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Keeping the Coast Guard Afloat

June 1, 2000 Topic: Security Regions: Americas Tags: AcademiaNew Left

Keeping the Coast Guard Afloat

Mini Teaser: The fifth armed service is sinking. A proposal to rescue it.

by Author(s): Colin S. Gray

Everyone loves the U.S. Coast Guard. Its cutters, with their white-painted hulls and orange stripes, offer the world a kinder and gentler image of American military power. It rescues seafarers in distress, protects marine life, oversees safety in ports and coastal waters, and combats illegal immigration and drug trafficking, making for an exceedingly lengthy list of duties. The Coast Guard, which legally is an armed service, is the sole federal law enforcement agency at sea. It is at once humanitarian, policeman and fighting sailor.

But the U.S. Coast Guard, which is the envy of other coast guards (indeed of many navies) and which enjoys a hugely positive reputation with the public, has a problem. The difficulty lies both in its diverse portfolio and in a service culture that traditionally has emphasized a modest, quiet professionalism rather than noisy self-assertiveness. One might expect the Coast Guard to be generously endowed with politically powerful constituencies, but it is not. The service is tiny, with only 34,000 active personnel (uniformed and civilian), and is underfunded at $4 billion a year -- slightly less than the cost of a single aircraft carrier.

A warm and fuzzy glow of public approval has not yielded reliable support for the Coast Guard when and where it matters most: among budgeteers in the executive branch -- including the Department of Transportation, wherein the service is housed somewhat uneasily -- and in the Congress. The Coast Guard may be the country's fifth armed service, performing vital work for national security, but in Transportation it competes with -- and routinely loses out to -- big ticket projects with enormous domestic constituencies.

As is generally recognized, the Coast Guard matters critically when things go wrong. But to a large extent the service's real value lies concealed in the things that go right -- the ships that move safely, the criminal operations that are deterred. Nonetheless, the service is rarely out of the local news around America's 300 ports, 95,000 miles of coastline and 25,000 miles of coastal waterways, and is not long out of the national media spotlight. The trouble politically is that people do not see the Coast Guard as a fifth armed service, but rather as a fisheries protector here, an enemy of criminals there, and a lifeguard somewhere else. The Coast Guard's dilemma has led to a condition that is simple to explain: the service is currently required to do too much with too little.

A Crisis at Sea

As the strength of the Coast Guard withers -- between 1995 and 1999 the Clinton administration cut the size of the service by 12 percent and slashed $400 million off its annual budget -- a crisis approaches for U.S. national maritime security. America's economy is critically dependent on the use of the high seas and its own coastal and internal waterways. Everywhere one looks one finds an increase in pressure on marine resources and, as a result, on those charged with their protection.

The types of pressure range from a huge increase -- probably a tripling -- in the volume of legitimate maritime trade by 2020 (95 percent of U.S. exports and imports move by sea), a boom in illegal migration, an increase in maritime drug smuggling (at least 70 percent of the total drug flow into the United States travels part of the way by sea), and greater demands on ocean resources such as fisheries and mineral deposits, to a growing list of defense concerns. Additionally, the Coast Guard responds each year to approximately 50,000 distress calls, saves perhaps 5,000 lives, and provides emergency help to 100,000 others. Each year the service conducts safety inspections of 34,000 U.S. vessels and barges, 19,000 foreign vessels, and 7,000 fixed marine facilities on and offshore. Today, each of the three segments of the Coast Guard's duties -- justice, transportation and defense -- is registering significant growth.

All this activity has severely constrained the Coast Guard's ability to maintain its equipment. The service's high and medium-endurance cutters, patrol aircraft and communications systems are generally old and are becoming obsolete, if they are not so already. In the apposite words of Coast Guard Commandant Admiral James M. Loy, "Our ships and aircraft that operate offshore are among the oldest of all the world's fleets of similar platforms. The personnel and maintenance costs of keeping these ancient craft running grow increasingly prohibitive." The point is not only that obsolete equipment cannot do as good a job as more modern equipment; rather, increasingly it will be unable to do the job at all. Smugglers, for example, already outrun or otherwise evade relatively slow Coast Guard vessels and routinely deceive their obsolete search radars.

The maintenance problems of severely aging ships and aircraft also affect their endurance for patrols, especially for "deep water" duties far from shore, as well as their ability to operate effectively with the other armed services. The Coast Guard's assistant commandant for operations, Rear Admiral Ray Riutta, says that, "The biggest challenge I have . . . is to make sure that I do not field assets that are so slow, defenseless, and technologically outdated as to be albatrosses around the necks of the Navy's forces with which we sail." From a service traditionally averse to complaining in public, and which has always made a virtue of getting the job done, this should be taken as a serious warning.

Fortunately, these problems lend themselves to an elementary and inexpensive solution. To quote Admiral Loy again, "Many of our readiness issues are the sort of problems that really can be solved by throwing money at them. Twelve or thirteen million dollars to restore our parts inventories to where they were a few years ago would be a nice place to start." The point is further illustrated by the fact that when the Clinton administration's 1998 emergency request for supplemental readiness funds arrived on Capitol Hill, it did "not include a nickel for the Coast Guard" -- uniquely among the five armed services -- even though the service had both participated in all the meetings bearing on the request, and suffered from the same readiness problems as the other services.

It would be a serious mistake to assume that this crisis translates merely into lackluster performance. The stakes are far larger: an aging, persistently under-resourced Coast Guard means more lives lost at sea, more pollution, more drugs and depleted fish stocks; it could also mean another Exxon Valdez disaster, a super cruise ship aided too late, or a nuclear device transported undetected by sea into the United States.

Arming the Coast Guard

As an armed service, the Coast Guard constitutes a crucial element of the "national fleet" of the United States, along with the navy and the Marine Corps. Many of the enemies of the United States unable to field regular armed forces are opposed principally by the Coast Guard. These enemies typically are armed, but they seek profit rather than political advantage. More and more often in recent years, defense against such threats has been prosecuted on the coasts and in the ports of friends and allies far away from North America.

The Coast Guard is legally required to be ready to serve in the navy in time of war. Thus it has been since the Revenue Cutter Service (created in 1790 and otherwise known as "the Treasury Fleet") served with distinction in the quasi-war with France in 1798 (the Continental Navy was disbanded in 1785; the U.S. Navy was created only in 1798). U.S. Coast Guard it may be, but it served in Europe in World War I, all over the globe in World War II, in the South China Sea during the Vietnam War, and in the Persian Gulf and the Adriatic more recently. True, it is not the mission of the service to win and protect control of the seas in conditions of high-intensity combat; that is the job of the navy. But the Coast Guard does have to be able to operate seamlessly with the other armed services.

What is, and should be, the relationship between the Coast Guard and the navy, and to what degree is the seafaring equipment of the two interchangeable? Much as a particular model of automobile can range in capability and price from an austere entry-level version all the way to a twin-turbo variant with a global positioning system, a Coast Guard "cutter" can be variably equipped. In its basic dimensions a cutter is sized to suit its seagoing roles and duties. The ships of most interest here are designed for high or medium periods of endurance, which is to say for deployments lasting up to several months, possibly far from resupply and ready assistance, and in some of the roughest waters on earth. Prolonged periods at sea in wintertime off the Newfoundland Grand Banks or in the Gulf of Alaska is a task for neither the faint of heart nor the frail. The Coast Guard's presence is required urgently when physical conditions are at their least benign.

The issue of most importance for American national security is how "cutter-like", or "warship-like", a new class of Coast Guard cutters should be. A Coast Guard cutter, like a navy frigate, inherently has no particular technical character. Both are defined by their purposes, and those purposes can be many and demanding. Both types of vessel are relatively small, general purpose warships. At one extreme, the U.S. Navy could choose to design and deploy frigates that in size, sophistication and cost would begin to approximate destroyers. At the other extreme, Coast Guard cutters could be purchased that carry only the crew and equipment necessary for muscular law enforcement activity.

By 2020, however, the navy will have no frigates left, and all its destroyers will be relatively large and probably exceedingly expensive. In short, there will be a yawning void of small, general purpose warships, between the navy's fourteen 344-ton PC1 Cyclone class patrol boats on the one hand, and its fifty-seven 8,315-ton DDG-51 Arleigh Burkes (guided missile destroyers) and new DD-21's (land-attack destroyers) on the other. By 2020 U.S. Navy surface warships could number no more than ninety units. This portends a serious crisis for U.S. policy and strategy.

By a fortunate accident, the interconnecting parts of the compounding crises described here suggest a synergistic solution. The predictable shortage of frigate-like warships in the navy of the future points to closer integration between it and the Coast Guard. Lest the point remain obscure, no break in law or tradition is contemplated. The Coast Guard is legally an armed service, and its cutters have always been more or less well-armed warships. The question, rather, is just how much "war" equipment Coast Guard warships should carry. The sensible scope for disagreement about the duties and equipment of the service is real, but not truly extensive. Everyone agrees: large Coast Guard cutters have to serve as warships; the navy needs assistance from frigate-like cutters; national defense traffic on and from the sea is very much on the rise; and old equipment needs to be improved or, where necessary and possible, replaced.

However, these pressing security needs will not necessarily translate into political clout. Because of its hybrid nature as armed service and law enforcement agency, warrior and quasi-civilian, marine traffic cop and protector of the marine environment, the Coast Guard does not fit neatly into an obvious bureaucratic niche. With a modest annual budget, it would be dwarfed were it "owned" by the Department of Defense (DOD). Furthermore, the wholly military ethos of the DOD is inappropriate for a service whose most distinctive functions are still related to law enforcement. As an agency keyed to the safety and policing of marine traffic, its fit within the Department of Transportation is logical; yet in Washington that carries the price of reduced political heft.

This disadvantage is made worse by the Coast Guard's character: the service is purposefully economical, and it performs an extensive array of duties. Probably nothing can or should be done about this. It is desirable that the Coast Guard remain lean and efficient, even though these traits all but guarantee a low political impact and a continued uneasy place within the bureaucracy.

Other sources of difficulty, however, are eminently surmountable, for they derive merely from a lack of public understanding of the scope of Coast Guard activities. For the most part, in times of peace the other branches of the armed forces have an impact on national security only through their deterrent capability. Although they do engage in preventive diplomacy, in an obvious sense the armed forces are merely waiting for war. The Coast Guard, by contrast, performs myriad national security duties on a daily basis. It is true that oil spills, drug running, living marine resources depleted, and cruise ships in trouble cannot compare in significance with the outbreak of a major war. But on the other hand, U.S. taxpayers spend $280 billion annually for the Defense Department and only $4 billion for the Coast Guard.

A bargain-basement Coast Guard can act as an extension of the navy at the low end of combat power. For a great navy like America's requires a full range of assets, from carrier task forces capable of coercing regional powers, down to a flotilla of relatively small, shallow-draft vessels that can provide coastal, port and other anchorage security. Small is not sexy in matters of maritime security, but it is necessary. Along the shorelines of the United States, the Coast Guard proves itself every day. A service that can function safely enough with the navy and air force in time of hostilities, and that can detect and run down law-breakers at sea in time of peace, is a Coast Guard that deserves adequate funding and attention. Today it has neither.

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