The Coast Guard is taking a frontline role against US foes on the other side of the world

Coast Guard Hamilton Bosphorus Turkey Black Sea
US Coast Guard cutter Hamilton in the Bosphorus on its way to the Black Sea, April 27, 2021.

  • In April, Coast Guard cutters had close encounters in the Persian Gulf and sailed into the Black Sea.
  • Those missions are indicative of the Coast Guard’s growing role overseas, but that increase further strains limited resources.
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Encounters far from home in April underscored the US Coast Guard’s growing overseas role, which is set to expand as more attention and resources are dedicated to countering China.

On April 2, an Iranian ship repeatedly sailed in front of Coast Guard patrol boats Wrangell and Monomoy at “an unnecessarily close range” as they operated in the Persian Gulf, which the US deemed “unsafe and unprofessional” actions.

Three weeks later, Iranian vessels again approached US ships – Navy patrol boat Firebolt and Coast Guard patrol boat Baranof – in the Gulf. After verbal warnings to the Iranian ships went unheeded, Firebolt fired warning shots.

Wrangell, Monomoy, and Baranof are all based in Bahrain as part of Patrol Forces Southwest Asia, the Coast Guard’s largest unit outside the US, which was set up in 2002 to support operations in the Middle East.

Hours after Baranof’s encounter, the Coast Guard cutter Hamilton sailed into the Black Sea, where longstanding tensions increased this spring, amid a Russian military buildup on the border with Ukraine.

Coast Guard Monomoy Persian Gulf Iran
Iranian ship Harth 55, left, crosses the bow of US Coast Guard patrol boat Monomoy, right, in the Persian Gulf, April 2, 2021.

Hamilton had escorted two cutters sailing from the US to join Patrol Forces Southwest Asia but remained in Europe, sailing into the Black Sea on April 27. Russia’s Defense Ministry said that day that its Black Sea Fleet was monitoring Hamilton’s “actions.”

Hamilton is the first Coast Guard vessel to enter the Black Sea since 2008 and is “emblematic of our presence in the Black Sea,” Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, said in response to a question from Insider at an Atlantic Council event on April 29.

The Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security, not the Defense Department, but it often works with other branches of the military and with foreign militaries.

“We particularly appreciate the Coast Guard’s ability to cooperate with other equivalent services … around the world, but in this case in the Black Sea,” Cooper said.

Cooper echoed Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz, who said in March that while the service hadn’t operated in Europe “in a good number of years,” the deployment suited its ability to cooperate and compete.

“I think the Coast Guard brings access. The Coast Guard brings a different look. The Coast Guard brings some unique, complimentary capabilities,” Schultz told reporters after his annual address to the service.

Coast Guard Hamilton Turkey Mediterranean Sea
A Turkish coast guard boat escorts the Hamilton in the Mediterranean Sea, April 27, 2021.

‘We’re going to push them out’

The Coast Guard often ventures long distances to enforce US laws and help other countries assert their own.

Coast Guard ships patrol the eastern Pacific Ocean to intercept drug smugglers. Cutters were deployed to Africa’s Atlantic coast to assist countries there in 2019 and 2020 for the first time in nearly a decade. In late 2020, a cutter was deployed on a South Atlantic patrol for the first time “in recent memory.”

The Coast Guard’s presence in the western Pacific Ocean is also increasing amid broader competition with China.

Since mid-2020, the service has stationed three new fast-response cutters in Guam, a US territory. Those ships have “about a 10,000-mile reach,” Schultz said in March.

“We’re going to push them out to some of the outer reaches of Oceania. We’re going to team them up with national security cutters on occasion,” Schultz added, referring to the service’s largest cutters, which include Hamilton.

Many recent Coast Guard operations have focused on countering illegal fishing, a growing source of friction with China. In December, a Coast Guard cutter helped Palau apprehend a Chinese vessel suspected of illegal fishing.

Japan Coast Guard
US Coast Guard Cutter Kimball and Japanese Coast Guard ship Akitsushima during an exercise near Japan’s Ogasawara Islands, February 21, 2021.

