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The unique skills and authorities the U.S. Coast Guard bring to national defense makes it more akin to the special forces than to merely a smaller version of the U.S. Navy.  National security thinkers often do not recognize how best to use the Coast Guard and thus miss the opportunity to take full advantage of the Coast Guard’s niche capabilities.  Instead of planning for their uniqueness, strategists often just lump the Coast Guard in with the Navy under an everyone plays approach.  If the United States is going to be successful in confronting 21st century threats, then it needs to plan how to compete daily across the entire competition continuum and be innovative with the assets at its disposal.

Similar Characteristics

The strength of special operations forces (SOF) is not in their ability to bring a massive amount of firepower to overwhelm the enemy.  SOF units are best used in more unconventional roles.  No matter the skill and tenacity of the SOF unit, no strategist would think to put them in the center of an armored battlefield; it is an ill use of their specialized skillset.  The U.S. Coast Guard should be thought of in the same way.  You wouldn’t send in SOF to slug it out with an enemy army or navy, nor would you send the USCG.

The Special Operations Forces Reference Manual defines the distinctive characteristics of special operations missions as:

  • Requiring operator-level planning and detailed intelligence.
  • Knowledge of the culture(s) and languages of the geographical area in which the mission is to be conducted.
  • Rigorous training and rehearsals of the mission are integral to the success of the mission.
  • Often conducted at great distances from the supporting operational bases.
  • May employ sophisticated communications systems.
  • Frequently require discriminant and precise use of force. This often requires development, acquisition, and employment of equipment not standard for other Department of Defense forces.
  • Employ sophisticated means of insertion, support, and extraction to penetrate and successfully return from hostile, denied, or politically sensitive areas.

A typical Coast Guard mission includes many of the same characteristics.  The Coast Guard routinely operates independently, in remote areas far removed from support, in areas that members will depend on their knowledge of the local area and customs, and where subordinate leaders make independent decisions based on an often rapidly developing situation.  Serving at all times as both military and law enforcement, Coast Guard members must be very precise in their use of force decisions.  These decisions have repercussions beyond the immediate and can affect U.S. international relationships.  Even the last characteristic is becoming more common for Coast Guard forces as they operate around the world to enforce U.S. sanctions, freedom of navigation, counter-piracy, and conduct contested boardings.

This is far from a suggestion that strategists should plan to use the Coast Guard in similar ways as SOF, but rather that the same level of attention should be paid to how best to employ the specialized skill set of the Coast Guard.  SOF bring a high-end, specialized capability that makes it incredibly valuable in many situations that the Coast Guard and other services are not trained or equipped.  However, the Coast Guard also brings special skills, authorities, relationships, and expertise that make it incredibly valuable in situations that are unique to its mission set.

It is a mistake to see the Coast Guard as extra Navy ships painted white and to be used in the same capacity.  In addition to not sending SOF units to fight a large enemy formation, you also don’t attach them to a larger military force as an additional maneuver unit.  Any command that receives SOF units takes full advantage of their distinctive abilities to help shape the battlefield.  Using the Coast Guard as another ship of the line is analogous to attaching SOF units to a larger formation.  This doesn’t mean Coast Guard cutters shouldn’t be part of battle groups, but if they are, they should have a distinctive reason for being there that takes advantage of their unique abilities.  If a command is attached to Coast Guard units, it should take full advantage of their distinctive abilities to help shape the entire battlespace.

Gray Zone Operations

Gray zone operations have become popular in national security circles to describe actions short of conventional war.  The definition of gray zone operations remains ambiguous, but it typically includes aggressive actions by state and non-state actors that fall between peace and war.  Recent examples include Russia’s little green men in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Chinese actions in the East and South China Seas, as well as Iran’s funding of Iraqi militias.  How to address these actions without escalating into war while also preserving the rules-based international order is a challenge to conventional national security thinking.  Confronting adversaries that hide their actions under a layer of deniability requires rethinking how we use instruments of national power.

The recently released Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard tri-service maritime strategy Advantage at Sea provide a guiding vision for the Nation's maritime forces across the competition continuum, but it leaves it to strategists to figure out how best to accomplish this vision.  Strategists from all three Naval Services will need to work together to bring the best asset to bear for each unique challenge.  To truly gain an advantage at sea, the strategist will need to first, better understand each other’s capabilities, and second, guard against just doing what has been done in the past.  This is easier said than done.  It is not always easy for strategists steeped in Department of Defense (DoD) formations and culture to understand how or what the Coast Guard adds to the fight.

