Reorienting the Coast Guard: A Case for Patrol Forces Indo-Pacific


Today, in the Middle East, hundreds of U.S. Coast Guard personnel man six patrol boats and state-of-the-art training facilities in what is the only operational Coast Guard presence outside the United States. These forces have operated alongside the U.S. 5th Fleet since the outset of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Their unit, Patrol Forces Southwest Asia, was created at the request of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command in 2002 and has since gone about its business — supporting U.S. Navy requirements for maritime interdiction operations, escort missions, and force protection — essentially unchanged. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in the Indo-Pacific, the U.S. Coast Guard lacks even a single operational vessel west of Guam, despite the fact that it is the central theater for U.S. maritime strategy.

If the U.S. Department of Defense is serious about emerging from a period of strategic atrophy, the U.S. Coast Guard’s international posture should also change to reflect America’s emphasis on great power competition. Unfortunately, legacy defense requirements are holding the Coast Guard back. Current plans to commit a new generation of upgraded platforms to the less critical Central Command mission will serve only to lock in this resource fixation for the foreseeable future. Rather than dedicate part of its recapitalizing force to yesteryear’s strategy, the U.S. Coast Guard should seize the opportunity to reorient itself, creating a Patrol Forces Indo-Pacific to address today’s national objectives. Doing so would allow the force to turn away from the ever-distracting Central Command sideshow to invest in key security partnerships and field a credible counter to the Chinese all-of-nation long-term strategy in the Indo-Pacific.



The Coast Guard’s role as lead agency in multiple Indo-Pacific maritime security institutions, particularly the Southeast Asia Maritime Law Enforcement Initiative, provides opportunities to demonstrate America’s role as a key component of the Indo-Pacific security architecture. A larger, operational Coast Guard role in the region would reinforce this message, and contribute to regional security and sovereignty, in sharp contrast to the Chinese Communist Party’s degradation of both. With appropriate funding and manning, an operational U.S. Coast Guard unit in the Indo-Pacific would add credibility to U.S. institutional commitments at a time when American security guarantees are being challenged across the region.

Time to Pass the Baton

As former defense official Andrew Exum wrote earlier this year, decades of U.S. capacity-building efforts in the Middle East have failed to produce capabilities that benefit U.S. interests in the maritime domain. This is not to say these efforts were misguided, but building partner capacity depends on the will of partners to invest in and employ the capabilities and knowledge provided. Gulf Cooperation Council members continue to build exquisite land and air forces at the expense of maritime capabilities, thereby forcing the United States to shoulder the burden of securing waterways within the Arabian Gulf. Withdrawal of U.S. Coast Guard forces from the region could spur those countries to greater action, but this is a topic for another author. The question at hand is whether Coast Guard investment in the Arabian Gulf serves national strategy more effectively than potential investment in the Indo-Pacific. The answer is unequivocally “no.”

The proposed shift toward the Indo-Pacific and away from the Middle East is reinforced by the U.S. Coast Guard’s own 2018–2022 Strategic Plan, which calls on the service to “strategically orient time and resources toward international activities that maximize return on investment to national and Coast Guard priorities; and foster international capacity-building efforts in regions that are both critical to U.S. interests.” Reorienting its forces provides the Coast Guard with the opportunity to prioritize Indo-Pacific partners making robust efforts to improve their maritime forces, rather than continue to fill the Gulf Cooperation Council’s operational gaps for another two decades.

What Might Patrol Forces Indo-Pacific Look Like?

