The Coast Guard is at all times an armed service, but it has been orphaned as the lone military branch residing in non-military executive departments—Treasury, Transportation, and now Homeland Security. Under such disparate management, two constants have remained: First, the Coast Guard provides a disproportionate return on investment, efficiently accomplishing its missions at home and around the world. Second, the Coast Guard is consistently underfunded. To maximize the first and resolve the second, the Coast Guard must permanently reside in the Department of the Navy (DoN) just as the Marine Corps does. The Navy has the acumen to advocate for steady Coast Guard funding, and it possesses the expertise to equip a maritime armed force. Better alignment with the Navy also would eliminate notable inefficiencies extant in the Coast Guard.
If it can be said that the Navy has fought the War on Terror with ships procured under the Reagan administration, the Coast Guard has done so with a cutter fleet largely procured under the Franklin D. Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Nixon administrations. An initial funding surge when the Coast Guard moved from the Department of Transportation (DoT) to Homeland Security (DHS) addressed some readiness challenges, but any benefit was offset by increased operational demand. This led to dangerous readiness issues, including the troubled 2008 deployment of USCGC Dallas (WHEC-716) to the Black Sea. Carrying relief supplies for Georgia after Russia’s invasion, the aging cutter—a veteran of Vietnam—suffered multiple shipboard fires during the crossing.1
Readiness issues continue, and the Commandant recently stated that the Coast Guard is nearing a “readiness tipping point.” Despite some success recapitalizing the cutter fleet, the Coast Guard faces a “bow wave” of deferred maintenance and construction while demand for Coast Guard support has soared.2 Even successes such as the three planned Polar Security Cutters seem insufficient compared to Russia’s fleet of 46 icebreakers. From the Arctic to the Indo-Pacific where the overtasked Navy is relying on Coast Guard cutters as a backstop, the Coast Guard’s responsibilities are growing even as it is threatened with budget cuts.
The Cost of an Armed Service
Defense spending is notoriously difficult to cut, but the Coast Guard budget is an ever-vulnerable discretionary line item under DHS. For example, funding for the Polar Security Cutter—a national strategic asset—has been threatened by requirements to fund a border wall. Congress has repeatedly intervened to prevent catastrophic budget cuts, but, according to testimony before the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Committee, the Office of Management and Budget has even prevented the Coast Guard from asking Congress for the funding it really needs.3
The service has a well-deserved reputation for being forthright and guileless, like a poker player who never bluffs. Unfortunately, that is not the way to win beltway budget battles. The Navy, on the other hand, excels at hardnosed brinksmanship, combatting Air Force mission encroachment in the 1949 “Revolt of the Admirals,” gapping Persian Gulf aircraft carrier coverage amid nuclear talks to underscore readiness issues in 2015, and proposing to retire the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) early to compensate for budget shortfalls. Having a sharp-elbowed patron such as the Navy would provide the budgetary clout needed to protect Coast Guard funding.
Maritime armed forces are different than land-based law enforcement or emergency management agencies, and procuring, building, and maintaining cutters equivalent in size to minesweepers and frigates is fundamentally dissimilar to buying small boats for Customs and Border Patrol or ensuring airport security, or any of the tasks of the other 21 agencies within DHS. DHS is not optimized to provide the subject-matter expertise needed to train, man, equip, and employ maritime armed forces.
While the Coast Guard has maintained its multimission focus under three different departments, alignment under DoN will best equip the Coast Guard for the world ahead. The 2003 shift from DoT to DHS made sense based on post-9/11 assumptions. With the United States as the sole superpower, experts predicted that terrorism—not great power conflict—would be the prime national security threat for decades to come. But those experts were wrong.
China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran have become the most likely flashpoints, even as great power interests collide in Crimea, Syria, and the melting Arctic. Closer to home, the potential collapse of Venezuela could prompt a mass migration reminiscent of the 1980 Mariel Boat Lift. Given these factors, the Coast Guard can anticipate executing its 11 statutory missions in a world that looks more like 20th-century conflict and wars than the War on Terror.
Inconsistent funding and lack of alignment with the Navy have led to procurement missteps. For example, in 2005 the Coast Guard replaced the DoD-preferred M9 pistol, chambered in NATO-standard 9-mm fully jacketed ammunition, with the DHS-oriented SigSauer P229, chambered in .40-caliber hollow-point bullets. This leaves Coast Guard forces deploying in support of DoD with the logistical headaches of either supplying nonstandard ammunition or maintaining qualification on the legacy M9.
More serious, when in 2006 the Coast Guard stumbled in the early stages of a vitally needed fleet recapitalization, Congress found the service lacked the procurement expertise needed to manage new ship construction, and mandated that the Navy provide acquisition and engineering assistance.
