America Needs a Coast Guard That Can Fight

As the Arctic becomes an arena for conflict, the United States’ forgotten naval force will need to cowboy up.

Forget for a moment about the U.S. Navy and its "pivot to Asia." Over the next few decades, the woefully underfunded and thoroughly unsexy U.S. Coast Guard will likely hover near the center of the action.

The reason, in three short words: the Arctic Ocean.

If and when that icy expanse opens regularly to shipping, the Arctic will need policing, just like any other marine thoroughfare. It might even become a theater for geopolitical competition, although the short time it will be ice-free each year, the uneven advance and retreat of the icecap, and the unpredictable location of the sea lanes will limit its potential for conflict relative to, say, the Western Pacific or the Persian Gulf. But the potential is there, and up north, the Coast Guard's aging fleet of cutters and small craft will be critical to upholding maritime security and hedging against maritime conflict.

Placing a law-enforcement and disaster-response agency in charge will give operations in northern reaches a complexion unlike those in more hospitable climes -- where the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, services built to break things and kill people, are the chief bearers of American interests and aspirations. How can the Coast Guard prepare itself for this new era?

Founded in 1790, the Coast Guard takes pride in being the United States' oldest continuously functioning sea service. Composed of nearly 44,000 active-duty officers and enlisted sailors, who operate some 160 coastal and patrol combatants, 92 logistics and support craft, and 211 aircraft of various types, the service shoulders an imposing variety of missions: from safeguarding U.S. ports and harbors to rendering assistance following natural disasters. 

So why would Washington assign the U.S. Coast Guard the lead for Arctic operations? It has experience, for one thing. It operates the United States' modest flotilla of two icebreakers while performing the same police functions off North America's northern shorelines that it executes in warmer zones. Navy submarines prowled the Arctic depths during the Cold War. They will return if the polar region heats up, both figuratively and literally: U.S. Navy oceanographers estimate the ocean may be ice-free for a month each year by 2035. But Navy surface and air forces seldom venture north of the Arctic Circle and thus are less accustomed to the frigid surroundings. 

None of which is to say that sending in the Coast Guard is a slam dunk. It would probably be easier for the Navy and Marines to reinvent themselves as cold-weather expeditionary forces than for the quasi-police Coast Guard to reinvent itself as a battle force. But the main theaters for the more musclebound sea services lie far to the south, along the East and South Asian rimlands.

And there they will probably remain. China, the United States' newest competitor, is going nowhere. Nor will the Persian Gulf region morph into some placid oasis, obviating the U.S. nautical presence. Diplomatic and strategic imperatives -- not to mention the seemingly never-ending island disputes in the East and South China Seas -- will continue to summon Washington's attention and energies to Asia.

The Navy and Marine Corps, however, are almost certain to see their muscles atrophy amid shrinking budgets. Commanders and defense officials will need to concentrate increasingly scarce assets at the most critical places on the map. No one assumed U.S. fleets could be everywhere, in force, at all times, before the 1940s, when the United States in effect built a second navy for the Pacific. The old normal may become the sea services' new normal. 

Budget cuts combined with stagnant or dwindling forces may compel service chiefs to designate safe zones like the Atlantic Ocean "economy-of-force" theaters, where dangers are few and smaller, lighter forces can uphold U.S. interests in concert with allies. In effect, the Mediterranean, which saw some of the fiercest maritime encounters of the Cold War, is already there. The once-formidable U.S. Sixth Fleet, a force that long bestrode regional sea lanes, has shrunk to one permanently assigned vessel -- the command ship USS Mount Whitney. Barring a resurgent Russia, the same fate may await the U.S. Atlantic Fleet.

The Navy and Marine Corps, then, will simply have too few ships, aircraft, and armaments to dedicate to regions of secondary importance. Suitably bulked up, and crewed by mariners who see themselves as warriors as well as the nation's 9-1-1 force, the Coast Guard would represent the go-to guarantor of security off the United States' northern ramparts. Heavy Navy and Marine forces would provide a backstop should serious conflict erupt. But Coast Guard commanders would have to hold their own against rival forces until reinforcements arrived.

