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.