How should the U.S. Coast Guard plan for the future? Given its status as a branch, albeit often a neglected one, of the U.S. Armed Forces, one might suppose that the old saw about generals (and admirals) busily planning for the last war might apply here. But it doesn’t, for the Coast Guard’s portfolio of missions has rarely been stable for long enough to allow any orthodoxies to form. The Coast Guard’s history, rather, is one of adaptability in the face of challenge, an awkward fit in the Federal cabinet and government structure and, owing to these two factors as well as others, a low political profile. Understanding this history is the key to meeting the challenges of the Coast Guard’s future: still-shifting mission priorities, a new status in a new Executive Branch department, and looming budgetary austerity.
It is no simple matter to tell the Coast Guard’s history. Its official inception dates to 1915, but the various organizational threads that were woven together into a single agency at that time had many different origins and served many different purposes. The earliest thread was the Revenue Marine (re-named the Revenue Cutter Service in 1894), created in 1790 as a system of seagoing vessels serving as the maritime arm of the Treasury Department’s Collectors of Customs. The Revenue Marine enforced customs laws as well as supported revenue generation for the new Federal government, and before long the government had also charged it with protecting the nation’s coasts and interests on the high seas during the Quasi-War with France.
Another thread joined the fabric in 1838, when an explosion aboard the steamboat Pulaski, the last in a series of fatal accidents that year, killed more than a hundred passengers and severely injured many others. Congress responded to the tragedy with decades of legislation eventually leading to what came to be called the Steamboat Inspection Service, marking the beginnings of the maritime safety mission that was eventually merged into the Coast Guard in 1915. (The Steamboat Inspection Service was merged with the Revenue Marine and the U.S. Life-Saving Service, which was formally organized in 1878.)
The passage of the Posse Comitatus Act in 1878 forms a third thread. The act limited military involvement in civil law enforcement, thus leaving the Revenue Marine as the only military force consistently charged with Federal law enforcement on the high seas and in U.S. territorial waters. It is this unique bridge between the military and law enforcement that eventually bequeathed to the Coast Guard its uneasy place in the Federal cabinet structure.
Still more threads later wove themselves into the tangled history of the Coast Guard. The International Marine Conference of 1889 turned Congress’ attention to safety-at-sea issues, and so it charged the Revenue Marine, then newly renamed Revenue Cutter Service, with enforcing anchorage laws. This in turn led to the broad and unique Captain of the Port authorities the Coast Guard exercises today. Title 33 of the Code of Federal Regulations lays out the duties of the Captain of the Port: enforcing port safety and security and marine environmental protection regulations, including regulations for the protection and security of vessels, harbors and waterfront facilities; anchorages; security zones; safety zones; regulated navigation areas; deepwater ports; water pollution; and ports and waterways safety. As a result, the Coast Guard is more deeply integrated into local communities than any other Federal agency. Coast Guard cutters, helicopters and personnel touch every local maritime interest, whether port authorities, longshoremen, cruise lines, security officers or historical preservation societies.
Then, in 1910, the Motorboat Act mandated that the Revenue Cutter Service take responsibility for pleasure boating in the United States. And the First World War led to the newly formed U.S. Coast Guard taking up maritime escort duties, port security and even intelligence and investigative missions. In 1933–34, problems with iced-over waterways led President Franklin D. Roosevelt to order the Coast Guard to clear channels for oil barges—a job that has stuck to the Coast Guard up to the present day. In 1980, the Mariel Boatlift—the mass exodus of Cubans for U.S. shores—gave the Coast Guard a new operational emphasis on mass maritime migration, blurring the lines between its law enforcement and search-and-rescue missions. Finally, in March 1989, the Exxon Valdez disaster plunged the Coast Guard even deeper into the job of environmental protection and disaster prevention and planning. The latter roles have been vividly on display in the Federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and, of course, in the ongoing BP Deepwater Horizon tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico.
Throughout all these changes, the Coast Guard and its antecedent organizations have esteemed three core principles: benevolence, adaptability, and a low political visibility. As to benevolence, service to others before self is an unwritten theme ingrained into the psyche of Coast Guard recruits, cadets and the civilian workforce. In his December 30, 1915 retirement letter to the Secretary of the Treasury, Sumner Increase Kimball, the longstanding General Superintendent of the U.S. Life-Saving Service and the new Coast Guard’s first leader, noted that those in uniform were “the highest exponent of national benevolence.” Born from the practice of local fishermen and seafarers volunteering to brave treacherous seas when fellow mariners were in distress, they were a band of community lifesavers—the original first responders. In this respect at least, nothing has changed.
But everything else has. As the pocket history just sketched illustrates, policy changes and major maritime events have directly affected the shape and face of the Coast Guard since its birth. While semper paratus, “always ready”, is the service’s motto, semper mutatio, “always changing”, might be a more accurate description of how the service has adapted as the U.S. maritime environment has grown and a host of functions has been added to or removed from its mandate.
As to the Coast Guard’s low political profile, this was at first a deliberate choice. In the face of such turbulence in the definition of its mission, the Coast Guard’s leadership determined to insulate its uniformed personnel from the machinations of Washington as best it could. This tradition derives from the fact that the Coast Guard and all of its antecedent organizations have always been boundary dwellers, never quite comfortably placed in any particular organizational category and thus vulnerable to the dictates of more powerful others. The Coast Guard collected taxes, but it wasn’t the Treasury Department proper. It guarded our nation in times of war and peace, but it wasn’t always seen as a military organization. It rescued men and women in harm’s way all along our nation’s waterways, but it was always more than just “911” at sea. When the Coast Guard’s mandate shifted over the years, it was generally by fiat from on high, not the result of discussion, negotiation or anything resembling self-determination.
The Coast Guard’s organizational hybridity and low-key political profile are points of pride and prudence, but they have clearly exacted a cost in terms of Congress’ interest in its work over the years. Reminiscing back in 1915 on the accomplishments of the Life-Saving Service, Kimball lamented “the failure of Congress to realize the class of men through whose valor and fidelity such honor had been achieved.” His statement could just as easily, and just as fairly, have been made by a host of Coast Guard leaders ever since. More often that not, the Coast Guard has been underappreciated, under-resourced, and singled out as the organization to assign new maritime tasks to or to shift to a new home in the Federal government’s structure.
So it goes today. Benevolent and adaptable as always, the Coast Guard’s funding picture is at best uncertain. It does not have the political clout in Congress that larger military services have mainly because its procurement budget is too small to provide a foundation for active political constituencies. Its movement in 2003 out of the Department of Transportation into the new Department of Homeland Security has raised a series of challenges in Washington that affect what the Coast Guard does at sea. Even its low political profile is not what it once was thanks to the unpredictable currents of pop culture. Summer blockbuster films like The Guardian and The Perfect Storm have given the Coast Guard a higher public profile than ever. Search and rescue has become a glamorous mission, as have drug interdiction, environmental protection and homeland security.
Nonetheless, a higher profile, and the fact that the Coast Guard now recruits from every state and protectorate in the nation, do not necessarily translate into resources. While the Coast Guard provides a service with a significant national impact, the understanding and appreciation of that impact fades the further one gets from the shoreline. The gap between the Coast Guard’s obligations and its resources remains, as it has through much of its history, a large one.
Heavy Seas Ahead
A quick scan of today’s headlines reveals that national and international challenges—challenges like growing recreational use of domestic waterways, expanding activity in the Arctic, increased exploitation and harvesting of open-ocean resources, 21st-century piracy, environmental protection, anti-narcotics and search-and-rescue obligations—are stressing Coast Guard resources. The Coast Guard may be the smallest of the armed services, but its range of skill sets is second to none, even as its still-low political visibility tends to diminish its leverage in Washington’s budget and turf wars.
