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It is important that Americans understand the considerable value that the Coast Guard provides in an evolving and indeterminate threat environment. They are not just a force that protects domestic mariners and responds to the ever-expanding needs of hurricane season. They can counter irregular threats from great power competitors and assist allies in bolstering their capabilities to do the same. In these regards, the Coast Guard is a defense force multiplier as well as America’s premier maritime law enforcement agency.
It is important that Americans understand the considerable value that the Coast Guard provides in an evolving and indeterminate threat environment. They are not just a force that protects domestic mariners and responds to the ever-expanding needs of hurricane season. They can counter irregular threats from great power competitors and assist allies in bolstering their capabilities to do the same. In these regards, the Coast Guard is a defense force multiplier as well as America’s premier maritime law enforcement agency. (Jonathan R. Cilley/Coast Guard)

When Chinese naval vessels conducted military exercises off the coast of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, the Coast Guard responded by shadowing the vessels and monitoring their activities. When Iranian fast-attack boats charged at U.S. Navy ships in the Strait of Hormuz, the Coast Guard repelled them with a barrage of warning shots. From training allies and defending international maritime norms, to taking down drug smugglers and repelling enemy ships, the Coast Guard fills a unique and vital role between diplomacy and lethality. But that role is being overlooked and, subsequently, underfunded.

It is important that Americans understand the considerable value that the Coast Guard provides in an evolving and indeterminate threat environment. They are not just a force that protects domestic mariners and responds to the ever-expanding needs of hurricane season. They can counter irregular threats from great power competitors and assist allies in bolstering their capabilities to do the same. In these regards, the Coast Guard is a defense force multiplier as well as America’s premier maritime law enforcement agency.

As Adm. Karl Shultz, commandant of the Coast Guard, recently stated, the Coast Guard is the combination of “Department of State diplomacy and Department of Defense lethality.” This not only applies to the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific, but also to the Arctic where a battle for resources and waterway access is already very much underway. Adversaries recognize that the best means of probing American vulnerabilities in contested regions is not through full military incursion, but through the use of irregular forces such as state-backed fishing militias or dual-use shipping vessels. In such scenarios where military confrontation is not proportional, it is the Coast Guard that is best positioned to defend America’s interests and repel malevolent activities.

But several factors are threatening the future viability of such Coast Guard operations. The deterioration of Coast Guard facilities, often referred to as shore infrastructure, is particularly concerning. These facilities have not only fallen into disrepair as a result of long neglect in congressional funding, but also due to damage from hurricanes and other severe weather events. Dilapidated facilities such as these are harmful to retention efforts and are particularly detrimental to the morale of Coast Guard families. Retention of families is also impacted by the pronounced need for increased child care options, the lack of which has had a particularly detrimental effect on retention of female Coast Guard servicemembers.

Pay parity with the Department of Defense is another area of neglect that should be addressed immediately. Unlike the other branches of the armed forces, which are housed within the Department of Defense, the Coast Guard does not have guaranteed protection for its employees’ paychecks in the event of a government shutdown or lapse in government funding. This resulted in Coast Guard members working without pay during the government shutdown in 2019. This is unacceptable given the perilous mission that the Coast Guard is tasked with. Congress must rectify this situation immediately.

America’s efforts to assist our allies, defend our maritime interests, and advance our national security will all place a much greater emphasis on the Coast Guard in the years to come. This type of “gray area” operational capability will be increasingly crucial in 21st-century great power competition. It is imperative that both the American people and their representatives in Congress recognize this. The time to invest in our Coast Guard is now and we must not fail.

Mike Stevens, now retired, served as the 13th Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy. He is CEO of the Navy League of the United States.

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