The U.S. Coast Guard has always taken pride in its motto — Semper Paratus (“Always Ready”) — and following the terrorist outrages of September 11, 2001, a service whose political fortunes had once seemed in full eclipse quickly became one of the hottest players in homeland security — ready or not.
“If you look at the Coast Guard’s mission pre-9/11, at the top of the list were things like maritime safety, fisheries and environmental enforcement, and counter-narcotics,” Rob Housman, co-chair of the homeland security practice group for Fleishman-Hillard Government Relations and a former Clinton Administration national security official, told GSN. “You had to go pretty far down the list before you reached anything about protection against threats to our nation’s shores.
“Now the Coast Guard is the dominant actor in maritime security,” Housman added, “which makes it a huge player in homeland security.”
Protecting some 95,000 miles of coastline, 3.5 million square miles of exclusive economic zone and 361 ports that conduct more than 95 percent of U.S. overseas trade is a tall order for a force roughly the same size as the New York City Police Department.
What’s more, as a National Intelligence Council report, Mapping the Global Future, released last December, noted: “The international order will be in greater flux in the period out to 2020 than at any point since the end of the Second World War.” In that context, non-military, non-traditional asymmetric threats from terrorists, pirates, smugglers, and other criminals mean that maritime security rather than major combat operations at sea, may be more relevant in a national security environment that has long since shed Cold War doctrines of containment to move, albeit unevenly, toward a post-9/11 global security perspective.
A growing number of experts say that because the most likely maritime threats the U. S. will face in the medium to long term include terrorism, arms trafficking, drug smuggling, illegal immigration and violations of economic sanctions, those challenges can be best combated by the Coast Guard’s sui generis mix of military and constabulary means. “Navy and Coast Guard officials agree that the Coast Guard should be the lead federal agency for maritime homeland security operations,” a Congressional Research Service report noted last year. “The Coast Guard, they agree, is better suited in terms of equipment, training, linkages to civilian law enforcement agencies, and its dual status as both an armed service and a law enforcement agency, to be the lead agency for maritime homeland security operations.”
But because its range of missions touches on nearly all aspects of maritime domain protection, advocates and others say, the Coast Guard’s self and public images are being sorely tested by the strain of balancing old and new missions while carving out an even broader niche in homeland defense. Even as it concentrates on terrorist and criminal challenges in the U.S. maritime domain, the Coast Guard must still shoulder its traditional responsibilities, such as maritime safety and national resource protection. And that has meant the force — which before 9/11 suffered more than a decade of official neglect — has had to re-examine a broad welter of issues, ranging from procurement, command and control, relations with the Pentagon, and service in the Persian Gulf, to its institutional “culture,” and performance, promotion and assignment criteria.
The maelstrom of activity has both won praise for the Coast Guard while giving unprecedented visibility to some unaccustomed criticism of it — from even some of its biggest boosters.
Coast Guard supporters point to the fact that its command centers are now, nearly three years after Sept. 11, both connected to national intelligence and law enforcement agencies through joint anti-terrorism task forces and, in the words of one former senior officer, “totally hooked into” Department of Defense and Northern Command information circuits. “If something happened related to the maritime arena on the west bank of the Gaza strip,” recently retired Coast Guard Vice Admiral James Hull told a recent maritime security conference held in Arlington, VA. “I would know about it pretty much unfiltered.”
The Coast Guard has also reorganized its local sector organization, merging the force’s various local maritime regulatory, first responder, search and rescue, and law enforcement offices into one command, improving both their public accessibility and internal communications. “Rescue 21,” a massive overhaul of its maritime communications technology used for search-and-rescue missions, is also designed for use in the Coast Guard’s homeland security and law enforcement responsibilities, increasing the number of radio channels operable at command centers from one to six and making them compatible with federal, state and local agencies.
The service has also won plaudits for its leading role in assisting in the birth of the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002, which went into effect last July 1, and, simultaneously, for bringing the international community together to agree, under the auspices of the International Maritime Organization, to the International Ship and Port Facilities Security (ISPS) code that created standards and set down guidelines for assessments needed to develop maritime security plans.
“We went basically from a blank sheet of paper at the first meeting in February 2002 to a diplomatic conference (attended) by 140 nations in December 2002,” noted retired Coast Guard Adm. Paul Pluta, who led the U.S. delegation to the IMO. “That’s lightening speed for an international activity.”