So how's that going to work? Polar ventures may require the Coast Guard to square off against a serious military competitor, not just against lawbreakers and the elements. But pummeling enemy fleets, projecting power onto foreign shores, warding off ballistic missiles -- business as usual for the Navy/Marine Corps team -- are pursuits remote from the Coast Guard's everyday duties. It may even behoove the service to restore antisubmarine and surface-warfare capabilities dismantled at the Cold War's end. The Coast Guard fleet need not be a U.S. Navy in miniature, built to rule the waves. But the long arm of U.S. strategy needs battle capacity -- not just the light gunnery that now festoons American cutters. 

Another task will be to remake the Coast Guard's organizational culture, rediscovering the half-forgotten tradition of fighting for control of the sea. Command of the sea means wresting control from rival fleets or deterring them through overwhelming firepower. Police duty is something nations do after winning command. Constabulary work like the Coast Guard's thus differs sharply from combat. Battle demands a different mindset from scouring the sea for drug or weapons traffickers, or from rescuing seafarers in distress following a nor'easter. For the Coast Guard, spearheading Arctic strategy means relearning combat skills last practiced during World War II, while retaining the service's unique capabilities.

As the Royal Navy's Fleet Admiral Andrew Browne Cunningham put it 70 years ago, "It takes three years to build a ship; it takes three centuries to build a tradition." The material challenges -- designing ships and armaments, wringing funding out of lawmakers -- are the easiest. Revising habits of mind among the officer and enlisted corps is central to keeping the service's culture in tune with shifting realities. 

It won't be easy: For the Coast Guard, high-end combat has been an afterthought for decades. The service was subsumed within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2003. Before that it was part of the Department of Transportation, not a natural bureaucratic home for a fighting service. By contrast, the Defense Department has been the Navy's master since 1947, when the National Security Act placed all of the armed services under the jurisdiction of the secretary of defense. These are different cultures despite their common seagoing heritage and missions.

The last time Coast Guard cutters undertook a traditional naval mission was in Vietnam -- and even then, U.S. forces faced no real threat to their command of offshore waters. World War II, when Coast Guard seafarers dueled U-boats in the Battle of the Atlantic, thus represents the service's last true encounter with high-intensity naval warfare.

Strategies pursued by constabulary agencies differ fundamentally from those pursued by combat arms. Military theorist Carl von Clausewitz depicted international competition as an interactive struggle for strategic advantage. Neither contender is a lifeless mass on which the other imposes its will. Both sides think; both react; both thirst to win. Navies fight antagonists capable of contesting their use of the sea for military purposes. Relative parity is required; otherwise, the strong simply sweep feebler opponents from the briny deep. Navies win nautical command; coast guards help exercise it.

Coast guards also have adversaries, but they are starkly different in character. Mother Nature is one. No strategist can outthink a tsunami or an earthquake. Coast guardsmen succor the afflicted, then orchestrate recovery efforts. Coast guards do confront living adversaries, of course, but they are wrongdoers who disrupt good order at sea -- not the fleet's ability to transit hither and yon as it pleases. The gunrunner or human trafficker is a suspect to be apprehended and brought to justice, not an enemy to be outdueled and compelled to submit to U.S. political aims. Different assumptions about institutional purposes, the operating environment, and the adversary give rise to disparate cultures -- even among outwardly similar services roaming the wine-dark sea. 

To be sure, strategic documents such as the U.S. Coast Guard Strategy for Maritime Safety, Security, and Stewardship point out that the Coast Guard executed warfighting missions in past conflicts and may do so again. It can merge with the Navy in wartime to constitute a combined national fleet, as it did during the world wars. Another document, Coast Guard Publication 3-0, Operations, instructs the service to prepare itself for "coastal sea control operations" in which cutters patrol off enemy shores as an adjunct to U.S. naval operations.

Below that threshold, the Coast Guard has been a supporting arm for maritime interdiction and port security for many years. During the first Gulf War, it stationed detachments aboard Navy warships cruising the Persian Gulf to board merchantmen suspected of defying the U.N. sanctions on Iraq. Nonetheless, traditional naval missions comprise only a small part of the Coast Guard's portfolio. A glance at any of its strategic documents reveals a dizzying array of functions. Small wonder crews seldom get to hone their combat prowess.

