizenship and Immigration Services, and Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Training and equipping the Coast Guard to a high standard of military readiness—by moving it into the realm of the warfighter—would enhance lower-order missions, particularly homeland security and maritime law enforcement. Unquestionably, the reverse is not true. That is why governors call in the National Guard when riots break out: warfighters can conduct law enforcement missions with relative ease, but no one would expect city police to head to Fallujah to engage in hand-to-hand combat with insurgent forces.

Funding. Annual appropriations must be right-sized, predictable, and stable. Sadly, within DHS, for the Coast Guard they are none of the above.

Following 9-11, the Coast Guard saw a modest surge in personnel, operating budget, and acquisition dollars, but these increases—many of which have dissipated—pale in comparison to the growth of DoD and other DHS components. Meanwhile, the Coast Guard’s day-to-day responsibilities, primarily for homeland security missions, have ballooned. Within DHS, there is no plausible future that would see the Coast Guard receive the funding increase it needs to fully execute its non-military responsibilities, much less acquire the full suite of assets and personnel needed for national defense.

As part of DoD, however, the Coast Guard would have broader access to well-established logistics, command-and-control, research-and-development, and acquisition programs that could decrease costs and make more efficient use of taxpayer dollars. Rather than having its own redundant systems, the Coast Guard could leverage those already in place within DoD and the Department of the Navy. Further, the Coast Guard would be included in all personnel pay and benefits increases, rather than having to depend on the vagaries of a separate department to keep pace with military allowance changes.

Acquisition. The implosion of the $25 billion Deepwater program a decade ago highlighted the immaturity of the Coast Guard’s acquisition capabilities. Conceived when the Coast Guard was an agency within the Department of Transportation and executed under the newly created DHS, Deepwater was at high risk for failure. Neither of the two departments had, or has, the expertise to oversee a complex, decades-long, multifaceted recapitalization of cutters, aircraft, and supporting systems.

It was not until the Coast Guard brought on senior DoD acquisition professionals that it began to turn the corner. By 2010, Deepwater had been reformed and eventually devolved into individual programs, most of which are on a path to success. Even now, however, there is too little synergy with Navy aviation and shipbuilding expertise, driving up costs for the much smaller Coast Guard programs and squandering scarce acquisition dollars.

The Coast Guard always will be in need of major asset procurements or upgrades. As part of DoD, it would benefit from the acquisition expertise and infrastructure found within the Pentagon.

Advanced Capabilities. Research and development (R&D) and the integration of advanced technologies are both prized and finely honed within DoD. In contrast, within DHS R&D funding is scarce, and the Coast Guard sits years and often decades behind DoD in bringing state-of-the-art technologies to the front lines.

Regardless of where the Coast Guard resides within government, technological innovation will be a key element in keeping up with an ever-growing workload and an increasingly demanding mission set. Unmanned vehicles, robotics, advanced computing, stealth, space assets, and a multitude of other advances provide significant promise for fielding a more capable and effective Coast Guard. Such advances are far less likely to be brought to the fight, however, so long as the service is dependent on its tiny organic R&D function and not the powerhouse Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Naval Research Laboratory, and the rest of DoD’s R&D enterprise.

Confronting the Critics

Naysayers will argue that a move to DoD would be detrimental to the Coast Guard and the nation on multiple fronts. They will say the Coast Guard is simply too small to survive within DoD, and that it would be smothered or dismembered by the Navy. Others will argue that the service’s civilian missions have no place within a military environment, that the posse comitatus statute would inhibit or prohibit the Coast Guard’s law enforcement functions, and that the service’s effectiveness as a humanitarian organization would be diminished.

These arguments can be refuted.

As for size, the Coast Guard would present the same relative budgetary footprint as the U.S. Special Operations Command, which appears, by all measures, to be doing quite well.

In respect to funding, history offers stark truths. When the Coast Guard was the largest operational agency within Transportation, it was nearly starved out of existence. For its 13 years under DHS, the Coast Guard has lost a multitude of budget battles to the more politically sensitive needs of its civilian law enforcement brethren and has never received the funding necessary to close massive gaps in operational capability.

Certainly, the fight for dollars within DoD would be intense, and the Coast Guard would need to carve out a safe niche under the Secretary of the Navy. The secret to long-term success would lie in the legislation transferring the Coast Guard to DoD. The law would need to make clear the requirement for a separate, distinct service, preserving its full range of missions. Moreover, it would have to outline the specific national security functions for which the Coast Guard would be responsible while making clear the levels of operational capability needed by the service. This would provide a road map for the Pentagon brass and the congressional armed services and appropriations committees to follow.

Civilian missions such as search and rescue, maritime inspection, and pollution prevention could fold easily into DoD. The Coast Guard’s most visible mission, search and rescue, already is carried out daily with the assistance of the Navy and Marine Corps and the Air Force, with hundreds of lives saved each year by DoD personnel. Civilian and combat search and rescue are in the DNA of all the nation’s armed forces.

Most other “civilian” functions of the Coast Guard, such as marine environmental protection and servicing aids to navigation, closely mirror existing salvage and pollution response capabilities of the Navy and the inland waterways oversight of the Army Corps of Engineers. It is only the Coast Guard’s strictly regulatory functions, such as marine inspection, that would require explicit protection in the enabling legislation.

Regarding law enforcement and the prohibitions of posse comitatus, there is no problem. Posse comitatus was passed by Congress in 1878 to prevent the U.S. Army from enforcing domestic policies and law (such as registering newly freed slaves to vote). The law was amended in 1956 to include the Air Force. According to the Congressional Research Service, “The courts have generally held that the Posse Comitatus Act by itself does not apply to the Navy or the Marine Corps.” 3 It is only by DoD directive that the two Sea Services are included under the act.

A Coast Guard transfer to DoD could retain the current prohibitions on direct law enforcement activity by the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force, but explicitly exclude the Coast Guard from the DoD regulations.

Finally, the argument that the Coast Guard’s humanitarian stance would be undercut does not hold water. DoD has carried out some of the most complex and far-reaching humanitarian responses the world has ever seen, for example, following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the 2010 Haitian earthquake. Under DoD, the Coast Guard would find itself among humanitarian brethren, and there would be no diminution of the service’s standing in the international community—a person being pulled from the water does not care what cabinet agency the rescuers work for. The white hulls and red stripes of the Coast Guard’s cutter fleet still would engender respect if they sailed into foreign ports under the aegis of DoD.

Win-Win for the United States

The benefits to the nation of a Coast Guard transfer to DoD are significant, wide-ranging, and long-lasting. The transfer would:

Permanently embed the Coast Guard’s core competencies and specialty expertise at the lower end of the warfare spectrum into the defense establishment. In addition, the Coast Guard would benefit from the experience and thinking of its DoD brethren.

Bring creative Coast Guard leadership to DoD. The Commandant of the Coast Guard would become a permanent member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Coast Guard flag officers could serve as combatant commanders, potentially for the Northern and Southern Commands. Coast Guard regional commands could contribute more effectively to the Unified Command Plan, in support of the geographic and functional commanders.

Allow DHS to focus on its core civilian missions. The department’s leadership no longer would have to worry about overseas contingency operations, naval warfare, and other intrinsically Coast Guard activities.

Allow the Coast Guard to leverage the enormous capabilities of DoD to build a better, more effective, and more cost-efficient organization. DHS simply does not have the acquisition, R&D, and funding clout to help grow and refine the Coast Guard as a military service.

Yield a more cohesive, integrated national defense.


According to Title 14 of the U.S. Code, the Coast Guard is to be “a military service and a branch of the armed forces of the United States at all times.” By ping-ponging the service between civilian cabinet departments the United States has never realized this vision.

Brushfires are smoldering across all hemispheres of today’s world. Before they burst into the open flames of major theater warfare, or before the next massive deployment of troops to a far-flung destination, the nation should align its five military services to most optimal effect. Moving the Coast Guard into DoD, alongside its larger military cousins, is the smart thing to do.


1. The Coast Guard has been assigned to the Departments of Treasury, Navy, Transportation, and Homeland Security. Transfers among departments occurred at the beginning and end of World Wars I and II, in 1967, and in 2003.

2. James Howe, “The Fifth Side of the Pentagon,” Joint Forces Quarterly 30 (Summer 2002), 105.

3. Jennifer Elsea, “The Posse Comitatus Act and Related Matters: A Sketch,” Congressional Research Service, 6 June 2005.


Jim Dolbow is editor of The Coast Guardsman’s Manual, 10th edition, published by the Naval Institute Press, and a former member of the U.S. Naval Institute Editorial Board.

Captain Howe is a retired Coast Guard cutterman who served 12 years at sea, five in command. He now works in the nuclear industry.


The Coast Guard Is Closer to DoD than Some Think

To the casual observer, the Coast Guard sits far apart from its DoD brethren, focused on civilian or quasi-military duties. The reality is much different:

Coast Guard men and women have fought alongside the other services in every war in the nation’s history, to include Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, its patrol boats operate under Navy command in the Persian Gulf, protecting vital oil infrastructure, and they have been there since 2003.

More than half of the Coast Guard’s discretionary budget is spent on national defense and homeland security-centric missions.

All major cutters are trained and equipped to Navy standards and have compatible weapon systems, electronics, and flight-deck protocols.

Coast Guard personnel are integrated into DoD’s geographic combatant commands. A Coast Guard two-star admiral serves as the J-3 at Southern Command, while another flag officer serves as the deputy J-3 at Northern Command.

During search-and-rescue operations and major contingencies, such as disaster relief and the mass migrations from Cuba and Haiti, the Coast Guard and Navy have worked together to save tens of thousands of lives.

The Coast Guard and four DoD services share the same military culture, justice, leadership, etiquette, pay, and retirement frameworks.




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