Guard the Coast from High-End Threats

By Commander Brian Smicklas, U.S. Coast Guard

With the Coast Guard focused on countering transnational organized crime and the Navy concentrating assets toward the U.S. Indo-Pacific (IndoPaCom), European (EuCom), and Central Command (CentCom) theaters, the lack of military deterrence in U.S. littorals significantly increases the MTS’s vulnerability to attack. 1

MTS protection falls under the Coast Guard’s ports, waterways, and coastal security (PWCS) mission. Perhaps because the Coast Guard is the smallest armed service, or possibly because of the numerous nonmilitary missions the service performs, many in the Coast Guard continue to consider the post-9/11 PWCS mission as sufficient and do not readily understand—or capably forecast—the threats posed by revisionist powers and rogue regimes to maritime homeland defense. The ability of Russia and China or other rogue regimes to develop a naval force capable of a successful “Mahanian” fleet-on-fleet engagement may be years away, but it would be foolish to assume the MTS is safe from attack. Considering its economic and military importance and its limited protection, an assault on it should be considered among an adversary’s most likely courses of action. The risk of an unprepared Coast Guard overseeing the protection of the MTS in the era of renewed interstate conflict can no longer be overlooked.

Peer Competition 

According to former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, “Our competitive edge has eroded in every component of warfare: Air, Land, Sea, Cyber, and Space.” 2 Threats to the homeland—particularly to the MTS—are far more compelling and complex than most realize. Nearly $5 trillion of economic activity and 90 percent of all imports depend on the MTS. In addition, the armed services remain critically reliant on military out-load (MOL) ports to ship weapons and supplies necessary to sustain any war effort. Given this economic and military importance, it could be argued the MTS should be classified as the United States’ Clausewitzian “center of gravity.” That is an alarming notion, considering the MTS’s lack of preparation for adversaries’ “rapid technological advancements and the changing character of war” outlined in the National Defense Strategy. 3 For example, Russia recently was sanctioned by the United States for enhancing its underwater and cyber capabilities with the intent to interrupt undersea cables, and that country reportedly has developed a very-long-range, nuclear-capable unmanned underwater vehicle. 4 Advanced threats such as these may not appear to be Coast Guard problems, but if they materialize, the Coast Guard will be called on to address them. 

“Only the dead have seen the end of war.” —Plato

In 2016, a Coast Guardsman echoed many service leaders when he wrote, “Working under a diverse set of authorities, the Coast Guard maintains and operates a robust regulatory program to ensure that U.S. waterways remain safe and secure.” 5 If a revisionist regime undertook coordinated action against a major U.S. port, however, the MTS could be expected to shut down just as airlines did after 9/11. The resulting chaos could cost up to $8.7 billion per day, potentially leading to increased unemployment and commodity shortages. Meanwhile, Coast Guard sectors likely could do little more than confer with “port partners” while every bright-white Coast Guard cutter in the fleet remained pierside until the Navy, or perhaps some NATO partner, cleared the waterways. “Robust regulatory programs” and “diverse authorities” are an insufficient defense.

Coast Guard cutters such as the Active (WMEC-618) can be paired with modern, high-tech assets such as antisubmarine-capable helicopters or unmanned surface or aerial vehicles to protect U.S. ports and waterways against high-end threats from peer adversaries, freeing Navy ships such as the USS Gridley (DDG-101) to project power far from U.S. shores. (U.S. Navy/Jacob Sisco)

The Coast Guard must recommence “guarding the coast,” including the active deterrence and detection of threats from peer adversaries. Doing so would augment Navy high-demand/low-density (HDLD) warship capabilities allocated to combatant commanders while providing the Coast Guard a true course toward maritime homeland-defense competencies and renewed relevance against the threat of interstate conflict. Such a course not only would enhance national defense but also would provide the Coast Guard a fiscal lifeline to budgetary stability in the face of government shutdowns through alignment with fully funded DoD imperatives. 

Military Utility 

“The Coast Guard’s budget is dependent on being a military service.” —Admiral Paul Yost

Today’s Coast Guardsmen likely are unaware that until 1991, the Coast Guard was a worthwhile warfare partner in the fight against peer adversaries. The 378-foot high-endurance and 270-foot medium-endurance cutters were designed for antisubmarine warfare (ASW) missions and outfitted with the AN/SQS-17 and AN/SQS-38 sonars and Mark-46 torpedoes—and some hulls carried Harpoon antiship missiles. Although Admiral Edwin Roland deserves credit for the acquisition of cutter platforms capable of augmenting naval forces, up-arming the cutters during the Cold War occurred in large part due to the strategic foresight of Admiral Paul Yost, commandant from 1986 to 1990.

