Maritime Security U.S. Coast Guard
Maritime Extended Border Security

© 2017 FrontLine Security (Vol 12, No 1)

The USCG is currently part of the Department of Homeland Security and is also part of the Department of Defense, through Title X of the National Defense Act. It is a hybrid agency that works maritime security in the broad sense of the word – from the low end to the higher end of the threat environment.


Coast Guard Cutter Stratton boarding team investigates a self-propelled semi-­submersible vessel after intercepting it in ­international waters off the coast of Central America. (Coast Guard photo: Petty Officer 2nd Class LaNola Stone)

It is a law enforcement agency with a range of unique authorities for enforcing U.S. law on the relevant waterways. Since the events of 9/11, it has focused on a broader outward reach to intercept and deal with threats to the United States.

On 20 January 2017, General John Kelly, a retired U.S. Marine Corps General and former commander of the U.S. Southern Command, was appointed as the head of Homeland Security. This should auger well for the U.S. Coast Guard as Kelly will work to better integrate the department and to shape a more integrated capability to provide for expanded border security.

As the key agency serving SOUTHCOM, Coast Guard officers are key members of the command, and, indeed, as forces have been moved from Western Hemisphere duties, has become the key agency in implementing extended efforts related to securing the maritime borders of the United States. This includes engaging with relevant governments in the region.

Recently, I had a chance to discuss the security perspective with the Commandant of the USCG, Admiral Paul Zukunft in his office in Washington DC. The last time I met with Admiral Zukunft, he was working at USCG headquarters in California and was responsible for Pacific operations. He would later add “Commander, Coast Guard Pacific Area” to his resumé.

For Admiral Zukunft, the USCG’s role in Western Hemisphere security and defense has been significant, specifically as other DOD and security assets have deployed to the Middle East and the Pacific to deal with other global issues.

The USCG today is quite different from 20 years ago. It operates now within an intelligence and operational web that provides a very different approach to deploying assets against threats.

The Commandant put it this way: “A key requirement for mission success is leveraging intelligence. We work intelligence across our agencies and internationally. This is crucial to provide risk-informed decision-making.” He went on to talk of “constrained resources” and the “need to prioritize threats across the spectrum of operations.”

To deal with drug traffic on the waterways, Adm Zukunft explains that the Coast Guard focuses on the transit zones to find choke points on the water and ashore. “We work with a number of key governments in the Western Hemisphere to shape more effective intervention.”

A key concern of homeland security is the “conveyer belt” of maritime trade, which translates to about $4.5 trillion per year flowing through American waterways and ports.

Through its legal authorities and its role in the extended deterrence against security threats, the USCG has a much greater role in security than is generally recognized – a fact not lost on the Commandant.

“When you lay a map of the world flat and you look at where the USCG has authority, it reaches right up to the territorial seas surrounding the U.S. and, in many cases, inside the territorial seas. With the agreements we have now worldwide we do not have to wait till an anomaly in the manifest of cargo ship alerts us to a threat and simply have to wait till it shops up – we can intercept at sea and do a security check.”


27 October 2016 – Coast Guard Cutter Waesche seized nearly 20 tons of narcotics interdicted in international waters off the coast of Central and South America. (U.S. Coast Guard photo: Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrea Anderson)

Clearly, the USCG is involved in border and port security, and has evolved an approach that is designed to go after threats as far away from the homeland as possible. The Commandant drove home this point repeatedly during the interview.

“Rather than having a goal line defense concept, we have a forward defense strategy. When I think of a border, it begins at the territorial seas of the Pacific and Caribbean nations which we deal with. We have the ability to detect anomalies; we have authorities and then, when it comes down to the resources, [we are] able to target that threat and meet it on an open playing field rather than a goal line defense. You might call this a layered defense strategy, but I prefer to call it an offensive approach whereby the USCG can leverage its authorities as far removed from the goal line as possible and practicable,” he explains. “For example, I have discussed with the [Chief of Naval Operations] the concept that we would create a permanent USCG presence in the South China Sea and related areas. This would allow us to expand our working relationship with Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan. We can spearhead work with allies on freedom of navigation exercises as well.”

The problem is that the USCG has been significantly under resourced for years. There are not enough ships or planes, or funds for ISR, C2, or maintenance. The reality is, funding has been cut to the point that the Coast Guard has many more missions than the resources required to execute them. While insiders are hopeful that the new Administration will reverse this trend, the Commandant did not focus on the politics but on the challenges for the operating fleet.


Coast Guard Commandant, Admiral Paul Zukunft (right), and U.S. Southern Command Commander, General John Kelly meet at U.S. Southern Command Headquarters (Sept 2014), to discuss strategic objectives, mutual priorities and opportunities for collaboration in Latin America and the Caribbean. The meeting centered on the synchronization safety and security efforts along U.S. and regional borders, plus outlining new initiatives, such as the U.S. Coast Guard Western Hemisphere strategy. (U.S. Coast Guard: Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley)

After decommissioning of the last of the U.S. Navy’s Oliver Hazard Perry-class patrol frigates, which often performed counter-narcotics missions, the USCG took up the slack. However, based on its already depleted resources, its capacity for drug interdiction is compromised. “On the best of days, you have three coast guard ships in the Caribbean. That is your entire force to deal with threats in that region. We have 80% [domain] awareness on the best of days, and perhaps we can target 10% of that drug flow.”

