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The United States Coast Guard: Starving the remarkable

If President Trump is serious about improving the capacity of the US military, then the USCG needs to be part of the package.

USCG Cutter William Flores (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
USCG Cutter William Flores (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Reports that the United States Coast Guard (USCG) will be subject to substantial budget cuts even as the new administration proposes to increase funding for the United States Navy (USN) reflect a myopia that has deeper roots than the advent of President Trump.

The USCG is a remarkable organisation, with a breathtaking span of responsibilities for maritime safety and security that encompass the United States – including its Great Lakes and inland waterways – and much of the globe. Despite its extensive involvement in many activities which in other countries are managed by civil agencies, the Coast Guard is a military service, moving under the Defense Department in time of war, but working within the Homeland Security Department during peacetime. It is also something of a step-child, a pygmy with 39,000 full time personnel by comparison with the 323,000 in the USN, and the nearly 184,000 in the United States Marine Corps (figures sourced from Jane's Fighting Ships 2016-1017).

It is certainly not big enough to do all that is required of it, a point frequently made by successive Commandants. The USCG's platforms are ageing, despite recent efforts at renewal.  Admittedly, this is chronic under-resourcing by US standards: the USCG is something like the 12th-largest navy in the world in numbers of ships and has one of the largest naval air arms. But for many years it has not had the share of resources it really needs.

Despite this, the USN has traditionally delegated to the USCG much of the maritime security tasking that is retained by other navies, such as Australia’s. However competent the Coast Guard has always been in such work, there has been a downside to this. The USN has long been absorbed with power projection and high intensity warfare and both its force structure and its operational concepts have never completely embraced the full spectrum of maritime security requirements, despite much rhetoric in recent years. This would be reasonable enough if the USN, however resource-starved it views itself as being, did more to support the USCG and more to look at ways that the two forces can achieve better joint economies of scale. But it has not always done so.

Some have argued that the USN has not only neglected its own capabilities for maritime security and presence but failed to support the Coast Guard’s efforts to renew itself. They make a good point. Arguably, the disaster of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) programme owes something to the failure of the USN to develop a multi-purpose hull that could function both as a capable small combatant and as the offshore patrol cutter that the USCG requires. The ‘cutter men’ of the Coast Guard were always aware that there are many desirable characteristics, particularly in endurance, that should take a higher priority – even in higher intensity operations - than the additional ten knots of speed for which both versions of the LCS have sacrificed so much.

If President Trump is serious about improving the capacity of the US military to deal with the full range of threats America faces, then the USCG needs to be part of the package. Australia has a vested interest here, given the important role of the Coast Guard’s Fourteenth District in contributing to maritime security in the South and Central Pacific. Furthermore, with additional resources, the USCG could do even more to help develop the capabilities of maritime agencies in South East Asia than it has in the past.

There is another lesson here for Australia. The increasing capabilities of the maritime forces that are operated by the Australian Border Force (ABF) are a recognition of both the increasing complexity of the national maritime security requirement and of its growing demands. The operational relationship between the ABF and the Australian Defence Force is close and well-integrated under the umbrella of the Maritime Border Command. But it will be vital that the future allocation of capabilities and the resources required to sustain them be carefully worked out to ensure that both organisations are able to do their tasking – in full – and that the money is spent to best effect. We will need a ‘national fleet’ approach that extends not only to sea and air platforms, but to the workforces and to their governance. We need to be thinking about this – now.

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