The Coast Guard’s six 100-foot Island-class patrol boats currently operating in the Arabian Gulf are approaching the ends of their service lives. Current procurement plans call for replacing these boats with at least four new 154-foot Sentinel-class fast response cutters. Rather than commit new, improved platforms to a less critical mission, a small number of the Coast Guard’s planned fast response cutters should form the nucleus of a strategically significant, forward-deployed Patrol Forces Indo-Pacific. The Coast Guard recently committed to basing three of these cutters in Guam within two to three years, indicating that U.S. Coast Guard leadership is already looking for ways to maintain forces forward in the near term. However, when considering the size and scope of the Indo-Pacific theater, and the fact that current requirements in the Arabian Gulf call for six boats, three cutters is only a good first step, not a complete solution. A robust force consisting of a mix of six fast response cutters, the Coast Guard’s new Heritage-class offshore patrol cutters, and perhaps a rotationally deployed national security cutter would be appropriately sized and ideally positioned to assume responsibility for security cooperation with Indo-Pacific coast guards and navies seeking increased “white hull” interaction with the United States.

A U.S. Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment, as well as an intelligence detachment, could round out the proposed Patrol Forces Indo-Pacific.. This would be consistent with previous overseas deployments that have seen these units based in, or rotationally deployed to, Bahrain in recent years. The U.S. Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachments’ specialized security cooperation mission  — training and deploying aboard partner maritime law enforcement vessels — is a sorely needed component in U.S. plans to build partners’ capacity for independent constabulary operations at sea. The detachments add further value through their capability to deploy aboard U.S. Navy ships. Effectively using a warship as an expeditionary sea base for maritime law enforcement, similar detachments have already proved invaluable within the Department of Defense’s Oceania Maritime Security Initiative. The addition of a U.S. Coast Guard intelligence detachment would serve a dual purpose. In addition to supporting the proposed Patrol Forces Indo-Pacific, a Coast Guard intelligence unit could fulfill the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act requirement for a U.S. intelligence fusion center in the Indo-Pacific without creating an unnecessary parallel structure alongside those already in existence.

What Could These Forces Accomplish?

A Coast Guard force with the ships proposed would offer operational endurance to operate across the entire Indo-Pacific for months at a time and the bench depth to participate in capacity-building exercises with a wide variety of established allies and new partners alike. By including larger national security cutters as well as smaller craft, the unit would be prepared for engagements with organizations ranging in size from small coast guards to high-end navies.

The same overarching strategic guidance that directs the Coast Guard to reorient its time and resources also highlights China and Russia as primary challenges to the rules-based international order. As deployed, the Coast Guard is not prepared to respond to these challenges or carry out the Coast Guard’s regional commitments in the Indo-Pacific, which are discussed in greater detail below. Were the Coast Guard to use the recapitalization of its cutter force as a pivot point, it could bring two decades of international security cooperation experience to bear on the foremost challenges faced by the United States. This pivot would also require buy-in from the U.S. Department of Defense, which would levy the requirement and provide funding for the new force. However, the potential return on investment for a U.S. Coast Guard squadron in the Indo-Pacific is as great for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and the U.S. Navy as it is for the U.S. Coast Guard. Bangladesh, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam are all recipients of former U.S. cutters, setting the stage for interoperability and cooperation at sea with the Coast Guard’s new cutters, all of which are also slated to receive communications and intelligence suites interoperable with U.S. Navy assets. Creating a Coast Guard squadron capable of executing security cooperation engagements as well as operating in support of naval requirements would buttress partners’ efforts to keep the seas free from coercion and illicit activity as well as provide critical support to the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet. Working in concert with a forward-deployed Expeditionary Sea Base expected to arrive in the Indo-Pacific in coming years, a Patrol Forces Indo-Pacific would be invaluable to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, both in peacetime and in periods of crisis.

In a July 2019 interview the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Adm. Karl Schultz, signaled his desire for the U.S. Coast Guard to “be a partner of choice” in Oceania as well as to “expand [U.S. Coast Guard] permanent presence and effectiveness in the region through expeditionary capability.” In the same interview, he introduced a new operating concept through Operation Aiga, designed to bring a new mix of coast guard assets into the Pacific Islands region to accomplish those goals. When asked about East and Southeast Asia, Schultz highlighted the deployment of two Legend-class national security cutters to the region and the aforementioned transfers of decommissioned coast guard cutters to partners in need, but in discussing these high-visibility deployments, Schultz unintentionally highlighted that there is no permanent operation or in-region force available to address security issues in East and Southeast Asia on a consistent basis. While a focus on Oceania is by no means a problem, a more robust presence with an established command framework and larger area of responsibility would offer far more to the broader Indo-Pacific.

