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Opinion: U.S. Coast Guard needs a Reinvention


cutter_reinventToday, America’s Coast Guard is in drastic need of reinvention.

For generations, the service has struggled to field adequate manpower and the cutters, boats and aircraft needed to perform all of its mandated missions, all while wrestling with increasing responsibilities.

As detailed in the August edition of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings, the Coast Guard must have more funding, a stronger focus on operations over bureaucracy, and better alignment with the rest of government. In today’s constrained budget environment, such a reinvention will only come through innovative policy choices and political leadership willing to make support of a fully capable Coast Guard a national priority.

Reinvention starts at home. Chronically undermanned, the service maintains an arcane, 19th-century organizational structure, with five layers of command between smaller front-line units and top leadership.

A Coast Guard response boat patrolling off Coronado works for Station San Diego, which reports to Sector San Diego, which reports to the 11th District (Alameda), which reports to Pacific Area (also Alameda), which reports to Headquarters (Washington, D.C.).

Streamlining this bulky command structure would put more personnel on the front lines and allow greater focus on the commandant’s top priority of operational proficiency, a need acutely felt in the wake of the tragic 2009 boat collision in San Diego Bay.

Reinvention must continue between the Coast Guard and its federal partners.

There is much duplication of effort within the Department of Homeland Security: the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, and the Border Patrol all fulfill similar patrol functions.

One framework would be for the Coast Guard to serve as force provider for all such maritime resources, with assets assigned to CBP and the Border Patrol for agency-specific missions.

The cost savings, operational improvements, and value to the nation produced by such a merger could be significant.

Similarly, the Coast Guard has much to offer the U.S. Navy and more interoperability between the two services would benefit our nation’s defense.

There could not be a mission better aligned with Coast Guard competencies, for example, than the multinational effort against Somali pirates, yet the service has had only a limited role in those operations.

Instead, the Navy burns holes in the ocean with its most expensive warships, searching for skiffs and dories, while the Coast Guard’s expertise, sharpened through decades in the drug war, goes essentially unused.

A Navy-sponsored squadron of Sentinel-class cutters would be far more operationally effective and cost-efficient for the nation than the current paradigm of employing cruisers and destroyers to do a patrol boat’s job.

Reinvention ends at the top. The biggest problem facing the Coast Guard, year after year, is chronic underfunding.

In 2004, the service found that for patrol boats, fixed-wing, and rotary-wing aircraft, it had only half the hours available to meet its statutory requirements.

Nothing has changed: Today, the Coast Guard needs to dramatically expand the size of its aviation and cutter fleets just to break even.

As for personnel, the service has a superb cadre of officer, enlisted, and civilian members — there just aren’t enough of them.

By conservative estimates, another 10,000 to 15,000 active-duty personnel are needed for the Coast Guard to get a real handle on its mission set. These upgrades will take billions of dollars.

Funding levels for federal agencies are the result of policy decisions made within the executive branch.

It is inconceivable that federal dollars would not flow freely if a study showed the nation had half as many airport screeners, meat inspectors, or air traffic controllers needed to protect the public.

Yet, for the Coast Guard, the administration has proposed for 2014 a budget that downsizes the service and shrinks its desperately needed recapitalization funding by 37 percent.

It is the responsibility of the nation’s civilian leaders, as a constitutional duty, to provide for the nation’s defense. They do so by fielding a fully manned, well-trained and properly equipped military — including the U.S. Coast Guard.

The service’s thin bench strength and antiquated assets are especially relevant in San Diego, where increased land border security efforts are driving more drug and migrant smuggling operations to sea.

This is the time to build the Coast Guard to at least a minimum standard of capability.

Doing otherwise increases risk for the nation and potentially invites disaster.

The Coast Guard needs to be reinvented, and reinvigorated, to face the multitude of threats of an increasingly complex world.

So far in the 21st century, no national leaders have made the Coast Guard a priority. It is to be hoped, then, that the current administration will become the first.

This post originally ran on Sunday in the San Diego Union-Tribune in cooperation with the U.S. Naval Institute.

  • sragsd0416

    Normally when I read something that reinvention I have less than positive thoughts….however as a retired Senior Chief and as father of a child that is serving in the Coast Guard I have to say that I agree. Streamlining the command structure is one of many steps that could and should be examined. Semper Paratus – always ready…..that is the motto….and bless them they do a lot with what they have. Have you ever toured one of their ships? Ever stopped to think what it would be like that they are unable to accomplish their mission because most of the equipment is of museum quality. How many in the service today can say that do their mission daily 24/7 since the inception of the USCG vice simply train for it? In my version of the above I would have the USCG jointly owned by both the DOD and Homeland Security.
    Why? The USCG interacts with the US Navy (inspections, drug interdiction for example) that in a war they now under control of the US Navy that it makes the most sense that they are an extension of the US Navy. Similar to what Hospital Ships and other USNA vessels function the USCG might function better if they were placed in the USNA. Why maintain some functions under Homeland Security? Well for one there are functions that require deputized enforcement which falls out of the swim lane for the US Navy (but the US Navy supports). How about a USCG Module for the LCS and actually give it a mission that makes sense vice the load of crap that is being shoveled? Just some thoughts. One thing for certain, the Coast Guard is very much needed and appreciated. Do not lose a Guardsman life because their equipment is junk, out of date of they are being pushed too thin.

  • One thing they forgot to mention is the role of the US Coast Guard Auxiliary. Without them, the US Coast Guard would not be able to get the job done. I think they should increase more roles and missions for the Auxiliary. I even believe that the Auxiliary, if capable, should be allowed to crew on a cutter in a support role such as Engineering, Medical, and supply.

    • Liz

      The auxiliary while useful doesn’t have any legal authority for LE that would be required for a cutter or expansion. Their role is a volunteer force to help with search and rescue and education. LE authority is legal specified by law.

      • The only time the Auxiliary is useful for LE, is if they have to assist them in foreign Language interpretation. Assist LE in driving a seized boat back to port for them. Even on a cutter, an Aux member can free up a crew member for LE work such as in the FS, medical and engineering

  • Matt

    It is really very curious that our govt. is downsizing the Navy and the Coast Guard despite the massive increases China is steadily making. No wonder China is taking advantage of our allies. Many countries in Asia are now building up their navies as a direct result of our failure to step up. The US should be doubling the size of our Coast Guard and sending many ships to areas where allied territory is under threat. No one respects people that run away. China is going to continue to take advantage like they have done at Scarborough Shoal while we fiddle-fart.

  • Liz

    While I do appreciate anyone advocating for us to get an update long overdue, this article seems a bit lacking in understanding with structure of the CG and all but ignores search and rescue that is our primary function.We work hand in hand with CBP states locals EPA ect constantly to ensure we aren’t overlapping and we use our beat assets for a task. There’s also some major legality issues as we can do some things the Navy cannot wo it being an act of war bc we aren’t DOD. And we steam and work closely with the Navy frequently. But our primary focus is always going to be search and rescue.