James Holmes

U.S. Coast Guard Meets Corbett

Why not let USCG spearhead maritime strategy in offshore waters where it will already be performing police and disaster-response duty?

Reporters say the nicest things. One called the office on Tuesday to talk about the U.S. Coast Guard in the Arctic Ocean. This person confessed that the idea of entrusting polar waters primarily to the Coast Guard, rather than the U.S. Navy, seems really "out there." Groovy!

But naval historians might disagree. Over the centuries, seafaring states have experimented with many different ways of applying force at sea. Best known as a sea-power theorist, Sir Julian Corbett also authored an excellent series on Sir Francis Drake and the English navy under the Tudor dynasty. Corbett points out that armed merchantmen once fought off pirates — insert obligatory "aaargh, matey" here — and even joined the battle line when war loomed on the high seas.

Ships festooned with guns and missiles can accomplish a lot, whether their hulls are slathered in haze gray, or in white accented with blue and red stripes. Why not let the U.S. Coast Guard spearhead maritime strategy in offshore waters where it will already be performing police and disaster-response duty? The force on scene is the obvious one to manage events there, provided it's up to the task. Let's not needlessly duplicate resources and effort.

Or put a theoretical gloss on this question. The U.S. Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard now operate under a triservice Maritime Strategy. The 2007 Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower directs the services to work together, and with foreign allies and partners, to prosecute both combat and noncombat — that is, coast-guard-like — missions. It erects no firewall between the services or their functions. This merger of maritime forces is an extension of longstanding policy holding that that the Navy and Coast Guard comprise a joint National Fleet.

If so, how do national fleets transact business? Corbett divides any navy roughly into two fleets: the battle fleet that duels enemies for command of the sea, and the "cruiser" contingent and "flotilla" that exercise command once enemies have been subdued. The latter are light, inexpensive, and thus numerous combatants and auxiliaries, unfit for slugging it out with capital ships but capable of handling lesser threats. Such craft fan out to safeguard the sea lanes and do the host of things navies do.

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If this second fleet runs into trouble, it can summon the battle fleet to come steaming to its rescue, restoring control in the face of new challenges. Indeed, Corbett depicts protecting the cruiser force and flotilla as the battle fleet's chief purpose in life. This is rather like the Navy-Coast Guard division of labor I've bruited about. The Coast Guard would assume the role of cruisers and flotilla while the Navy and Marines supply the backstop. The Coast Guard just needs enough warfighting capability to execute limited combat missions until the cavalry arrives.

That's not a far-out concept; it's classic maritime strategy. Corbett is smiling.