US Coast Guard won’t ‘close the door’ on hunting submarines again in the future

Coast Guard cutter Bertholf Pacific Ocean
Coast Guard cutter Bertholf on a counter-drug patrol in the eastern Pacific Ocean, March 11, 2018.

  • Tensions are rising between the US and rivals like Russia and China, both of which are fielding more advanced submarines that are cause for concern for the US Navy.
  • The Coast Guard had an active role in hunting submarines during 20th-century conflicts, and while Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz says there are no immediate plans to resume that mission, it isn’t being ruled out either.
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The US Navy is scrambling to adjust to what it sees as growing threats posed by the Russian and Chinese navies, particularly their submarine fleets, which are getting larger and more effective.

The US Coast Guard, which hunted subs during World War II, doesn’t have plans to help keep an eye on those subs, but its top officer isn’t ruling it out either.

Asked at a Navy League event on December 1 about the service’s requirements to conduct anti-submarine warfare, Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said “you have to turn the clock back” to an era when the Coast Guard was fully equipped for that mission.

“The predecessors to the national security cutters, the 378-foot high-endurance cutters, [the] Hamilton class, we had sonar capability, and we had sonar techs,” Schultz said, referring to a class of cutters that arrived in the 1960s that also carried torpedoes and other weaponry.

“We’re not building any capabilities, installing any capabilities on our ships today that would put us back in that mission,” Schultz said. “We’ve ceded that to the Navy.”

The Coast Guard already faces “unprecedented” demands, Schultz said, referring to the service’s 11 official missions, ranging from patrolling inland waterways to high-seas drug busts.

But the Coast Guard chief didn’t rule out helping counter underwater threats in the future.

“If there was a requirement that was at the joint Coast Guard-Navy-[Department of Defense] level that said, ‘Hey, there’s an urgent need to bring that capability back in Coast Guard,’ I’m not saying we couldn’t revisit that,” Schultz said.

“I’m not so sure I see an immediate return to that mission space here, but again, I don’t close the door on anything since we live in an increasingly complicated world … and requirements change,” Schultz added.

‘Not just Coast Guard missions’

US Coast Guard Navy World War II WWII convoy submarine depth charge
Crewmen on Coast Guard cutter Spencer watch a depth charge explode, blasting a German submarine attempting to break into a US convoy on April 17, 1943. The attacking U-boat was sunk off of Ireland.

Coast Guard crews guided hundreds of ships through submarine-infested waters during World War I. During World War II, its aircraft and ships, led by the Treasury-class cutters, hunted subs on the East and West coasts and escorted convoys across the Atlantic.

The Treasury class was replaced by the Hamilton class, the 12 ships of which could perform scientific and law-enforcement missions but were also equipped to find, track, and destroy submarines. The first Hamilton-class cutter arrived in 1965 and only two remain in US service.

A modernization program in the late 1980s outfitted Hamilton-class ships with better sensors and weapons, including upgraded torpedoes and new Harpoon anti-ship missiles, in addition to their helicopters. But the end of the Cold War lowered concern about undersea warfare, and those sensors and weaponry were removed.

That perception is changing, and the military is responding to what it sees as a growing submarine threat. Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite’s announcement this month that Virginia-based Fleet Forces Command would become US Atlantic Command underscores the shift.

“We will refocus our naval forces in this important region on their original mission: controlling the maritime approaches to the United States and to those of our allies,” Braithwaite told lawmakers. “The Atlantic Fleet will confront the reassertive Russian navy, which has been deploying closer and closer to our East Coast, with a tailored maritime presence, capability, and lethality.”

Observers have already called for Coast Guard cutters to take a larger role as surface combatants to bolster the Navy, arguing that capabilities the Coast Guard has for missions like catching narco-subs can be adapted for military operations.

“The US Coast Guard and Navy should move jointly and decisively to arm, train and equip the major cutter fleet so that it can perform a useful set of defense and expeditionary missions,” Cmdr. Gregory Tozzi, a US Coast Guard cutterman, wrote in 2017, arguing that doing so was “a reasonable response to threats posed by increasingly capable, bold and bellicose competitors.”

Schultz and other officials have also said new Coast Guard ships will be able to adapt for future missions.

“We’re putting in what we call space, weight, and power to be able to plug and play for all kinds of mission support,” Shannon Jenkins, senior Arctic advisor at the Coast Guard’s Office of Arctic Policy, said at an event in August when asked about arming icebreakers. “It certainly will have the capacity and the abilities to add in whatever we need to execute our national missions, not just Coast Guard missions.”

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