The Coast Guard “has really adapted to the post-9/11 world,” James Carafano, a homeland security expert at the Heritage Foundation, said in a telephone interview. “They are all over [the Department of Homeland Security], their morale is terrific, and they are seen as super-dedicated.”
Observers say, however, that no initiative represents the Coast Guard’s new maritime security and international force projection, and the pratfalls associated with them, better than the modernization program known as “Project Deepwater,” the largest recapitalization effort in the service’s history. The initiative to upgrade its aging fleet of ships, helicopters and aircraft —including what Coast Guard Commandant Thomas Collins has called “the oldest, tiredest and brokest” vessels — was envisioned even before 9/11.
Today the Coast Guard is made up of roughly 100 cutters, slightly more than 300 smaller boats, roughly 90 non-defense special-mission vessels (icebreakers and buoy tenders), and approximately 200 aircraft. The Deepwater proposal called for the construction of three new classes of cutters and associated small boats, upgraded helicopters, a new fixed-wing maritime patrol aircraft, cutter-based and land-based unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) — all linked with Command, Control, Communications and Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems, and supported by a new integrated logistics program.
Then, earlier this year, the Coast Guard released a revised version of Deepwater. It claimed that that the cutters would have improved capabilities to quash terrorist attacks, conduct operations in a chemical, biological and radiological environment, and to engage in opposed boarding. Instead of costing $17 billion, however, the new iteration projected a $19-24 billion price tag, while calling for six to eight national security cutters, rather than the eight originally proposed, reducing planned fast-response cutters from 58 to anywhere between that number and 43, but sticking by its original plan to acquire 25 offshore patrol cutters. Although forecasts said it would take 20 years to complete the upgrade, the new acquisitions were put on a timetable that could run up to 25 years.
The new proposal, however, was immediately panned in Congress.
“This new version of the Deepwater Plan,” charged Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), “will harm the Coast Guard’s ability to meet the challenges it faces now and in the future,” adding that the Coast Guard needs more ships to perform both homeland security and search and rescue missions. In a joint statement, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and an ardent Coast Guard defender, and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), ranking member of the same Senate committee, also criticized a DHS report describing the plan, saying that it “only provides a five-year capital investment plan, rather than a plan for the completion of the Deepwater program as required. The report also falls short of providing a clear annual budget forecast, which preven ts a true evaluation of the Department’s intent and commitment to completing the program.”
Collins and Lieberman also zeroed in on the lengthening program timetable, suggesting instead that Deepwater be put on an accelerated 10-year schedule, arguing that “the nation simply cannot afford to wait until 2024 or later” for more effective and reliable assets. Congressional irritation about perceived Coast Guard foot dragging in response to its concerns was also in evidence in early May, when the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, headed by Deepwater supporter Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), reported out a FY06 homeland security appropriations bill that stripped $466 million from Deepwater, almost half of the $966 million requested by the Bush Administration.
"To say the Coast Guard is disappointed in the subcommittee's cut of the president's funding request for Deepwater would be a gross understatement," Adm. Collins said after the subcommittee’s action. "The Deepwater program is a cornerstone of the Department of Homeland Security and the Coast Guard's ability to fulfill their responsibilities to the national homeland security strategy. The Coast Guard will work very closely with the administration and Congress to obtain full funding for Deepwater."
Project Deepwater does not address all potential maritime domain threats, either. “One of my greatest fears are the brown water threats to our ports, such as a USS Cole-like assault against an oil tanker, or an LNG carrier, or a nuclear device in a cargo container smuggled aboard a freighter in the Port of New York/New Jersey,” noted Housman. “For these threats, larger cutters aren’t the answer.”
(To meet those threats, Housman and others said, the Coast Guard’s mobile Maritime Safety and Security Teams [MSSTs], while “impressive,” are “way too small to make a significant enough impact.” Just a dozen of the special teams, made up of approximately 100 active duty and reserve personnel, are responsible for responding to regional terrorist threats or incidents in ports around the country.)
The controversy over Deepwater came as Coast Guard advocates touted the force’s shipbuilding program as more suitable, more affordable and more effective for anti-terrorism operations that the Navy’s multi-billion-dollar Littoral Combat Ship, designed to carry out “focused missions” along enemy coastlines. Critics claim the LCS’s pretended role in homeland defense represents little more than shoehorning vessels into roles for which they really are not made, done by a service — the Navy — that is on its own search for relevance and affordability.
