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!