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.