Harold Hutchison / April 17, 2019

Keep the Coast Guard Close to Home

While the Navy is short on ships, a USCG cutter is in the Taiwan Strait for exercises.

Last month, the United States conducted a “freedom of navigation” exercise in the Taiwan Strait, a body of water between the island of Taiwan (the bulk of the territory of the Republic of China) and the “People’s Republic” of China. One of the ships taking part in this wasn’t a warship, though. It was the national security cutter USCGC Bertholf.

Now, we have been talking about the U.S. Navy’s lack of hulls in the water for quite a while. It has been very visible in both the mismanaged carrier force and the shrinking submarine force. But this has to be another sign of just how desperately short we are when it comes to the force structure.

We have also mentioned in the past just how badly the Coast Guard is stretched. The good news is that the Bertholf-class cutters will at the very least replace the older Hamilton-class cutters on a one-for-one basis. But sending them into the middle of a contested strait is simply stupid — especially given the experience of USS Mason (DDG 87) off the coast of Yemen in 2016. That vessel was fired on multiple times by Iranian-backed Houthi forces.

USS Mason had advanced radars, electronic warfare systems, surface-to-air missiles, as well as point-defense systems to protect itself. The vessel did so successfully, and we retaliated … with a grand total of three Tomahawks. But our efforts to keep Iran from gaining control of Yemen don’t need rehashing today. The problem is that the Bertholf does not have many of those systems, and could easily have been hit by the Iranian-built anti-ship missiles.

What it does have, according to the 16th Edition of the Naval Institute Guide to Combat Fleets of the World, is one 57mm gun, a Mk 15 Phalanx Close-In Weapon System, and a bunch of .50-caliber machine guns. They also have some decoy launchers and electronic-warfare systems. Now, in the past, Coast Guard cutters had the ability to add Harpoon anti-ship missiles, but those aren’t normally carried.

The thing is, the Navy has bought a number of littoral combat ships with an armament not much heavier than that of the Bertholf-class cutters. In 2010, USS Freedom carried out a deployment with Southern Command and made four drug busts and two port visits in 47 days. The Navy should hand their current littoral combat ships over to the Coast Guard and buy the up-armed versions that are part of the FFG(X) competition as replacements on a one-for-one basis. A modified version of the Bertholf is also one of the competitors for the Navy’s new frigate program, and packs a lot more punch — and it should be one of the designs the Navy buys to fix its shortage of hulls in the water, given how the Bertholf was sent to work with an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer. Granted, the Alvaro de Bazan design that is also competing for the FFG(X) contract would be a better option to pair with a Burke, but the fact is, you don’t send a Coast Guard cutter to face the Chinese military without a major upgrade.

But the fact of the matter is that the Coast Guard should be staying closer to the American coast. Granted, they need new icebreakers, given the sad state of their current icebreaker fleet, but the ones they have may need to be kept closer to home. Face it, when you only have one operational heavy icebreaker, it shouldn’t be 11,000 miles away. The Coast Guard is planning new icebreakers, but they are a long way off. Given the global commitments of the United States, the Navy should also get into the icebreaker game — ideally with icebreakers that have the firepower to take on Russia in the Arctic.

The Coast Guard has to cover and secure a coastline that is six times as long as the border with Mexico, and with maybe two-thirds of the personnel of Customs and Border Protection. Given that reality, we shouldn’t be sending Coast Guard cutters to do Navy missions.

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