What is the Coast Guard Up To?

By Andrew C. Jarocki

A Coast Guard helicopter during a 2007 training exercise with South Korea
Image Credit: USCG HQ/DVIDS

Whether it be rescuing stranded swimmers in New Jersey or intercepting drug smugglers in Puerto Rico, most Americans associate the United States Coast Guard with crucial missions close to the homeland. 

However, the “Coasties” are increasingly operating far from American shorelines. The variety of Guard missions just this year should raise eyebrows even among the biggest boosters of America’s “water cops.”

In February, the USCG Cutter Stone deployed to the south Atlantic for Operation Southern Cross. Claiming that illegal fishing has “replaced piracy as the leading global maritime security threat,” the Coast Guard collaborated with several South American navies to prevent it. 

According to SOUTHCOM, this was “the Coast Guard’s first patrol to the South Atlantic in recent memory, engaging partners including Guyana, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, and Portugal.”

Just a few months later, the Coast Guard played a headline-grabbing role in a standoff with Iranian forces. USCG Cutter Maui fired approximately 30 “warning shots” at an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps fast boat while accompanying American Navy ships in the Strait of Hormuz. 

Most recently, the USCG Cutter Munro passed through the Taiwan Strait during the 8th such transit by American vessels in 2021.

Brazil? Iran? Taiwan? These increasingly exotic missions are quite a contrast to more familiar operations like ice breaking on the Great Lakes.

The Guard has always been a unique creature. Although it is often considered alongside the armed forces, it is actually housed inside the Department of Homeland of Security. As a result, the USCG bills itself at various times as a “law enforcement arm, a military service branch, and a seafaring service.”

It is clear from the pattern of increased deployment to contested waters that the Coast Guard is increasingly leaning into serving as a military force. 

It could very well be that the Guard simply is adapting to new challenges to American maritime security. However, another reading (and more cynical one) is that the Coast Guard is following a proven Pentagon tactic: latching onto “great power competition” as justification for bigger budgets. 

Mission creep and threat inflation to justify it are tendencies that Congress must constantly remain vigilant for in all facets of American foreign policy. It seems more than coincidental that arguments like “the Coast Guard is vital for defending Taiwan from China” are surfacing just as the USCG begs for a just a little “booster shot of sorts, about $900 million to $1 billion dollars.” 

It is understandable why the Guard is eager to take on more missions that make it relevant to conversations of national security priorities with broad consensus, like China.  

Congressional advocates declare China should inspire a “sense of urgency” for investing in the Navy, while the Air Force requests $161 million for new long-range weapons that are “better suited for operations in the Pacific.”

The Army continues to struggle with creating a strong case for how it contributes to “enhancing [the] deterrent posture in the Indo-Pacific,” and as a result the service’s budget has remained flat compared to its competition for dollars.

To be fair, the Coast Guard does have a case for expanded capabilities in some contexts. As changing Arctic conditions increasingly result in more American shipping, fishing and mineral development, investment in more than a single heavy icebreaker will seem increasingly reasonable.

However, Congress should ask tough oversight questions of new missions and be wary of lazy hand waving towards China or Iran as a reason to increase capabilities. When American defense spending already surpasses the next ten closest nations combined, older programs and other services’ funds should be repurposed before any “booster shots” of billions are given out.

To paraphrase John Quincy Adams, there will always be maritime monsters America could go abroad to destroy. Whether it be illegal fishers, Iranian speedboats or Chinese aggressors, there are plenty of bad actors beyond America’s borders and exclusive economic zones.  

However, Congress should push the Coast Guard and all military branches to clearly and persuasively explain how their many missions truly enhance the national security of the United States before entrusting them with more taxpayer dollars to take on every bad guy everywhere. 

Andrew C. Jarocki is the Editor-in-Chief for the Realist Review. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, he has written for Defense News, Federal Times and C4ISRNet. 

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