As the Arctic becomes an arena for conflict, the United States’ forgotten naval force will need to cowboy up.
- By James HolmesJames Holmes is a professor of strategy at the Naval War College, a combat veteran of the Gulf War, and co-author of Red Star Over the Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy. The views voiced here are his alone.
Forget for a moment about the U.S. Navy and its "pivot to Asia." Over the next few decades, the woefully underfunded and thoroughly unsexy U.S. Coast Guard will likely hover near the center of the action.
The reason, in three short words: the Arctic Ocean.
If and when that icy expanse opens regularly to shipping, the Arctic will need policing, just like any other marine thoroughfare. It might even become a theater for geopolitical competition, although the short time it will be ice-free each year, the uneven advance and retreat of the icecap, and the unpredictable location of the sea lanes will limit its potential for conflict relative to, say, the Western Pacific or the Persian Gulf. But the potential is there, and up north, the Coast Guard’s aging fleet of cutters and small craft will be critical to upholding maritime security and hedging against maritime conflict.
Placing a law-enforcement and disaster-response agency in charge will give operations in northern reaches a complexion unlike those in more hospitable climes — where the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, services built to break things and kill people, are the chief bearers of American interests and aspirations. How can the Coast Guard prepare itself for this new era?
Founded in 1790, the Coast Guard takes pride in being the United States’ oldest continuously functioning sea service. Composed of nearly 44,000 active-duty officers and enlisted sailors, who operate some 160 coastal and patrol combatants, 92 logistics and support craft, and 211 aircraft of various types, the service shoulders an imposing variety of missions: from safeguarding U.S. ports and harbors to rendering assistance following natural disasters.
So why would Washington assign the U.S. Coast Guard the lead for Arctic operations? It has experience, for one thing. It operates the United States’ modest flotilla of two icebreakers while performing the same police functions off North America’s northern shorelines that it executes in warmer zones. Navy submarines prowled the Arctic depths during the Cold War. They will return if the polar region heats up, both figuratively and literally: U.S. Navy oceanographers estimate the ocean may be ice-free for a month each year by 2035. But Navy surface and air forces seldom venture north of the Arctic Circle and thus are less accustomed to the frigid surroundings.
None of which is to say that sending in the Coast Guard is a slam dunk. It would probably be easier for the Navy and Marines to reinvent themselves as cold-weather expeditionary forces than for the quasi-police Coast Guard to reinvent itself as a battle force. But the main theaters for the more musclebound sea services lie far to the south, along the East and South Asian rimlands.
And there they will probably remain. China, the United States’ newest competitor, is going nowhere. Nor will the Persian Gulf region morph into some placid oasis, obviating the U.S. nautical presence. Diplomatic and strategic imperatives — not to mention the seemingly never-ending island disputes in the East and South China Seas — will continue to summon Washington’s attention and energies to Asia.
The Navy and Marine Corps, however, are almost certain to see their muscles atrophy amid shrinking budgets. Commanders and defense officials will need to concentrate increasingly scarce assets at the most critical places on the map. No one assumed U.S. fleets could be everywhere, in force, at all times, before the 1940s, when the United States in effect built a second navy for the Pacific. The old normal may become the sea services’ new normal.
Budget cuts combined with stagnant or dwindling forces may compel service chiefs to designate safe zones like the Atlantic Ocean "economy-of-force" theaters, where dangers are few and smaller, lighter forces can uphold U.S. interests in concert with allies. In effect, the Mediterranean, which saw some of the fiercest maritime encounters of the Cold War, is already there. The once-formidable U.S. Sixth Fleet, a force that long bestrode regional sea lanes, has shrunk to one permanently assigned vessel — the command ship USS Mount Whitney. Barring a resurgent Russia, the same fate may await the U.S. Atlantic Fleet.
