The demand for U.S. Coast Guard services has never been greater. This line is regularly repeated by Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Karl L. Schultz, along with an emphasis on maintaining a “ready, relevant, and responsive” service. With a new era of great power competition and corresponding shifts in U.S. national security priorities, it remains to be seen how the Coast Guard will shift or rebalance its legacy mission priorities to support new, and perhaps more pressing, strategic imperatives.
Service relevancy often depends on establishing unique or niche capabilities that the nation needs and no other service can provide. The U.S. Army, Air Force, and Navy each has a clear, distinct domain of responsibility. The Army typically specializes in land warfare, the Air Force in air warfare, and the Navy in naval warfare. The primary domains of the Marine Corps and Coast Guard are less clear.
The Marine Corps, despite touching parts of nearly every domain, remains “America’s expeditionary and amphibious force in readiness.”1 The Coast Guard, because of its broad authorities spanning military, law enforcement, and regulatory duties, is uniquely suited to perform maritime missions of a constabulary nature and, in particular, maritime security sector assistance (SSA) missions in support of national strategic objectives. This niche remains in high demand around the world and is where the Coast Guard must focus to maximize its relevancy.
While the U.S. military struggles to find the right balance between successfully competing below the level of armed conflict and preparing to prevail during armed conflict, the Coast Guard can offer some relief. Unlike the four Department of Defense (DoD) services, the Coast Guard’s broad authorities allow it to be many things in addition to a military service and branch of the armed forces.2 Its ability to seamlessly straddle Title 10 (military) and 14 (law enforcement and regulatory) authorities provides greater utility through expanded access, particularly in countries or regions where the presence of conventional U.S. military forces is not welcome and/or perceived as escalatory.
This is most evident in regions exhibiting heightened tensions, such as the South China Sea, Oceania, and even certain parts of Latin America. The Coast Guard routinely operates in these regions in accordance with more than 60 international bilateral agreements ranging from counterdrug and search-and-rescue to illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fisheries enforcement activities.
Its maritime constabulary nature, global reputation, and expertise make the Coast Guard the logical choice to support the growing demand for maritime security cooperation and SSA.3 Typical Coast Guard maritime SSA missions range from providing training on basic maritime law enforcement boarding procedures and small boat operations to direct support countering illicit flows of narcotics, weapons, and people, IUU fisheries, and threats that directly contribute to instability and violence.4 The demand stems from the fact that “the majority of the world’s maritime organizations . . . are charged with carrying out U.S. Coast Guard-like missions” and often are comparable in size, structure, and appearance to the Coast Guard.5 A comprehensive study, led by the Naval Studies Board, on maritime security partnerships and the “1,000-Ship Navy Global Maritime Network” concept concluded that the Coast Guard is ideal “to pave the way for greater trust and cooperation between countries, including their military counterparts.”6
A ‘Specialized’ Military Service
U.S. law requires the Coast Guard to maintain readiness to operate as a “specialized service” under the Navy.7 This distinction likely originated in the lead-up to the Korean War, when, in 1947, “the Chief of Naval Operations suggested that in future conflicts the Coast Guard should limit its contribution to those peacetime tasks in which it specialized,” or “an extension of normal peacetime tasks” that are uniquely coast guard or constabulary in nature.8
One of the specialized tasks assigned to the Coast Guard at that time, in addition to search-and-rescue and port security support functions, was to deploy a contingent of officers to “organize, supervise, and train a small Korean coast guard.”9 The Korean Coast Guard eventually became the Korean Navy and, despite the transition, it continued to train with those same U.S. Coast Guard units up to the onset of the Korean War. From that point on, the Coast Guard’s wartime roles largely remained separate and distinct from high-intensity, conventional combat roles.10 World War II was the last formal declaration of war in which the Coast Guard was ordered to “operate as a service in the Navy.”11
Former Coast Guard Commandant and Vietnam War combat veteran, Admiral James M. Loy writing about the service in the 21st century, noted that “the Coast Guard is not a Navy,” and because of the rising cost and complexity of modern naval weapon systems, “would not perform high-end warfighting missions.”Instead, he envisioned a Coast Guard used for national defense through international engagement activities aimed at contributing “to the stability and security of the United States as well as to nations that are key to regional peace and stability.” He further noted “[t]hat many of these challenges related to maritime security are not strictly military underscores the importance, relevancy, and vitality of the Coast Guard’s law enforcement [constabulary] role—a core competency developed during 200 years of service.”12
Currently, when emergent missions of a maritime security nature—typically below the level of armed conflict—cannot be filled by special operations forces or conventional military forces, DoD increasingly looks to the Coast Guard for assistance. And when those missions require specific maritime law enforcement competencies—counterdrug, fisheries enforcement, port security, and building maritime partner capacity—DoD must rely on the Coast Guard’s law enforcement expertise and authorities.