The Coast Guard’s success in addressing its challenges will be driven largely by the return on the investments it is currently making in three areas: recapitalization, modernization and innovation. For many years, indeed throughout the period when it was a poor second-cousin agency within the Transportation Department, the Coast Guard was dangerously under-resourced. Over the past decade, the service has received a significant investment in recapitalization and modernization. DEEPWATER, the 25-year, $24 billion program to replace much of the Coast Guard’s aircraft, ships and logistics and command and control systems, represents a clear vote of congressional confidence in the agency. The Coast Guard must now turn that vote of confidence into a string of successes.
Four decades’ worth of neglect has left us with much work to do, as was demonstrated by the Coast Guard’s troubled response to last January’s earthquake in Haiti. In his final State of the Coast Guard Address as Commandant, Admiral Thad Allen reported that, of the 12 major cutters assigned to Haitian relief operations, ten suffered severe, mission-affecting casualties. Two were forced to return to port for emergency repairs, and one went into emergency dry dock. The Coast Guard’s dated equipment performed so poorly en route to Haiti, an island nation easily accessed by maritime assets and so near to U.S. shores, that one shudders to think of what might happen if the service had to respond to a major natural disaster in Hawaii, Alaska, Guam or even Puerto Rico. The Coast Guard must expedite its cutter and aircraft recapitalization commitment if the service is to remain viable. No one doubts the heroism and selflessness of Coast Guard professionals, but it’s hard to be a hero if you can’t get to the scene of the emergency with equipment that actually works. The agency must also create a culture of sustaining and adapting its equipment and capabilities. As nimble and resourceful as the Coast Guard has been, it needs a more systematic maritime system-of-systems concept to do even better in the future.
It is not a forgone conclusion, however, that the Coast Guard will make, or be allowed to make, the right decisions. Technology and bureaucracy are combining to pose a threat to the Coast Guard’s flexibility. From their very beginnings the Coast Guard and its predecessors operated independently and often very far from port. This “alone and unafraid” mindset continues to shape the service, which prides itself on pushing out decision-making responsibilities to tactical levels. When outsiders see mid- and junior officers and enlisted members make life-and-death decisions during an on-scene search-and-rescue operation, they’re often surprised, but inside the Coast Guard that’s business as usual.
That mindset isn’t a problem; quite the reverse. The real problem is that technology has the potential to shorten the command-and-control tether and thus to blunt the point of the Coast Guard’s spear. If that happens, no amount of investment in equipment will restore the damage to the Coast Guard’s culture, specifically to its capacity to take the initiative, to maintain morale and to fill its recruitment and retention needs. The bureaucracy needs to resist the temptation to shorten the tether. The Coast Guard workforce must be allowed to continually re-invent itself and sharpen the operational spear.
The Coast Guard’s homeland and national security responsibilities pose the same kind of challenges they always have: how to integrate them into a whole-of-service concept. If the Coast Guard is to live within the Department of Homeland Security, there needs to be a common operating picture to provide a shared understanding and to support sound decisions based on solid information. But increasing the capacity for situational awareness at all levels—within the Coast Guard’s own hierarchy and inside the Department of Homeland Security—must not lead to tactical operations being directed from command centers in Washington, DC, Alameda or Norfolk. Time-critical decisions cannot be made from a secure, air-conditioned facility inside the Beltway.
One ensures effective, just-in-time decision-making by putting sound operators in the field with adequate equipment, operational doctrine, tactics, techniques and procedures. This requires a thoughtful modernization process, not one that reflexively privileges technology and centralization. We must set limits and exercise discipline to guide a strategic implementation of technology advancements. New gadgets must empower operators, not administrative staff. Kimball referred to this as the “fidelity through which the honor of the service had been achieved.” He understood that it isn’t possible to bestow benevolence or to enable heroism from afar.
