Home » Budget Industry » Opinion: Doing the Most with the Least; the Coast Guard Dilemma


Opinion: Doing the Most with the Least; the Coast Guard Dilemma

National Security Cutter Munro completed builder’s sea trials in August. HII Photo

No other service over the last decade has been hit harder by budget cuts and sequestration than the U.S. Coast Guard. In a time when our maritime services have been asked to do more with less, the Coast Guard has been engaging increased maritime threats with its leanest force in decades.

While today’s focus is being steered towards the U.S. Navy’s 2016 Force Structure Assessment (FSA), which called for a 355-ship Navy, there has been relatively little discussion about increasing the size of the U.S. Coast Guard.

“We are depleted of resources.” Coast Guard commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft recently stated to a packed audience at the annual West 2017 conference in San Diego. “When you add both transnational criminal organizations, plus the Arctic…we need to move from being a bantam-weight fighter to being a welter-weight fighter.”

The mission requirements for the Coast Guard are mind-boggling.

Today, the Coast Guard protects and defends more than 100,000 miles of U.S. coastline and inland waterways. Additionally, it has the imposing requirement to safeguard an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) encompassing 4.5 million square miles stretching from the far reaches of the Arctic Circle to the South Pacific and from the Caribbean/Atlantic to Guam in the Western Pacific. This U.S. EEZ is a vast area that includes nine time zones and is one of the largest EEZs in the world.

NOAA Image

In President Donald Trump’s recent address to Congress, he said, “We’ve defended the borders of other nations, while leaving our own borders wide open, for anyone to cross – and for drugs to pour in at a now unprecedented rate.” The salient point here is that a majority of illegal drugs, cocaine in particular, come into this country via the maritime routes – where the drugs are in their most concentrated and in their most vulnerable form. A critical asset in the campaign to combat this illicit trade is the Coast Guard’s Legend-class National Security Cutter.

During the Surface Navy Association symposium in January, Zukunft listed the accomplishment of the crew of latest NSC cutter USCGC Hamilton (WMSL-753) that included response to Hurricane Matthew and the interdiction of more than 52,000 tons in cocaine.

A significant shortfall in the force structure of the Coast Guard fleet is the current shortage of High-Endurance Cutters. During the height of the U.S. drug interdiction efforts, the Coast Guard had a fleet of 12 Secretary-class 378-foot High-Endurance Cutters. Today, only five remain in service and the cost to maintain these 50-year old ships has become an unsustainable burden on the Coast Guard’s budget.

In 2008, to start the replacement of the aging High-Endurance Cutters, the Coast Guard commissioned the USCGC Bertholf (WMSL-750), first of the Legend class. Shortly after commissioning in 2009, Bertholf completed an extended operational deployment and exceeded all operational expectations of a “first-of-a-class” vessel.

The major concern with the current planned Coast Guard force structure is that it calls for only eight (now nine) National Security Cutters to replace 12 High-Endurance Cutters. Since the commissioning of the Hamilton-Class High-Endurance Cutters in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the maritime security landscape for our nation has changed dramatically. With the Department of Defense heavily involved overseas, the Coast Guard has taken the lead, appropriately so, in protecting and securing America’s homeland and our own backyard, as illustrated in the Commandant’s Western Hemisphere Strategy (September 2014).

A Coast Guard Cutter Stratton boarding team investigates a self-propelled semi-submersible interdicted in international waters off the coast of Central America on July 19, 2015. US Coast Guard Photo

“If you look at DoD’s statement of key priorities, they are not focused on the Western Hemisphere. We have the responsibility by default and design,” Zukunft stated. Stressing the Coast Guard’s force structure deficiency to combat illegal drugs and illegal migrants in the southern approaches to the U.S., Zukunft went on to say, “The Navy’s Perry-class frigates have gone away. On the best of days, you have three Coast Guard ships in the Caribbean. That is your entire force to deal with threats in that region.”

The Coast Guard’s focus on the Western Hemisphere also includes the Arctic, as illustrated in the Commandant’s Arctic Strategy. In fact, increasing activity from cruise ships, eco-tourism, oil exploration, fishing vessels, and commercial cargo vessels seeking a shorter route between Asia and Europe have necessitated the need for the National Security Cutters to go where they never planned to go before: the unforgiving, icy waters of the Arctic.

In addition, with China’s expansion in the South China Sea and the U.S. Navy’s shortage of assets in the region, there has been discussion of the Coast Guard providing a more persistent presence in the area. The Coast Guard would be the perfect service to work with our allies in the region. If assigned, the National Security Cutter – with its 12,000-nautical-mile range and its 60-day endurance – would be the ideal ship to perform this mission.

In summary, as the new administration strives to enhance our overall national security posture, there should be serious consideration given to building at least 12 National Security Cutters to replace the 12 retiring ships in the High-Endurance Cutter program. A “one-for-one” NSC for HEC replacement strategy would better secure our nation and help the U.S. Coast Guard combat a host of emerging national security threats on multiple flanks.

  • Curtis Conway

    “A “one-for-one” NSC for HEC replacement strategy would better secure our nation and help the U.S. Coast Guard combat a host of emerging national security threats on multiple flanks.” . . . is an understatement given the increased priority of drug interdiction, and escalating priorities in the Arctic.

    Using a common hull with some if not most Hull, Machinery, and Equipment can bring economy of scale to an expanded HEC presence for the USCG, and provide frigate platforms for the US Navy.

    • PolicyWonk

      Agreed – but I would prefer that we add perhaps an additional 4-6 NSC hulls (ice hardened) to patrol the polar regions where the USA also has considerable interests. These wouldn’t replace the necessity for building up a decent fleet of ice-breakers, but it would add to the assets we have available that could satisfy the requirements for a wide range of missions.

      The Legend-class NSC’s are proven sea-worthy and tough, with long legs and plenty of room for growth. HII already has a navalized derivative designed and pretty much ready to go, and the NSC’s are a-building on the slipways. These fine ships would make excellent frigates for the USN, could take advantage of the design work already done on a highly successful platform (while maintaining parity with the USCG – an added bonus), and do it while the production line remains hot.

      In general – I consider it a mistake to reduce funding for the USCG – our first line of defense (and the most visible of service branches) if national security is considered a serious priority. The USCG, if anything, should have its budget increased as they have been underfunded for as long as I can remember.

  • Ed L

    I agree the one for one NSC for the HEC replacement, and along with the new class of smaller cutters. And a slight budget increase taken from EPA and DOEd would be good for the Coast Guard. Plus if authorized the additional construction of the NSC into Navy Frigates on an expanded scale could give American 6 new Frigates by 2018 and an additional 10 by 2020.

  • pcolsen

    One of the Coast Guard’s problems is that it hasn’t identified its “core business.” Is it law enforcement? Aids to Navigation? Port Security? Marine Safety? Something else?

    The Coast Guard might have a better chance of increasing the number of National Security Cutters if it concentrated its effort and energy promoting its LE mission as its core business (core mission) and letting the others go (except Port Security which fits neatly into a law enforcement context).

    Aids to Navigation could go to the Army Corps of Engineers. Marine Safety could be absorbed into the DOT as another Modal Administration — or perhaps be picked up by the Maritime Administration.

  • Peter

    The USCG waited a long time for these new ships, part of the “Deepwater program” that ran into management trouble early in the program. Now that the NSCs are being built and things are proceeding smoothly, I too opt for building the ninth (or even more) NSCs, and seems like many in the media, critics, and select members of Congress are voting for this too. The USCG also needs its OPCs to replace the old Medium Endurance Cutters.

    With the DoD base closures, the USCG stands as one of the only US government law enforcement (LE) and military-equipped service in many US ports and cities armed with guns larger than police S.W.A.T. teams. The 57mm cannon, M2HBs, and 20mm CIWs, while many may deem underarmed compared to foreign navies, are still perhaps some of the only anti-surface and anti-air weapons for a vast swath of US coastline—something is better than nothing. And the ability to project power, LE, and defense via RIBs and boarding teams should not be underestimated.

    US Navy cruisers, destroyers, and carriers often sail as groups and thus cover only certain areas of the ocean the CBG sails. USCG cutters often sail alone, projecting power, Search and Rescue, showing the flag, law enforcement, and defense to the USA and are not constrained to protecting any carrier; USCG cutters can sail where they want on patrol and often stick close to US waters.

    i just think cutting the USCG’s budget would be unwise given the era we live in and how flexible and mobile USCG cutters are.

  • Frank Pusatere

    Thank you for allowing me to post.
    Witnessing the six weeks of testimony at the MBI hearings in Jacksonville for the loss of the SS El Faro. Hearing that the US Coast Guard is going to lose 14% of its budget. Truly, upsets me as the father of the C/E of the El Faro.
    Our borders do need to be protected. However, the Herculean effort’s that the USCG Members perform during the search efforts of the SS El Farowere amazing.
    There has been major brain drain within the Coast Guard. The United States merchant mariners depend on the inspection process utilizing the ABS. There are many qualified inspector’s within the Coast Guard. That depend on the ABS to inspect US flag merchant vessels.
    Please remember that 33 lives were lost during hurricane Joachim on October 1, 2015. A combination of errors and mistakes were identified during the MBI hearings in Jacksonville.

  • old guy

    It is long past due that the two “Sea services” be integrated. When you say LCS, isn’t it the CGs job to take care of the “Littoral”? Economy of ship design and reduction of flags (a Toughy) would save billions.
    Please don’t shoot me.