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Tuesday, December 5, 2023

PERSPECTIVE: Challenges for the Coast Guard Amid Shifting Threats

There is probably no military force in the world that does more with less than the U.S. Coast Guard. Described by many as the oldest operating maritime force in the world, they have often been overlooked by the citizenry they have faithfully served for 227 years. Their more visible military brethren – the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines – have long dominated the American consciousness in terms of public recognition. But since 9/11, that public recognition has begun to change.

Whether because of reality TV shows such as Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch” or others that profiled them on the high seas making dramatic rescues, or the jaw-dropping live shots of helicopter rescues of distressed families standing on flooded rooftops, the public has a far better appreciation today of who these men and women are than ever before.

But in those years when they were not as recognized or appreciated as they should have been, if there is one area where this most unique of American military services has suffered, it has been their budget. Where the Army would get new tanks, the Air Force new tankers, the Navy new aircraft carriers and the Marines new fast deployment equipment, the Coast Guard was almost always left way behind by administration budgets and congressional appropriations in recapitalizing its people, equipment and maritime fleet.

That resource leanness certainly helped refine an operational culture that is almost MacGyver-esqe in its abilities to succeed with very little at its immediate disposal. Since becoming part of DHS in 2003, the USCG’s budgets have trended upwards, as have efforts to recapitalize the service with new cutters and equipment. For FY2019, the Trump administration has proposed an 8.4 percent increase for the Coast Guard, including money to “help pay for its first new heavy icebreaker in 40 years.” That’s a big change from the prior year’s budget request, which proposed $1.3 trillion in cuts and was fortunately not enacted.

As significant as adding $979 million might be to the Coast Guard’s current budget, the smallest of America’s military services still faces some big challenges in its future. The biggest of those taking shape within its most precious of resources – its people – and the second with the most amorphous of threats, cybersecurity.

People will always be the most precious and important of resources in an organization. They are the talent, wisdom and lifeblood that gives it its power and capabilities to perform. The truth is you can have all of the greatest of equipment and technology in the world, but if you don’t have the people to operate it, maintain it and use it the right way to serve your missions, all you have is a lot of useless stuff sitting around not doing anything of value for anyone.

With nearly 90,000 persons in its ranks (including its all-volunteer Auxiliary workforce), they are the smallest of military branches but still charged to serve 11 BIG statutory missions. As big as each of those missions is, the importance of that workforce to the security of the American economy is off the chart. The Coast Guard is very much the linchpin for ensuring the safety and security of America’s waterways, coasts and marine space from a range of threats and risks. With those responsibilities, it puts them squarely in the center of action to keep maritime-based government, military and commercial supply chains and commercial (domestic and international) shipping open and operating 24/7, 365 days a year.

Every Coast Guard effort in safeguarding our waterways and maritime environment keeps the American economy running at full job-creating and income-producing speed. For whatever reason, be it an act of Mother Nature, a shipping accident, degraded infrastructure or an event by a nefarious actor, if something stops that flow a series of economic dominoes can start to fall with very real consequences for regions and operations locally and nationally. Regardless of those risks, threats and events, the U.S. Coast Guard is on the front lines every time.

But that nearly 90,000-person force has some big challenges in front of it, the first of which is preserving and building out its personnel to continue their nonstop watch. People, skills, talents and wisdom have no ready or easy to access reservoir or inventory. All of them develop with time, investment and experience. While the USCG boasts the highest of retention rates of its service personnel, they are going to have to remain vigilant in working to retain the talent they still possess while fostering new generations that can continue to do the nearly impossible with often as little as possible.

That includes competing with more visible and publicly known brethren (Army, USAF, Navy, USMC) for new recruits and officers in addressing the new military domain of cyber. Every military branch is staffing up to combat this new, evolving and amorphous battlefront, and the Coast Guard is no different.

Cybersecurity is not one of the first things that you think of when someone mentions the Coast Guard. But as the most private-sector engaged and interconnected military force – especially given its role and operations to help secure ports, shipping lanes and coastlines (as well as related airspace) – they have to have the best of the best to help in this mission space as well.

The competition for this type of talent is huge. Private-sector salaries in cybersecurity will always eclipse whatever the government can offer, but probably nowhere is it more important to have the best and brightest of talent at their keyboards in the fight.

It should be of no surprise to anyone that our cyber networks operate as the central nervous system for everything in today’s world. No community, industry or operation is immune to the infections or ramifications that come from the viruses, incursions and attacks that occur every nanosecond of every day. Picture any harbor, port, lock/dam or coastline you have ever seen with commercial shipping as well as private boats in operation. Then imagine someone with a keyboard taking it all over and unleashing havoc, disaster and ruin to it all. That’s not as much a plot line for a Hollywood disaster film as it is a real active threat.

We’re talking about manipulation or destruction of energy transfer between ports and fuel tankers; manipulation of cargo manifests to bring illegal goods into the country; disruption of shipping lanes and maritime traffic to impede 24/7 trade and commerce; and seizure or destruction of critical infrastructure that could cause human and environmental losses, as well as all the operational costs and challenges that would occur when internal networks are taken over by criminals, hackers or nation-state actors. All of those events (and others) would have a costly ripple effect that could cascade far beyond the physical geography of wherever the actual cyber attack unfolds.

In today’s world, a weaponized keystroke can ruin more lives and livelihoods than any other previous form of unleashed conventional warfare. Having the right people, with the right skills, talents and experiences in place to serve that mission cannot be underestimated or ignored, which is why the challenges in front of the Coast Guard are as real as the swells of churning water that they have regularly plunged into to protect lives, commerce and way of life.

Technology, innovation and emerging tools such as analytics and artificial intelligence as well as talented people can certainly help in these future fights. But so is being a better and steadfast steward of the national resource that is the U.S. Coast Guard. The current administration and Congress and those in the future must be more resolute in standing fast to keep this service branch better funded and supported. As citizens forever vested in the national and economic security of the country, we have long been the beneficiaries of the “Semper Paratus” tradition that has protected and served us so well. We need to return the same vigilance and care to the Coast Guard if want that distinguished tradition to continue.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email [email protected]. Our editorial guidelines can be found here

Rich Cooper
Rich Cooper
Rich Cooper is Editor-at-Large for HSToday. A former senior member of DHS’ Private Sector Office (PSO), Cooper has been a frequent writer and contributor to numerous media outlets. He is Vice President for Strategic Communications & Outreach for the Space Foundation and a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC. Cooper is also a former Senior Fellow with GWU’s Cyber and Homeland Security Institute and has also served in senior positions at NASA, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, SAS and several other profit and not-for-profit enterprises.

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