Counterdrug Mission Provides Access
Some may contend that any shifts in Coast Guard mission prioritization will detract from its primary missions—in particular, its counterdrug mission. Rampant instability throughout Latin America, record interdiction rates, and images of cutter flight decks laden with pallets of cocaine routinely serve as a rallying cry for major acquisitions and bigger budgets.
These concerns may be rooted in an overly simplistic or tactical view of the Coast Guard’s counterdrug mission. Tactically, the counterdrug mission centers on the interdiction of cocaine, with mission success measured in the quantity of drugs seized and number of suspected smugglers taken into custody. Therefore, any shift or reallocation of Coast Guard forces is viewed as a zero sum scenario (i.e., gain in one mission equals a loss to the other). Strategically, however, the counterdrug mission complements larger, SSA/security cooperation objectives while presenting an example of how the service’s constabulary niche offers greater relevancy and key contributions to larger strategic objectives.
The counterdrug mission affords the Coast Guard and, by extension, the United States unparalleled access, authorities, and regional influence. It also is an enduring, steady-state mission with near universal international backing and support. This includes more than 40 bilateral counterdrug agreements with Latin American countries. These bilateral agreements serve as strategic channels for collaboration, information sharing, interoperability, and, in many cases, regular access to several countries’ security forces. Perhaps most important, the counterdrug mission justifies the nonescalatory forward deployment of U.S. forces. An increase in Coast Guard activity or presence anywhere in the eastern Pacific or Western Caribbean would not be considered unprecedented or cause for alarm, whereas an increase in Navy presence could be seen as escalatory.
The Coast Guard’s access in many parts of the world is of vital strategic importance in the current era of competing influence. Access also translates into opportunities for influence and to counter negative perceptions of the United States while supporting its image as the security partner of choice.
The Coast Guard’s access and authorities are not limited to Latin America or counterdrug operations; it has nearly a dozen bilateral agreements in Oceania related to IUU. Many of the IUU agreements include provisions allowing Coast Guard forces to operate alongside partner nation forces to facilitate enforcement. The service also regularly deploys to Africa to help partner nations enforce local fisheries under the African Maritime Law Enforcement Partnership Program. These steady-state missions provide justification for an overt and enduring U.S. presence in several key strategic regions that is neither escalatory nor threatening in nature.
Provided it maintains international missions of a constabulary nature and not of a conventional naval force, the Coast Guard can preserve its unique role as a “specialized” service in support of DoD. Employing the Coast Guard in missions more commonly associated with conventional naval forces, such as freedom of navigation operations, would jeopardize its constabulary image and possibly its unique access and authorities that are in greatest demand. Ultimately, the nation needs the Navy to be a navy, and the Coast Guard be a coast guard.
1. Mark Folse, “Marine Corps Identity from the Historical Perspective,” War on the Rocks, 13 May 2019.
3. ADM Paul F. Zukunft, USCG, U.S. Coast Guard Security Sector Assistance Strategy, U.S. Coast Guard (July 2015), 8.
4. Zunkuft, Security Sector Assistance Strategy, 8, 15. Kelly L. Seybolt, U.S. Coast Guard International Training Handbook, 15th ed., sections IV and VI. VADM Charles W. Ray, USCG, “U.S. Coast Guard Annual Performance Report—Fiscal Year 2017” (2018), 64–70.
5. Zunkuft, Security Sector Assistance Strategy, 8, 15. Seybolt, U.S. Coast Guard International Training Handbook, sections IV and VI. Ray, “U.S. Coast Guard Annual Performance Report—Fiscal Year 2017,” 64–70.
6. National Research Council, Maritime Security Partnerships (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2008), 8.
7. Primary Duties, 14 USC §102 (2002).
8. Scott T. Price, “The Forgotten Service in the Forgotten War: The U.S. Coast Guard’s Role in the Korean Conflict,” U.S. Coast Guard History Program, 1.
9. Price, “The Forgotten Service in the Forgotten War,” 2.
10. During World War I and World War II, the U.S. Coast Guard served as part of the Navy and performed many traditional naval missions, such as convoy escort, antisubmarine warfare, operating amphibious landing craft, and even commanding naval ships.
11. Department in Which the Coast Guard Operates, 14 USC §103 (b) (2002).
12. James M. Loy, “Shaping America’s Joint Maritime Forces: The Coast Guard in the 21st Century,” Joint Forces Quarterly 18 (Spring 1998): 10, 12, 14.