The Navy and Marine Corps, then, will simply have too few ships, aircraft, and armaments to dedicate to regions of secondary importance. Suitably bulked up, and crewed by mariners who see themselves as warriors as well as the nation’s 9-1-1 force, the Coast Guard would represent the go-to guarantor of security off the United States’ northern ramparts. Heavy Navy and Marine forces would provide a backstop should serious conflict erupt. But Coast Guard commanders would have to hold their own against rival forces until reinforcements arrived.
So how’s that going to work? Polar ventures may require the Coast Guard to square off against a serious military competitor, not just against lawbreakers and the elements. But pummeling enemy fleets, projecting power onto foreign shores, warding off ballistic missiles — business as usual for the Navy/Marine Corps team — are pursuits remote from the Coast Guard’s everyday duties. It may even behoove the service to restore antisubmarine and surface-warfare capabilities dismantled at the Cold War’s end. The Coast Guard fleet need not be a U.S. Navy in miniature, built to rule the waves. But the long arm of U.S. strategy needs battle capacity — not just the light gunnery that now festoons American cutters.
Another task will be to remake the Coast Guard’s organizational culture, rediscovering the half-forgotten tradition of fighting for control of the sea. Command of the sea means wresting control from rival fleets or deterring them through overwhelming firepower. Police duty is something nations do after winning command. Constabulary work like the Coast Guard’s thus differs sharply from combat. Battle demands a different mindset from scouring the sea for drug or weapons traffickers, or from rescuing seafarers in distress following a nor’easter. For the Coast Guard, spearheading Arctic strategy means relearning combat skills last practiced during World War II, while retaining the service’s unique capabilities.
As the Royal Navy’s Fleet Admiral Andrew Browne Cunningham put it 70 years ago, "It takes three years to build a ship; it takes three centuries to build a tradition." The material challenges — designing ships and armaments, wringing funding out of lawmakers — are the easiest. Revising habits of mind among the officer and enlisted corps is central to keeping the service’s culture in tune with shifting realities.
It won’t be easy: For the Coast Guard, high-end combat has been an afterthought for decades. The service was subsumed within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2003. Before that it was part of the Department of Transportation, not a natural bureaucratic home for a fighting service. By contrast, the Defense Department has been the Navy’s master since 1947, when the National Security Act placed all of the armed services under the jurisdiction of the secretary of defense. These are different cultures despite their common seagoing heritage and missions.
The last time Coast Guard cu
tters undertook a traditional naval mission was in Vietnam — and even then, U.S. forces faced no real threat to their command of offshore waters. World War II, when Coast Guard seafarers dueled U-boats in the Battle of the Atlantic, thus represents the service’s last true encounter with high-intensity naval warfare.
Strategies pursued by constabulary agencies differ fundamentally from those pursued by combat arms. Military theorist Carl von Clausewitz depicted international competition as an interactive struggle for strategic advantage. Neither contender is a lifeless mass on which the other imposes its will. Both sides think; both react; both thirst to win. Navies fight antagonists capable of contesting their use of the sea for military purposes. Relative parity is required; otherwise, the strong simply sweep feebler opponents from the briny deep. Navies win nautical command; coast guards help exercise it.
Coast guards also have adversaries, but they are starkly different in character. Mother Nature is one. No strategist can outthink a tsunami or an earthquake. Coast guardsmen succor the afflicted, then orchestrate recovery efforts. Coast guards do confront living adversaries, of course, but they are wrongdoers who disrupt good order at sea — not the fleet’s ability to transit hither and yon as it pleases. The gunrunner or human trafficker is a suspect to be apprehended and brought to justice, not an enemy to be outdueled and compelled to submit to U.S. political aims. Different assumptions about institutional purposes, the operating environment, and the adversary give rise to disparate cultures — even among outwardly similar services roaming the wine-dark sea.
