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.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

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.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

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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The heavy-duty ship the US needs to protect its thawing border with Russia ‘is just falling apart,’ captain says

Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star Alaska Arctic
Petty Officer 1st Class Wahkene Kitchenmaster removes ice from Polar Star’s hull in below-freezing temperatures in the Chukchi Sea, December 28, 2020.

  • Polar Star, the Coast Guard’s only working icebreaker, wrapped up an Arctic mission in February.
  • The 45-year-old ship is “definitely showing its age,” its commanding officer said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The months-long Arctic operation that Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star finished last month was a rare mission for the US’s sole heavy icebreaker.

It was the first time a US icebreaker had been in the Arctic in winter since 1982. The crew overcame “treacherous” conditions, but they also grappled with a problem aboard the ship that may hinder the US’s Arctic ambitions.

Polar Star is “now 45 years old, and it’s definitely showing its age,” Capt. William Woityra, Polar Star’s commanding officer, said in February at an event cohosted by the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Nome office of Alaska Sea Grant.

“We were up to this mission, and we were excited to undertake it, but it took the crew working around the clock to keep the ship running,” Woityra added.

Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star Alaska Arctic
Polar Star in the Chukchi Sea, December 19, 2020.

Polar Star can break through 21 feet of ice and sail through 40- to 50-foot seas (though seas much lower than that can incapacitate the crew, Woityra previously told Insider).

The icebreaker’s usual wintertime trip to Antarctica to help resupply the McMurdo Sound research station was canceled because of the pandemic. It was sent north after the US’s only other oceangoing icebreaker, Healy, broke down as it sailed to the Arctic.

Polar Star has its own history of breakdowns, which cropped up again.

“On New Year’s Eve, we actually got stopped in the ice,” Woityra said. “We had a diode on our AC-to-DC rectifier that blew out, and we had to replace it. And this is a part that is no longer available. It’s not made anymore.”

Polar Star has a split propulsion system. In addition to gas turbines, it has what Woityra called “basically locomotive engines” powering generators that send power through that rectifier to turn a propeller shaft.

“We’ve got a few dozen of these in a box on a shelf,” Woityra said of the diode. “When they’re gone, the ship will not be able to run anymore. It’s really kind of disconcerting … that this ship, and this operation, and the US’s icebreaking presence in the Arctic is reliant on a box of spare parts that … there are no more of.”

Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star Arctic Bering Alaska
Crew from Polar Star enjoys a brief ice liberty on the frozen Bering Sea, January 30, 2021.

Parts for Polar Star are dwindling. Crews have stripped replacement parts from its out-of-service sister ship, Polar Sea, and even turned to eBay to find a resistor unavailable elsewhere.

“The only source of supply in the world was on eBay,” Woityra told Insider during the event. “We worked with the supplier to actually pull listing from eBay, and we were able to use normal government contracting mechanisms to purchase those resistors.”

“With a ship that’s almost 50 years old, every single part of it is just falling apart, and there’s no one-for-one replacement to keep it going,” Woityra added.

Polar Star is set to begin a five-year service-life extension program this summer to keep it going for another decade. The Coast Guard has awarded a contract for a new icebreaker, which it expects by 2024, with two more by 2030.

Leasing an icebreaker is also being considered as a near-term option, as other countries expand their icebreaker fleets.

‘We’re pushing back’

Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star Alaska Arctic
Polar Star’s deck department removes ice from the ship’s deck and deck equipment while in the Chukchi Sea, December 28, 2020.

Despite mechanical challenges, the Coast Guard was enthusiastic about Polar Star’s mission, which included testing communications technology for the Defense Department and scientific research in an environment and at a time of year for which data is scant.

“It had been 40 years since the Coast Guard had been operating in this region,” Woityra said. “So here was a chance to gather some in-situ data that was normally not available under any circumstances.”

American researchers, Merchant Marine Academy midshipmen, and Royal Navy sailors were also aboard Polar Star for the mission, as were junior Coast Guard members, there to train as the service tries to rebuild its Arctic proficiency.

“We’ve really got to build out a future fleet of icebreaker sailors, as the Arctic … becomes increasingly more an area of focus and becomes increasingly more accessible,” Adm. Karl Schultz, commandant of the Coast Guard, said at a separate event last month.

That increasing accessibility, driven by climate change, has made the Arctic a growing venue for geopolitical competition. The Bering Strait, which separates the US and Russia, is likely to be a focal point for that competition.

Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star Alaska Arctic
The Aurora Borealis is seen from Polar Star while patrolling in the Chukchi Sea, December 21, 2020.

Schultz, Woityra, and other Coast Guard officials have stressed that the service has a good relationship with its Russian counterpart, but a major Russian military exercise in the area last summer, during which Russian warships harassed US fishing boats, added to tensions.

Polar Star’s crew was aware of that encounter and was motivated to “defend US interests” and support Alaskans, Woityra said.

When Polar Star patrolled the US-Russian maritime boundary, the Russian fishing fleet “was well on their side,” Woityra said. While in the strait, Polar Star also saw “regular overflights by Russian border-patrol aircraft.”

