Time For A Fully Integrated Dual-Fleet Force Model
Editors note: This essay is the fifth in a series of eight articles, “Maritime Strategy on the Rocks,” that examines different aspects and implications of the recently released tri-service maritime strategy, Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power. Be sure to read the first, second, third, fourth, sixth, and seventh articles. We thank Prof. Jon Caverley of the U.S. Naval War College for his assistance in coordinating this series.
Why are so many countries opting to invest as much — if not more — in their coast guards compared to conventional naval forces? Perhaps the more pressing question for naval planners, strategists, and statesmen alike is why the United States is not following suit. China already has the world’s largest coast guard with plans for further fleet expansion. Russia is rapidly expanding the size and utility of its coast guard — particularly in its contentious “near abroad.” And both primary U.S. competitors regularly position their coast guards as preferred frontline forces in day-to-day competition below the level of armed conflict. Despite this emerging “era of the coast guards,” recent naval force structure recommendations neglect to mention, let alone suggest, a corresponding need for more U.S. Coast Guard forces. However, as some already suggest, the recently released tri-service maritime strategy, Advantage at Sea, may support a better-balanced fleet.
The changing character of contemporary warfare requires a comprehensive, clear-eyed assessment of modern competitors, tactics, and related realities. Specifically, Advantage at Sea compels the naval service to look beyond its traditional “lethality cult” and corresponding emphasis on large conventional Navy fleet engagements. The legacy notion that a naval force optimized for high-end conventional conflict is capable of fighting or deterring all lesser forms of conflict does not comport with the current operational environment.
Today, most major U.S. competitors front their gradual shaping campaigns with ambiguous, non-conventional naval forces and tactics. This makes conventional naval forces ill-suited for maritime competition below the level of armed conflict. Therefore, one of the primary challenges facing the naval service (i.e., Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard) is how best to integrate and synchronize an optimally mixed national fleet to compete below the level of armed conflict while sustaining high-end lethality and conventional deterrence. Navy forces alone cannot assure U.S. “advantage at sea.” And while this emphasis on integration and synchronization aligns with the doctrinal definition of strategy, it is not clear what this looks like and how it will occur.
Naval planners should be reminded that smart adversaries do not play to U.S. strengths and, instead, seek to exploit weaknesses. And one of those weaknesses is America’s legacy fleet structure. Continually defaulting to gray-hull (i.e., Navy) responses to gray-zone challenges merely reinforces competitor narratives, which attempt to frame U.S. actions as overly militaristic, antagonistic, escalatory, or destabilizing. In the current era of perception warfare and growing competition for favorable access and influence, U.S. leadership desperately needs more measured, competitive options.
To effectively counter gray-zone activities — tactics short of armed conflict, which have propelled competitors like Russia and China from positions of weakness to relative strength, and are steadily becoming the new norm — the naval service needs proportional response capabilities. The naval service cannot achieve this with an exclusively gray and high-end-focused battle fleet — particularly amid growing demand for the Coast Guard. The Hudson Institute’s Bryan Clark, referring to hard choices, stated that “today’s world of aggressive maritime competition, gray-zone and hybrid warfare, and highly contested operational environments requires a different fleet design.” To counter this trend and regain America’s competitive advantage, Congress and the collective naval service should fully commit to a more balanced, dual-fleet model capable of countering gray-zone tactics while maintaining conventional strength and deterrence.
The current and projected operational environment demands a hybrid, dual-fleet emphasis that differs from past arguments for a high-low mix of exclusively gray hulls. The legacy fleet model — emphasizing a large Navy occasionally augmented by finite Coast Guard forces — heavily relies on Navy ships to conduct high-demand overseas policing or constabulary missions for which it is not optimally organized, manned, trained, and equipped. These operations other than war are often considered distractions from the Navy’s primary warfighting missions that, as a result, risk degrading its combat readiness. In most cases, the Navy is required to embark Coast Guard personnel to perform policing missions, while justifying such missions based on shortages of Coast Guard cutter capacity. The United States needs a more balanced, integrated dual fleet that emphasizes conventional Navy gray hulls optimized solely for high-end naval warfighting paired with an equal, if not greater, emphasis on a white-hulled constabulary Coast Guard fleet specializing in lower-intensity conflict and gray-zone competition. Furthermore, an integrated dual fleet requires rebalancing naval mission prioritization (and acquisitions) to reflect the Coast Guard as the more appropriate and thus primary naval force for gray-zone competition and steady-state order maintenance duties.
