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Building a 21st Century Coast Guard

 

 

On July 1, 2016, halfway through his tenure as the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Adm. Paul Zukunft released his “Mid-Term Report,” highlighting the service’s accomplishments since May 2014 and charting a course for the future. One of the main points he made in his introduction to the document, as he had in the “Strategic Intent 2015-2019” he’d outlined at the beginning of his term, was that the 21st century, only a decade and a half in, was already far, far different from the century that preceded it: “I have not witnessed a more geo-strategically complex operational environment,” he wrote, “in my four decades of service.”

Coast Guard senior leaders have published a flurry of strategic documents recently, outlining what the service must do to meet the shifting circumstances and emerging threats of the 21st century: An action plan for accommodating the nation’s energy renaissance; a “Western Hemisphere Strategy,” a “Cyber Strategy,” and most recently, in January 2016, a “Human Capital Strategy.”

The Coast Guard is responsible for doing much more in the 21st century, over a much larger area. Contributing factors include:

  • The increase in, and convergence of, transnational organized crime (TOC). Fed by enormous profits from the trade in illegal drugs, TOC networks are destabilizing governments, economies, and civil society throughout much of the Western Hemisphere with intimidation, violence, and institutional corruption. Their profits have emboldened them to branch out into other criminal activities: trafficking in people and weapons; piracy; environmental crimes; cybercrime; and financial and logistical support to terrorist groups. The United Nations estimates that of the 10 countries in the world with the highest homicide rates, eight are in Central America or the Caribbean.
  • Pressure on the southern U.S. maritime border. Due in large part to the violence and economic hardship wrought by these TOC networks, desperate families are fleeing northward. In 2014, tens of thousands of unaccompanied children were intercepted crossing the southwestern U.S. border. Increases in illegal trafficking – in drugs, people, and smuggled goods – has sparked a surge in activity from the Coast Guard and its partners in Joint Interagency Task Force (JIATF) South, and resulted in record maritime seizures of illegal drugs – 191 metric tons, and more than 700 smugglers, were interdicted at sea in 2015, and at the midpoint of 2016, 245 metric tons of cocaine and 400 smugglers. As the nation’s lead federal agency for maritime law enforcement, the Coast Guard will continue to play a lead role in protecting this 6 million-square-mile area of ocean and coastline.
  • Increasing maritime commerce. A number of factors have led to a surge in both the amount and the complexity of traffic in the U.S. Marine Transportation System (MTS): the fruition of international trade agreements; greater complexity in port operations; increased exploration and extraction of oil and gas, both on the outer continental shelf and in interior shale deposits – and the resulting spike in U.S. energy exports. The expansion of the Panama Canal to accommodate larger ships, completed in June 2016, doubled its capacity, and will certainly lead to changes in maritime shipping routes. While these changes signal a prosperous and robust maritime shipping industry, they also present significant challenges to the service charged with ensuring the safety, security, and environmental stewardship of U.S. waters.
  • Greater maritime activity in the polar regions. The emerging trend in the U.S. Arctic – remote waters above the Bering Strait, in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas – has been, and will continue to be, longer ice-free seasons. Many in the Coast Guard are calling this a new ocean – and if it’s an ocean, it’s the service’s job to fulfill 11 statutory missions on and around it. Commercial and recreational activity has increased steadily in the Arctic over the last decade, and the Coast Guard will have to find a way to do this with virtually no shoreside infrastructure and an aging fleet that now contains only two icebreakers – one of which is deployed to the other side of the world. The CGC Healy, a medium-duty icebreaker, is the only Coast Guard icebreaker to visit the Arctic region, primarily in support of scientific research.
  • Emerging cyber risks to the MTS. The critical infrastructure of the MTS, and of the agencies charged with protecting it, is increasingly dependent on sophisticated and interdependent data and communications systems. As the 2016 U.S. election season has made apparent, foreign adversaries have the resources and sophistication necessary to breach American systems. Such threats, when applied to MTS infrastructure, are potentially deadly, and the Coast Guard must play a leading role in helping industry stakeholders to secure their assets from such attacks.

Coast Guard senior leaders have published a flurry of strategic documents recently, outlining what the service must do to meet the shifting circumstances and emerging threats of the 21st century: An action plan for accommodating the nation’s energy renaissance; a “Western Hemisphere Strategy,” a “Cyber Strategy,” and most recently, in January 2016, a “Human Capital Strategy.”

Does the Coast Guard have the capabilities to achieve the objectives outlined in these documents? With an aging fleet of cutters, some of them older than President Barack Obama, and an annual budget of just over $10 billion – about 6 percent of the U.S. Navy’s budget, enough to buy a couple of Nimitz-class aircraft carriers – the service thinks it can. In fact, the building of the 21st century Coast Guard is already well underway.

 

Building Capacity and Interoperability

The Coast Guard is unique among U.S. agencies, with both military and law enforcement mandates, which gives it jurisdiction anywhere in U.S. waters (4.7 million square miles of ocean, from Maine to Alaska to Guam), and the authority to enforce international maritime law and multinational treaties within most of the world’s remaining waters. This work involves the protection of people, economic resources (i.e., fisheries, offshore mineral and energy deposits, ports, and infrastructure), and marine species with statutory protection. The Coast Guard also has the duty to support national security, and can be transferred to the command of the U.S. Navy by the president or, in times of war, by Congress.

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Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...