Recruiting and diversity also suffer from nonalignment with DoD, and—despite some progress—the Coast Guard has drawn Congressional scrutiny for lagging behind the other services. The service is better known regionally than nationally, and it has comparatively small recruiting and public affairs programs. Compare Coast Guard Recruiting Command’s 451 personnel and 78 recruiting offices to the Navy’s nearly 6,000 personnel and 1,400 recruiting stations. Were Coast Guard recruiting supported by Navy Recruiting Command’s infrastructure, it would surely make better progress in achieving its recruiting objectives.
While the Coast Guard is adept at operating with other armed services and civilian agencies—prominently coordinating joint and interagency operations during disasters—it falls outside the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reform Act. This creates a variety of inefficiencies, especially regarding jointness. But more important, “purple” joint assignments are not mandatory in the Coast Guard, and Joint Professional Military Education Phase I is not required for midgrade officers. Consequently, while the afloat, aviation, and deployable specialized forces communities often gain joint experience through operations, other prominent communities receive little exposure to the joint force. This isolation risks fostering the type of parochialism once common in the pre-Goldwater-Nichols DoD.
While placing the Coast Guard under the DoN would bolster advocacy, funding, and efficiency, there exist some concerns that should be considered.
Posse Comitatus: A common misconception is that the Posse Comitatus Act prohibits DoD from conducting law enforcement, and the Coast Guard is exempted only because it resides under DHS. In fact, the Act—a cynical law proposed by former Confederate states to prevent the Army (and only the Army)—from enforcing Reconstruction, does not apply to the Navy, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard.4 The sea services remained excluded even after Congress amended the Act in 1956 to include the newly independent Air Force.5 While the Navy and Marine Corps lack affirmative statutory law enforcement authority, the Coast Guard would retain its own enforcement authority even as part of the Navy.
Interservice Competition: Another concern is that the Coast Guard would lose funding and missions amid interservice rivalry. Simply put, the Coast Guard’s $11.34 billion is too little to steal. In any case, the Navy has no desire to be a coast guard. Historically, the Navy has asked the Coast Guard to provide its specialized capabilities instead of developing those capabilities within itself, except when the Coast Guard has had insufficient assets to meet the demand. (For example, the “Brown Water Navy” in Vietnam and the Riverine Squadrons in Operation Iraqi Freedom resulted from a lack of Coast Guard capacity. In each case, the Navy viewed the missions as deviations from the ideal surface warfare career path and curtailed them after each conflict.) Today, the Navy actually funds Coast Guard capabilities such as the six Island-class cutters forward-deployed to the Arabian Gulf, and the Maritime Force Protection Units that protect nuclear submarines. There is little reason to believe things would change if the Coast Guard were under the DoN.
Coast Guard Service Culture: A final concern is that the Coast Guard would lose its multimission culture if placed in the DoN, trading “Semper Paratus” for “Damn the Torpedoes.” No one would confuse Marine Corps culture with that of the Navy, however, even after centuries within the DoN, even though most Marine officers access through the Naval Academy or the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps. If boot camp at Cape May, New Jersey, and the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, remain separate from their Navy counterparts, they will continue to instill Coast Guard culture, and the service will not lose its unique character.
The Coast Guard is of course more than an armed force, and its nondefense missions ensure U.S. security and prosperity. However, aligning the Coast Guard based on those other missions rather than its inherently military character has long failed to keep the service properly funded.
Federal law already places the Coast Guard in the Navy Department in wartime—the service moved in both world wars—because it is efficient. However, the Coast Guard is at “war” every day. Whether fighting hot wars such as Operation Iraqi Freedom, conducting search and rescue on the Great Lakes, or patrolling the South China Sea, every time a Coast Guard cutter gets under way or a helicopter takes off, it does so in what is effectively an active theater of operations.
Transfer to the DoN will not be a cure-all, but all the devotion to duty in the world—the kind that prompts an entire service to work without a paycheck for weeks on end—cannot make up for unreliable funding. Money builds ships and maintains aircraft, and maintaining a maritime armed service is not like maintaining a domestic law enforcement agency. Moreover, maintaining an armed service outside of DoD leads to inevitable inefficiencies. The Department of the Navy is where the resources needed to oversee a maritime armed service reside, and it is where the Coast Guard needs to be.
1. David Axe, “Coast Guard Cutters Rusting Away,” Wired, 5 December 2008.
2. From a hearing before the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation of the Committee on Transportation And Infrastructure House of Representatives, 115th congress, first session 7 June 2017.
“Mr. HUNTER. Submission, it is going to be reviewed by OMB?
Admiral STOSZ. Yes, sir. It goes up the chain.
Mr. HUNTER. OK. OMB, who proposed to cut you by $1.3 billion, and your CIP has to go through them before we get to see it? So we get the scrubbed version, not necessarily what the Coast Guard really needs 5 or 20 years out?
Admiral STOSZ. That is the process we follow, sir.”
4. Gary Felicetti and John Luce, “The Posse Comitatus Act: Setting the Record Straight on 124 Years of Mischief and Misunderstanding Before Any More Damage Is Done,” Military Law Review 175 (2003), 86, 89–95.
5. Felicetti and Luce, “The Posse Comitatus Act.”