Investing in Partners

When it comes to the coast guards and navies of the Indo-Pacific, most have far more in common with the U.S. Coast Guard than with the U.S. Navy. As the former commander of Patrol Forces Southwest Asia once stated:

Most navies are not in the business of power projection. They’re in the business of enforcing sovereignty … Most other countries, whether it’s navy or coast guard, are in the business of fisheries enforcement, countersmuggling, search and rescue — missions that very much dovetail with what the U.S. Coast Guard does.

Until now, the U.S. Navy has done its best to address partners’ non-military needs in maritime security; however, the U.S. Coast Guard brings a mix of authorities to conduct both law enforcement and military functions that is uniquely suitable for these missions. The Coast Guard’s authorities, combined with membership in the U.S. intelligence community, make it the logical entity for sharing maritime law enforcement expertise with both military and constabulary agencies, as well as providing specialized training required for missions such as interdiction of maritime traffickers, fishing enforcement, and environmental protection. The Coast Guard’s unique abilities across the spectrum of operations, as stated by Schultz, “from security cooperation up to armed conflict,” only strengthen the case for creating a forward-based Indo-Pacific Coast Guard squadron.

For three years, Pacific Area, the U.S. Coast Guard’s regional command element and force provider in the Pacific, has deployed personnel to support high-visibility security cooperation events during the U.S. Navy’s Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training exercise. These forces train navies and coast guards from across the Indo-Pacific in skills including basic law enforcement and maritime interdiction operations, both on land and at sea. In 2019, Pacific Area deployed two of its premier cutters to the Indo-Pacific. The cutters, deployed back-to-back, conducted training with the navies and coast guards of U.S. allies and partners, transited the Taiwan Strait, and participated in North Korean sanctions enforcement patrols. Partner nations like Australia, Fiji, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines were eager to work with the U.S. Coast Guard, but insufficient funding and lack of in-region forces mean that these gains in goodwill and cooperation could be lost if not sustained over the next budget year. Building up a forward presence would take advantage of this momentum and seize the opportunity to bring key U.S. capabilities to bear before regional allies capitulate to Chinese pressure.

The addition of a U.S. Coast Guard squadron in the Indo-Pacific also would provide U.S. Indo-Pacific Command with an invaluable capability for use in countering Chinese maritime coercion in the region, one of the key tenets in current U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy. The much-vaunted Chinese “cabbage strategy” has stymied the U.S. and its partners over the course of the last decade. Utilized when infringing upon sovereignty of regional states, this strategy relies upon layered forces to blunt responses to aggressive Chinese maritime activities. These forces, consisting of a contact layer of civilian militia vessels backed by the white hulls of the China Coast Guard, with the People’s Liberation Army-Navy waiting in the wings over the horizon, pose a complex threat that exceeds the capabilities of nearly all Indo-Pacific states. Thus, China’s coast guard thinks little of intimidating its smaller neighbors, even when operating within their exclusive economic zones, as few states are able to muster the appropriate forces, or sufficient numbers, to face this tripartite challenge. This mix of maritime forces has even been employed effectively against U.S. Navy and naval auxiliary vessels in the South China Sea, causing dangerous, potentially escalatory incidents at sea on more than one occasion. Introducing a robust Coast Guard force would provide the U.S. with options for responding to Chinese tactics while still operating below the threshold of military conflict. Patrol Forces Indo-Pacific would play a crucial role escorting independent deployers, special mission vessels, and others — providing critical defense in depth with less risk of escalation and without tying down scarce combatants in the “oversubscribed” U.S. 7th Fleet.

