In the early 1990s, the U.S. Coast Guard shifted away from homeland defense and redoubled its law enforcement efforts, eliminating all but a minimal self-defense capability from its major cutter fleet. At the same time, the U.S. Navy, adjusting to the new world order, reduced the size of its fleet. Over the past two decades, however, the naval threat has returned and, with it, the need to reconstitute a national fleet capable of projecting power both far overseas and close to U.S. shores.
Senior military officials, maritime strategists, and lawmakers alike have called for increasing the Navy from its current strength of 275 ships to 355, but in today’s fiscally constrained environment, those calls may never be answered—at least not fully and expeditiously.
In the interim lies an opportunity for innovation. The United States should rewrite the playbook on maritime homeland defense and commit to rebuilding and exercising Coast Guard military capabilities that can be employed in a defense scenario at home. With only a modest investment, Coast Guard forces could play a greater role in the home game, maximizing Navy capacity to project power forward to fight and win the away game.
In 1991, the Cold War ended, as did major power naval competition. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Coast Guard eliminated the antisubmarine warfare capability on its high-endurance cutter, citing the lack of an underwater threat.1 Dedicating itself to its law enforcement mission, the service began developing requirements for the cutter’s replacement, the national security cutter (NSC).
The likelihood this new cutter would be called on to engage in antisubmarine warfare was low. Requirements were defined accordingly, and the NSC went into production in 2005. What resulted was an outstanding fleet of law enforcement vessels well equipped to combat transnational organized crime and meet other homeland security missions. But with only a minimal self-defense capability, the cutter was ill equipped to effectively augment the national fleet in a maritime homeland defense scenario. This degraded the Coast Guard major cutter fleet’s role as a military instrument of power and its ability to meaningfully support homeland defense in future maritime conflicts.
A Reemerging Naval Threat
Military threats to the homeland from peer competitors have returned. The United States’ most significant naval competitors, Russia and China, have fleets that have advanced, not only in size, but also in technological capability. In particular, undersea capabilities of potential adversaries have resurfaced, requiring a military capability close to the homeland to defend against them.
In July 2016, Vice Admiral Kevin Scott, director of joint force development on the Joint Staff, said the joint force will need “an array of capabilities to complicate or defeat the deterrent strategies of adversaries. These will include . . . maritime capabilities to counter patrols by adversary submarines and long-range unmanned submersibles used against underwater infrastructure in U.S. territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zones.”2 In addition, he pointed out that enhancing the Navy’s maritime capabilities to defend against reemerging threats to the homeland would detract from the Navy’s focus on power projection abroad.
Major Coast Guard cutters could fill this gap. Unfortunately, when it comes to defending the homeland against adversarial nation-state capabilities—especially subsurface—Coast Guard cutter forces, as currently trained and equipped, are not viable additions to the nation’s military toolkit. It is in the nation’s best interest to invest in rebuilding and exercising the service’s military capabilities now, to ensure it is equipped and ready to defend the homeland as part of the national fleet in the future.
If all NSCs and future offshore patrol cutters could be certified to land, hangar, and operate with the Navy's MH-60R anitsubmarine warfare helicopter, the national fleet could add antisubmarine warfare capability relatively quickly and inexpensively.
A New Play Book
With some relatively modest modifications to its existing and future major cutters, the Coast Guard could play a meaningful military role in the national fleet, protect the homeland from subsurface threats, and maximize Navy capacity to project power abroad, all without breaking the bank. For example, if all NSCs and future offshore patrol cutters completed a few minor structural and command-and-control modifications, they could be certified to land, hangar, and operate with the Navy’s MH-60R, the service’s state-of-the-art antisubmarine warfare helicopter. This would add antisubmarine warfare capability to the national fleet relatively quickly and without significant cost.
Assuming $2 million per cutter for Link 16 (the current Navy command-and-control suite), $500,000 per cutter for hangar modifications, and an additional $1 million per cutter for aviation detachment berthing modifications and weapons storage, the United States could gain 35 ships able to embark a sophisticated helicopter capable of detecting and defeating potential subsurface threats for approximately $122.5 million.
In comparison, in recent testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, one analysis found that a 355-ship Navy “would require doubling historical spending on shipbuilding to about $33 billion per year for a number of years.” In addition, the analysis indicated the Navy would “need 19,000 more sailors to man these extra ships, $15 billion more for associated aircraft, and also that annual fleet operating costs would increase by 67 percent, or $38 billion, compared to today’s fleet.”3
Figure 1 compares a rough cost estimate for increasing the capabilities of 35 Coast Guard cutters with building, crewing, and operating just one new Navy multimission frigate. Extrapolate from those numbers to take into account building, crewing, and operating 35 new multimission Navy frigates, and the savings are even more significant, reaching into the billions.
Three points are important:
• Increasing Coast Guard cutter capabilities does not require the acquisition of new cutters. The approved Program of Record for Coast Guard major cutters includes 10 NSCs and 25 offshore patrol cutters.
