How does the U.S. Coast Guard view itself as a military service? What are its strengths and weaknesses? What unique capabilities does it bring to the joint force?
The U.S. Coast Guard, which traces its organizational roots to 1790 and the Revenue Cutter Service, sees itself as a “multi-mission, military, maritime service.” (U.S. Coast Guard, p 6) This triad is reiterated in any number of publications and venues including prominent places in the 2003 Commandant’s Direction. Within this definition, we see three distinct emphases. The Coast Guard prides itself on being a military force with the same obligations, risks, and responsibilities of the other four military services. The Coast Guard culture is different, however. The Coast Guard is primarily a service of “life savers” or “Smokies of the Sea.” The culture is one of rescue and, to a lesser extent, law enforcement. The Coast Guard does not have a warrior ethos or focus; no matter what the language of the service’s senior leaders, the ethos within the ranks is one of rescue and law enforcement. The Coast Guard Publication 1 states the service has a “unique blend of humanitarian, law enforcement, regulatory, diplomatic, and military capabilities.” (U.S. Coast Guard, p 6) The Coast Guard hangs its hat on this idea of multi-mission and blended roles.
A Watershed Time for Coast Guard Missions
According to the Commandant of the Coast Guard, this is a “watershed time” in the Coast Guard’s history. (Philpott, p 52) The Commandant also suggested the service’s move to the Department of Homeland Security has had on impact on missions and resources, shifting “assets into the homeland security mission” and yet maintaining the multi-mission organization. (Philpott, p 52) Search and rescue, which had been the cornerstone mission area for the Coast Guard, now shares the spotlight with homeland security. These two mission areas are not on par.
The Coast Guard has five fundamental roles, each with several mission areas (which might support additional roles). Each mission is “based on one or more mandated or authorized duties” (U.S. Coast Guard, p 6-18):
- Drug Interdiction
- Alien Migrant Interdiction
- Economic Exclusion Zone and Living Marine Resource Law/Treaty Enforcement
- General Maritime Law Enforcement
- Search & Rescue
- Marine Safety
- Recreational Boating Safety
- International Ice Patrol
- Marine Environmental Protection
- Domestic Fisheries Enforcement
- Protected Living Marine Resource Law Enforcement
- Aids to Navigation
- Icebreaking Services
- Bridge Administration
- Waterways/Vessel Traffic Management
- General Defense Operations
- Maritime Interception Operations*
- Military Environmental Response Operations*
- Port Operations, Security, and Defense*
- Peacetime Military Engagement*
- Coastal Sea Control Operations*
- Polar Icebreaking
The Coast Guard is often pulled in different directions. While everything the Coast Guard does revolves around the maritime environment, and every petty officer, warrant officer, and commissioned officer is a federal law enforcement officer by statute, emphasis slides along a spectrum of conflict from search and rescue operations (low conflict) to counter-terrorism and force protection operations (high conflict). The Coast Guard must operate along the full spectrum and her people must be comfortable along the full spectrum. As noted above, the Commandant sees the service at a revolutionary time. Members of the service realize the time today, post 9/11, is different. Search & rescue shares top billing with homeland security operations; many Coast Guard personnel see the shift continuing with search & rescue taking second billing or even further down the spectrum of perceived importance. Some mission areas seem to be outside the Department of Homeland Security mandate; some service members would not be surprised to see these non-core missions cast off. While Publication 1 – a pre-9/11 document – states “since at least the late nineteenth century, the mission of aiding distressed mariners usually has trumped all other priorities,” (U.S. Coast Guard, p 79) this emphasis is changing.
The Coast Guard is, indeed, the service with expertise at operations in the coastal maritime environment. The Coast Guard’s assets are designed and well suited for coastal operations – response boats, motor life boats, patrol boats are all specialized for the coastal environment. Even the Coast Guard’s new “deepwater” assets will be used primarily in the coastal environment. One of the primary missions of the new “national security cutter” will be port security, serving as on scene command and control for port approaches such as the Chesapeake Bay, Delaware Bay, New York Harbor, and San Francisco Bay. Certainly, this use of this major cutter falls in the coastal environment. Coast Guard personnel are also experienced in the coastal environment, matched with the capabilities of vessels and aircraft.
Coast Guard personnel are willing to take the initiative to get the job done. Not only is on-scene initiative one of the Coast Guard’s seven defined principles of Coast Guard operations, but it truly is a part of the Coast Guard culture. (U.S. Coast Guard, p 76ff) This principle of initiative – at least in practice – goes beyond the idea of on-scene command. Coast Guard personnel, no matter their station, are encouraged and expected to take initiative. Whether it’s a young petty officer deciding how to react to suspicious men on a deserted Long Island beach during World War II, or a rescue coordination center watch stander diverting naval and commercial vessels for a search and rescue incident, or a boarding officer completing a boarding on a recreational vessel, Coast Guard personnel take initiative and operate within broad, given boundaries. Generally, Coast Guard personnel – when they see a task which needs doing – do it. They don’t wait for orders.
Along with initiative, Coast Guard personnel are flexible, and, thus, the service is flexible. The official Coast Guard motto is semper paratus, always prepared. The unofficial motto is semper gumby, always flexible. Like Gumby, Coast Guard personnel are flexible. One moment a Coast Guard member might be enforcing fisheries laws, the next pulling a boating accident victim from the water, and the next enforcing a security zone around a naval or high value commercial vessel. Coast Guard personnel must shift effortlessly among missions, adopting the stance requisite for each. More than 200 years ago, Alexander Hamilton offered advice to boarding officers of the newly formed Revenue Cutter Service; he urged these men to “activity, vigilance, and firmness” coupled with “providence, moderation, and good temper.” (Hamilton) He understood that the service’s members would tread a fine line in all they did. As an organization, flexibility has been, and continues to be, key. The Coast Guard is the amalgamation of six agencies merged together during the past 200 years. A founding component of the Department of Transportation, the Coast Guard was recently moved to the new Department of Homeland Security in the largest federal reorganization in more than fifty years. In a changing world with shifting priorities and minimal resources, flexibility is key.
Weaknesses of the Coast Guard as a Service
While many see the Coast Guard’s multi-mission focus as a strength, it is also a weakness, the service’s Achilles Heel. As noted above, the Coast Guard prides itself on being multi-mission, being all things to all people. But this means that the Coast Guard is not able to specialize, to focus on one singular strength. As noted by several current management and leadership thinkers, including Jim Collins, great organizations focus on one thing. It is this focus on one strength, one critical task, which sets great organizations apart from good organizations. (Collins) That the Coast Guard and her personnel need to be proficient in more than 20 individual and divergent missions ensures that not all of them will be done superbly. Instead Coast Guard personnel attempt to be semper paratus when sometimes paratus is more likely. (Note: As a watch stander in the Coast Guard’s Atlantic Area Command Center, a multi-mission center responsible for all operations in the eastern United States and the Atlantic Ocean, I realized no single person could know everything about every mission. Even with more than sixteen years of experience, it was evident I did not know all there was to know. And, sadly, no watch stander did. There was just too much.)
Not only does the Coast Guard find itself trying to be many things to many people, she finds herself under-resourced. A small service, the Coast Guard is composed of about 40,000 active duty personnel, 6,300 civilian employees, and 8,000 part-time military members (reservists). The service is also blessed with a volunteer, civilian force of some 35,000 members who donate their time in support of the Coast Guard’s missions, particularly boating safety and search & rescue. With more than 1400 small boats, 230 cutters (ranging from 65 feet to 400 feet), and 160 aircraft, the Coast Guard finds itself conducting multiple missions on the high seas, in the coastal environment, and on the nation’s lakes and rivers. (U.S. Naval War College, p 3.3-14) Even with Deepwater set to recapitualize 93 of the service’s multi-mission, white hull cutters, the Coast Guard will be stretched thin. (U.S. Naval War College, p 3.3-58) The Coast Guard is responsible for search & rescue and twenty other missions along more than 95,000 miles of shoreline and in 360 ports. (U.S. Naval War College, p 3.3-52) The task is immense.
