In early 2021, China passed a new law allowing the its coast guard to board, inspect, and even fire on foreign vessels. This shift added to the growing regional concern over China’s employment of its coast guard, which has played an increasing role in what are traditionally considered “navy” operations, some noting that “the only difference is the color scheme” of the ships’ hulls.
If this sounds familiar to those acquainted with recent U.S. Coast Guard operations, it should. Apart from the obvious differences in the validity of territorial claims, the employment of the two countries’ coast guards bears striking similarities. Nonetheless, U.S. officials, civilian experts, and even some military leaders increasingly have called for the U.S. Coast Guard to fill “grey hull” roles while simultaneously condemning the China Coast Guard for doing the same. Yet, while calling the Coast Guard an “ideal maritime security partner,” and deploying Marines on patrol boats may sound like an effective way to project naval power, it would come at a heavy cost to the reputation of both the United States and its Coast Guard as guardians of the rules-based international order.
As the 20th anniversary of the 11 September terrorist attacks approaches, it is fitting to take stock of how the U.S. Coast Guard’s missions, outlook, and even appearance have changed since that generation-defining event. When the United States went to war, the Coast Guard took on expanded responsibilities both to protect the homeland and to defend U.S. interests overseas alongside the Department of Defense (DoD). Today, with the rise of maritime competitors abroad, the Coast Guard is being pulled further into DoD’s orbit, participating in an increasing number of traditional gray-hull missions, with more of its personnel donning camouflage in lieu of blue, even to conduct domestic operations. This line of thinking is short-sighted.
The Coast Guard’s value on the world stage is not derived from the fact that it is the world’s 12th-largest navy. Rather, it is the service’s unifying missions and devotion to the rule of law that make it the partner of choice to allies and potential allies around the globe. Furthermore, its missions are uniquely capable of allowing the service to build mutual-interest relations with U.S. competitors, vital in efforts to avoid conflict. To maximize the Coast Guard’s contribution to U.S. international aims, the service must resist the urge to be the second-best navy, and instead remain the world’s premiere Coast Guard.
Supporting Sovereignty, Not Enforcing It
The post–Cold War international order is shifting. The United States is no longer the sole hegemon, and the Wilsonian notion that it is America’s role to make the world safe for democracy has less and less sway over foreign states with each passing year. That is not to say that the international community has lost faith in a rules-based international order. As Dr. Stephen Walt points out, as sovereignty and rule of law become more normative, U.S. allies and competitors have come to expect the United States to defer to the sovereignty of others in their own territories. The U.S. can differentiate itself from competitors such as China and win influence by supporting partners in their efforts to defend their own sovereignty, rather than assuming the duty to police their waters for them.
While the United States must respect the rightful sovereignty of foreign nations, this does not mean all claims are justified or deserving of recognition. The Chinese government, for example, has claimed almost the entirety of the South China Sea—a claim that has no basis in international law and encroaches on the rights of its neighbors. But because China views this area as part of its sovereign territory, the U.S. naval services’ condemnation of China’s efforts to “subvert other nations’ sovereignty and enforce unlawful claims,” is ineffective, as the Chinese government does not see those waters as belonging to other nations. Furthermore, South China Sea nations are wary of China’s military intentions but also depend on its trade, so they have little desire to be forced to choose sides in a U.S.-China dispute. This leaves U.S. forces in the position of attempting to protect the waters of countries that are hesitant to express support for those efforts, giving the Chinese government ample opportunities to criticize U.S. forces for “imperialist” attempts to encroach on the rights of distant nations.
A more effective approach would be to challenge excessive territorial claims through diplomatic means, while providing support to the encroached-on nations at their request and continuing to insist on freedom of navigation in the global commons. If the service is to “model responsible behavior,” as the Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Karl Schultz directs, there is no better place to start than through reciprocal respect for lawful maritime sovereignty.
Choosing Diplomacy over Force Projection
The Coast Guard is often said to look more like most of the world’s navies than the U.S. Navy. While this is true, the Coast Guard does not possess the weaponry or capabilities of a great-power navy and would stand little chance against vessels and aircraft armed with anti-ship missiles and torpedoes. Nor are its white hulls and racing stripes likely to protect it or present a tactical dilemma for would-be adversaries in times of heightened tension if they are openly conducting gray hull operations. And yet the Coast Guard seems determined to pursue the role of a smaller, less capable navy, rather than capitalizing on its own unique strengths.
