If 2020 is a harbinger of the decade to come, we are in for a tempest. We witnessed a series of provocative events with Iran, China, North Korea, and Russia that toed the precipice of escalation into outright hostilities. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists advanced the Doomsday clock to 100 seconds to midnight, meaning in their estimation the world is closer than it has ever been to calamity, more so than even at the height of the Cold War. And that was before COVID-19. For the U.S. military, the expression “wicked problem” seems hardly adequate to describe the national security challenges at hand. Every service has had to reassess its readiness to fulfill national security obligations. One question keeps commanders at all levels awake at night: If a spark were to touch off the powder keg, are we ready to fight?
For the Coast Guard—which has a Title 10 obligation to maintain “defense readiness” and specific requirements to fulfill in a number of contingency operational plans—answering that question requires confronting uncomfortable realities. First, its metrics to evaluate “fight tonight” readiness are not adequate to provide a realistic appraisal. Second, pulling on the defense readiness thread reveals gaps in doctrine, organization, and training.
Defining ‘Defense Readiness’
Readiness is a difficult quality to capture. Where military operations are concerned, sometimes it can be assessed accurately only in retrospect. Yet the Coast Guard motto, Semper Paratus, means Always Ready, and “ready” is the first of the Commandant’s three watchwords: Ready, Relevant, Responsive. Despite this emphasis, the service’s defense readiness metrics are not commensurate with the challenges and risks of the mission. A unit can appear fully mission capable according to all current evaluation tools yet still be underprepared for certain operations areas or assigned missions.
Consider a national security cutter (NSC) deploying to the western Pacific under the tactical control of Commander, Seventh Fleet.1 Seventh Fleet operations demand varsity-level operational savvy, especially inside the first island chain, where the United States and China are engaged in a dynamic, high-stakes contest for influence. To determine whether a cutter is prepared to enter that cauldron, two main evaluation sources are available: the unit-generated Coast Guard Required Readiness Reporting system (CG-RRR) and Cutter Assessment of Readiness and Training and Tailored Ships Training Availability (CART/TSTA) reports.
CG-RRR is a simplified version of the Status of Resources and Training System (SORTS) that has been used across the services to report readiness in various war-fighting mission areas to the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the past 40 years.2 Preparing the legacy SORTS report required painstaking monthly data collection that produced a detailed analysis of personnel, equipment, supply, training, and ordnance metrics to assess unit readiness. CG-RRR streamlines the process significantly, but the final product leaves much to be desired as a defense readiness indicator.
To illustrate: Preparing a CG-RRR summary for an NSC entails evaluating some 60 mission-essential tasks—few of which pertain to defense readiness—and checking a box to indicate that the unit is or is not capable of performing them. The guidance for making the either/or selection is scanty and ultimately comes down to the commanding officer’s estimation. The tool then takes the user input and applies an algorithm to determine net readiness for all statutory missions the cutter is tasked to support. However, the dimension for defense readiness on the NSC template is grayed out and labeled “not applicable.”3
Fortunately, a better readiness evaluation process exists in the biennial CART/TSTA cycle. CART dives deeply into the equipment, training, and policy compliance status across all cutter mission areas. TSTA employs Coast Guard and Navy subject-matter experts to train and evaluate the crew in damage control, navigation, seamanship, and various warfare dimensions. It is an invaluable refresher course and evaluation of shipboard basics—but not a primer for going into harm’s way. Much more time is devoted to practicing fighting fires and flooding than fighting the ship. Warfare-specific drills constitute about 10 percent of the overall evaluation. Earning the coveted Overall Operational Readiness Excellence Award (achieved by gaining a Battle E in each of five readiness areas) demonstrates a commendable level of proficiency, but it would be a stretch to equate that to “fight tonight” readiness.
So, would an NSC showing green across the board on CG-RRR and with fresh “E” decals on the superstructure be ready for Seventh Fleet mission tasking? Maybe, maybe not. Several additional mission-essential tasks would require evaluation. For example, can the cutter sustain Condition III readiness indefinitely, integrate into Seventh Fleet command-and-control systems, meet tactical reporting and tracking requirements, and execute preplanned responses to hostile vessel provocations? If necessary, could it defend itself against a surface threat more dynamic than a killer tomato (the large red inflatable target) or a towed sled moving in a straight line? At present, there is no reliable way to tell.
Both Coast Guard and Department of Defense (DoD) operational commanders need a better understanding of those and many other readiness dimensions to make informed risk management and operational employment decisions. It is imperative that the Coast Guard build tools to meet that requirement now.
Closing Readiness Gaps
Improved metrics inevitably will reveal readiness gaps, which will prompt an examination of how best to mitigate them. In joint parlance, that calls for a DOTMLPF-P review: an examination of doctrine, organization, training, matériel, leadership, personnel, facilities, and policy. That is a major undertaking, but even a cursory look at the first three dimensions reveals some low-cost endeavors that could yield major dividends.
Doctrine: The Coast Guard has fought in every major armed conflict and carried out various DoD missions since its inception, yet it has a dearth of service-specific doctrine to show for it. Lack of doctrine for defense operations affects readiness because it makes it difficult to answer the critical question, “Ready to do what?” The Coast Guard needs to distill the hard-won lessons learned from recent experience in maritime infrastructure protection, theater security cooperation, high-value asset escort, and participation in major naval exercises and joint and service war games into a comprehensive doctrine for expeditionary defense operations. That doctrine would provide the foundation for mission-specific policy and tactics, techniques, and procedures, resulting in a more accurate list of mission-essential tasks and corresponding evaluation criteria.
