Cutting Coast Guard funds threatens our security, at home and in the Pacific
America faces a series of threats that require the integration of all instruments of national power. This goes far beyond “joint operations.” At the grand strategic level, the U.S. must link its warfighting objectives to its peacetime posture, to develop a structure that responds to all contingencies and challenges.
Foremost among these is China. Beijing’s rise presents a military challenge unlike any historical threat the U.S. has faced. Nazi and Imperial Germany dominated on land, with the latter nearly conquering the European peninsula, but neither could defeat American and Allied sea control, which proved fatal to their ambitions. Japan had maritime access and a fleet powerful enough to threaten U.S. territory, but it lacked the resources to sustain a major Pacific war; U.S. tactical and operational successes accelerated a broader strategic trend, and American power simply outmatched Japanese productivity. The Soviet Union, despite its nuclear arsenal and tank divisions, also was barred from the world ocean; its 25-year naval and strategic expansion, which included creating a global base network, was inferior to even the first four years of President Reagan’s military buildup.
China, by contrast, has access to Eurasia’s resources and populations, and a coastline with multiple major ports. Its economic growth, facilitated by docile Western powers, has allowed it to create a blue-water navy capable of challenging the U.S. in certain circumstances, or overwhelming regional allies.
Creating a military force and alliance network that can defeat China without resorting to nuclear arms is the U.S.’s greatest strategic imperative. But these steps are meant to deter China, then defeat it if necessary. Ideally, the U.S. and its allies can demonstrate to China’s leaders that escalation in any circumstance will end with their defeat.
American foreign and defense policy has begun to adapt to this new strategic reality. Most notably, the Marine Corps plans to transform into a lighter, more mobile force that can capture and hold strategically critical islands and coastal areas, using long-range anti-ship and anti-air missiles to disrupt a Chinese offensive. Significant, too, is the Marines’ understanding that America’s sea services must increase their ability to complement each other. Over the next decade, the U.S. Navy will shift from concentrated strike groups that enabled landward power projection and toward a more distributed, flexible force of manned and unmanned aircraft, ships and submarines designed to survive a Chinese first strike, remain combat-capable, and execute the traditional naval mission of sea control.
Barring a spectacular – and sorely needed – defense budget increase, U.S. forces alone are insufficient to deter or defeat China. American ships and submarines need forward foreign bases to resupply during combat, and robust logistical support to operate independently of land bases; American aircraft need hardened regional airfields to refuel and rearm. Unless U.S. combat forces wholly reorient to the Pacific, allied aircraft, surface warships and submarines will play a critical warfighting role in any Asian contingency.
America’s allies serve an even more critical role in the Western Pacific’s “grey zone” confrontations. Like Russia and Iran, many of China’s provocations occur below the threshold of open conflict. In this “grey zone,” proxies, paramilitary organizations and non-kinetic tools are used to shape political, legal and strategic situations. In April, China’s coast guard sank a Vietnamese fishing boat near the Paracel Islands, an archipelago which China, Taiwan and Vietnam each claim as sovereign territory. In 2014, China deployed six warships, 40 coast guard ships, combat and patrol aircraft, and 40 fishing boats to screen an oil rig in disputed waters near the Paracels. China has harassed Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines using the same tactics in the South and East China Seas.
China’s coast guard outclasses many of its regional opponents; it has deployed two 12,000-ton cutters since 2015, ships displacing about 23 percent more tonnage than the largest U.S. Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. Even its standard cutters outweigh the majority of Vietnamese, Philippine and Taiwanese coast guards – and much of their combat fleets.
The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) is uniquely situated to act as a bridge between U.S. combat forces and their allied counterparts precisely because of its dual political-legal role. Its engagement in answering grey zone challenges is also a helpful encouragement to the maritime services’ cooperation that allows each service to perfect its unique skills. Coast Guard cutters participate in the U.S.’s annual RIMPAC exercises, training alongside combat ships and aircraft and operating as an integrated part of U.S. strike and action groups; they conduct counter-narcotics operations in the Atlantic and Pacific. In March 2019, the USCG Cutter Bertholf even transited the Taiwan Strait. Throughout 2019, two USCG National Security Cutters were deployed to the Asia-Pacific, enabling continuous coverage and allied engagement.
The USCG’s value will only increase as Chinese aggression escalates, and as unmanned platforms proliferate. Already, it is testing small long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance on its National Security Cutters. While the U.S. Navy will employ a variety of unmanned vehicles, U.S. allies lack the funds for unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs) or more modern medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) and high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) UAVs in large numbers. But our allies will be able to purchase the smaller UAVs that USCG cutters are testing, further increasing coast guard interoperability.
But a Coast Guard without enough ships cannot accomplish these critical missions, let alone the more standard Coast Guard tasks of maritime law enforcement or search-and-rescue. As it stands, the Coast Guard’s long-range cutters have been cut from ten in the Pacific to only six. If Congress does not fund the 12th National Security Cutter, it will undermine the Coast Guard’s mission in the Western Pacific and weaken U.S. security.
Even more broadly, U.S. policymakers – within the Coast Guard, the Armed Forces, and the Pentagon – must consider the Coast Guard’s strategic role. The USCG has not produced a fleet plan, termed the “Fleet Mix Analysis,” since 2004. Even in 2008 and 2012, when it revisited the document, it concluded that its fleet could only meet three-fifths of its missions. In 2004, Chinese fighter aircraft seldom conducted night operations, North Korea had not yet tested a nuclear weapon, and the U.S. had toppled Iraq’s Saddam Hussein just a year before; Hamas was a small but noted Palestinian terrorist organization, while al-Qaeda in Iraq was still consolidating power.
After 16 years, any service’s missions and equipment must change as it adapts to new threats; the same is true for the Coast Guard. A robust force review is in order, potentially modeled off the Navy’s 30-year plan which will generate a new fleet capable of meeting the demands of great-power competition, especially in the Asia-Pacific.
Seth Cropsey is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute and director of Hudson’s Center for American Seapower. He served as a naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations.