What has changed, and how?
The 21st century presents two stark naval realities: Technological advantage between navies in the information age makes competitive gains shorter-lived and increasingly costly, and the pace of maritime globalization continues to accelerate from Africa to South and Central America, as well from Asia to North America, with increasing corruption. The U.S. Coast Guard, an armed force and an integral part of the national fleet, is uniquely qualified to answer the geographic combatant commands’ (GCCs) force requirements by leveraging vast authorities; capabilities; and interservice, interagency, intelligence community, and international partnerships. Unfortunately, national investment in the Coast Guard is insufficient to provide the capacity necessary to combat the full wave of threats to U.S. shores. The current operational approach is costly and does not give the United States sufficient capacity to maintain a sustainable maritime presence or achieve meaningful global partnerships. “U.S. forward naval presence is essential to accomplishing the following naval missions derived from national guidance: defend the homeland, deter conflict, respond to crises, defeat aggression, protect the maritime commons, strengthen partnerships, and provide humanitarian assistance and disaster response.”1 The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s “Joint Operating Environment 2035” states, “Ultimately, the future Joint Force will best contribute to a peaceful and stable world through well-crafted operational approaches attuned to the evolving character of conflict.” The fleet balance needs to be re-examined to help close this strategy-capability-capacity gap.
combatant commanders need a fleet
To sustain credible partnerships, GCCs need a fleet to dispatch. Rebalancing the national fleet to provide Coast Guard patrol forces for GCCs’ use could be a more affordable joint-force approach that would leverage the Coast Guard’s law enforcement, intelligence, and military dimensions in foreign engagements. Instilling rule of law globally requires an enforcement arm that can safely navigate international wickets; the Coast Guard, with more than 65 bilateral agreements, already is primed for this expanded role. Getting Department of Defense (DoD) leaders to recognize the Coast Guard’s economical value in international engagement is required. Finding a way to break traditional funding paradigms to bolster Coast Guard capacity across GCCs could provide relief for the stretched-thin Navy.
UP-Arm the Coast Guard
One approach worth examining is up-arming the Coast Guard’s fleet with a vertical-launch system (Mk-41 VLS) and SeaRAM close-in weapon system to provide increased warfare interoperability. Imagine a forward-deployed “international security cutter” capable of operating with a carrier strike group and/or surface action group and assuming a role historically filled by a Navy frigate. Such a forward Coast Guard presence could offer a wide range of operational utility, from bilateral law enforcement and counterterrorism to, less provocatively, contesting maritime claims in the South China Sea and Arctic Ocean, to enforcing sanctions off North Korea.
Another avenue worthy of exploration is recapitalizing the Navy’s aging patrol coastal fleet along with the six Coast Guard Island-class patrol boats that have been performing in Southwest Asia for Central Command since 2003. This could be accomplished by leveraging the active fast response cutter (FRC) production line to grow the littoral fleet. With overseas contingency operations funding expected to be subsumed into the DoD base budget, the funding and recapitalization of these aging hulls (which are approaching 30 years in service and 18 years in one of the most dynamic gray zone theaters) must not be forgotten.
Instill Rule of Law
The nation’s ability to police coastal waters, interdict illicit trafficking, and preserve exclusive economic zones (EEZs) through active enforcement are basic but necessary constabulary functions that must exist to underpin effective rule of law, stability, and sovereignty across all GCCs. Today, narco-terror networks oversee individual ventures often exceeding $100 million, while the value of this global black market is estimated to exceed $2 trillion annually, dwarfing the gross domestic products of all but the top ten nations.2 Smugglers, traffickers, and terrorists exploit largely ungoverned maritime pathways to move illicit cargo between safe havens and final destinations. The lack of naval presence within EEZs and the distance between them make combating illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing a daunting challenge as well. Ultimately, efforts to combat these threats must span from the U.S. coasts to the farthest reaches of the globe.3
In addition, IUU fishing and maritime pollution enforcement are ripe avenues of approach for GCCs to engage nations by tapping Coast Guard assistance enforcement. A maritime presence will remain necessary well beyond the 200-nautical mile EEZs to combat high seas drift net and migratory poaching. Within U.S. Pacific Command, enabling governance through partnerships serves as a revenue generator for small island nations, whether it be enforcing fishery leases or prosecuting polluters. Without enforcement assistance, these nations are targets for other nations’ fishing fleets and black market traffickers seeking safe havens.
