Throughout the U.S. presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump talked about securing this country's borders as well as restoring America's military strength. Against this backdrop, the recommendation in the new administration's budget proposal to cut spending on the U.S. Coast Guard by more than $1 billion makes no sense. In view of the proliferation of threats to this country's security by criminal groups, terrorist organizations and state actors, what we need is a bigger and badder Coast Guard.
Virtually every homeland security expert has warned that increased security along the southern border will push smugglers and, possibly, migrants ever more out to sea. There is historical evidence to support these warnings. Moreover, budget cuts to both the Coast Guard and Navy have reduced their ability to adequately patrol the seaward approaches to this country, making such a shift attractive to smugglers.
In addition, access to the global commons is being challenged in ways that threaten not only U.S. national security but global commerce, as well. China's illegal occupation of atolls in the South China Sea amounts to an act of aggression no less reprehensible than Russia's invasion of Crimea. Also, it threatens to close one of the most important sea lines of communications between East Asia and both the Middle East and Europe. At the same time, Russia is moving to deploy military assets into the Arctic, pushing its zone of control into portions of the region claimed by other countries.
Confronting both traditional and emerging challenges is a U.S. Coast Guard that is suffering from the obsolescence of its current inventory of ships and aircraft. Complicating the problem of being required to do more with less is years of underfunding and management problems that have impacted modernization efforts. Today, even as the Arctic region grows in importance as a zone of economic activity and military competition, the Coast Guard has only one aging heavy icebreaker.
The Coast Guard is in the midst of a major modernization program involving procurement of new classes of ships, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft; advanced command, control and communications systems; and upgraded shore facilities. Central to this decades-long plan is the acquisition of three new classes of ocean-going vessels, called cutters. The most important of these is the Legend-class high-endurance national security cutter, or NSC.
The NSC is a marked improvement over the aging Hamilton-class cutters it is intended to replace. The new cutter can not only deploy a combination of helicopters and drones, but also rigid-hull inflatable boats with which to conduct intercept missions. In keeping with the Coast Guard’s secondary mission to support the U.S. Navy in the event of a national emergency, the Legend class is equipped with sensors, electronic warfare systems and weapons that are commonly found in high-end warships. These systems enable the NSC to better conduct the full range of domestic missions from at-sea rescue to homeland security, fisheries patrols and coastal monitoring.
First deployed in 2008, the first few NSCs have already proven themselves to be extremely capable vessels. The combination of sophisticated, onboard sensors, an aviation detachment and rapidly deployable rigid boats enables them to conduct multiple missions at a time. In one recent deployment in the Eastern Pacific, NSC Stratton successfully intercepted two drug-carrying semi-submersibles and was part of a task force that seized 34 tons of illegal drugs worth more than $1 billion.
In many ways, the NSC is as much a warship as a Coast Guard cutter. The Navy’s last class of frigates, the Oliver Hazard Perry, or FFG-7, weighed 4,100 tons and was 408 feet long. By way of comparison, the Legend-class cutter is 4,500 tons and 418 feet long. The NSC already operates many systems of similar or greater capability than those that were aboard the FFG-7s. Even more capabilities, including anti-ship missiles, could be added if necessary.
In light of its limited resources, the Coast Guard initially planned to replace all 12 Hamilton-class cutters with only eight NSCs. While unquestionably a better vessel, eight NSCs are just not enough to adequately address the Coast Guard’s expanding mission space. In recognition of this fact, the Coast Guard recently ordered a ninth NSC. In fact, 12 is the minimum number of Legend-class cutters the Coast Guard should be allowed to procure. This would be a one-for-one replacement of the Hamilton-class cutters. Procurement of additional NSCs would also provide a hedge against any delays in the procurement of the next smallest class of Coast Guard vessels, the offshore patrol cutter, or OPC. The first of an estimated 25 OPCs is planned for procurement in 2018 and deployment several years after that.
In reality, the Trump administration and the Department of Homeland Security ought to consider procuring even more NSCs as part of a program to build up the Coast Guard. The additional NSCs could be used to provide an expanded U.S. presence in difficult maritime environments such as around the Arctic region. The extra NSCs also would reduce the burden on the Navy, which is being hard-pressed to deploy sufficient surface assets to deal with the security environments in the Western Pacific, Eastern Mediterranean and Arabian Sea. China has made extensive use of its Coast Guard to exert control over international waters. It is time that we empower and equip the U.S. Coast Guard to do the same.
Dan Goure is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team.