The Coast Guard will also have to restructure itself in response to a changed world, as it has done in decades past. Coast Guard culture must become less reactive and more innovative. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the U.S. government hasn’t always assigned responsibilities to the Coast Guard in the most rational of ways. Had the agency been a part of the conversation that shaped the Motorboat Act, for example, it might have been able to adapt more quickly when Roosevelt added the icebreaking mission to its growing list of duties. And if its regulators had been more attuned to innovations in double-hulled tanker technology prior to the Exxon Valdez spill, the new regulations that followed in OPA90 (the 1990 Oil Pollution Act) might have been instituted earlier. The Coast Guard has fostered an embryonic culture of innovation in recent years, but that culture needs to mature so that the Coast Guard can embrace technological breakthroughs without being restructured by them.
A key case in point concerns the fact that, while the agency regulates the maritime industry and requires certain levels of proficiency for it, it does not require the same of its own mariners or regulators. It is therefore no surprise that the agency’s commitment to its oversight mission has stimulated scrutiny from the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.1 Developing a better understanding and a shared practice with the industry will enable the service to better regulate and incorporate maritime technological breakthroughs, and so keep pace with the capabilities and direction of the maritime community itself. This will require a significant investment, however, in the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety operational specialty. That it must involve the Coast Guard’s internal organizational emphasis, training, doctrine, and workforce development begs the question of where the money will come from, especially given its other essential recapitalization needs. Which leads us to the rubber-meets-road exercise of matching responsibilities to resources.
On the Horizon
DEEPWATER notwithstanding, the Congressional Budget Office forecasts decreasing Coast Guard budgets for the foreseeable future. A look back on the streamlining decisions made in the mid-1990s should help the Coast Guard prepare for the inevitable efficiency studies and reductions to come.
The Government Performance Results Act of 1993 led to a Coast Guard budget reduction of $400 million and the loss of 4,000 personnel over four years. These reductions were handled as an integrated, collaborative process involving, as the Coast Guard itself put it, “literally hundreds of adjunct members throughout the Coast Guard, government, and industry.” However well intentioned or collegial it may have been, the 1990s streamlining significantly reduced Coast Guard support staffs. While the aim was to improve service by eliminating internal redundancies, some unintended consequences still lingered a decade on, when the agency faced the monumental task of overseeing its largest acquisition ever in the DEEPWATER recapitalization. Strange as it may seem (and actually was), the Coast Guard Mission Analysis Report that validated the need for DEEPWATER concluded in late 1995, just as the streamlining plan wound down and force structure cuts took place. Intended to provide new cutters, aircraft and communication capability through a “system of systems” approach, DEEPWATER remains a work in progress, in part because other cuts made its implementation more problematic. Indeed, increasing the workforce devoted to the Coast Guard acquisition program is still an item of attention at the Government Accountability Office.2
The competition for resources will only deepen in coming years. The agency must fight the urge to achieve short-term gains by cutting support elements for its various missions. It must be willing to address tough choices concerning cutting or transferring some operations to other agencies. (For example, should the maintenance and positioning of buoys and markers in the aids to navigation system be done by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, or can the marine safety mission be accomplished by the U.S. Maritime Administration, or should the U.S. Navy take over the entire Naval Coastal Warfare mission currently served by the Coast Guard’s Port Security Units?) That’s the Coast Guard’s legacy, after all: One generation’s turmoil becomes the next generation’s tradition.
In December 1999, the Interagency Task Force on Coast Guard Roles and Missions concluded that, “if the Coast Guard did not exist, it would be in the best interests of the country to invent it, quickly.” Since 1999, the agency has changed departments, received a significant infusion of resources and added a significant homeland security mission set. Now it is faced with another cycle of financial uncertainty even before old investments have been completed, and before new missions and its new venue have been fully assimilated. Nevertheless, now is not the time for significant changes in the investment strategy of recent years, even before the return on that investment has been realized. In 1915, Kimball hoped that the coming years of maritime challenges would serve as a “rejuvenation to the corps which promises not only to preserve unimpaired its high reputation, but enable it to win fresh laurels.” Kimball’s hopes were realized. It’s still an open question whether ours will be too.
2Multiple GAO reviews and recommendations regarding the Coast Guard acquisition program deficiencies include: GAO-04-695, GAO-05-757, GAO-08-745, GAO-09-682.