These challenges are universal across all GCCs. The lack of stability brought by conflict, food and water insecurity, climate change, and increased violence fuels migration. In the Mediterranean (U.S. European Command), the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates nearly 7,000 people drowned or went missing while trying to reach Europe between January 2015 and August 2016. In 2017, more than 300,000 people made the crossing into Europe. At the end of 2015, the U.N. estimated a record 65.3 million people were either refugees, asylum seekers, or internally displaced worldwide.
Within the Western Hemisphere (U.S. Northern Command), drug trafficking organizations (DTOs), street gangs, and violence are accompanied by dramatic increases in local corruption and crime, as also noted by the U.N. in West Africa (U.S. Africa Command) and Central America (U.S. Southern Command).4 In fact, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime and the World Bank have identified drug trafficking as the primary driving factor of violent crime.5 Reporting from the National Drug Intelligence Center indicates that street gangs are expanding their influence over drug distribution in rural and suburban areas of the United States. The threats are near and present: An opioid epidemic across the United States netted a death toll of 64,000 last year.
Beyond efforts to counter transnational organized crime (CTOC), international counterterrorism efforts are equally dependent on increasing sustainable partnerships. Disruption of illicit pathways and transnationals across all GCCs remains key to preventing attacks on the U.S. homeland. Dependent on local conditions, the linkage between criminal and terrorist groups is likely to increase in geographic terms and in terms of specialization, such as logistics, finance, and security.
Finding more affordable ways to build and employ the national fleet is long overdue. Coast Guard cutters have been forced to retreat from out-of-hemisphere engagements due to the scarcity of platforms. The acute Coast Guard Western Hemisphere Strategy focus has been the right resource-based approach to take given the constraints of the number and age of Coast Guard hulls. Coast Guard leaders recognized these limitations, saw the effects of sequestration of the Oliver Hazard Perry–class frigates, and opted to concentrate efforts on illegal of drugs and prosecutions. While impressive, this “goal line stance” is ultimately ineffective because of the sheer quantity of adversaries. Sadly, even with the Coast Guard surge, 75 percent of illicit drugs continue to flow uncontested toward U.S. shores.
The Coast Guard Can Do It
Recognizing the Coast Guard for the unique national, international, diplomatic, economic, and intelligence power that it is, the current administration has the opportunity to turn this tide and make the national fleet great again by directing a smart business decision. Specifically, prioritize Coast Guard cutter production to grow the fleet and provide a more cost-effective and adaptable instrument for the nation. A 21st-century Great White Fleet of Coast Guard cutters would begin a new era of sea power better suited to promote rule of law through cooperative partnership and distributed lethality, and allow the U.S. Navy to refocus its efforts on high-intensity conflict. It is time to rethink international engagement using the Coast Guard—an armed force at all times, but a more cooperative power known for its olive-branches-over-arrows approach.
As international crime and terror evolve, success in future security environments will be achieved best by increased investment in Coast Guard multimission forces. Future conflict will center on an array of organizations filling spaces vacated by states. Today, a maritime event invites the question of who will respond. Often, the answer is not based on capability but on proximity. Terrorist organizations will leverage and exploit illicit activities such as drug smuggling, human trafficking, and poaching, to develop sources of funding for their extremist activities. Conflict resulting from a more-integrated criminal-terrorist group nexus will not necessarily lend itself to a purely DoD solution, as financial flows and movement across many legal jurisdictions transcend GCC boundaries and authorities. As the line between terrorist and criminal activities continues to blur, the transactional connections between a wide range of unlawful organizations is likely to cloud the distinction between law enforcement and military operations. The joint force may find it more difficult to distinguish between allies and adversaries, and determine who matters, whom to engage, and whom to support.6 Threats to U.S. national security now emanate from three domains: external to U.S. borders, internal to U.S. borders, and transnational threats that cross U.S. borders. Ensuring national security must now encompass analysis of state and non-state actors, preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and strengthening alliances around the world.7
It is time to revisit the Goldwater-Nichols reforms of 1986, which, among other things, stipulated that any changes to the act should enhance the capabilities of the U.S. armed forces; and that the DoD must be more agile and adaptive. There are fatal flaws in the current force-planning process stemming from outside interests often accommodated over national security interests, resulting in a lowest common denominator consensus that does not illuminate the tough trade-offs and investment decisions that need be made. Alternative capability concepts compete openly and fairly to serve as a forcing function to stoke competition, ideas, and innovation. The Coast Guard is the only U.S. armed force to achieve an independent clean financial audit, and it has demonstrated for five consecutive years its commitment to sound stewardship and return on investment.