Basing Considerations

Basing U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific is an admittedly delicate enterprise, particularly as relations continue to chill between the United States and China. However, creating a Patrol Forces Indo-Pacific offers an opportunity to forge new basing and deployment arrangements in the region, evolving U.S. presence and access, as called for in the Department of Defense’s 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy Report.

The readily available, though less evolutionary, option for establishment of Patrol Forces Indo-Pacific would expand upon plans to homeport three fast response cutters in Guam. Construction of a cutter maintenance facility is already underway, and Guam offers the considerable advantages of preexisting support and security infrastructure for U.S. forces. Forces stationed in Guam would offer increased capacity to more traditional Department of Homeland Security missions, but they would spend more time in transit than units based with a partner host nation.

In Southeast Asia, Singapore already hosts a significant U.S. Navy presence, as well as rotationally deployed ships. This is not to say, however, that Singapore is the only option worth considering. The U.S. Coast Guard’s role as the lead element in the Southeast Asia Maritime Law Enforcement Initiative opens up other possibilities that would prove evolutionary in terms of U.S. access and presence. Bringing together Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the United States, this initiative provides training, workshops, and working groups focused on combating illicit maritime activity within the Gulf of Thailand and its surrounding areas. As the initiative matures, it might create opportunities for co-locating U.S. personnel and patrol vessels with the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency or alongside Thai maritime law enforcement organizations in the Gulf of Thailand. There are no ready-made solutions to the challenge of finding the right host nation for such an endeavor, but there are a number of possibilities worth investigating that fulfill partners’ needs as well as further U.S. strategic interests in the theater.

Responsibility Without Resource

As the U.S. representative to both the Southeast Asia Maritime Law Enforcement Initiative and the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia, Pacific Area faces a perennial lack of dedicated resources and an ensuing yearly funding scramble to bring the Coast Guard forward into the Indo-Pacific. Shortfalls in Pacific Area operating funds are merely a subset of the broader issue of inadequate operations and readiness funding for the U.S. Coast Guard writ large, as highlighted by its commandant, and the service’s 2020 Budget Overview. A formalized, forward-based command with dedicated assets might serve to attract the requisite funding into the region that has heretofore lagged under the current organizational framework. With that said, both the service’s recapitalization of its cutter fleet and its international engagements are at risk under current budgetary restrictions — an issue that merits its own article but it suffices here to say that the U.S. Coast Guard simply cannot do more with less.

What Is Dead May Never Die

The pivot to the Pacific is dead. The rebalance is dead. Strategic defense priorities in the Indo-Pacific are being overshadowed by a trade war and Iranian provocations in the Strait of Hormuz. However, the problem has not abated, nor has its importance waned in the eyes of U.S. allies and partners. Using the U.S. Coast Guard’s recapitalization of its force as an opportunity to reallocate requirements and investment from the Arabian Gulf to the Indo-Pacific is a meaningful way to emphasize U.S. commitment to its own National Defense Strategy, Indo-Pacific Strategy, and U.S. Coast Guard Strategic Plan, not to mention U.S. allies and partners. Bolstering Coast Guard capabilities to meet the significant security cooperation challenges in its future is a key element in bringing all elements of U.S. power to bear in competing against a revisionist adversary in the Indo-Pacific, instead of relying on a navy that is both overtasked and ill-suited for the job at hand. As with all complex problems, Patrol Forces Indo-Pacific would not be a panacea, but it is an opportunity to break the inertia of bureaucratic sunk costs in the Middle East and apply hard-won skills and valuable assets to a key challenge in the Indo-Pacific.



Blake Herzinger (@BDHerzinger) is a civilian Indo-Pacific security cooperation specialist and U.S. Navy Reserve officer. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent those of his civilian employer, the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government. 

Image: U.S. Coast Guard (Photo by PA1 Nate Littlejohn)