Congress Must Act to Link Navy and Coast Guard Future Needs

Report Defense

Congress Must Act to Link Navy and Coast Guard Future Needs

June 13, 2003 3 min read
James Carafano
Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute
James Jay Carafano is a leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges.

The 2004 House Defense Authorization bill requires Congress review the nation's future fleet requirements. The bill calls for eight independent studies to describe the ideal Navy of the future, but does not require the review of the U.S. Coast Guard's needs and requirements.

This is a commendable, but misguided effort. Congress should address the Coast Guard's role as a national defense instrument.

Scope of Future Maritime Challenges
The idea behind the congressionally mandated studies is to rethink the shape of future naval forces with a "clean sheet of paper," taking into account future threats and emerging new missions. Four of the eight studies would have to come from outside the Navy and they would all be "fire-walled" to ensure independent analyses. This should provide some fresh ideas that will encourage the Department of Defense to examine alternatives to the tradition-bound roles, missions, and platforms that drive current thinking.

Not including the Coast Guard in the naval forces studies, however, is deeply troubling. It calls into question whether the Congress really understands the full scope of the future maritime challenge.

While the Coast Guard is part of the new Department of Homeland Security, there are good reasons to conceptualize the future Navy and Coast Guard as a holistic force. After all, the Coast Guard is still a military service. By law, during times of war the President can, as was done during both World War I and World War II, place the service under the command of the Navy. Even when not formally assigned to the Defense Department, the Coast Guard supports military operations overseas. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, two cutters, eight patrol boats, four port security teams, and a buoy tender, along with 1,200 personnel served in the Persian Gulf.

Serving Homeland Defense and Homeland Security

Closer to home, the Navy and the Coast Guard are partners in providing maritime security to the United States. For example, after September 11 the Navy transferred operational control of all 13 of its patrol combatants to the Coast Guard for homeland security missions.


Defense Department policy makes a clear distinction between "homeland defense," protecting the nation from the traditional military threat of invasion and "homeland security" guarding against terrorist threats. The Pentagon accepts the Navy has responsibility for maritime defense of the country, but it sees homeland security as the Coast Guard's job. It appears that the House Armed Services Committee's call for studies subscribes to this narrow view. Unfortunately, America's enemies are unlikely to abide by these nuanced distinctions, and, in fact, will look for gaps between the operations of the two services for new opportunities to threaten US shores. US maritime security has to be a joint Navy-Coast Guard operation. 


Finally, efficiency, if for no other reason, should demand that requirements should consider both services. The Coast Guard is not an insignificant force. In fact, it's the world's tenth largest "navy." The Department of Defense faces immense fiscal challenges in conducting global operations, recapitalizing weapons systems, and funding transformation. It only makes sense to synchronize the programs of the Coast Guard and the Navy to make sure we can get the most naval power at the best cost. For example, the Navy is planning a major fleet expansion, from approximately 300 current ships to 375. A large portion of this growth will come from commissioning of a large new class of small combatants called the Littoral Combat Ship, with many characteristics well suited to Coast Guard missions. At the same time, in the near term the Navy could be chronically of small general-purpose warships. Speeding-up Coast Guard acquisition of new cutters might help bridge the Navy's gap in an emergency and at the same time beef-up assets for homeland security.


Integrated Deepwater Initiative

Adding the Coast Guard to the defense study would also help bring attention to the importance of the Integrated Deepwater initiative, a long-term modernization program designed to recapitalize the service's fleet of cutters, aircraft, sensors, and command and control. Even before September 11, it was widely regarded that the Coast Guard's fleet was old, expensive to operate and maintain, and not well suited for some homeland security missions. In addition, the increasing operational tempo of the Coast Guard and its expanding future mission will likely wear out the fleet faster than anticipated. 


The Navy and Coast Guard have long recognized the need to synchronize their efforts. In 1998 the service chiefs signed a National Fleet Policy Statement where they pledged to develop complementary forces. Recently, they have looked at ways to integrate the efforts of the Navy's Littoral Combat and Ship and the Coast Guard's National Security Cutter programs. 


While the two services want to work more closely together, they have received little support or encouragement from the Pentagon or the Congress. No Congressional committee, for example, seriously addresses the Coast Guard's role as a national defense instrument.


When the Defense Authorization bill moves to conference there will be an opportunity to expand the naval forces studies to include the national defense missions of the Coast Guard. Congress should seize this opportunity. We simply can't miss this chance to think smarter about national defense.


James Carafano
James Carafano

Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute