Coast Guard Is More Than Cutters

By Lieutenant David Allan Adams Jr., U.S. Coast Guard

What worked 100 years ago is unlikely to achieve victory today. This fact is clear to new junior officers and young enlisted personnel. As a result, some of the Coast Guard’s newest leaders are forgoing a second cutter experience for career paths they view as more relevant to current maritime missions. Although some may see this as the “Demise of the Cutterman,” 3 this long-overdue evolution could not only reaffirm the Coast Guard’s role as a premier force in today’s dynamic maritime environment, but also help develop the strong leadership our Coast Guard and nation deserve.

A Dry-Docked Fleet

By continuing its overreliance on the cutter—specifically, large cutters measuring 210 feet and longer—the Coast Guard has fallen behind and become a stagnant force in the maritime domain. This is, of course, not because of a lack of effort by the hardworking Coasties stationed on cutters, but rather because the white hull fleet is well over 50 years old and ill-equipped—and often ill-suited—to handle the challenges and dangers in their areas of operation. The time, effort, and funds required to keep a cutter under way have overshadowed mission planning (when there is any), focused law enforcement training for the crew, and the successful execution of underway missions. This is not speculation but can be seen through the real experiences of an operational cutter in the fleet today.

In a single year on one 210-foot cutter, unplanned maintenance caused the ship to spend six months in dry dock, two months dockside, and several weeks in port while tasked to be under way. When the cutter was able to get under way, not one deployment was completed without some catastrophic engine room or support system failure that rendered the ship unable to conduct operations and eventually sent her limping home.

While in port, time that could have been spent on law enforcement or small boat training, two of the principle missions of the cutter fleet, instead was diverted to preparing for various inspections. Damage control drills took precedence. Unfortunately, in the end, those training decisions probably were for the best given that the chance of an engine fire far outweighed the potential for the boarding team being called to conduct a comprehensive law enforcement mission at sea.

Cutter experiences like this are all too common. In 2014, for example, “34 high- and medium-endurance cutters, and 37 large patrol boats, were stuck at the pier and unable to get underway for an accumulated 1,654 days.” 4 Over the past six years, the Coast Guard has met as little as 70 percent of its planned operational commitments. 5 These conditions have left too many crews disillusioned with cutter service and, unfortunately, with the service as a whole. Being away from family for months on end while conducting few to no operations takes its toll.

Serving on our newest national security cutters seems to be a better deal for those who are enamored of the “deepwater” version of the Coast Guard. But these ships, too, have been troublesome, with the Legend-class “averaging four cracked cylinder heads per cutter per year.” 6 The fast response cutters have great speed and agility but are “minimally manned and do not have the required bench strength to engage in long-term sustained operations” that gray zone missions require. 7

Stovepiped, platform-centric capabilities and unscheduled maintenance have left many cutters unable to perform their primary missions, spending too much time in support roles or simply keeping the ship afloat. The cutter fleet is anything but Semper Paratus.

Trading a Wardroom Mug for an MK18

Junior officers (JOs) stationed on cutters can testify to the poor material condition of the cutters and the disillusionment cutter life can instill. The life of a JO is not about conducting law enforcement or conning the cutter—as promised at recruitment—but more about routing and correcting memorandums, being held accountable should an inspection go poorly, and striving to perform in the arena in which the JOs’ future is truly held: the underway wardroom. Although this sounds dramatic, it is felt by many of the JOs who complete these tours, as well as by career cutterman. It should be no surprise that many of our newest officers are looking for something different, such as the Deployable Specialized Forces (DSF).

In the dangerous world we live in today, many young officers are drawn to specialized tactical training that might allow them to defeat security threats during high-risk operations. In the Coast Guard, the best opportunities for that kind of training are through DSF billets. These billets include tactical law enforcement teams (TACLETs), maritime safety and security teams (MSSTs), and the Maritime Security Response Team (MSRT).

DSF teams make up a small fraction of all the billets offered to second-tour officers. Selection typically requires high-level performance throughout their first tours and a command endorsement. They then must compete with all the other transferring JOs for a spot. Even if selected, officers are not guaranteed qualification. Yet the DSF career path continues to be looked down on by career cuttermen, who disparage service in DSF units and predict the DSF JOs’ inevitable return to the cutter fleet, especially if they aspire to make captain. Nevertheless, many JOs choose to join these teams.