And since discussions about future fleet design are ongoing, this piece addresses common myths and misconceptions about Coast Guard naval integration and relevancy. This includes past and present arguments for an integrated dual fleet; how cutters can and should qualify as contemporary battle fleet warships; and why cutters should — as part of the U.S. national fleet — be counted and thus promoted as part of the optimal mix of no fewer than 355 battle force ships mandated by the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act and, specifically, the Securing the Homeland by Increasing our Power on the Seas (SHIPS) Act.
Early Dual-Fleet Advocates
Entering into a new millennium, naval strategist Colin Gray in 2001 advocated for an integrated fleet by emphasizing that given “the fact that the United States has the world’s best Coast Guard (as well as the world’s best Navy, by far), there is every reason for exploiting the duality of its services.” In the same piece, Gray references a Naval War College Review article from 2000 arguing that “a U.S. Navy properly and jointly directed in strategic terms should focus on higher-risk tasks that fit logically and prudently with its trends in equipment acquisition, leaving as many extramilitary maritime security tasks as possible to the Coast Guard.”
Another prominent naval strategist, Wayne Hughes, was also an early 21st century proponent of a hybrid, dual-force model. This was highlighted in Capt. Peter Haynes’ 2015 book, Toward a New Maritime Strategy. Specifically, Haynes mentions that Hughes “argued for improving constabulary functions and building partnership capacity to counter low-end threats, which highlighted the Coast Guard’s role.” Similar arguments persist today.
Naval leadership in the early 2000s came to similar conclusions. Former Coast Guard Commandant Adm. James Loy commented that the goal of the Coast Guard should not be to become the second-best navy in the world. Similarly, a key finding from the president-directed “Report of the Interagency Task Force on U.S. Coast Guard Roles and Missions” noted that, “[i]t is not cost effective for the Navy to operate a class of ships to perform the national defense missions of the Coast Guard while the nation also maintains a fully capable Coast Guard.”
Then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Mullen also leaned toward an integrated dual-fleet emphasis. He commented that, “along with the Marine Corps, our relationship with the Coast Guard is the most critical relationship we can possibly have when it comes to securing the maritime domain” and that “while we remain separate services, we recognize that full cooperation and integration of our non-redundant and complementary capabilities must be achieved.” Such statements reinforced the recently revised national fleet concept, where Navy and Coast Guard leadership agreed to “plan and build a National Fleet of multi-mission assets … to optimize our effectiveness across the full spectrum of naval and maritime missions.” These and similar realizations prompted the release of the Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower — the first naval service strategy to incorporate the Coast Guard, although it still failed to solidify a dual-fleet emphasis and corresponding unity of effort.
Collectively, all of these comments reinforce establishing a fleet model that better leverages each service’s complementary access, authorities, capabilities, and partnerships. Perpetual attempts to overlap and thus confuse each naval service’s priority roles and missions are neither cost effective nor operationally effective in the current environment. This is also inconsistent with the basic economic principle of specialization and Advantage at Sea’s emphasis on better leveraging each service’s complementary (i.e., non-duplicative) capabilities and authorities.
