The U.S. Coast Guard is flimsily employed as a proxy for the U.S. naval presence in the Pacific
Former US Coast Guard patrol boats refitted for the Ukrainian Navy are seen aboard the cargo ship Ocean Grand arriving at the Black Sea port of Odessa, Ukraine, November 23, 2021. Photo: AFP
In a speech to the Navy League last December, the Commander of the United States Coast Guard, Admiral Karl Schultz, bragged about the role played by his forces – the fifth and smallest of the five military services, and the only one that is not under the control of the Department of Defense (at least in peacetime) – by projecting the American presence in the Pacific Ocean. “We have access. We can go to places,” Schultz said, emphasizing his comments by highlighting the recent 102-day mission by US Coast Guard Cutter Munro. During this time, the Munro trained with American partners in the East and South China Seas, including operations that, as Schultz described, “exercised” a memorandum of understanding between the United States and the island of Taiwan. This “exercise” included a transit of the Taiwan Strait. According to Schultz, China was “pretty excited when the Coast Guard trains there with the Taiwanese,” adding that the U.S. Coast Guard mission in Taiwan was among several that “move the needle a bit” at this point. regarding foreign reaction.
The U.S. Coast Guard conducts routine deployments in the U.S. naval fleets area of responsibility, working alongside U.S. partners and allies to build what its parent organization, the Department of Homeland Security, calls “maritime domain awareness.” by sharing “best practices” with partners. national navies and coastguards. The Coast Guard’s participation in these programs is viewed by the U.S. Navy as furthering its own mission to conduct “full-spectrum joint and naval operations” in concert with allied and interagency partners in a manner that advances national interests. Americans, as well as security and stability. in regions of interest such as Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific.
What makes the US Coast Guard particularly attractive in this role is its multifaceted mandate, which allows it to move freely from the military to the civilian world. While a purely naval US presence anywhere in the world would rightly be seen as an exclusively military intervention, the US Coast Guard can refine this by asserting that its presence is tied to maritime security, enforcement of law and maritime search and rescue.
US analysts assess that China is employing tactics against the island of Taiwan to support its efforts in the South China Sea, which also crosses the border between military and civilian realms, using fishing vessels, commercial vessels and its own coast guard to gather intelligence and assert physical assets. presence in disputed territories or waters, whether for the purpose of fishing, oil exploration or simply establishing a presence. Confronting China using exclusively naval forces, these analysts say, could lead to unwanted military-on-military escalation. However, by employing ostensibly civilian vessels, such as those of the US Coast Guard and allied coast guards, the United States, these analysts say, believes it can push back against China without triggering a military response.
There is, however, a difference between how the United States seeks to thread the needle when it comes to playing legalistic puns regarding the difference between an ostensibly civilian mission and one that could be characterized as military in nature. Those responsible for defending the national security interests of a nation like China will not, ultimately, get bogged down in the intricacies of the lexicon, but rather respond to a perceived provocation with a response designed to deal with the threat as it exists and not as it is sold. By trying to navigate the legalistic gray zone between civilian and military operations, using the US Coast Guard as a proxy for US naval presence, the US is only fooling itself and, by extension, its allies.
Moreover, by deliberately abusing the legitimate maritime safety and security mission of the United States and other allied coast guards as a cover to “move the needle” in places like China and elsewhere (the coast guard equally provocative operations in the Black Sea and the Persian Gulf, targeting Russia and Iran respectively), the United States undermines legitimate maritime security by deliberately blurring the line between civilian and military operations. While senior US commanders such as Admiral Schultz might view such a game as contributing to deterrence by expanding the scope and scale of options available to US decision makers, the opposite is true – by allowing what was once considered purely civilian areas to be militarized, the United States is reducing, not increasing, the deterrent value of such operations, thereby increasing, not decreasing, the potential for conflict. Needles, it seems, don’t move on their own, and when they do, it’s usually for a reason.
The author is a former US Marine Corps intelligence officer. [email protected]