Commandant Yost’s efforts to strengthen the Coast Guard’s armed service status are relevant today because he was the last commandant to lead the service during an era in which the greatest threat facing the United States was a peer adversary. Yost realized that consistent service funding levels would be commensurate with armed force relevance, so he directed many changes within the service to bring about a more military appearance and performance. 6 Although considered controversial by some service members at the time, Yost’s approach was successful. The service found increased relevance and achieved a rare period of financial stability. Throughout Yost’s tenure, the military stature of the smallest armed service improved, and the Coast Guard successfully fought off repeated attempts to cut its budget. 7

The Yost approach could work again. Although recent fiscal years have shown upward budget trends for the Coast Guard, the upward trajectory is imperceptible compared with the increases DoD has experienced during the same period. Even before the most recent shutdown, the service faced a proposed $1.2 billion budget reduction from the Office of Management and Budget for fiscal year 2018, and the Coast Guard was forced to support other Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agencies with nearly $80 million for operations to counter foreign migrants along the southern border. 8 If the Coast Guard desires a consistent level of funding protected from interdepartmental plunder, increased alignment with DoD to enhance maritime homeland defense could help. 

Admiral Paul Yost, Commandant of the Coast Guard from 1986 to 1990, had the vision to see that a military mission would help ensure budgetary relevance for the smallest military service. He is shown here in command of a fast coastal interceptor—a high-speed boat—off Base Miami Beach. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive/Tom Gillespie)

To be clear, this should not include placing the Coast Guard in DoD. Were the service required to move to that side of the Potomac, it quickly would find failure in the zero-sum competition for DoD dollars. Remaining relevant through the dual roles of homeland security and homeland defense in an era of interstate conflict is a strategically smart position for both the Coast Guard and its executive agency. However, the keys to remaining relevant to both DHS and DoD will be increased capability and lethality in the face of peer adversaries. 

Interestingly, the Navy once suffered through a period similar to that in which the Coast Guard finds itself now in terms of strategic direction, funding, and relevance to national strategy. In May 1954, Samuel Huntington penned an article in Proceedings that provided a strategy for the Navy to secure relevance and funding in an era of surging air power. According to Huntington, the fundamental element of an armed service is the ability to communicate a strategy that implements national policy—thereby making the provision of appropriate resources essential to national security:

The resources a service can obtain in a democratic society are a function of the public support of that service. The service has the responsibility to develop this necessary support, and it can do this only if it possesses a strategic concept that clearly formulates its relationship to the national security. 9

If the Coast Guard desires to improve its readiness, responsiveness, and relevance to the nation, ensuring protection of the MTS from interstate threats is a strategic concept worth pursuing.

Applying lessons learned from the Yost era could chart a viable course to secure the MTS and improve budgetary stability. Recent technological advances could provide the Coast Guard affordable lethality in the peer-adversary arena. For example, the Navy has been experimenting with firing hypervelocity projectiles (HVPs) capable of countering unmanned aerial vehicles and cruise missiles from conventional 5-inch deck guns. 10 It also has been developing a variety of autonomous underwater vehicles that would be ideal for maritime homeland defense. The Office of Naval Research has mated magnetometers with unmanned vehicles that can detect mines and other hazards beneath the surface in coastal environments. 11 If the Coast Guard is to have a relevant future “guarding the coast” when “the homeland is no longer a sanctuary,” it must realize the primary threats come from well-resourced nation-states and commit its own resources to respond. 12 This strategic concept will shore up the vulnerable MTS and enable the Navy to succeed in its forward-deployed missions. Moreover, the Coast Guard’s “diverse authorities” can be leveraged fully in the complex regulatory environments of the U.S. MTS. 

Dual-Hatted Relevance

Under Title 10 (military) and Title 14 (law enforcement) authorities, only the Coast Guard can perform law enforcement activities and simultaneously operate as an armed service. These authorities are especially useful in preemptive, “left-of-boom” scenarios. For example, imagine the Coast Guard using both traditional and unmanned ASW platforms to perform deterrent ASW exercises off the coast of Los Angeles/Long Beach (the busiest port on the West Coast). The Coast Guard, accustomed to operating among commercial shipping and familiar with littoral operations, could operate to reduce disruptions to the MTS while carrying out both missions. 