High Demand for Low-End Competition
The need for a modern high-low mix was the subject of a 2017 white paper drafted by the late Sen. John McCain. A simple re-balancing of integrated naval forces along complementary strengths and priority mission areas offers a much more practical, expedient, and cost-effective method of employment. This will ultimately require the better leveraging (and likely expansion) of organic Coast Guard capabilities — something already supported within the existing U.S. national fleet construct. A multiple navies approach is not unprecedented. In fact, America’s primary competitors already — and rather effectively — operate multi-fleet designs to offset America’s conventional advantage. This was highlighted in a June 2020 War on the Rocks piece, warning that “China is working to improve the integration of the largest commercial shipbuilding infrastructure, largest fishing fleet, largest Coast Guard, and second largest Navy in the world. This integration enables China to more effectively project sea power.” In this particular instance, the United States should take a page out of China’s recent playbook.
Recent publications and conversations within key strategic circles also signal growing advocacy for greater dual-fleet investments. One theme that features prominently is growing demand for more “white ships for the gray zone.” Highlighting this point, one of the U.S. Naval War College’s premier China maritime experts, Dr. Lyle Goldstein, wrote in his 2010 “Five Dragons” report, that “coast guards have taken new and leading roles on the world stage.” RAND researcher Lyle Morris echoed similar themes in 2017 in “The Rise of Coast Guards” and “The Era of The Coast Guards in the Asia-Pacific Is Upon Us.” These and related themes advocating for more Coast Guard, rather than Navy, to counter growing gray-zone challenges continue today. Noticeably lacking, however, are comparable articles advocating for more gray hulls to counter gray-zone challenges. Rather, most of these articles assert that conventional gray hulls remain ill-suited for gray-zone challenges.
Speaking specifically about Advantage at Sea, the acting deputy chief of naval operations for warfighting development, Rear Adm. James Bynum, stated that “we have to have a force that’s not just focused on that high end” while also emphasizing that “the partners and the authorities and the capabilities and the things that the Coast Guard can bring in the day to day is key to this.” The Center for Naval Analyses’ Dr. Joshua Tallis also reiterated that “great power competition is not only about preparing for conflict” and that “low-end maritime security missions that bolster U.S. credibility … are central to day-today competition.” Tallis further argues that these low-end missions constitute “core functions for the Coast Guard” and that the “Coast Guard does (and should continue to) play an integral role in reinforcing good order at sea and compliance with international norms.” Experts from the Center for International Maritime Security also reinforced that “the CNO should make it clear that the USCG is an integrated part of the nation’s maritime force structure. Not doing so only marginalizes one of America’s best tools for maritime gray-zone competition and contributes to an overly narrow focus on conventional naval combat.”
Amid this drive toward greater naval service integration, naval planners and political leadership should examine options to not only count but advocate for more cutters as a way to optimally balance (i.e., succeed along the entire competition continuum) a more competitive U.S. battle fleet. Beyond reinforcing Coast Guard relevancy, a critical next step toward a dual-fleet focus requires overcoming common myths and/or misconceptions about Coast Guard naval integration. This requires a brief examination of some key foundational documents.
The SHIPS Act
When Congress passed the Fiscal Year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, it included a provision making a 355-ship fleet law under the Securing the Homeland by Increasing our Power on the Seas Act (SHIPS) Act. While short on specifics, the brief two-part description of the law is worthy of closer examination with respect to whether cutters can or should be included in the battle force ship count. Two items stand out in the language, including a reference to “battle force ships” and an “optimal mix” of (non-specific) platforms. The definition of what constitutes battle force ships is articulated in Secretary of the Navy Instruction 5030.8C. What constitutes an optimal mix is still the subject of much debate.
Based on Advantage at Sea and Joint Doctrine Note 1-19, a more contemporary definition of “battle” and “battle force ships” is probably warranted. Still, according to the Secretary of the Navy Instruction, the designation of a battle force ship is not limited to large conventional gray-hulled surface combatants, such as cruisers and destroyers. Various military sealift, naval reserve auxiliary, and other ship types that are “…routinely requested by a Combatant Commander and are allocated via the Global Force Management Allocation Plan, may be counted” as battle force ships.