“We knew that they were coming. They knew where we were,” Woityra said. “We got word 12 to 24 hours ahead of time … and when they came into range, they held us on VHF radio, we exchanged information, everything went exactly as according to plan.”

Schultz said last month that “having a pragmatic relationship with the Russians is a good thing,” as it facilitates cooperation on search-and-rescue operations, environmental management, and disaster response, but the service is “projecting our sovereign interest” in the region, Schultz added.

“Russia’s pushing up against that line, and we’re pushing back,” Schultz said.

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China’s ships are getting bigger and more aggressive, and Japan is scrambling to keep up

china coast guard scarborough
A Chinese Coast Guard ship approaches Filipino fishermen in a confrontation off of Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, September 23, 2015.

  • China’s massive Coast Guard, and a new law expanding what it can do, worry its neighbors, especially Japan.
  • Japan is bolstering its own Coast Guard and relying on its alliance with the US to keep its edge against Beijing in their disputes at sea.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

On February 1, a new law granting the China’s Coast Guard (CCG) the ability to use lethal force against foreign vessels in waters China claims went into effect.

The law worries countries that have territorial disputes with China, especially Japan, where the chief concern is that it could lead to the use of force against Japanese vessels around the Senkaku Islands, a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that Japan administers and China claims as the Diaoyu Islands.

Hundreds of Chinese vessels, including Coast Guard and Navy ships, routinely enter the waters around those islands, sometimes behaving aggressively, as part of China’s gray-zone operations.

Last year, Chinese vessels were spotted around the Senkakus for a record-setting 333 days, including 111 consecutive days of continuous Chinese presence.

A worrying new law

chinese coast guard
A China Coast Guard ship in the East China Sea near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, December 22, 2015.

The part of the law that causes the most anxiety is Article 22, which authorizes the CCG to “take all necessary measures, including the use of weapons, when national sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction are being illegally infringed upon by foreign organizations or individuals at sea.”

Article 20 of the law authorizes the CCG to demolish “buildings, structures, and various fixed or floating devices” built by foreigners “in the sea areas and islands under our jurisdiction.”

The provisions are not unprecedented. Many coast guards and maritime security agencies operate with similar rules. Indonesia and Malaysia routinely sink foreign fishing vessels (some of them Chinese) in their waters. Even Argentina has fired on and sunk Chinese fishing vessels operating in its waters illegally.

The use-of-force clauses are also a small part of the law, which has 84 articles and is primarily intended to clarify the CCG’s role amid China’s numerous military reforms. China previously had up to five different maritime organizations and has been working to merge them.

“If you read the actual language, it doesn’t read as if it was intended to be a threat to China’s neighbors or even the United States,” Zack Cooper, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told Insider. “It reads much more bureaucratically than the Coast Guard getting some expanded capabilities.”

The CCG “was already doing things where they were pretty actively using force in the South China Sea, East China Sea, and elsewhere.” Cooper added. “So, this isn’t really that much of a change from how the CG has been operating.”

The law may actually help prevent misunderstandings. “Some degree of clarification and standardization of procedures is actually a welcome development,” Timothy Heath, a senior international and defense researcher at the Rand Corporation think tank, told Insider.

“This shows the Coast Guard is becoming more professional. It is clarifying to its own people and to the world the conditions under which the CCG regard as appropriate for them to consider all these actions,” Heath added.

The world’s largest Coast Guard

senkaku diaoyu china ships
Chinese and Japanese Coast Guard ships near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, September 10, 2013.

But the risk of escalation is still very real, especially since the CCG will implement the new law in disputed territory. The clarifications and new guidelines may actually embolden Chinese ship captains.

The older, more vague rules prompted some restraint because Chinese officials “weren’t totally sure what the conditions were that would be appropriate for them to use force or take any of these actions,” Heath said.

“Now with that clarity provided through these regulations, these commanders on the water … may feel that, in their judgement, they have a right to respond to incidents much more rapidly and with much greater force than the past,” Heath told Insider.

The CCG certainly has the hardware to be bold. It has over 130 large patrol ships (each displacing more than 1,000 tons), making it “by far the largest coast guard force in the world” according to a 2020 Pentagon report.

CCG ships are also among the largest and the best armed of any coast guard. The CCG’s two Zhaotou-class cutters alone displace over 10,000 tons – more than a US Navy Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser.

Many carry guns up to 76 mm, which are usually only seen on naval vessels. Most CCG patrol vessels can also carry helicopters.

Japan Coast Guard
Members of a Japan Coast Guard anti-terrorist unit intercept a vessel during an exercise in Tokyo Bay, May 18, 2008.

Japan’s Coast Guard (JCG) is much smaller, with only 63 vessels displacing more than 1,000 tons, and its ability to use deadly force is heavily restricted, which means it sometimes has to call the Japanese Maritime and Air Self-Defense Forces (JMSDF/JASDF) for assistance.

Japan has made known its displeasure with the new law. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga warned it could “intensify tensions,” and Japan’s defense minister called it “absolutely unacceptable.”