DSF Could Deliver MORE

DSF units offer the Coast Guard far more opportunities and capabilities than they are given credit for. With the capabilities of the MSSTs being absorbed into the MSRT, the Coast Guard could have a strong, singular counter­terrorism team unparalleled within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The MSRT offers the ability to conduct an opposed boarding using advanced insertion methods and close-quarters combat techniques. The team is designed to interdict and neutralize any threat to the homeland, even in an environment contaminated with chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or explosive materials. It could deploy anywhere in the United States within four hours, making it the premier force for short-notice, high-risk maritime operations. Unfortunately, the Coast Guard has failed to invest in critical capabilities, such as dedicated airlift, to ensure the relevance of the MSRT.

Fortunately, the MSRT is interoperable with the Department of Defense (DOD), which can provide critical support until the team becomes self-sustaining. MSRT tactical operators define themselves as specialized law enforcement boarding officers, not as SEALs or any other special designator. Yet the capabilities and law enforcement jurisdiction the MSRT has as a DHS entity allow it to be embedded with or work directly alongside its DOD special operations counterparts to perform missions overseas. The teams are dynamic and scalable up and down the law enforcement spectrum, from conducting advanced interdiction and counterterrorism missions to establishing security for high-risk port facilities. In the unpredictable world we live in today, there are no longer times of war buffered by periods of peace. Instead, these two environments are now dangerously mixed in the “gray zone.” This unique environment demands a unique response that combines the capabilities of both a law enforcement agency and a counterterrorism, special missions team.

The MSRT is just one example of the innovative opportunities the Coast Guard has short-changed in favor of a traditional approach. To name a few, TACLETs, the National Strike Force, MSSTs, and port security units (PSUs) face similar challenges but offer great opportunities for the Coast Guard to integrate tactical law enforcement units with traditional capabilities. Greater use of TAC­LETs and the MSRT across Coast Guard and Navy units could provide tremendous tactical ability and law enforcement experience, ensuring missions are effective and aligned with stringent legal standards.  Cutter capabilities, in particular, could be strengthened by adding the mission set that nontraditional units bring to the fight.

Most important, DSF offers opportunities for the Coast Guard to develop strong senior leaders with a different, yet relevant, experience set. In MSRT training, for example, officers are expected to perform the same tasks as the junior enlisted professionals. A JO is expected to lead throughout the arduous training, thinking of team members despite his own hardships and training failures. The courses are extraordinarily challenging, mentally and physically. It takes roughly a year to complete initial training if all phases are passed the first time. In one recent training group, however, only 6 of 30 trainees succeeded on the first round.

Passing the initial training gives an officer the opportunity to go to a team and begin the qualification process to conduct missions. Team training is arduous and dangerous, and, once again, the officers are expected to exceed standards and lead throughout. MSRT officers face strict accountability from their crews, their chiefs, and their superiors. There is never a stateroom door to hide behind. Leaders must perform at a high level for months, with the understanding that any failure can result in removal from the team. Should the JO be successful through all training and qualifications, he will be responsible for leading an elite team capable of executing some of the Coast Guard’s most vital—and most dangerous—missions.

The Coast Guard needs more leaders like those trained by MSRT: officers who think dynamically to solve a vast range of national security problems using all available resources. The MSRT is relatively new, meaning officers who have gone through the process have not achieved a senior rank, but it is difficult to fully understand and optimally apply MSRT’s DSF capabilities unless one has been trained in and conducted specialized tactical operations from the ground up. The Coast Guard should create opportunities for more tactical operators to rise through the ranks and become a voice for DSF at the flag level. The majority of admirals in the fleet have a cutterman’s insignia on their chests; we need more tactical law enforcement insignias around the table.

Toward A Balanced Coast Guard

In 2008, Admiral Thad Allen, when taking the helm as commandant of the Coast Guard, understood that we needed “to bring the Coast Guard into the 21st century” and “make it more responsive to the needs of the nation.” 8 He noted that modernization alone would not suffice and that the Coast Guard must be a “change-centric organization.” 9 His Intent to Action Order #1 was to set up the Deployable Operations Group (DOG) to provide properly equipped, trained, and organized Deployable Specialized Forces to Coast Guard, DHS, DOD, and interagency operational and tactical commanders. 10 His attempt to change the way the Coast Guard does business had “many senior officers wringing their hands” but sparked enthusiasm in younger Coasties—enlisted and officer alike. 11

When Admiral Allen left in 2010, however, his successor, Admiral Robert Papp, took two steps back with his theme of “every Coastie a cutterman.” 12 He wrote, “It is time to terminate our experiment with the MSRT.” 13 Fortunately, Congress overruled him. Admiral Papp’s next moves were to order a case study of the MSSTs/MSRT, scuttle the Coastie-to-SEAL program—which was designed to give Coast Guard operators experience in high-risk operations—and reorganize command of the forces assigned to DOG. Insiders hinted that these moves were intended to appease “tradition-bound old-schoolers who see the post-9/11 [antiterrorism/counterterrorism] mission of the Coast Guard as an intrusion on its raison d’etre: coastal law enforcement, rescue and waterway security.”

