Harold Hutchison / September 9, 2016

The Coast Guard Needs a Boost

U.S. maritime borders should be secured, too.

The U.S.-Mexico border gets a lot of attention. Yet here’s what many people don’t realize: It’s probably the shortest of the borders the United States has. The U.S.-Canadian border is longer, at 5,525 miles to 1,960. And America’s largest border is its 12,380-mile coastline — 65% longer than the combined land borders the U.S. shares with its northern and southern neighbors. Yet Customs and Border Protection, which handles the land border, has about 50% more personnel than the U.S. Coast Guard. Does something seem wrong with this picture?

It should. The Coast Guard, the smallest of America’s Armed Forces — and the only one not under the Department of Defense — has multiple missions: It is the primary maritime search-and-rescue agency; it’s responsible for interdicting drugs and migrants; and provides port security, law enforcement, national security missions, environmental protection, maritime safety, maintenance of navigation aids, and tracking of icebergs. It doesn’t just have a full plate — it has a full buffet table. In 2014, the commander of United States Southern Command, General John Kelly, admitted that 75% of drug smugglers were getting through.

Yet the Coast Guard could very well end up with fewer hulls available to put into the water — and that makes it unlikely that the percentage of smugglers getting through will go down. Plans call for eight Bertholf-class “national security” cutters to replace 12 Hamilton-class high-endurance cutters. That process is well underway, and the Hamiltons are being handed over to allies like the Philippines, giving them a needed boost (although far from what may be necessary to deal with an aggressive China). But eight hulls cannot cover 12 locations, no matter how good each individual vessel is. Quantity matters.

The same issue is emerging with the Coast Guard’s plans to replace 14 active Reliance-class and 13 Bear-class medium endurance cutters. The Offshore Patrol Cutter program plans to purchase 25 cutters to replace 27 for $484 million each. That’s pretty expensive, and here’s the kicker — there may be a better option already in service with most of the R&D already done.

The Freedom-class littoral combat ship has had its problems, to put it mildly. However, in 2010, USS Freedom racked up four drug busts in a SOUTHCOM deployment that lasted 47 days, and it made those four busts while also carrying out three “theater security cooperation” port visits. Furthermore, each of those vessels costs only $362 million — and with no R&D, the Coast Guard could afford 33 vessels for the $12.1 billion that the Offshore Patrol Cutter is slated to cost. That would give the Coast Guard 41 major cutters, as opposed to the 33 that they would have if current plans went into effect. And a bulk buy like this could further reduce the price.

But the Coast Guard has other problems, including a grand total of just 210 aircraft and helicopters. That total should be much higher, and in 2014, the Coast Guard retired its fastest aircraft, the HU-25 Guardian — hampering its ability to respond quickly to drug smuggling or other emergencies. The Coast Guard could also get some of its own eyes in the sky by getting in on the Navy’s purchase of the E-2D Hawkeye radar plane. Buying a dozen of those planes would cost about $2.15 billion — a little over 25% more than the ransom we recently paid to Iran for four hostages. It would do far more to make Americans safe.

Securing America’s maritime borders will be a need in the future — particularly if the U.S.-Mexico border is ever secured. Drug cartels will be looking for a new route to deliver their product, and if the Coast Guard is stretched too thin, the sea may very well become their avenue of choice.

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