But even the vaunted U.S. Navy is probably a little bit rusty. Like the Coast Guard, the Navy has let its capacity to fight rival armadas decay since the Cold War. In 1992, the Navy leadership issued a strategic directive titled ...From the Sea. Its preamble proclaimed that the United States no longer faced a peer competitor with the demise of the Soviet Navy. Why prepare against a nonexistent foe? Such guidance from on high sent a powerful bureaucratic signal, in effect granting the Navy a holiday from history. Functions necessary for vanquishing enemy navies -- antisubmarine warfare, surface-to-surface missile engagements, mine countermeasures -- fell into disuse. Projecting power onto distant shores became the core of maritime strategy. Most assumed U.S. task forces could operate along those shores with impunity rather than fighting to pry open access. If the world's premier marine fighting force has let its battle capacity slip, it comes as little shock that the U.S. Coast Guard followed a similar trajectory.

How, then, can the Coast Guard become the vanguard of U.S. strategy in the Arctic Ocean? Here are four recommendations. First, service leaders should think about what it means for a Homeland Security agency to be the supported -- rather than a supporting -- element of a major undertaking like polar operations. The Coast Guard can revisit its past for insight. It was assigned to head up hemispheric defense off Greenland in the months before Pearl Harbor. There is ample, albeit musty, precedent for Coast Guard leadership in joint endeavors.

Second, the Coast Guard should renovate its high-end combat capability. That might mean rearming a fleet largely disarmed when the Soviet threat lapsed. Working with Congress, which controls the purse strings, and the Navy, which funded Coast Guard weaponry in decades past, will be a must. The Coast Guard should coordinate with the Navy to design a common strategy in which the Coast Guard is the frontline force and the Navy provides backup should things turn grim. The sister services can make a joint return to history -- reacquainting themselves with the rigors and perils of maritime command.

Third, the Coast Guard should court close working relations with navies and coast guards from fellow Arctic powers. The service excels in naval diplomacy: Its relatively modest-sized cutters resemble the assets fielded by foreign coast guards and navies far more than hulking U.S. Navy gray hulls do, while its functions resemble those of small-state maritime services. NATO offers a ready-made framework for combined operations, since four of five Arctic countries (as well as Iceland, a gatekeeper for access to northern waters) are Alliance members. The NATO-Russia Council, moreover, offers a convenient channel for reaching out to Moscow should times grow tense.

Last but not least, Coast Guard leaders should review their organizational culture, determine where the culture is wanting, and take measures to adapt it to evolving realities. Changing ingrained bureaucratic routines involves everything from revising recruitment practices to promoting and rewarding officers who embrace the leadership's goals to flexing important capabilities through frequent joint and combined exercises. Getting the human factor right is as crucial as building new hulls or installing sonars or guided missiles aboard cutters.

Fortunately, strategists and practitioners have time to think. A reliably navigable polar sea remains some three decades off. Still, the generation of officers who will oversee the Coast Guard's northern efforts is now entering the service. Farsighted leaders should start grooming them to discharge police and disaster-response missions while recovering the service's warfighting past. Today's heavy burdens may grow heavier. Semper paratus!

Benjamin Nocerini/U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images


Social Warfare

Budget hawks' plans to cut funding for political and social science aren't just short-sighted and simple-minded -- they'll actually hurt national security.

With the automatic sequestration cuts geared up to slash billions of dollars from domestic programs, military funding, social services, and government-sponsored scientific research -- including about a 6 percent reduction for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) -- policymakers and professionals are scrambling to stave off the worst by resetting priorities. In a major speech last month, House majority leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), proposed outright to defund political and social science: "Funds currently spent by the government on social science -- including on politics of all things -- would be better spent on curing diseases," he said, echoing a similar proposal he made in 2009. Florida Governor Rick Scott has made a similar push, proposing to divert state funds from disciplines like anthropology and psychology "to degrees where people can get jobs," especially in technology and medicine. Those are fighting words, but they're also simple-minded.

Social science may sound like a frivolous expenditure to legislative budget hawks, but far from trimming fat, defunding these programs would fundamentally undercut core national interests. Like it or not, social science research informs everything from national security to technology development to healthcare and economic management. For example, we can't decide which drugs to take, unless their risks and benefits are properly assessed, and we can't know how much faith to have in a given science or engineering project, unless we know how much to trust expert judgment. Likewise, we can't fully prepare to stop our adversaries, unless we understand the limits of our own ability to see why others see the world differently. Despite hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars poured into the global war on terrorism, radicalization against our country's core interests continues to spread -- and social science offers better ways than war to turn the tide. 