This shift in outlook is visible when comparing the service’s past two forays into the Black Sea. In 2008, when the USCGC Dallas (WHEC-716) moored in the Republic of Georgia, her commanding officer stressed the humanitarian nature of the mission. Although the Dallas likely was chosen to defuse the situation and provide aid without provoking Russia, the USCGC Hamilton (WMSL-753) had a different mission when it entered the Black Sea in April 2021. On the more recent visit, U.S. officials stressed the cutter’s “elevated role in American forward maritime presence.” Senior leaders seem to be betting on the efficacy of placing the Coast Guard in traditional Navy roles as a foil to foreign competitors, but these competitors are unlikely to be fooled by the color of the hulls.
The Coast Guard has worked hard to make its distinctive and often-imitated color scheme “a symbol recognized around the world as a dependable partner and envoy of good will.” Although it is appropriate to employ the Navy for force projection and maritime security missions abroad, the Coast Guard risks eroding its unique authorities and hard-earned reputation.
Embracing Coast Guard Blues over Camouflage
The Coast Guard’s mentality shift is not solely reflected in its missions; it can be seen in the uniforms many of its service members wear, as well. Following the establishment of the Coast Guard Patrol Forces Southwest Asia in 2002, an increasing number of Coast Guard members began donning camouflage, and this practice has since bled over to traditional law enforcement operations. But, considering recent tragic and controversial events that shone a negative light on the militarization of American policing, this trend should be reconsidered as potentially harmful to the Coast Guard’s overall mission.
When Sir Robert Peel created the modern policing movement in London in 1829, he intentionally chose the color blue for the officers’ uniforms to deescalate and to differentiate from the red coats of British soldiers. But one need not look any further for the heart of the service’s mission to uphold a rules-based system than the Coast Guard’s founder, Alexander Hamilton. In his direction to the first captains of the service’s forerunner, the Revenue Marine, he exhorted them to remember that the people on the vessels they boarded were their “countrymen [and] freemen, and, as such, are impatient of everything that bears the least mark of a domineering spirit,” and to remember at all times that they, the officers, were “under the particular protection of the laws,” and bound to obey them.
The warrior mentality of law enforcement officers dressed in camouflage, on the other hand, risks creating an “us versus them” mentality, in which those encountered are more likely to be treated as potential enemies than as citizens with rights.1 And yet it has become common practice for some domestically-based Coast Guard units to don camouflage, even when participating in fisheries and recreational boardings. This was perhaps most visible in the thrilling and widely-shared video of a camo-clad boarding officer leaping onboard a semi-submersible drug vessel in 2019. But, not only could this change in outward appearance affect the mentality of the service’s boarding teams, it also risks eroding the trust of the public and escalating already tense situations, should the individuals interdicted assume they will be treated as insurgents rather than given a fair hearing. The blue uniforms of Coast Guard boarding teams, like the white hull and racing stripe, are an important symbol of the service’s role in upholding domestic and international law, and of respecting the legitimate rights and sovereignties of those with whom they interact.
The U.S. Coast Guard, can serve as a passable modern navy, but it is unsurpassed as a coast guard. Foreign navies and coast guards do not seek the service for its ability to provide a show of force. Rather, they desire partnership with the Coast Guard for its expertise in conducting noncombat missions, including search and rescue; illegal, unreported, and unregulated fisheries enforcement; pollution response; vessel inspections; environmental protection; and more. When pursuing its white hull missions, it is capable of building capacity and goodwill through the pursuit of common goals with partners and competitors alike.
Rather than opting for the short-sighted expedient of using the service for Navy missions, which risks exposing the U.S. Coast Guard to the same kind of international criticism that the China Coast Guard has earned, DoD leaders should foster the Coast Guard’s capacity to collaborate with other nations to achieve more traditional goals. Doing so will aid in strengthening the sovereignty of international U.S. partners, making them less susceptible to malign actors, and fostering a stronger rules-based international order.
1. It is worth noting that the U.S. Coast Guard grants Fourth Amendment protections to all subjects of maritime law enforcement operations, regardless of their citizenship status.