To be sure, strategic documents such as the U.S. Coast Guard Strategy for Maritime Safety, Security, and Stewardship point out that the Coast Guard executed warfighting missions in past conflicts and may do so again. It can merge with the Navy in wartime to constitute a combined national fleet, as it did during the world wars. Another document, Coast Guard Publication 3-0, Operations, instructs the service to prepare itself for "coastal sea control operations" in which cutters patrol off enemy shores as an adjunct to U.S. naval operations.
Below that threshold, the Coast Guard has been a supporting arm for maritime interdiction and port security for many years. During the first Gulf War, it stationed detachments aboard Navy warships cruising the Persian Gulf to board merchantmen suspected of defying the U.N. sanctions on Iraq. Nonetheless, traditional naval missions comprise only a small part of the Coast Guard’s portfolio. A glance at any of its strategic documents reveals a dizzying array of functions. Small wonder crews seldom get to hone their combat prowess.
But even the vaunted U.S. Navy is probably a little bit rusty. Like the Coast Guard, the Navy has let its capacity to fight rival armadas decay since the Cold War. In 1992, the Navy leadership issued a strategic directive titled …From the Sea. Its preamble proclaimed that the United States no longer faced a peer competitor with the demise of the Soviet Navy. Why prepare against a nonexistent foe? Such guidance from on high sent a powerful bureaucratic signal, in effect granting the Navy a holiday from history. Functions necessary for vanquishing enemy navies — antisubmarine warfare, surface-to-surface missile engagements, mine countermeasures — fell into disuse. Projecting power onto distant shores became the core of maritime strategy. Most assumed U.S. task forces could operate along those shores with impunity rather than fighting to pry open access. If the world’s premier marine fighting force has let its battle capacity slip, it comes as little shock that the U.S. Coast Guard followed a similar trajectory.
How, then, can the Coast Guard become the vanguard of U.S. strategy in the Arctic Ocean? Here are four recommendations. First, service leaders should think about what it means for a Homeland Security agency to be the supported — rather than a supporting — element of a major undertaking like polar operations. The Coast Guard can revisit its past for insight. It was assigned to head up hemispheric defense off Greenland in the months before Pearl Harbor. There is ample, albeit musty, precedent for Coast Guard leadership in joint endeavors.
Second, the Coast Guard should renovate its high-end combat capability. That might mean rearming a fleet largely disarmed when the Soviet threat lapsed. Working with Congress, which controls the purse strings, and the Navy, which funded Coast Guard weaponry in decades past, will be a must. The Coast Guard should coordinate with the Navy to design a common strategy in which the Coast Guard is the frontline force and the Navy provides backup should things turn grim. The sister services can make a joint return to history — reacquainting themselves with the rigors and perils of maritime command.
Third, the Coast Guard should court close working relations with navies and coast guards from fellow Arctic powers. The service excels in naval diplomacy: Its relatively modest-sized cutters resemble the assets fielded by foreign coast guards and navies far more than hulking U.S. Navy gray hulls do, while its functions resemble those of small-state maritime services. NATO offers a ready-made framework for combined operations, since four of five Arctic countries (as well as Iceland, a gatekeeper for access to northern waters) are Alliance members. The NATO-Russia Council, moreover, offers a convenient channel for reaching out to Moscow should times grow tense.
Last but not least, Coast Guard leaders should review their organizational culture, determine where the culture is wanting, and take measures to adapt it to evolving realities. Changing ingrained bureaucratic routines involves everything from revising recruitment practices to promoting and rewarding officers who embrace the leadership’s goals to flexing important capabilities through frequent joint and combined exercises. Getting the human factor right is as crucial as building new hulls or installing sonars or guided missiles aboard cutters.
Fortunately, strategists and practitioners have time to think. A reliably navigable polar sea remains some three decades off. Still, the generation of officers who will oversee the Coast Guard’s northern efforts is now entering the service. Farsighted leaders should start grooming them to discharge police and disaster-response missions while recovering the service’s warfighting past. Today’s heavy burdens may grow heavier. Semper paratus!