Organization: The Coast Guard is organized in a “trident of forces”—shore-based (boats), maritime patrol (cutters and aircraft), and deployable specialized forces (small units with specialized skills). The model works well for projecting maritime security-in-depth from the homeland, but it has not been optimized to integrate capabilities for expeditionary defense missions. Case in point: An NSC with an embarked maritime security response team direct-action section and an MH-60 helicopter should be a potent expeditionary force package, but its potential is hindered by seams in the integration points between the cutter, aviation, and deployable specialized forces. Reconfiguring the embarked helicopter and cutter boats to enable the maritime security response team to use them for vertical insertion and hook-and-climb embarkation would unlock latent capability that tactical commanders exercising on-scene initiative could translate into mission employment possibilities.
The Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF) model is the gold standard for integrating mutually supportive capabilities into an expeditionary force package. Presently, the Marine Corps is studying a variety of small MAGTF employment options that harness unmanned and cyber enablers to support its distributed maritime operations concept. The Coast Guard could likely gain many valuable insights by leveraging its efforts.
Training: Ramping up for an out-of-hemisphere deployment to a contested environment such as the South China Sea requires a vigorous workup cycle to achieve a readiness state equal to the challenge. Currently, Coast Guard Headquarters, Force Readiness Command, afloat training organizations, and both area commands are collaborating to create a standardized enhanced workup process tailored for NSCs preparing for western Pacific deployments. The goal is for an NSC completing the workups to be at the highest level of defense readiness in the fleet and thus able to assume the “fight tonight” mantle (meaning first-to-deploy in support of a short-notice DoD request for forces). This concept focuses training resources when and where they are needed most; however, there is a limit to how much skill and experience can be surged, especially for a mission as complex as expeditionary defense operations.
Other possible approaches to improving defense readiness can be uncovered through a formal gap analysis. The process is a tedious but necessary precondition to getting an accurate fix on where the service is, so it can lay a course to where it ought to be. Bridging gaps takes resources, and the Coast Guard is perennially stretched thin, but presented with a compelling value proposition, Congress and/or DoD might be persuaded to help. Beyond that, many solutions will require an internal reordering of mission priorities. It is therefore critical that the Coast Guard make full use of any resource-neutral options available. One place to start is by enhancing the focus on defense readiness in the Coast Guard’s culture.
Rekindle the Fighting Spirit
Quantifiable readiness metrics are valuable, but in military operations, qualities such as initiative and audacity often can overcome disparities in relative strength. Napoleon was fond of saying that in war, the moral is to the physical as three is to one. As by far the smallest of the armed forces, the Coast Guard is the most in need of the intangible x-factors that enable it to punch above its weight. Those qualities must be forged through doctrine, education, and training and ingrained in service culture.
The Coast Guard has proven that, when needed, it can fight with a tenacity that transcends its relatively diminutive capabilities. Service lore is replete with examples. In 1814, overwhelmed and threatened with capture by the British brig Dispatch, the crew of the Revenue cutter Eagle ran the cutter aground, hauled their cannons up to a cliff, then fired on the Dispatch until they ran out of ammunition, at which point they retrieved the British cannonballs and fired those back. Coast Guard Signalman First Class Douglas Munro was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for piloting his landing craft to shore under murderous enemy fire to evacuate pinned-down Marines at the Battle of Guadalcanal. Fatally wounded in the process, his last words were “Did they get off?” Munro’s actions made a lasting impression on the famously pugnacious Marine Corps. A painting of him covering the Marines’ withdrawal hangs prominently in the foyer of the General Alfred M. Gray Research Center, home of the Marine Corps’ professional military education program in Quantico, Virginia.
Munro’s example left a legacy that each new generation of Coast Guardsmen must carry forward. Amid a tense national security environment simmering with taunts, tweets, rocket attacks, and a renewed focus on near-peer rivals, it is fitting that his namesake passes from a venerable 378-foot cutter to a newly commissioned NSC. The mission scope of the new Coast Guard cutter Munro, like the other NSCs, includes deploying out of hemisphere to patrol contested waters alongside the Navy and Marine Corps. And while we all hope a “fight tonight” moment never arrives, we had best be prepared for it just the same.
1. Deploying to the western Pacific in support of Indo-Pacific Command and Seventh Fleet is a recurring mission for NSCs. The USCGC Bertholf (WMSL-750) completed a 164-day western Pacific patrol in July 2019, during which she conducted a widely publicized Taiwan Strait transit. The USCGC Stratton (WMSL-752) completed a similar patrol in November 2019. Both cutters noted multiple encounters with Chinese military vessels and aircraft.
2. See the 11 June 2020 ALCOAST message: “REF (A) mandates that all Services report readiness info . . . using one system: the Defense Readiness Reporting System-Strategic (DRRS-S). . . . FORCECOM (FC-A) will continue to collect CG-RRR data and enter it into DRRS-S.”
3. Coast Guard personnel can access the application at https://cg.portal.uscg.mil/units/FC-A/FC-AA.