Coast Guard ships also work with the US Navy in the region. In May 2019, a Coast Guard cutter transited the Taiwan Strait for the first time, sailing alongside a Navy destroyer.

“I just think those lines are going to thicken,” Schultz said of Navy-Coast Guard cooperation.

The Navy’s operational tempo “has been very high for a considerable period … so it’s not surprising that they’d reach out and try to supplement” the Coast Guard, said Michael Desch, a professor and international-security expert at Notre Dame.

But the Coast Guard’s more overt role comes as military branches balance resources between current missions and modernization.

The Coast Guard has a number of domestic responsibilities and a growing role in the increasingly accessible Arctic but didn’t see the same budget increases as other branches did during the Trump administration.

While the Coast Guard is very capable and often better suited than the Navy to work with foreign forces, the growing workload should raise questions about the scope of US commitments, Desch said.

The recent encounters “seem to be indicative of the fact that we’re being stretched by all the things that we’re doing,” Desch told Insider. “Rather than throwing everything we’ve got but the kitchen sink at some of these missions, we ought to ask ourselves, are these missions really essential?”

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A US Navy ship fired warning shots after Iranian fast-attack boats got too close in the Persian Gulf

FILE PHOTO: Four Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) vessels, some of several to maneuver in what the U.S. Navy says are "unsafe and unprofessional actions against U.S. Military ships by crossing the ships’ bows and sterns at close range" is seen next to the guided-missile destroyer USS Paul Hamilton in the Gulf April 15, 2020. U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS
Four Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy vessels alongside US Navy ships in the Persian Gulf

  • A US Navy ship fired warning shots after Iranian fast-attack boats came too close with “unknown intent.”
  • The Iranian vessels did not alter their behavior after US forces radioed warnings, the Navy said.
  • The speed boats withdrew after warning shots were fired.
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A US Navy ship fired warning shots after three armed Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) fast-attack boats came “unnecessarily close” to it and another American ship in the Persian Gulf on Monday evening, 5th Fleet said Tuesday.

At around 8 pm on Monday, the IRGCN speed boats closed rapidly with the US Navy coastal patrol ship USS Firebolt and the US Coast Guard patrol boat USCGC Baranoff, which were conducting maritime security operations in international waters.

The US Navy said in a statement that the Iranian vessels closed to within 68 yards with “unknown intent.”

The American vessels issued warnings over the radio to the IRGCN boats, but there was no change in behavior. The US Navy ship then fired warning shots. The IRGCN fast-attack vessels moved away after the shots were fired.

The US Navy said in a statement that US forces maintained communication with the IRGCN vessels and “executed pre-planned responses to reduce the risk of miscalculation, avoid a collision, and to de-escalate the situation.”

The service said that the “IRGCN’s actions increased the risk of miscalculation and/or collision,” adding that while the US “is not an aggressor,” US forces are trained “to conduct efffective defensive measures when necessary.”

News of this latest incident follows reports of another incident earlier this month involving IRGCN vessels and two US Coast Guard ships.

Three Iranian IRGCN fast-attack boats and one larger support vessel, Harth 55, swarmed US Coast Guard patrol boats Wrangell and Monomoy during maritime security operations in international waters on April 2.

The US Navy said that the Harth 55 “repeatedly crossed the bows of the US vessels at an unnecessarily close range,” at one point coming within 70 yards of the US ships.

One “unsafe and unprofessional” approach, as the Navy described it, was captured on video.

The Iranian vessels responded to bridge-to-bridge communications but did not alter their behavior. They harassed the US ships for around three hours before finally withdrawing.

That incident was the first time since April 15, 2020 that US forces had an unpleasant encounter with the IRGCN at sea.

During that interaction, which lasted about an hour, 11 IRGC boats “conducted dangerous and harassing approaches” toward US Navy and Coast Guard ships conducting operations in international waters. At one point, one of the Iranian boats came within 10 yards of one of the Coast Guard cutters.

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