Coast Guard Use

In World War II, Coast Guard members served alongside their compatriots in the Pacific, African, and European Theaters.  They were instrumental in augmenting the U.S. Navy, manning more than 350 ships, but World War II military leadership also recognized the talent and experience of Coast Guard coxswain in handling ships in the surf and used them to train their Navy counterparts for amphibious landings.  Today, the Coast Guard’s competency in this area has only grown.  Few sailors can handle ships in breaking seas and those who wear the Coast Guard's Surfman Badge or those as comfortable operating in and around shoal waters as buoy tender captains.  More recently, the Coast Guard provides cutters and specialized forces as part of Patrol Forces Southwest Asia (PATFORSWA).  These forces furnish the Navy wih specialized compliant and non-compliant boarding expertise, port security, greater access to foreign ports and territorial seas, and country engagement teams.

The Coast Guard has strong relationships with many allies and potential allies around the globe.  Sending Coast Guard cutters to enforce international fishing agreements and challenge illegitimate territorial claims sends a message of law and order that has international backing.  This is useful when there is concern about escalation or countering perceptions of a U.S.-only interest.  Coast Guard international port security inspectors partner with foreign military and law enforcement agencies to help identify security deficiencies, share best practices, and ensure ports meet U.S. standards.  Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachments, Maritime Security Response Teams, Maritime Safety and Security Teams, and Port Security Teams offer deployable forces that provide layered security and conduct contested boardings.  These teams have deployed aboard Navy warships for extended operations overseas, including counter-piracy actions.  This compliments the Coast Guard’s daily mission interdicting smuggling, human trafficking, and other illegal activities that undermine regional stability and the legitimacy of governments.  The Coast Guard specializes in helping these governments maintain maritime domain awareness, security, and law enforcement, increasing their willingness to partner with the United States on a range of issues.  Often these partnerships yield sources of intelligence otherwise unknown to the intelligence community. 

The Coast Guard also routinely works with non-military entities.  Its regulatory role and promotion of maritime commerce allow it to cross international borders and close association with other government entities and industry.  The Coast Guard works with industry to identify problems early that threaten the free flow of goods and sea lines of communication.  Because of this relationship, industry representatives quickly reported to the Coast Guard when they encountered persistent GPS inaccuracies that have now been attributed to Russia.  The Coast Guard’s Cyber Protection Teams partner with ports, commercial carriers, other federal agencies, states, and local governments to prevent and counter cyber-attacks.  The Coast Guard’s Captain of the Port authorities and Area Maritime Security Committees allow for quick identification and broad dissemination of threats and attacks to the maritime community.  These relationships are critical to thwarting the type of gray zone tactics that target infrastructure and key resources.


The Diplomatic, Information, Military, Economic (DIME) model is one way national strategists are taught to employ the instruments of national power.  The components of DIME are part of the Means in the Ends, Ways, Means, ways framework of strategy development.  But each of the four instruments is not exclusive, nor are they meant to be restrictive.  Planners should not fall into the fallacy that the only way to use the armed forces is under the military category.  The military can be used in many respects (Ways), especially a service with broad authorities and missions like the Coast Guard.    

A recent article from Brookings by Michael Sinclair and Lindsey Ford compares the Coast Guard to a Swiss Army Knife rather than the iconic Marine Ka-Bar, an apt analogy.  There is no one better to call than the U.S. Marine Corps if the requirement is to locate, close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver.  Their singular focus is what makes them so deadly.  Likewise, the U.S. Navy is unmatched in projecting persistent presence and overwhelming firepower to deter and defeat America's enemies around the globe.  On the other hand, the U.S. Coast Guard should be first in strategists’ minds for many non-traditional gray zone missions.  Like SOF, Coast Guard cutters, aircrew, and specialized teams routinely serve on deployments thousands of miles away from any support.  These crews are trained to evaluate the situation, take the on-scene initiative, and fulfill the mission requirements, even when the mission evolves.  Strategists need to take a measured look at the assets and capabilities available to align the Means and Ways to best accomplish our national objectives.

Jason Smith currently serves on the faculty at the National War College.  He has served in the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Army, as an advisor to the Commandant of the Coast Guard, as Senior Policy Advisor in the U.S. Senate and on the staff of the National Security Council.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official position or policy of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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