In support of Rep. Cantor's push to defund political and social science, a recent article in the Atlantic notes that "money [that] could have gone to towards life-saving cancer research" instead went to NSF-sponsored projects that "lack real-world impact" such as "the $750,000 spent studying the 'sacred values' involved in cultural conflict." Perhaps the use of words like "sacred" or "culture" incites such scorn, but as often occurs in many denunciations of social science, scant attention is actually paid to what the science proposes or produces. In fact, the results of this particular project -- which I direct -- have figured into numerous briefings to the National Security Staff at the White House, Senate and House committees, the Department of State and Britain's Parliament, and the Israeli Knesset (including the prime minister and defense minister). In addition, the research offices of the Department of Defense have also supported my team's work, which figures prominently in recent strategy assessments that focus on al Qaeda and broader problems of radicalization and political violence.

Let me try to explain just exactly what it is that we do. My research team conducts laboratory experiments, including brain imaging studies -- supported by field work with political leaders, revolutionaries, terrorists, and others -- that show sacred values to be core determinants of personal and social identity ("who I am" and "who we are"). Humans process these identities as moral rules, duties, and obligations that defy the utilitarian and instrumental calculations of realpolitik or the marketplace. Simply put, people defending a sacred value will not trade its incarnation (Israel's settlements, Iran's nuclear fuel rods, America's guns) for any number of iPads, or even for peace.

The sacred values of "devoted actors," it turns out, generate actions independent of calculated risks, costs, and consequences -- a direct contradiction of prevailing "rational actor" models of politics and economics, which focus on material interests. Devoted actors, in contrast, act because they sincerely and deeply believe "it's the right thing to do," regardless of risks or rewards. Practically, this means that such actors often harness deep and abiding social and political commitments to confront much stronger foes. Think of the American revolutionaries, who were willing to sacrifice "our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor" in the fight for liberty against the greatest military power of the age -- or modern suicide bombers willing to sacrifice everything for their cause.

Sacred values -- as when land becomes "Holy Land" -- sustain the commitment of revolutionaries and some terrorist groups to resist, and often overcome, more numerous and better-equipped militaries and police that function with measured rewards like better pay or promotion. Our research with political leaders and general populations also shows that sacred values -- not political games or economics -- underscore intractable conflicts like those between the Israelis and the Palestinians that defy the rational give-and-take of business-like negotiation. Field experiments in Israel, Palestine, Nigeria, and the United States indicate that commitment to such values can motivate and sustain wars beyond reasonable costs and casualties.

So what are the practical implications of these findings? Perhaps most importantly, our research explains why efforts to broker peace that rely on money or other material incentives are doomed when core values clash. In our studies with colleagues in Afghanistan, India, Indonesia, Iran, the Levant, and North Africa, we found that offers of material incentives to compromise on sacred values often backfire, actually increasing anger and violence toward a deal. For example, a 2010 study of attitudes toward Iran's nuclear program found that most Iranians do not view the country's nuclear program as sacred. But for about 13 percent of the population, the program has been made sacred through religious rhetoric. This group, which tends to be close to the regime, now believes a nuclear program is bound up with the national identity and with Islam itself. As a result, offering these people material rewards or punishments to abandon the program only increases their anger and support for it. Predictably, new sanctions, or heightened perception of sanctions, generate even more belligerent statements and actions by the regime to increase the pace, industrial capacity, and level of uranium enrichment. Of course, majority discontent with sanctions may yet force the regime to change course, or to double down on repression.

Understanding how this process plays out over time is a key to helping friends, thwarting enemies, and managing conflict. The ultimate goal of such research is to help save lives, resources, and national treasure. And by generating psychological knowledge about how culturally diverse individuals and groups advance values and interests that are potentially compatible or fundamentally antagonistic to our own, it can help keep the nation's citizens, soldiers, and potential allies out of harm's way. Our related research on the spiritual and material aspects of environmental disputes between Native American and majority-culture populations in North America and Central America has also revealed surprising but practical ways to reduce conflict and sustainably manage forest commons and wildlife. 

