With the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union ceased to be a threat to U.S. interests. As a result, antisubmarine warfare (ASW) equipment was removed from U.S. Coast Guard cutters. At the time, the logic appeared sound: With the fall of the communist menace, long patrols along the U.S. coastline hunting for Soviet submarines would no longer be required. Yet even as the Cold War faded into the history books, a new competitor was emerging.
Following economic reforms enacted in 1991, China began an upward trend that has continued largely unabated in three important areas: diplomatic influence, economic growth, and military expansion. Today, the geopolitical intentions of China’s Communist Party leaders remain murky at best. With its alarming—and illegal—actions in the South and East China Seas, including the construction of military bases on artificial islands and aggressive behaviors toward its neighbors, China has displayed a willingness to violate international law and strong-arm countries into actions favorable to its own interests.1
U.S. preparedness is imperative, and to be a valuable asset of maritime deterrence or in the event of hostilities, the Coast Guard must be able to offer a fleet of cutters capable of projecting power, whether sailing alone or as part of a naval task force. A cost-effective option that would be a major force multiplier would be to reequip the Coast Guard with ASW capability. In addition to their value in the Indo-Pacific region, cutters with ASW capability would boost patrols in the eastern Pacific and Caribbean drug transit zones, where cartels increasingly are using narcosubs, which are difficult to detect solely with radar.
The Coast Guard has a long and proud tradition in ASW, proving its worth in the Battle of the Atlantic in World War II and as a supplement to the Navy during the Cold War. As U.S. naval power continues its slow but steady Pacific pivot, a familiar geopolitical environment is taking shape: a rising and aggressive communist power looking to expand and strengthen its influence. An ASW-capable Coast Guard can be part of the solution to this challenge.
Reaching Boiling Point in the Pacific
China’s claims over the South China Sea have existed since just after World War II. The so-called nine-dash line, which outlines China’s claims to the South China Sea, including many islands and the recognized exclusive economic zones of other nations, was presented to the world in 1947.2 This official national policy went largely uncontested by other nations when it was first introduced, but the South China Sea has since become hotly contested among China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines.
In 2016, an international tribunal ruled against China’s claims within the nine-dash line, but China has consistenly denied the court’s jurisdiction, and since then, its military has increased its activities in this area, including fortifying the islands with robust defense systems and airfields capable of supporting fighter jets and surveillance aircraft. In addition, reports have surfaced concerning China’s increased assertiveness during the COVID-19 pandemic. In late April 2020, the Philippines formally protested China’s recent declaration “that a Manila-claimed region in the disputed South China Sea is Chinese territory.”3
Also worrisome is China’s history of aggression toward Taiwan. China has continually sought to undermine Taiwanese sovereignty, initially through diplomacy and economics, though these strategies have borne little fruit. As Taiwan continues to prosper, Chinese leaders have grown increasingly frustrated. In April 2020, China conducted a series of provocative military exercises near Taiwan, and military exercises near the Taiwan Strait have increased in frequency.4 In addition, numerous reports have indicated China is rapidly building up its submarine fleet, as well as new facilities suspected to be designed specifically for the construction of advanced nuclear submarines.5
Amid these heightened tensions, the Coast Guard has increased its activities in the region. In March 2019, the national security cutter Bertholf (WMSL-750), along with the Navy destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG-54), transited the Taiwan Strait. Coast Guard cutters also have taken part in naval exercises and patrols with allies and partners in the region along with the U.S. Navy, and three new fast response cutters have been homeported in Guam. While the new national security cutter boasts improved features compared with its predecessor, it lacks capabilities to operate in a high-risk environment, including the ability to detect or track submarines.
If tensions rise past the efforts of diplomacy, the Coast Guard likely will be called on to serve as an important part of the naval fleet. Currently, the capabilities of the NSC and the upcoming offshore patrol cutter are inadequate to operate in that capacity.
The Contraband Below
In 2006, off Costa Rica, a narco-sub dubbed “Bigfoot” was captured, along with its four-man crew and three tons of cocaine, the vast majority likely bound for the United States. More than a decade later, the Coast Guard still has difficulty stopping what is now a steady stream of “bigfoots.” These vessels skim the surface, with just a few feet of the boat above the water. They are not submarines in the true sense of the word, but even that may be changing.
Authorities in Colombia and Ecuador have seized custom-built true submarines, capable of carrying an even greater amount of contraband than semisubmersibles.6 These boats could provide lucrative black market revenue opportunities for drug cartels if sold to nonstate actors. The potential for these craft to be acquired by extremist groups and used to carry items even more dangerous than cocaine or heroin is a real possibility and would present a devastating threat to the United States.
We Need Our Grandfathers’ Coast Guard
During World War II’s Battle of the Atlantic, the Coast Guard was considered to have the finest ships for escort duty, which began on the eastern seaboard of North America and ran to the shores of Ireland and Great Britain. The seven Treasury-class cutters, which “seemed to have sprung not from the minds of men but from the sea itself,” were 327 feet long and boasted better seakeeping than the Navy’s smaller destroyers during the early years of the war.7 They were pivotal in guarding merchant convoys from German U-boat wolf packs. Capable of gracefully handling heavy seas, they proved their worth as U-boat hunters using sonar, depth charges, and torpedo launchers, filling a gap while the Navy worked on a new class of destroyer escorts. After the Nay introduced the new destroyer escorts, the cutters went on to serve as amphibious task force flagships, embarking Army and Marine Corps staff planning assaults on Japanese-held islands throughout the Pacific.
The Coast Guard also made great use of smaller patrol boats and aircraft armed with depth charges to attack U-boats operating close to U.S. shores. The service’s creation of a merchant convoy system along the coastline played significantly in German Admiral Karl Dönitz’s decision to pull back the U-boats from American waters.8
To move forward as an effective fighting force, the Coast Guard must look to its past and restore its antisubmarine warfare capabilities. This would not be as difficult as some might believe. The Navy is developing ASW mission packages meant to be fitted on its littoral combat ships (LCSs). These mission packages could feasibly be used on the national security cutters and offshore patrol cutters.9 As the Navy decommissions the first four vessels of the LCS class, consideration should be given to allocating these packages to the Coast Guard’s new cutters.10
An Important Piece of the Puzzle
To avoid a kinetic conflict with China, deterrence must be strong enough to dissuade Chinese leaders from taking aggressive actions. Restoring the Coast Guard’s ability to perform ASW operations is vital to ensuring it is able not only to deter aggression, but also to respond to current and emerging threats from both state and non-state actors. Admiral Karl Schultz, Commandant of the Coast Guard, spoke to the press in October 2019, noting the service’s increased activity in the Indo-Pacific region: “We’re on a trajectory where the geostrategic importance of the Oceania region has not been higher here in decades, and it’s a place that the Coast Guard’s looking to be part of the whole-of-government solution set.”11
For the Coast Guard to be an important piece of the strategic Pacific puzzle, it needs to bring capabilities that can be properly leveraged. One of the most effective ways to do this is to restore a legacy tested and proven in the battles of World War II. It needs to return to our grandfather’s Coast Guard. It’s time to bring back the sub hunters.
1. Jane Perez, “Tribunal Rejects Beijing’s Claims in South China Sea,” The New York Times, 12 July 2016.
2. Li Jinming and Li Dexia, “The Dotted Line on the Chinese Map of the South China Sea: A Note,” Ocean Development & International Law 34, no. 3/4 (July 2003):, 287–95.
3. “Recent Developments Surrounding the South China Sea,” The Associated Press, 26 April 2020.
4. Erin Hale, “In Shadow of Coronavirus, China Steps up Manoeuvres Near Taiwan,” Aljazeera, 22 April 2020.
5. Rick Joe, “Pondering China’s Future Nuclear Submarine Production,” The Diplomat, 23 January 2019.
6. Lewis Page, “First True Submarine Captured from American Drug Smugglers,” The Register, 6 July 2010.
7. Michael G. Walling, Bloodstained Sea: The U.S. Coast Guard in the Battle of the Atlantic, 1941–1944 (International Marine/McGraw Hill, 2004).
8. “1941: Coast Guard Aviation Anti- Submarine Operations,” Coast Guard Aviation Association.
9. Chuck Hill, “Bring Back the Coast Guard ASW Mission,” Chuck Hill’s CG Blog, 31 January 2011; and Tyler Rogoway, “Coast Guard Cutters Once Carried Harpoon Anti-Ship Missiles and They Could Again,” The Warzone, 24 October 2019.
10. David B. Larter, “Fixing First Four Littoral Combat Ships Not Worth It, U.S. Navy Says,” DefenseNews, 12 February 2020.
11. Caitlin Doornbos, “Coast Guard Planning to Base Three Fast-Response Cutters on Guam, Commandant Says,” Stars and Stripes, 22 October 2019.