Early this year, the chief of U.S. naval operations, Adm. Vern Clark, was quoted in Aerospace Daily and Defense Report as saying that his service was “not ‘correctly balanced and optimized for the world of the future,’ and that it faced a three-decade-long effort to fully reform its forces to accommodate national security needs such as anti-terrorism and homeland security.” In his 2005 Guidance, Clark directed his staff to “develop a capabilities integration roadmap for the [Navy] and the [Coast Guard] in support of the global war on terror.”
“Haze-gray U.S. Navy warships, with their inherent national orientation, cannot shake off their ominous appearance or disguise their primary purpose as combatants expressly built for offensive military missions such as power projection and forcible-entry missions,” Bruce Stubbs, a former Coast Guard officer who served on the Reagan-era National Security Council, wrote in a Heritage Foundation paper on maritime security published in April. “U.S. Navy warships, designed for high-intensity war against a major opponent, when used for maritime security duties are just too menacing in regions sensitive to sovereign rights and may not always be the most politically acceptable means for duty against maritime criminals and terrorists.”
Stubbs pointed to the example set last October, when the Japanese government specifically requested that the Coast Guard be included in the American contingent for Proliferation Security Initiative exercises held off Tokyo. “The Japanese wanted the Coast Guard present primarily to emphasize the law enforcement nature of the exercises, as well as to draw upon the Coast Guard’s unexcelled reputation and skill in boarding, conducting maritime searches, and constabulary duties.”
Although it is true that, as Hull pointed out in his recent presentation, that “the Navy and the Coast Guard are probably working more closely together than ever before,” the retired Coast Guard officer and many others say that maritime domain responsibilities still need to be sorted out between the Pentagon and the Coast Guard headquarters on the other side of the Potomac River.
“I think the Navy and the Coast Guard are going to have to redefine themselves — how they are going to fit, who gets what — in the next four to five years,” Hull said. “Believe it or not, we still don’t have a mechanism in place for other than the secretary of defense to approve them coming to work for us.” He added that, in terms of determining defense/non-defense cost shares, “DHS and DoD are still looking at each other warily — each one thinks that the other is going to take advantage and they are going to have to pay for something they don’t want to pay for. And, by the way, the zeros [numbers in the DoD budget] are still far to the left to those of DHS.”
Stubbs agreed: “The United States can ill afford to continue ignoring the lack of meaningful maritime security planning and coordination between the world’s largest navy and the world’s seventh largest navy — America’s Navy and Coast Guard.”
The Coast Guard also faces a number of other issues, ranging from whether it should have its own special operations capabilities, to what constitutes the right mix of officers, civilian experts, and contractor staff to give a force that prided itself on the versatility of its officer corps the expertise necessary to confront its mammoth, new homeland responsibilities. The Coast Guard’s increased international projection also has some service theoreticians talking about the need to replicate the force’s presence in U.S. embassies in the Caribbean and Latin America, far from the waterfront, in the countries of the Pacific Rim and elsewhere.
Related to the debate about new roles and mission is another question about personnel. Traditionally, Coast Guard officers’ promotion potential increased to the degree that they could show they were maritime Jacks- (or Jackies-) of-All-Trades; since 9/11 the new emphasis on homeland security duties has left a number of officers concerned about whether drilling down in those specialties might jeopardize their chances for promotion or more desirable assignments. “You just don’t know whether becoming an ‘expert’ will be validated in what is still, at bottom, a force run by ‘generalists’,” one Coast Guard member on the West Coast told GSN.
Some Coast Guard officials say they see the angst about promotion paths being resolved by the Guard’s staffing up with civilian experts; others disagree. What is without doubt, said Heritage’s Carafano, is that “the Coast Guard is going to need a degree of specialization that they haven’t had before — and that’s difficult in a small force.”
Looming in the background, too, are questions about the type and pace of changes to the Coast Guard’s institutional culture as it moves from traditional service and safety approaches to one in which defense of the homeland is paramount.
“Cultural change takes longer,” Pluta, the former head of the Coast Guard’s largest regional operational command, told GSN. “Where we might have taken a safety approach before and worked with the people that we regulate, working through a time of compliance, with security you don’t get to be wrong once — it’s too late — so you can’t take the same approach.”