The Future of the Coast Guard: A View From the Top

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The Future of the Coast Guard: A View From the Top

August 11, 2005 5 min read
Jack Spencer
Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom
Jack Spencer oversees research as Vice President for the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity.

How should the Coast Guard transform to meet the missions of a post-9/11 environment? At a recent Heritage Foundation lecture, Admiral Thomas H. Collins, Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, gave an overview of how the Coast Guard plans to meet the current and future challenges of the post-9/11 world and the Coast Guard's many maritime domain responsibilities, from homeland security to protecting natural resources.


A New Threat Environment

In the past, as in World War II, the Coast Guard dedicated a large portion of its operational assets to the protection of America's ports, with a port security component larger than today's entire Guard. However, as the end of the 20th century approached, assets dedicated to port and coastal security fell to two percent of the Coast Guard's operational force. The Guard had taken on a multi-mission enforcement role concerned with such responsibilities as drug interdiction.


9/11 would shake the Guard as much as it did the entire country. Overnight, members of the Guard found themselves moved to the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS), while port and coastal security was thrust from the backburner to the forefront of Coast Guard priorities. Using the advantages of its multi-mission nature, the Guard quickly increased the number of assets dedicated to port and coastal security to nearly fifty percent.


Today's post-9/11 world offers a vastly different threat environment. The challenge lies in the need to secure ports while still allowing the fast and efficient movement of cargo. In order to meet the challenge, the Coast Guard plans to use several current and future transformational tools:


  • Authorities & Capabilities: As the nation's only armed force not under the Department of Defense (DOD), the Coast Guard has a unique set of authorities that bridge the gap between traditional law enforcement and the military. It also possesses a range of capabilities, such a maritime interdiction, which are distinctive among the Armed Forces.
  • Partnerships: A range of partnerships built over the last few years with other federal, state, and local agencies allows the effective sharing of information and resources across jurisdictions. The Guard is now better able to bring the right assets to bear on the right problems.
  • Information: The new National Maritime Intelligence Center, jointly run by the Navy and the Coast Guard, provides a central nexus for the collection and dissemination of information when and where it is requested and needed.
  • Organization: Providing an enhanced organizational structure will allow a reorientation of the strategic focus so that it is possible to place about 45 percent of operational assets at the disposal of Department of Homeland Security missions.
  • Deepwater: The Integrated Deepwater System modernization and recapitalization program serves as the lynchpin of the Coast Guard's transformational goals and will provide the Guard with the tools to meet a new century of challenges.

Strategic Elements of Change

Coast Guard transformation has laid out four main elements of change, with three keys identified as means to achieve these transformational goals: the organization's unique authorities, its partnerships, and its distinctive capabilities.


First, the Coast Guard seeks to enhance its current Marine Domain Awareness through the movement from a Guard-specific response plan for maritime emergencies to a comprehensive interagency response. This effort was spurred early on by National Security Directive 41 and Homeland Security Presidential Directive 13, which commanded that DHS and DOD come together in an interagency effort to craft an all-hazards national plan for maritime security. That plan is now in the executive office for approval, with rollout planned for the end of summer.


Second, the need for a rigorous Maritime Security Regime has been outlined. Since 9/11, the Coast Guard has worked hard to put the issue of maritime security on the international agenda and has had a fair amount of success. Within one year it was able to bring the issue to the agenda of the International Maritime Organization, and as a result, the International Ship and Port Facility Security code (ISPS) is now required by 148 countries worldwide. The ISPS, coupled with the Maritime Security Transportation Act of 2002, forms a comprehensive approach to Maritime Security that focuses on prevention while maintaining the ability for response.


Third, the current threat environment requires that the Guard increase its operational presence throughout the maritime domain. The approach to this increase is two-fold. In the past, the plan of action typically centered on response to a catastrophe, while the new approach is the adoption of a layered defense that employs a variety of prevention and response strategies. This, coupled with the continuation and growth of interagency partnerships, will allow the Coast Guard to exert a larger influence on the marine domain.


Finally, there exists the need to create a balanced approach towards securing America's home waters. On one hand, the Coast Guard seeks to enhance its operational posture to better interdict threats to U.S. homeland security. On the other hand, it must also seek to assure its response capabilities in the case of an emerging event. The same strategies can be seen at work addressing the issues of increased information sharing, partnerships with other agencies, and a comprehensive all-hazards layered defense.



The Coast Guard considers the Deepwater program the essential lynchpin of its transformation into the Marine Domain security force of the future. This assertion was reaffirmed when the Department of Homeland Security approved the revised implementation plan for the program in the wake of 9/11. It updates the original plan by incorporating new capabilities developed in the post-9/11 environment into new assets that are to be delivered. The new timetable for long-term acquisition estimates that Deepwater will cost between $19 and $24 billon and is set to occur over 20 to 25 years, while delivery of the Fast Response Cutter and the Offshore Patrol Cutter will be advanced by 10 and 5 years, respectively.


Another aspect of Deepwater, the Mission Effectiveness Project (MEP), will help determine the final asset mix by striking a balance between incoming new systems and outgoing legacy systems. MEP will allow the Coast Guard to bridge the gap until the newer cutters can be delivered by updating the currently operational 210-foot and 270-foot cutters with improved reliability and reducing future maintenance costs. Some of these legacy assets are planned for eventual conversion into the integrated Deepwater system-namely, the C-130 Hercules transport and the H-60 Seahawk and H-65 Dolphin helicopters.



The post-9/11 era has spawned a world of emergent security concerns that are very different from status quo of six years ago, and the Coast Guard is rising to meet the challenge. The way forward through transformation will be difficult and pose many challenges but will allow the Guard to mitigate and better respond to this new threat environment.


For more information on related Homeland Security subjects, see Heritage Foundation Special Report No. 03 "Making the Sea Safer: A National Agenda for Maritime Security and Counterterrorism," WebMemo No. 648 "Homeland Security Dollars and Sense #2: Misplaced Maritime Priorities," Heritage Lecture No. 878 "Smarter Security for Smaller Budgets: Shaping Tomorrow's Navy and Coast Guard Maritime Security Capabilities," and Executive Memorandum No. 955 "Top Homeland Security Priorities for the Next Four Years," all available at


Jack Spencer is Senior Policy Analyst for Defense and National Security in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation. Luke Carafano, Defense and National Security Intern, contributed to this piece.


Jack Spencer
Jack Spencer

Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom