The Coast Guard and Navy: It's Time for a "National Fleet"

Article excerpt

The U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Navy have been, are, and will remain complementary. They are not competitors. However, notwithstanding the distinctiveness of their missions and functions, in practice their duties overlap. There is a zone of activity wherein the services share maritime geography and foci of concern. Because the Coast Guard operates shallow-draft warships, it can be misrepresented as the coastal or shallow-water navy of the United States. Similarly, because the Navy supports the Coast Guard when necessary and feasible, perception of naval enthusiasm for such support (and beyond) can feed ill-founded anxiety that the Coast Guard is in peril of imperial absorption by the much larger service. A well-ordered U.S. defense community, confident in its understanding of the emerging strategic environment and prepared to pay the freight for national security, would provide little fuel for these essentially foolish apprehensions. However, this article is propelled by the appreciation that even though the Coast Guard and the Navy are natural and necessary allies, trends exist today-both internal to each service and, even more, in their contexts of operation-that could strain their relationship.

As we shall see, it is not surprising that most of the sources of difficulty in the interservice relationship stem from questions about missions and equipment pertaining to the Navy, rather than to the Coast Guard. The latter does not face challenges to its roles, missions, and relative importance that are so radical as those that stalk the Navy. The Coast Guard, understandably, is occasionally anxious lest some of its duties be outsourced, privatized, or picked up by a Navy looking for self-justifying tasks. However, those periodic perils (real and imaginary) fade nearly into insignificance when compared with the vulnerability of the Navy to shifts in defense-intellectual fashion and foreign-policy mood. The Coast Guard's potential (domestic) critics are largely toothless tigers; the Navy's are not. The centerpiece of this discussion, then, is the future relationship between the Navy and Coast Guard in light of their common status as sea services of the United States, under the conceptual umbrella of a "national fleet."

That relationship cannot be considered in isolation, however. Both services must shape their interconnection with reference to powerful contextual factors. Whether or not Navy-Coast Guard relations constitute a love match, each needs the other. Trends point with a uniform logic to the common sense contained in the idea of a national fleet. What the Navy lacks by way of blue-water challenge from a pressing "high end" threat finds ample compensation in opportunities and problems posed by the emerging information-led revolution in warfare. An unmistakable trend afflicting the all-high-end U.S. Navy is a declining number of ships. Fleet size is not everything, but-as the last Chief of Naval Operations reminded us-"numbers do matter."' Especially do numbers count when operations of all kinds must be conducted worldwide by a rotational deployment pattern.

Just as the Navy's operational tempo has become unsustainably high for a peacetime rotational fleet, so the Coast Guard is obliged to cope with a higher demand for its services. The uses made of the sea, which taken all together constitute the principal driver of Coast Guard activity, have risen, are rising, and are projected to rise much farther yet. Quite aside from its national defense mission, the Coast Guard has a basket of traditional duties, a collection expanding in variety, quantity, and quality of challenge.


We will examine in some detail the current and anticipated conditions and circumstances of the Navy and the Coast Guard, and also the terms by which and ways in which they can best complement each other. First, however, it is useful to break the rules of dramatic construction and reveal the five points that, together, represent the "argument" of this article. …