Lastly, the Coast Guard finds itself pressed into a “joint world” with no real strategy for working in this joint world. The Coast Guard, by it’s very nature, is expected to work operationally with the Combatant Commanders of the Department of Defense, as well as with law enforcement agencies at the local, state, federal, and international levels, and with safety organizations at each of these levels. The Coast Guard must be able to speak and understand Department of Defense speak, Department of Homeland Security speak, law enforcement speak, intelligence speak, and safety speak. And, the Coast Guard must be fluent in each of these languages. Even looking at just the relationship with the Department of Defense, clearly room for improvement exists. While the Coast Guard does have billets on certain DOD staffs – particularly combatant commanders including NORTHCOM and CENTCOM and certain U.S. Navy commands – those billets are neither held in much prestige nor sought after. While members of the other four military services are almost required to receive joint training, education, and experience (Osgood), the Coast Guard has no emphasis and no plan. Unless the service strategically emphasizes joint service and understanding, the Coast Guard may find itself unable to effectively participate in a joint environment.
Capabilities for the Joint Force
The Coast Guard does bring something to the table for the joint force, however. Five of the twenty-two mission areas are specified in a Memorandum of Agreement between the Coast Guard and the Department of Defense. (U.S. Coast Guard, p 16) These missions – Maritime Interception Operations; Military Environmental Response Operations; Port Operations, Security, & Defense; Peacetime Military Engagement; and Coastal Sea Control Operations – are missions that the Coast Guard is fairly well suited for. The Coast Guard brings experience working in, and assets designed for, the littoral environment. As Stubbs and Truver point out in their monograph, the Coast Guard’s mandate has four fundamental elements: a humanitarian element, a policing element, a diplomatic element, and a military element. (p 54) To the joint force, the Coast Guard brings experience in all four of these fundamental elements as exhibited in her multiple missions.
The most unique capabilities the Coast Guard can bring to the table are patrol boats (87 and 110 feet, multi-mission, law-enforcement & security capable cutters) for brown water operations, port security units to provide waterborne security in a port, and tactical law enforcement teams to provide trained boarding teams capable of searching and securing commercial vessels.
When would a joint force or a combatant commander look to the Coast Guard for assets and resources? When operating in the littoral environment, in low to moderate levels of conflict, the Coast Guard can bring a wealth of experience. This is particularly true when, for political or diplomatic reasons, a maritime, military presence other than by a gray warship is desired. With experience in alien migrant operations and maritime counter-drug operations, the Coast Guard can bring relevant experience, if not expertise, to non-combatant evacuation operations and certain counter-terrorism & force protection operations.
The Coast Guard’s Achilles Heel is her critical strength: her multi-mission focus. For the joint force, the Coast Guard can be the Leatherman** of the Littorals, able to do much in the maritime environment, perhaps not being the perfect tool, but certainly being versatile enough to be useful.
**Note: Leatherman Tools mutli-purpose tools were inspired by a young American’s 1975 trip through Europe in a cranky Fiat. See this site.
Collins, Jim. From Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t. New York: Harper Collins, 2001.
Hamilton, Alexander. “Letter of Instructions to Commanding Officers of Revenue Cutters” (4 June 1791) [1 January 2004]
Osgood, John. “The Goldwater Nichols Act - Managing the Defense Department.” 1996.
Philpott, Tom. “Beyond the Waterfront,” Military Officer (July 2003): 50-58
Stubbs, Bruce, and Scott Truver. America’s Coast Guard: Safeguarding U.S. Maritime Safety and Security in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: U.S. Coast Guard, 2000 [2 January 2004]
U.S. Coast Guard. U.S. Coast Guard: America’s Maritime Guardian. Coast Guard Publication 1. 2nd Printing. Washington, DC: U.S. Coast Guard, 2002.
U.S. Naval War College. “U.S. Coast Guard Doctrine and Capabilities.” Joint Maritime Operations, AY 2003-2004, Block 3.4. Newport, RI: Naval War College, 2003