As the National Security Strategy is released, can the Coast Guard stay “always ready”?

Closely coinciding with the release of the National Security Strategy (NSS) was the release of the United States Coast Guard (CGS) Strategy. It was the first high-level service strategy document released by the Coast Guard under new Commander Admiral Linda Fagan. It built on the themes of “tomorrow looks different, so do we” and “readiness, resilience and capability” she articulated when she took up her post as a senior Coast Guard officer this summer. The CGS establishes a strong strategic framework based on three cornerstones: transforming the Coast Guard’s workforce, refining its competitive advantage, and advancing its mission excellence.

The NSS and CGS have no shortage of global challenges, including climate change, energy security, transnational criminal organizations, challenges to the rules-based order, natural disasters, and geopolitical shifts. Although many of these challenges are not new, they are dynamic and evolving. The Coast Guard has a long history of operating in high latitudes – the Arctic and Antarctica – and is one of the few government entities to do so consistently. As the climate changes and the Arctic becomes more accessible, there will be new challenges related to tourism, natural resource extraction, new shipping routes and an increased military presence of other nations at the search for influence in the region. Recent incidents show that the maritime commons are increasingly contested: the efforts of transnational criminal organizations such as drug cartels to exploit the vastness of the oceans for illicit purposes, and the actions carried out by ships flying foreign flag fishing away from their launch location, which were unsafe and not in line with international standards. The Coast Guard must remain committed to providing the exceptional service the nation has come to expect in legacy missions such as search and rescue, law enforcement, disaster response, waterways management and industry engagement. Yet it also adapts to meet new and in some cases still unknown challenges in a non-progressive way.

The NSS devotes an entire section to “investing in our strength”. Due to its multi-mission nature conducting humanitarian response, environmental stewardship, law enforcement and regulatory work, its membership in the intelligence community, and its status as a branch of the forces armies, the CGS presents a strong case for the Coast Guard. unique ability to establish and maintain multi-level partnerships, internationally and nationally. With the NSS’s emphasis on partnerships and cooperation and the Indo-Pacific Strategy specifically mentioning the Coast Guard by name, there is no doubt that the Coast Guard will need to do more in this area. This will be especially true in Oceania where the Coast Guard’s unique capabilities in search and rescue, maritime law enforcement and small vessel operations make it a natural partner for many small island states in the region. . The Coast Guard capitalized on the recent arrival of new rapid-response cutters by deploying the boats throughout the region to strengthen relationships with foreign partners and combat illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing. Congressional funding for additional cutters, training crews, local liaisons, and mission support needs is necessary to create a sustained presence in the region and realize the inordinate impact the Coast Guard can have on the declared goal of the NSS to “promote a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

Reflecting the NSS’s emphasis on “investing in our people” and “modernizing and strengthening our military”, Fagan states at the start of the CGS, “Making improvements to our Guard manpower coast is my top priority”. Revolutionizing talent management and recruitment, modernizing learning, and improving healthcare and family services are CGS’s priorities for transforming its workforce. The Coast Guard must seize the opportunity to revamp its training systems by moving towards self-paced, in-person virtual training. This will help both cope with austere budgetary realities and provide the training needed to operate and maintain increasingly complex systems.

Although improvements in the training system pay long-term dividends, this is only true if there is a full workforce to be trained. Recruitment is a particularly pressing issue, as the Coast Guard suffers some of the same challenges as the Department of Defense (DOD) in fielding the all-volunteer force. Targeted bonuses and likely increases in 2023 to base pay and housing allowances will help recruitment and retention, but are unlikely to solve the Coast Guard’s already existing staffing shortages. With approximately 75% of the target population not eligible for military service, the Coast Guard is increasingly competing with the DOD and the civilian sector for the same personnel. The Coast Guard must act aggressively to ensure recruiting efforts can meet mission requirements. Although the service has already aligned its medical criteria for membership more closely with the DOD, it should look for innovative ways to help more people who want to serve in the Coast Guard able to seize the opportunity. One area that should be explored immediately is something akin to the future army soldier preparation course, designed to help potential recruits with obesity or problems during the armed forces qualification test meet the requirements for attend training camp.

Harnessing technology to “enhance the security, prosperity, and values ​​of the American people” comes up repeatedly in the NSS. On this front, the Coast Guard has a lot of work to do, but also tremendous opportunities. The CGS emphasizes investment in critical technologies and critical infrastructure, an integrated, forward-looking approach, developing a culture of innovation, and leveraging data to drive competitive advantage of service. While a partnership with the DOD to operationalize new technology can be beneficial, the Coast Guard must find its own innovative ways to utilize autonomy in the air, on the surface, and below the surface. The service cannot be paralyzed by the rapid increase in autonomous capacities. It should move quickly to finalize the policy and start deploying more autonomous capabilities, even if only in small field trials. The longer it delays, the further it will fall behind and the less it will be able to realize technological advantages in the face of challenges.

On the cyber front, it is now clear that there is a real and persistent threat in the cyber domain that is here to stay. As the NSS points out, even in future uncontested conflicts in the maritime domain or even near US shores, there is a pathway by which our adversaries can strike deep within our borders. Waterways, ports, aids to navigation, vessels, vehicles and users, collectively known as the maritime transportation system, account for 90% of global commercial travel, $5.4 trillion in annual trade in the United States and 31 million American jobs, according to the American Association of Port Authorities. It is vulnerable to cyberattacks in ways never seen before and must be defended.

Dealing with this threat is one of the greatest challenges to the Coast Guard’s “always ready” posture. Previously, this meant being ready and responding in the air, on land and at sea. Now it must include virtually, which is a big step forward for the Coast Guard and the industry. Given the current cyber threats from Russia and China, the Coast Guard should continue to invest in cybersecurity for its own internal networks and accelerate collaboration with industry to build cyber resilience in the broader maritime transportation system.

The Coast Guard must maintain its existing strong network of national relationships at the federal, state, local, and tribal levels, which are paramount to national security. It must retain its inherited capabilities while developing new ways of operating and using technology that respond to emerging challenges. And it must safely coexist with conflicting entities that may not share the same level of adherence to international standards. All of this relies on multiple long-term acquisition programs to replace its aging surface fleet, maintain aviation capabilities, upgrade C5I (command, control, communications, cyber and intelligence) systems, and replace or repair the shore-based infrastructure, including aging buildings, hangars, and jetties. To execute all of this successfully, the Coast Guard will need the continued support of Congress in an austere fiscal environment, and it will need to effectively manage these acquisitions — which are among the largest in the service’s history.

The CGS charts an aggressive course to ensure the service can meet the challenges associated with rapid technology, workforce and geopolitical shifts. However, it will also be necessary to keep the Coast Guard in position to support the NSS and at the forefront of saving lives, protecting waterways, defending the country and remaining “always ready”.

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the US government or the Brookings Institution.

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