In the Russia-Ukraine war, both sides have employed uncrewed systems in unconventional ways—to devastating effect. Drones, for example, have been used to locate, identify, and attack infrastructure, equipment, and troops. It is likely that any conflict with China in the Indo-Pacific will exhibit similar adaptation and destruction. Seaports of debarkation and disembarkation—critical for carrying out the Navy and Marine Corps’ concepts of distributed maritime operations and expeditionary advanced base operations—will be particularly vulnerable. Coast Guard port security units (PSUs) must be trained and equipped to operate and counter uncrewed systems.
While the U.S. Navy has the capabilities to fulfill this role, it already is stretched thin. In the event of Chinese aggression, it will be escorting the shipping needed to support distributed operations in the Indo-Pacific, and remaining Navy assets likely will be concentrated in and around naval bases, not protecting government and commercial infrastructure.
Therefore, the Coast Guard—its PSUs in particular—is likely to play a significant role in surveilling vessels and detecting and countering threats to U.S. and overseas ports. These threats could include drone attacks, mines, communications jamming, and surveillance of U.S. shipping and critical maritime infrastructure. Uncrewed systems could help PSUs conduct their seaward security mission both off the U.S. coast and overseas, especially in a contested environment or high-end conflict.
Because forward-deployed PSUs are more likely than U.S.-based units to confront adversary uncrewed systems, they are ideal candidates to be the first Coast Guard units to modernize.
The Coast Guard does not need to create or revolutionize uncrewed or counter-uncrewed systems. The Department of Defense already fields families of small and medium-size uncrewed vehicles that would be suitable for use in the PSUs’ seaward security mission, and the Navy and Marine Corps have or are acquiring capabilities to counter uncrewed and autonomous systems. For example, the Navy’s Task Force 59 operates several small and medium-size uncrewed surface vessels (USVs) designed for security and surveillance, and Marine littoral regiments are being trained to employ antiship missiles from uncrewed land vehicles. The Navy also has equipped ships with the Drone Restricted Access Using Known Electromagnetic Warfare (DRAKE), and Marines can operate the Marine Air Defense Integrated System (MADIS) from land or a ship’s flight deck. Although land-based systems generally are not optimized for operation on water, they could be used by PSUs to protect ports of debarkation and disembarkation.
The Coast Guard does, however, need to determine what systems it would need to fulfill its port security mission. Uncrewed aerial vehicles could overfly shipping channels and mooring areas to detect and track threats and aid interdiction efforts.1 Emerging USVs and optionally uncrewed surface vessels could augment cutters, buoy tenders, and patrol boats with a persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platform for port security or free those vessels for tasks that require a crew.2
Coast Guard inaction would leave its PSUs unable to protect critical ports against gray-zone threats and simply delay the acquisition of systems that will be needed in future conflict. The Coast Guard, and particularly its PSUs, will be as distributed and expeditionary as the Navy and Marine Corps and will be in the middle of the next conflict. Its officers and sailors must be better equipped and trained to fight in it.
1. U.S. Coast Guard Deputy Commandant for Operations, Unmanned Systems Strategic Plan (Washington, DC: Headquarters, U.S. Coast Guard, March 2023).
2. “U.S. Navy Tests Uncrewed Patrol Boat for Port Security,” The Maritime Executive, 13 February 2020; and Peter Ong, “Lockheed Martin’s Optionally Uncrewed Surface Vessel (OUSV),” NavalNews.com, 29 January 2022.