• There are no additional crew costs associated with increasing Coast Guard cutter capabilities. Current and future cutters are manned by the billets vacated during ongoing cutter decommissionings.
• Increasing Coast Guard cutter capabilities does not incur increased operating costs. These cutters would operate as planned, only with increased capabilities.
Many other examples are worthy of future analysis and consideration. Additional shipboard capabilities, such as the variable-depth sonar employed by the Navy’s littoral combat ship antisubmarine warfare mission package, could enable a Coast Guard cutter, inside the Navy’s construct of distributed lethality, to detect and vector an antisubmarine-warfare-capable asset to an underwater threat for targeting and engagement. Again, this would be a simple, fiscally responsible capability upgrade with the potential to provide large returns on investment.
Some may challenge the assertion that the Coast Guard’s major fleet cutters have lost relevance in the homeland defense role. After all, Coast Guard cutters have deployed abroad both independently and jointly with other military forces, conducting missions ranging from force protection to theater security cooperation. Combatant commanders rely on unique Coast Guard authorities in theater to carry out Department of Defense missions, such as programs to help partner nations build maritime security capacity and better manage their maritime environment. And the Coast Guard supported combat operations in the Arabian Gulf during Operation Iraqi Freedom, and its patrol boats still operate in U.S. Central Command today.
While all of that is true, and the Coast Guard has proven its value to the nation time and time again as a diplomatic, informational, economic, and law enforcement instrument of power, the military capabilities of peer naval competitors far outmatch any military capabilities of the Coast Guard. Several questions must be asked to assess whether cutters can legitimately be considered a military instrument of power against peer naval competitors today:
• Can they defeat a modern military air threat?
• Can they defeat a modern military surface threat?
• Can they defeat a modern military subsurface threat?
The answer to all these questions is no, at least for the types of military threats a peer competitor could bring to bear. Coast Guard cutters could engage a gun boat or shoot down a low, slow flier that strayed within sight of a ship’s battery, but could they shoot down or sink a modern military warplane or warship of a peer competitor threatening the homeland? Not likely. As designed, current Navy armaments supplied to major cutters are of little military value beyond providing some basic self-defense against a low-intensity surface attack or a very small number of antiship missiles. And the Coast Guard has no capability to detect or defeat a subsurface threat.
Others might argue that the Navy is fully capable of responding to any modern military threats coming from the sea and could do so singlehandedly. True. But what if the Navy’s capabilities were needed elsewhere? What if Navy capabilities were required in two theaters at the same time? What if the Navy were to start taking significant casualties? What could the Coast Guard bring to bear? Thirty years ago, Coast Guard cutters could do something. They could conduct antisubmarine warfare and protect sea lines of communication. Unfortunately, this is not true today, at least not against peer military naval competitors.
Home Game Defense
The time has come for the Coast Guard, one of the nation’s five armed services, to regain its capability as a legitimate element of the military solution when addressing peer competitor naval threats. This requires a reexamination of where the Coast Guard best fits into maritime defense strategies. Currently, there is not a place for the service in the combat operations mission space beyond its patrol boat and port security unit footprint overseas. However, with a modest financial investment and in relatively short order, Coast Guard major cutters could legitimately be an effective part of the nation’s force laydown, capable and ready to play defense in the home game.
The Coast Guard option may not be the perfect solution for Department of Defense military planners, but it likely is the most realistic and cost-effective way to quickly increase the capabilities and capacity of the national fleet. Armed with the ability to deter, detect, and defend the homeland against emerging threats, such as undersea mining, submarine-launched cruise missiles, and unmanned underwater vehicles, major Coast Guard cutters could, once again, meet their statutory obligation to augment the national fleet in times of war.
1. U.S. Coast Guard, ALCOAST 055: “Future Status of WHEC Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Mission and Sonar Technician (ST) Rating” (Washington, DC: 1992).
2. Department of Defense, “Joint Operating Environment 2035” (Washington, DC: 2016), 26.
3. U.S. Senate, Committee on Armed Services, Subcommittee on Seapower, “Options and Considerations for Achieving a 355-Ship Navy From Naval Analysts” (Washington, DC: Alderson Court Reporting, 25 July 2017).
Commander Kerze has served in the U.S. Coast Guard’s Office of Defense Operations Policy since July 2014. A graduate of the National War College, he holds a master of science in national security strategy. Also a Coast Guard cutterman, he has held multiple afloat commands, including command of the USCGC Zephyr (WPC-8).
Commander Reid served in the U.S. Coast Guard’s Office of Defense Operations Policy from July 2014 to August 2017. A graduate of the U.S. Naval War College, she holds a master of science in national security and strategic studies and has completed defense-related assignments on both the Chief of Naval Operations and Secretary of Defense staffs. Currently, she is on special assignment to DoD’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.
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