He notes that “there is usually much less focus upon sustainability, but there are serious shortfalls which need to be addressed to have an effective force going forward.”

Another area of increasing demand is the Arctic. The USCG has been a leader in shaping the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, which has been based on the long standing Pacific Coast Guard Forum.


16 Jan 2017 – The crew of Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star operates off the shore of Antarctica. (U.S. Coast Guard photo: Chief Petty Officer David Mosley)

According to the Commandant, the Arctic Coast Guard Forum “allows the key national stakeholders in Arctic safety and security to work together where possible to enhance safety and security in this dynamic region.” A mass rescue exercise around Iceland is planned for 2017 and will include Denmark and other NATO partners in a collective security effort.

He asserts that the USCG is now the key sea service for the Arctic because the USN has effectively devolved Arctic security responsibilities to Coast Guard.

Here too, there is a clear gap between the reality of the need and the capability to provide for Arctic security. For example, a shortage of both icebreakers and National Security Cutters underscore the significant gap between U.S. aspirations to be a key Arctic power and the reality apparent in absent capabilities.

The Commandant affirms that the Coast Guard needs a new icebreaker. “We've written the operational requirement documents that make the icebreaker a floating command and control platform. We can put a skiff on it; it’s also an instrument to enforce sovereignty. Rather than ice hardened, you [must have] an ice breaking capability up there as well. It is extremely hard to predict what that area is going to look like in 20-30 years, but without a new icebreaker we will be observers more than participants in shaping Arctic safety and security.”


San Diego, 7 April 2016 – U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf crewmembers offload approximately 14 tons of cocaine. (U.S. Coast Guard photo: Petty Officer 1st Class Rob Simpson.)

A major challenge facing the USCG in common with other U.S. security agencies, and among allies, is the ability of the bad guys to tap into innovative technologies, such as networking, communications and diverse transportation assets and innovations associated with those assets.

Evolving technologies as well as concepts of operations by adversaries is a key part of the security as well as the military equation. Within the security domain, the various non-state actors are clearly innovative in shaping what are called, in the military domain, “asymmetric” threats. This is clearly true in the security domain as well.

A case in point is the semi-submersible ship or “sub” which has become part of the drug trade. Over the past decade, several innovations in the use of semi-submersible or submersible technology have been used to transport drugs. Dubbed “narco subs” these low profile vessels have been used increasingly in the drug trade, and the USCG solution to finding and prosecuting these assets is clearly to utilize the combined technological ISR approach (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance)  to pinpoint the target and then board and seize the illegal product on board.

The challenge was described in an interview I did onboard the National Security Cutter Bertholf. According to the Captain, “the smugglers are using a variety of vessels. They’re using single engine vessels close into shore. They’re using single engine vessels further off shore. They’re using multi-engine vessels in shore, and off shore. They’re using fishing vessels. They’re using semi-submersibles, and they’re using fully submersibles.” He noted that, when networked with other assets, the National Security Cutter is a key enabler for prosecuting such a diverse threat.

The Bertholf crew had completed two patrols (a 30-day and 90+day) to the Eastern Pacific and then conducted a 102-day deployment to Alaska, which also included a patrol of the Hawaiian Exclusive Economic Zone, before returning to homeport.


Crews of Coast Guard Cutter Tahoma and Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron from Jacksonville, on the flight deck during a 49-day Eastern Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea patrol. The crews ­confiscated approximately 3,130 kilograms of cocaine worth a street value of $90 million. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

“Down in the Eastern Pacific, we had seven different interdictions highlighted by a couple early on in our deployment. We got a call from our tactical commander that said, “We need you here sooner […] can you make 20+ knots for the next 1000 miles so we can get you down here early?” We easily made the speed using just the diesel engines, allowing us to not only arrive on scene more quickly, but also with plenty of fuel for mission end game.” The speedy response allowed Bertholf (along with a maritime patrol aircraft) to assume the role of the primary asset looking for a fully submersible vessel that was smuggling drugs.

“Even with limited underwater sensors, using reach back into the different intelligence communities, and communicating across different levels of government, we were able to keep ourselves in proximity to the threat for an extended period of time, to the point that they ended up scuttling the submarine,” he recalls.

The Commandant highlights that the addition of this new ship class – the offshore patrol cutter – is crucial for the next phase of USCG modernization. “We have been struggling to get a program of record of the national security cutter across the finish line, and the offshore patrol cutter is really the biggest acquisition for our service to provide the presence and enforcement assets which can provide for enhanced safety in security in our operations worldwide, but notably for extended border security for the United States.”

In spite of the equipment shortfalls, the USCG is crucial to any effective border security approach likely to be adopted by the Trump Administration – and General Kelly, working with the USCG, will clearly shape an innovative approach.

As Admiral Zukunft points out: “We see our role as providing a key contribution to national security in dealing with non-state actors – whether it’s the threat of piracy, transnational crime or drug dealing. The USCG provides unique authorities with Title 10 and Title 14 [which outlines the roles of the armed forces and coast guard, respectively, in the United States Code] to provide for a unique instrument of security – particularly when one is looking at a more offensive approach to protecting our borders.”

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Robbin Laird is a defence and security analyst based in Virginia.

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