Worried about the Size of the U.S. Navy? Rearm the Coast Guard

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Chandeleur. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

A new challenge for Trump: redefine the U.S. Coast Guard's defense roles.

The United States’ peer naval competitors are on the rise, and our Navy is woefully deficient in the small surface combatants that provide global presence during peacetime and serve as utility players during times of conflict. Until the early 1990s, the U.S. Coast Guard’s largest cutters could be expected to fill a portion of the small surface combatant gap. However, decisions made since the end of the Cold War have left the service without cutters to meet today’s minimum threshold of combat value. Restoring credible warfighting capability to the major cutter fleet is an efficient way to address the small surface combatant shortfall.

The U.S. Coast Guard and Navy should move jointly and decisively to arm, train and equip the major cutter fleet so that it can perform a useful set of defense and expeditionary missions. The decision to do so is not only a reasonable response to threats posed by increasingly capable, bold and bellicose competitors, but also a recognition of the fact that the U.S. Coast Guard’s large cutters will be put in harm’s way during a general—or major—regional war regardless of the service’s ability to prepare them in advance. Moving forward first requires a reexamination of the major cutter fleet’s historical combat role and the decisions that saw that role scaled back as the Cold War ended.

From the birth of the Revenue Cutter Service through the Cold War, it was widely accepted that a cutter’s warfighting role was in the fight. Revenue and U.S. Coast Guard cutters distinguished themselves at Hampton Roads, Cárdenas Bay, the North Atlantic and off the coast of Vietnam by maintaining a purposeful and useful overlap in capability between the major cutter fleet and the Navy’s small surface combatants. This overlap, reinforced through common outfitting and training, kept cutters ready for wartime service while enhancing their ability to perform peacetime functions by the creative use of installed combat systems as well as the application of tactics, techniques, procedures and doctrine. The overlap policy’s success was recorded by Rear Adm. Samuel Eliot Morison in The Two-Ocean War. Morison noted that “the scarcity of suitable escorts was perhaps the greatest handicap during [1941-42]. Coast Guard Cutter Campbell was employed as escort on Convoy HX-159 in November 1941, and proved so effective that most of her sister ships of the Treasury class were diverted to this duty. These big seagoing cutters had everything that a destroyer had except speed and torpedoes; and seldom does an opportunity to use torpedoes occur in escort-of-convoy.” Morison’s quote, regularly updated to account for evolving capabilities and threats, provides the U.S. Coast Guard-Navy team a succinct and sustainable vision of interoperability.

The last efforts to keep the major cutter fleet ready for wartime service were the acquisition of the Famous-class medium-endurance cutter in the early 1980s and upgrades to the combat systems installed in the Hamilton-class high-endurance cutters in the early 1990s. The 270-foot Famous-class cutter was designed to be “heavily oriented toward the Navy [anti-submarine warfare] role,” with Light Airborne Multipurpose System III integration and the ability to fit a towed sonar array. The cutter’s refueling-at-sea rig, electronic support measures, countermeasures and main battery provided reasonable measures of self-defense and interoperability without compromising the class’s ability to perform its U.S. Coast Guard missions. As built in the 1960s, the Hamilton-class high-endurance cutters’ outfit was similar to—but not as robust as—contemporary Navy frigates. The gap between the class’s warfighting utility and that of small Navy surface combatants grew through the 1970s and 1980s. To address this, the U.S. Coast Guard, with the support of the Navy, added Harpoon quad launchers, countermeasures, Light Airborne Multipurpose System I integration and the Mark 15 close-in weapon system to the Hamilton class. Unfortunately, this decision, executed around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, exposed powerful cultural antibodies that drove the service to strip the class of its new capabilities and to divest the antisubmarine warfare mission it had conducted with distinction since World War ll. These decisions, while politically consonant at the time, degraded the combat capability of the major cutter fleet and its effectiveness in related peacetime missions.