The Navy would not enjoy the same familiarity with commercial operations and would be likely to cause disruption and hardship to commercial operators because of its more stringent force-protection standoff and collision-avoidance distances . Moreover, if a commercial operator failed to follow established maritime rules during deterrence operations, the Coast Guard would have the regulatory authority to act—while the Navy would not, because of Posse Comitatus Act constraints. 

The Coast Guard’s potential is further underpinned by its organic network of coastal capabilities—such as sectors, boat stations, and air stations—operating under a common doctrine and culture. These assets, newly augmented with enhanced technology and lethality to compete with peer adversaries, would create a strong deterrent and a difficult-to-defeat layered defense. Unlike today’s antiterrorism-focused PWCS mission, an updated mission geared to deterring interstate threats would make best use of recent major cutter acquisitions. 

Cutters provide persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems; interdiction teams; and a ready flight-deck platform for target identification and prosecution from any ASW-capable helicopter while demonstrating uncommon stamina and fuel economy compared to other naval combatants. From a national fleet perspective, a future 355-ship Navy economically augmented “by, with, and through” a more capable Coast Guard cutter fleet would untether otherwise-encumbered Navy assets from the homeland-defense mission. With the Coast Guard standing that watch, Navy distributed operations abroad become more flexible and more lethal. 

Strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan warned, “A peaceful, gain-loving nation is not far-sighted, and far-sightedness is needed for adequate military preparation, especially in these days.” 13 Mahan’s words remain prescient. The Navy is preparing its forces for surface warfare while the Coast Guard continues to focus on antiterrorism—with predictable consequences in terms of budgetary stability  and relevance. Navy warships are less distributed and less lethal when compelled by Coast Guard capability deficits to patrol the nation’s coastline for homeland defense. Using Navy assets for coastal defense is a mismatch, and it endangers the nation’s ability to fight and win wars away from its shores. 

Recent recapitalizations have provided the Coast Guard with a coastal and oceangoing fleet of reliable assets capable of upgrading their lethality and responsibility. Defending the homeland maritime domain is a vital Coast Guard military mission, yet the service is challenged by the threats presented by peer adversaries. As Huntington advised and Yost demonstrated, it is up to the Coast Guard to develop support and resources through a strategic concept clearly linked to national defense. 14 Enhancing the Coast Guard to address the most pressing threats facing the MTS welds the Coast Guard to national defense priorities and has the potential to demonstrate the highest level of defense and budgetary relevance for the nation’s smallest armed service. The nation must up-arm the Coast Guard to enable the Navy to fight and win.

1. ADM Paul Zukunft, USCG, written testimony before subcommittee of Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, 16 November 2017.

2. Sara Shayanian, “ Mattis: U.S. Military’s Competitive Edge Has ‘Eroded ,’” UPI, 6 February 2018.

3. Department of Defense, “Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy” (Washington, DC: 2018).

4. Morgan Chalfant and Olivia Beavers, “ Spotlight Falls on Russian Threat to Undersea Cables ,” The Hill , 17 June 2018; Bill Gertz, “ Russia Tests Nuclear-Capable Drone Sub ,” The Washington Free Beacon , 8 December 2016.

5. Korey J. Barry, “Say ‘Cheese’!” Proceedings of the Marine Safety and Security Council 73, no. 2 (Summer 2016): 11–12.

6. Paul Yost, interview by Paul Stillwell, May 2001 (transcript, Oral History Collection, U.S. Naval Institute).

7. Yost, interview.

8. Dan Lamothe, “ Trump Administration Plans to Use Coast Guard Money to Pay for Border Enforcement ,” The Washington Post , 22 June 2018.

9. Samuel Huntington, “National Policy and the Transoceanic Navy,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 80, no. 5 (May 1954): 484.

10. Sam LaGrone, “ Navy Quietly Fires 20 Hyper Velocity Projectiles Through Destroyer’s Deckgun ,” USNI News , 8 January 2019.

11. Megan Eckstein, “ Navy Accelerating Work on ‘Snakehead’ Large Displacement Unmanned Underwater Vehicle ,” USNI News , 4 April 2017.

12. Department of Defense, “Summary of National Defense Strategy.”
13. Alfred Thayer Mahan , The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783 (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1890), 26. 

14. Huntington, “National Policy and the Transoceanic Navy.” 

Commander Smicklas is a career cutterman with more than ten years of sea duty. He is currently stationed in Honolulu and serves as executive officer of the USCGC Midgett (WMSL-757), the Coast Guard’s newest national security cutter. He is a Coast Guard Academy graduate and holds postgraduate degrees from the Naval Postgraduate School, the Naval War College, and Norwich University. He was selected as the 2015 Naval Institute Proceedings author of the year.



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