David Brown, a scholar at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, asserts that “criminal enterprises are evolving into new hybrid organizations that blur the traditional distinctions between organized crime and terrorism.”8 He points out that three main terrorist groups, with links to the drug trade in West Africa, sell cocaine to Los Zetas, a prominent Mexican drug trafficking organization that controls the eastern seaboard of Mexico. These groups use West Africa to launder huge amounts of drug money, up to $200 million a month.9
Coast Guard Is Adaptable
The former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff highlighted the need to rethink how the joint force is developed and reconsider how to fight together, stating, “Fundamental to Joint Force 2020 is interoperability. Our capabilities, tactics, techniques, procedures, and terminology must be able to translate across the services, the interagency, and with our partner nations . . . to operate across the Joint Interagency Intergovernmental and Multinational environment.” The maritime operating environments across GCCs—starting with U.S. Northern and Southern Commands—offer fertile proving grounds to test the agile and adaptive Joint Force 2020 against a growing and converging drug-terrorism-organized crime nexus.
The recent record-breaking drug seizures with limited Coast Guard and Joint Interagency Task Force South assets potentially could quadruple if properly resourced. Three out of four bad actors sail uncontested in the approaches where they are most vulnerable. Rebalancing the national fleet composition would improve relationships and provide the United States and our partners advantages in a complex world filled with threats that go beyond the nation-state.
Grow the National Fleet
Given increased capacity, the Coast Guard could accomplish more missions by tapping its existing authorities, capabilities, and bilateral partnerships. The Coast Guard could serve as that trusted broker with international partners (far beyond defense) in today’s complicated joint interagency multinational environment. The conversation needs to be expanded beyond just the Navy and look more holistically at how access and cooperation can be achieved. Distributing lethality and hard power may not be as necessary when the door can be opened in a less intrusive fashion with a more affordable key.
Coast Guard national security, offshore patrol, and fast response cutters could serve as powerful instruments for GCCs. They are large enough to operate globally, yet small enough to gain access and foster cooperative partnerships. In addition, these more affordable naval assets could be produced more expediently than Navy surface combatants to build a credible national fleet. The goal of a 355-ship Navy needs to be expanded to a 400+ ship national fleet with utility across civil and military disciplines and a better return on investment.
In the 1960s, Coast Guard patrol forces in Vietnam interdicted more than 100 tons of weapons. Off Haiti and Cuba during the 1990s, the Coast Guard stemmed the mass migration of tens of thousands of people. Most recently, it enforced U.N. sanctions during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 and still serves in the Northern Arabian Gulf. These missions and capabilities demonstrate the broad range of Coast Guard utility and value to the nation.
It is time to change the costly Navy-centric approach toward peace and security and focus on restoring the underpinnings of rule of law to regain the trust and confidence of partner nations. The Coast Guard is capable of more finely tuned and less costly persistent presence. It is an affordable, accountable, and reliable instrument of national power well equipped to execute international engagement. Bolstering white hull numbers within the national fleet by doubling the number of cutters could provide a 21st century advantage to the United States and our international partners in this ever-evolving global environment.
1. “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power,” March 2015.
2. Havocscope Global Black Market Information, “The World Black Market 2014,”.
3. Maritime Administration, “The Maritime Administration and the U.S. Marine Transportation System: A Vision for the 21st Century,” Department of Transportation, November 2007.
4. “Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime,” Whitehouse.gov, 19 July 2011.
5. “Crime, Violence, and Development: Trends, Costs, and Policy Options in the Caribbean,” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and The World Bank, (2007).
6. JOE35, 13-14.
7. President of the United States, “National Security Strategy,” Whitehouse.gov, February, 1996.
9. United States Attorney’s Office, Eastern District of Virginia, “U.S. Charges Alleged Lebanese Drug Kingpin with Laundering Drug Proceeds for Mexican and Colombian Drug Cartels,” 13 December 2011.
Captain Ramassini is an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran and cutterman who has served in the Pentagon as Coast Guard Liaison on the Joint Staff and also in the Office of Secretary of Defense. Captain Ramassini is slated to assume his fifth command as the plankowner commanding officer of the national security cutter Kimball (WMSL-756).