Coast Guard cutters are not only regularly requested each year by combatant commanders, but they also often make up the majority of the forward U.S. naval surface presence in certain theaters. U.S. Southern Command, in particular, relies almost exclusively on the Coast Guard to project consistent U.S. naval surface presence in the theater. U.S. Southern Command’s commander, Adm. Craig Faller, recently stated that “we need more ships” and “our Coast Guard performed brilliantly supplying more ships than they’d even promised through the allocation process.” These comments came on the heels of one of only two operational deployments of a Littoral Combat Ship — the Navy’s sole small surface combatant — to the Southern Command theater.
The Coast Guard’s unique operational capabilities are not, however, restricted to the U.S. coastline or even the western hemisphere. Amid growing global demand for greater U.S. naval presence, cutters regularly conduct out-of-hemisphere deployments to the Gulf of Guinea and the Western Pacific in response to growing demand from Department of Defense combatant commanders and U.S. strategic partners. Therefore, according to existing Navy regulations, major cutters already meet the basic criteria to be considered battle force ships. All that is required to officially designate cutters as such is a recommendation for their inclusion into the battle force fleet from the chief of naval operations to the secretary of the Navy.
A Fleet Designed for Advantage at Sea
The reality remains that the Coast Guard is ideally suited for contemporary gray-zone challenges and constabulary missions at the lower end of the threat continuum, while the Navy retains its high-end focus and supremacy. Maritime gray-zone competition fits squarely within existing Coast Guard missions centering on maritime governance and rule of law, i.e., not something new or unprecedented. Lethality remains important, but if other national defense priorities (e.g., expanding the competitive space and improving allies and partners) can be more effectively employed, it may make the use of lethality much less probable and certainly less costly. Regardless, under the popular premise of “if it floats it fights,” cutters are still very much in the fight.
The efficacy of integrating cutters into a hybrid high-low battle fleet also does not preclude expanding to well beyond 355 ships. A dual fleet consisting of 500 (or more) mixed platforms may prove to be what is required to meet the multitude of mission demands spanning the competition continuum. And rather than purchasing 80 corvettes, as several recent studies suggest, a much more expedient and cost-effective option may include expanding the number of comparable cutters and personnel. With the Coast Guard’s Offshore Patrol Cutter program still in the early stages of construction, this may present opportunities to simply expand the existing program of record and/or institute slight capability modifications to better suit contemporary cutter/corvette battle fleet roles.
As naval planners grapple with implementing Advantage at Sea, they should resist temptations to cling to legacy force models that seemingly ignore those of its chief competitors. This also requires realization that prioritizing a gray-only battle fleet optimized exclusively for high-end conflict (i.e., least likely/highest risk scenario) actually creates disadvantages in day-to-day competition below the level of armed conflict. It also risks designing the wrong, or at best incomplete, balance of forces relative to the current and most immediate threats. This is not to suggest any particular service-biased approach. Rather, the intent is to reinforce that no single naval service can accomplish its missions across the competition continuum without the others — particularly in the Indo-Pacific.
Ultimately, recent fleet proposals and concepts remain largely aspirational, primarily high-end focused, and not likely to materialize — if at all — until well beyond the anticipated ten-year lifespan of the strategy. This is particularly true amid more challenging budget cycles and stalled acquisition plans. These and related circumstances present several implementation challenges for the new strategy that will inevitably require a reassessment of risk and priorities. Naval planners and political leaders may need to consider more expedient, cost effective, and operationally relevant options such as expanding the size and use of the Coast Guard to build and sustain competitive advantages short of armed conflict. However, convincing Congress to increase the Coast Guard, while simultaneously trying to expand the Navy, may prove to be the greatest challenge in building a balanced fleet capable of prevailing in day-to-day competition, while preserving lethality and conventional deterrence.
Dan Owen is a career U.S. Coast Guard officer currently assigned as a joint strategic planner in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of the Naval War College and the Joint Forces Staff College, Joint and Combined Warfighting School. He is also a fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute Eurasia Program. The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or necessarily reflecting the views of the commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.