Today, in the Middle East, hundreds of U.S. Coast Guard personnel man six patrol boats and state-of-the-art training facilities in what is the only operational Coast Guard presence outside the United States. These forces have operated alongside the U.S. 5th Fleet since the outset of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Their unit, Patrol Forces Southwest Asia, was created at the request of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command in 2002 and has since gone about its business — supporting U.S. Navy requirements for maritime interdiction operations, escort missions, and force protection — essentially unchanged. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in the Indo-Pacific, the U.S. Coast Guard lacks even a single operational vessel west of Guam, despite the fact that it is the central theater for U.S. maritime strategy.
If the U.S. Department of Defense is serious about emerging from a period of strategic atrophy, the U.S. Coast Guard’s international posture should also change to reflect America’s emphasis on great power competition. Unfortunately, legacy defense requirements are holding the Coast Guard back. Current plans to commit a new generation of upgraded platforms to the less critical Central Command mission will serve only to lock in this resource fixation for the foreseeable future. Rather than dedicate part of its recapitalizing force to yesteryear’s strategy, the U.S. Coast Guard should seize the opportunity to reorient itself, creating a Patrol Forces Indo-Pacific to address today’s national objectives. Doing so would allow the force to turn away from the ever-distracting Central Command sideshow to invest in key security partnerships and field a credible counter to the Chinese all-of-nation long-term strategy in the Indo-Pacific.