Admiral Stavridis argues that involving the Coast Guard “in a leadership role in combating maritime hybrid warfare is crucial.” 14  Yet, recent progress toward transforming the Coast Guard to do so has been slow. The Government Accountability Office recently pointed out that the “Coast Guard still has difficulty determining whether it has the right resources for the right missions at the right time . . . which puts the service at risk of repeating past mistakes as it continues to modernize and upgrade its aging fleet.” 15 To fix this, it is time to fully embrace and drive more aggressively toward Admiral Allen’s vision for a new Coast Guard. It is the best way to close the widening gaps in our ability to meet new threats and to right our poorly managed modernization programs. The Coast Guard must develop a strategy to clearly define its expanding mission sets and outline an innovative mix of capabilities to best meet that demand within tight fiscal constraints. That strategy must include robust nontraditional capabilities, such as the DSF, which should be integrated across Coast Guard units and missions.

The Coast Guard has made some strides toward modernizing the fleet and improving maintenance, but this misses the point. The Coast Guard cannot afford to continue buying prohibitively expensive large cutters at the cost of ensuring the right mix of capabilities to confront the full range of challenges our nation faces. Even if it were affordable, recapitalization of traditional assets alone will leave us far short of what today’s missions demand. At the same time, favoring cutter experience over tactical law enforcement operations will not develop leaders capable of leading all aspects of the Coast Guard to meet our vast array of missions.

While respecting the cutterman and the traditional utility of the cutter, we must broaden and balance the Coast Guard by investing in innovative capabilities, such as the DSF. At the same time, the Coast Guard must advance operational leaders who have experience beyond cutters. Only then will we have a chance of building the balanced Coast Guard our nation needs and deserves.

1. ADM James Stavridis, USN (Ret.), “Maritime Hybrid Warfare Is Coming,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 142, no. 12 (December 2016), 33.

2. Stavridis, “Maritime Hybrid Warfare Is Coming.”

3. LCDR Brian Smicklas, USN, “The Demise of the Cutterman,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 141, no. 8 (August 2015), 29-33.

4. Ted Sherman, “Dead in the water? U.S. Coast Guard deals with aging fleet and mounting budget woes,” NJ Advance Media, 28 September 2014, .

5. Meghann Myers, “Lawmakers concerned over Coast Guard capability gaps,” Navy Times, 15 June 2016, .

6. Tony Pugh, “Government finds all kinds of problems with Coast Guard cutters issues,” McClatchy DC, 3 February 2016, .

7. MEC Yury Kockel, USCG, “No Border, No Nation,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 142, no. 8 (August 2016).

8. ADM Thad Allen, USCG, “New Threats, New Challenges, New Strategy,” State of the Coast Guard, remarks as delivered 13 February 2007, .

9. Allen, “New Threats, New Challenges, New Strategy.”

10. Art Pine, “Admiral Allen’s Blue Tsunami,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 134, no. 8 (August 2008), 30-37.

11. Christopher Lagan, “Guardian of the Week: Admiral Thad Allen,” Coast Guard Compass, 25 May 2010,

12. See, for instance, Joseph Keefe, “A Sea Change for the Coast Guard,” Maritime Professional, 23 June 2010. Keefe explains that Commandant Papp’s message was that “his heart was underway,” underscoring his fixation on sea time afloat. He made Coasties who toil outside the cutter fleet missions more than a little nervous about their careers. Keefe expounded, “They might be justified in those sentiments.”

13. Colin Clark, “CG Memo Sparks Hill Worries,” DoD Buzz, 8 March 2010,

14. Stavridis, “Maritime Hybrid Warfare Is Coming,” 33.

15. Nicole Ogrysko, “Budget decisions still not the Coast Guard’s strong suit, GAO says,” Federal News Radio, 14 June 2016,

Lieutenant Adams , a 2013 graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, served as deck watch officer on the USCGC Dauntless (WMEC-624) from 2013 to 2015. He now serves with the Maritime Security Response Team, Chesapeake, VA.



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