The greatest fear is an escalating encounter with China’s three maritime forces: Hundreds of vessels from China’s Maritime Militia could flood the Senkakus and be intercepted by the JCG. In response, the CCG could be called on and open fire. This would force the JMSDF and JASDF to respond, potentially leading to the Chinese Navy and Air Force showing up, risking war.

Japan works to prevent such a scenario. The JCG maintains a constant presence and responds very quickly to incursions around the Senkakus. They also shadow CCG vessels instead of aggressively confronting them and sometimes call JASDF jets to conduct flyovers.

A military buildup and a strong alliance

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.

Japan has been slowly building up its military’s capabilities in response to the Chinese threat. The JCG plans to acquire 12 more large patrol vessels by 2023, bringing its fleet to 75.

The JMSDF also plans to acquire new, advanced ships that are smaller, cheaper, and easier to build. This includes the 30FFM-class frigate, the first of which, Kumano, was launched last November and is expected to be commissioned in 2022. The JMSDF hopes to have 22 of the frigates by 2032.

The JMSDF itself is expanding, and is converting its two Izumo-class helicopter carriers to be able to carry F-35B fighters.

Japan is also modernizing its infantry arsenal, building up bases in its southwest, and increasing its F-35 fighter arsenal with plans for an indigenous stealth fighter as well. It has also created an amphibious unit designed for island warfare and modeled on the US Marine Corps.

But Japan will never win a numbers game with China, which has more resources and industrial capacity. In addition to the largest coast guard in the world, China also has the largest navy.

“The big problem for the Japanese is that they’re simply outnumbered and outgunned,” Heath said.

Japan Coast Guard
A Chinese marine surveillance ship next to Japanese Coast Guard ships near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, September 24, 2012.

Increasing Chinese maritime and aerial incursions are straining Japan’s ships, sailors, aircraft, and pilots.

“The problem they have is that the steady-state operational tempo is going up.” Cooper said of the Japanese. “Therefore, it’s going to be harder and harder for them to play man-on-man defense.”

But Tokyo is not alone. The US has a treaty obligation to come to Japan’s defense, and President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have all said the treaty applies to the Senkakus.

“We hold with the international community about the … sovereignty of the Senkakus, and we support Japan obviously in that sovereignty,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said February 23. “We would urge the Chinese to avoid actions using their Coast Guard vessels that could lead to miscalculation and potential physical and material harm.”

The US, which has also criticized the new Chinese law, has sent its own Coast Guard to keep an eye on China and to train with Japan’s Coast Guard. US Marine Corps F-35Bs also may operate from the Izumos after they are converted.

China’s new coast guard law certainly adds a new level of complexity to tensions in the East China Sea, but Japan’s efforts and the US-Japan alliance present challenges to China.

“It doesn’t really matter how much presence Japan has or China has at any given time” around the Senkakus, Cooper said. “The alliance will still apply, and the US has been very clear in standing behind Japan on this.”

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Why the Navy ditched its flying boats

Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina flying boat
A Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina in flight.

  • Flying boats like the Consolidated PBY Catalina were crucial to many World War II victories in the Pacific theater.
  • While flying boats remain in service with some militaries, the US military had other aircraft that could fulfill their role, and they fell out of use.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Flying boats played an unheralded but crucial part in some of World War II’s biggest naval battles. For example, pilots in Consolidated PBY Catalinas made the discovery of the Japanese carriers at Midway and helped locate the German battleship Bismarck.

So, why aren’t flying boats still serving in the United States military today? That’s a good question. After all, both China and Russia are still using them and, starting in 2000, have introduced new versions, like the AVIC AG-600 and the Beriev Be-200. Yet the last flying boat in US service was the HU-16 Albatross, which the Coast Guard retired in 1983.

Flying boats have the advantage of using the ocean as a runway, which, unlike other launching points, can’t be cratered by bombs. Any atoll, bay, or cove could be a forward base for these patrol aircraft. But they are also huge, which imposes range and performance penalties that other, land-based planes don’t face.

Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boat
A US Navy Consolidated PBY-3 Catalina patrol bomber skims the water as it lands, around 1942 or 1943.

The end of the flying boat was largely due to the island-hopping campaign of World War II.

The United States military built a lot of airbases throughout the course of that war, many of which had long runways. This allowed long-range, land-based planes, like the Consolidated PB4Y Liberator/Privateer to operate.

The PB4Y, a version of the B-24 adapted for maritime patrol, was able to haul 12,800 pounds of bombs at a range of 2,796 miles. The Martin P5M Marlin, by comparison, could only haul 8,640 pounds of weapons 2,051 miles.

Although land-based planes outclassed flying boats in terms of cargo transport, they remained useful in search-and-rescue missions, but the helicopter soon pushed them out of that role, too.

Flying boats could remain useful, but the fact is global construction and advances in aviation technology have made them largely redundant in many military roles. These majestic vessels will hang around, but there are fewer and fewer taking flight each day.

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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.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

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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