The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 created the first new branch of the U.S. military since the U.S. Army Air Forces became the U.S. Air Force in 1947. Ultimately, about 16,000 Air Force personnel will be reassigned to the new U.S. Space Force, which will serve within the Department of the Air Force much like the Marine Corps serves within the Department of the Navy. The Space Force will organize, train, and equip forces to provide space capabilities to the joint force.
A key component of the legislation that created the Space Force is that its commanding general, the Chief of Space Operations, will have membership on the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).1 When that happens, the five services within the Department of Defense (DoD)—Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Space Force—will have a seat at the table. Still missing from the JCS, however, is the nation’s sixth service: the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard has shown it can surge its forces for war, which it has done since its inception (as the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service) in 1790. Its members have served on Guadalcanal, landed troops ashore on dozens of well-defended beaches during World War II, interdicted Viet Cong supply operations along the coast of South Vietnam, and deployed ships and personnel to Southwest Asia in support of operations in that theater. It is an armed service and a whole lot more.
Although the Coast Guard is not part of DoD, its Commandant should be added as a full member of the Joint Chiefs. Some might argue the difference between the authorities vested in the DoD service chiefs and those held by the Coast Guard Commandant are a showstopper. The 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act, for example, streamlined the military’s chain of command, with that line running from the President through the Secretary of Defense to the various combatant commanders, effectively removing the service chiefs. However, Goldwater-Nichols does not apply to the Coast Guard, meaning the Commandant retains full operational command and control of Coast Guard forces. Any legislation giving the Commandant full JCS membership would have to provide that when serving in the JCS role, the Commandant would operate within the same legal framework as the other five service chiefs.
In addition, the law states, “Officers of the armed forces (other than the Coast Guard) assigned to serve on the Joint Staff shall be selected by the Chairman . . . from the Army; Navy and Marine Corps; and the Air Force.”2 Expanding this to include the selection of Coast Guard officers for the Joint Staff were the Coast Guard Commandant to serve as Chairman may make sense theoretically, but practically, it does not seem realistic. Coast Guard forces are minuscule when compared with the forces DoD has available worldwide. And the service’s day-to-day missions, such as search and rescue, drug interdiction, marine safety, and migrant interdiction, do not directly fit within the peacetime taskings of DoD.
Nonetheless, it is time to change the law to grant the Coast Guard Commandant a seat on the JCS alongside the other five armed forces of the United States. The Department of Homeland Security will have a say in this arrangement, with the chief of its only military component serving jointly with the other service chiefs in the Pentagon. Yet close cooperation between DoD and the Coast Guard has existed for years and has proven successful again and again. The Joint Chiefs of Staff now stands at seven members—the Chairman, Vice Chairman, Chiefs of Staff of the Army and Air Force, Chief of Naval Operations, Commandant of the Marine Corps, and, since 2012, the Chief of the National Guard Bureau. Soon, the Chief of Space Operations will make that eight. The Commandant of the Coast Guard should be the ninth full member.
1. Jim Garamone, “Trump Signs Law Establishing U.S. Space Force,” U.S. Department of Defense, 20 December 2019. Conceivably, a future Chief of Space Operations will someday get selected to serve as chair. According to the U.S. Space Force official website, www.spaceforce.mil, the chief is a “full member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”
2. Public Law 99-433, 99th Congress, Goldwater–Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986.
ν Captain Teska served for more than 30 years in the U.S. Army and Coast Guard, both active and reserve. His last assignment before retiring in 2015 was on the Joint Staff/J4 (Logistics Directorate). He currently works for the federal government in Kansas City, Missouri.