The would-be defunders of social science denounce an ivory tower that seems to exist only in their imagination -- willfully ignoring evidence-based reasoning and results in order to advance a political agenda. Only $11 million of the NSF's $7 billion-plus budget goes to political science research. It is exceedingly doubtful that getting rid of the entire NSF political science budget, which is equal to 0.5 percent of the cost of a single B-2 bomber, would really help to produce life-saving cancer research, where testing for even a single drug can cost more to develop than a B-2. Not that we must choose between either, mind you.

Social science is in fact moving the "hard" sciences forward. Consider the irony: a close collaborator on the "sacred values" project, Robert Axelrod, former president of the American Political Science Association, recently produced a potentially groundbreaking cancer study based on social science modeling of cancer cells as cooperative agents in competition with communities of healthy cells. Independent work by cancer researchers in the United States and abroad has established that the cooperation among tumor cells that Axelrod and colleagues proposed does in fact take place in cell lines derived from human cancers, which has significant implications for the development of effective treatments.

Research from other fields of social science, including social and cognitive psychology and anthropology, continue to have deep implications for an enormous range of human problems: including how to better design and navigate transportation and communication networks, or manage airline crews and cockpits; on programming robots for industry and defense; on modeling computer systems and cybersecurity; on reconfiguring emergency medical care and diagnoses; in building effective responses to economic uncertainty; and enhancing industrial competitiveness and innovation. For example, perhaps the greatest long-term menace to the security of U.S. industry and defense is cyberwarfare, where the most insidious and hard-to-manage threat may stem not from hardware or software vulnerabilities but from "wetware," the inclinations and biases of socially interacting human brains -- as in just doing a friend a favor (like "click this link" or "can I borrow your flash drive?"). In recognition of that fact, Axelrod has suggested to the White House and Defense Department an "honor code" encouraging individuals to not only maintain cybersecurity themselves, but also not to lapse into doing favors for friends and to report such lapses in others.

Elected officials have the mandate to set priorities for research funding in the national interest. Ever since Abraham Lincoln established the National Academy of Sciences, however, a clear priority has been to allow scientific inquiry fairly free rein -- to doubt, challenge, and ultimately change received wisdom if based on solid logic and evidence. What Rep. Cantor and like-minded colleagues seem to be saying is that this is fine, but only in the fields they consider expedient: in technology, medicine, and business. (Though possibly they mean to make an exception for the lucrative social science of polling, which can help to sell almost anything -- even terrible ideas like defunding the rest of social science.)

It's stunning to think that these influential politicians and the people who support them don't want evidence-based reasoning and research to inform decisions concerning the nature and needs of our society -- despite the fact that the vast majority of federal and state legislation deals with social issues, rather than technology or defense. To be sure, there is significant waste and wrongheadedness in the social sciences, as there is in any science (in fact, in any evolutionary process that progresses by trial and error), including, most recently, billions spent on possibly misleading use of mice in cancer research.

But those who would defund social science seriously underestimate the relationship between the wide-ranging freedom of scientific research and its pointed impact, and between theory and practice: Where disciplined imagination sweeps broadly to discover, say, that devoted actors do not respond to material incentives or disincentives (e.g., sanctions) in the same way that rational actors do, or that communities of people and body cells may share deep underlying organizational principles and responses to threats from outside aggressors, such knowledge can have a profound influence on our lives and wellbeing.

Even before they revolted in 1776, the American colonists may have already enjoyed the world's highest standard of living. But they wanted something different: a free and progressive society, which money couldn't buy. "Money has never made man happy, nor will it," gibed Ben Franklin, but "if a man empties his purse into his head no one can take it away from him; an investment in knowledge always pays the best interest." He founded America's first learned society "to improve the common stock of knowledge," which called for inquiry into many practical matters as well as "all philosophical Experiments that Light into the Nature of Things ... and multiply the Conveniences or Pleasures of Life." George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, James Madison, and John Marshall all joined Franklin's society and took part in the political, social, and economic revolution it helped spawn. Like the Founding Fathers, we want our descendants to be able to envision great futures for our country and a better world for all. For that, our children need the broad understanding of how the world works that the social sciences can provide -- not just a technical education for well-paying jobs.