The USCG in Pacific Defense: Let Us Support Them This Time


by Robbin Laird

I was fascinated to read an interview with the USCG Pacific Commander which was published by The Wall Street Journal.

In an article by Mike Cherney, we learn that the Biden Administration wants the USCG to expand its footprint amid competition with China.

The only problem with this is that Obama Administration already knew that the USCG could do this (even without competition with China) but simply did not fund the service to do so.

This is yet another example of wasting an opportunity that was obvious in the first decade of the 21st century.

How do we know this?

The USCG leadership tried to fund a fleet to do so in that period of time and simply was ignored.

All you have to do is to compare this interview published in the WSJ with one I did with the same command element in 2011.

According to the article: “The Coast Guard’s mission has traditionally focused on protecting U.S. maritime borders, but its remit has expanded as China’s clout grows. The Coast Guard plans to increase the number of deployments of its 418-foot national-security cutters, its biggest and most capable general-purpose ship, to the western Pacific in the coming year, Vice Adm. Tiongson said.

“Also, the Coast Guard is looking for more locations that can provide “logistics stops,” where its ships can berth, resupply and replenish as they travel around the Pacific, possibly in foreign countries, he said. That would allow its smaller, 154-foot fast-response cutters to spend more time away from their home port and travel farther. Maintenance could be conducted and crews could even be swapped out in those ports, he said.

“The Biden administration, in its Pacific island strategy released last September, called on the Coast Guard to enhance its engagements in the Pacific and expand its presence to support law enforcement. Vice Adm. Tiongson’s comments offer an early look into how the Coast Guard is responding to that directive.”

Now let us go back to the interview I did in 2011 with Vice Admiral Manson Brown.

Admiral Manson Brown: Most people don’t realize that 85 percent of the US exclusive economic zones (EEZs) are in the Pacific, mostly in the Central and Western Pacific.  There are a lot of economies in that region that are driven by the fishing industry.

One of the things that I realized is that even with good enforcement in US EEZ’s, the fish know no boundaries.  So they will shift from our EEZ’s to those of other nations and potentially be overfished there.

We formed partnerships with adjoining countries who are working their EEZs to try to manage the illegal fishing beyond our EEZ. We developed a joint strategy, a ship rider program where essentially we use Coast Guard assets and put enforcement officials from six nations that have signed ship rider agreements.

The Central and Western Pacific is significant distance away from the continental US. Most people don’t know that sovereign American territory is located as well in the Central and Western Pacific.

SLD: How long does it take to go from Alameda, California (the USCG HQ in the Pacific) to these territorial waters?

Admiral Manson Brown: To deploy a Cutter from here to American Samoa requires ten or more days.

SLD: So one way to understand the need for the cutters is their endurance.  If it takes more than a week to go and a week to come back, endurance buys you more time on station.

Admiral Manson Brown: Correct. And the thing you have to realize in the Pacific, you don’t have the infrastructure that you do in the Atlantic.

So in terms of pier space, fuel, engineering support, food and other logistics, you have to take it with you.  When you’re down in a place like American Samoa, you better have most of what you need to operate.

SLD: Endurance from this point is more operational time on station.

Admiral Manson Brown: We also need to be prepared as you alluded to earlier, for the weather conditions in the Pacific, which can be severe, and which can be unpredictable.

And as a former icebreaker sailor, I can tell you that the Pacific storms can whack you pretty heavily. So we need substantial ships to protect our crews, and to promote mission efficiency. And when folks are in Hawaii, they forget that the seas are rough around the islands–this is not the Caribbean.

If you go a mile and a half offshore and to do a SAR case in Hawaii with a 25 foot rigid hull inflatable, you’re doing a SAR case in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

People think of Hawaii like they think of Florida with the protection of the land mass, but there is no protection out there.  So we need more substantial capability to deal with Mother Nature. You will be operating in seas that will scare you.

SLD: What is the impact of these EEZ’s economically?

Admiral Manson Brown: These areas are some of the richest tuna fisheries on the planet.  Number one, we’ll see a collapse of our fisheries if we don’t protect these regions, which will affect the fishing economies in that region.  Number two, it will affect the fisheries throughout the adjacent regions. There are 22 small nations of Oceania whose economies are driven by fishing licenses, and fish.  If those fisheries collapse, we could potentially see Somalia-like instability conditions closer to our sovereign territory.

SLD: The cutters are crucial to such presence and effectiveness. If you physically are not there, and see one of things I think is also important to understand, the ship is the presence.  You can have all the ISR you want, but that’s not a good deterrent to anybody.  And it doesn’t allow you to prosecute.

Admiral Manson Brown: Yes, indeed. And it’s presence, in a competitive sense, because if we are not there, someone else will be there, whether it’s the illegal fishers or whether it’s Chinese influence in the region.  We need to be very concerned about the balance of power in the neighborhood.

If you take a look at some of the other players that are operating in the neighborhood there is clearly an active power game going on.

SLD: Basically, not being there is its own message, so to speak?

Admiral Manson Brown: That’s exactly right.  When I was in Tonga, I observed large structures built by the Chinese government and am watching others nations expand their influence around the world.

But there is another important reason that we should be there.  It’s another aspect of national security.  If you take a look at the march of terrorism through places such as Indonesia, it’s not too difficult to craft an instability scenario where it could leap to Oceania, allowing our enemy to potentially get closer to reach out and touch us.

I remind people that even though American Samoa is a U.S. territory, once you get to American Samoa, you’re in America. It’s not too difficult to reach out and touch us from there….

SLD: Could you discuss the capabilities, which the USCG brings to a region that is crucial to the security-defense engagement of the United States?

Admiral Manson Brown: There are actually three capabilities that we bring to the table that separate us from DOD.  Number one is the regulatory capability.  The second one is the law enforcement capability, and the third one is the emergency response capability.

And that really gets to our multi-mission nature.  Even though we may out there, we are conducting combined operations with Canada, Korea, Japan, China. We’re also there just in case something goes wrong so that we can intercept the problem and be on scene, and provide the search and rescue capability.

With the vast distances, which we refer to as the tyranny of distance out here,  if you don’t have enduring presence, which cutters bring, then you’re not going to get to where you may be needed in an emergency in time, particularly in a place like the Bering Sea.

SLD: Forward deployed so to speak?

Admiral Manson Brown: Forward deployed. Operations in the Bering Sea allow us to have a positioned emergency response asset, whether it’s search and rescue or pollution response.  There is no significant logistics support up there to enable rapid deployment.  Air only gets you so far.  You need an emergency surface asset to pull it all together.

SLD: So you need to be pre-positioned to be even able to do a number of these missions?

Admiral Manson Brown: That’s correct.  And this is part of our layered strategy.  Many people believe that we need to be a coastal coast guard, focused on the ports, waterways, and coastal environment.

But the reality is that because our national interests extend well beyond our shore, whether it’s our vessels, or our mariners, or our possessions and our territories, we need to have presence well beyond our shores to influence good outcomes.

As the Pacific Area Commander, I’m also the USCG Pacific Fleet Commander.  That’s a powerful synergy.  I’m responsible for the close-in game, and I’m responsible for the away game.  Now the away game has some tangible authorities and capabilities, such as fisheries enforcement and search and rescue presence.

But it’s also got some softer type of capability.  We do a lot of nation building.  We perform a lot of theater security cooperation for PACOM.  We’ll send ships over to Japan.  We’ve got ships going over to China just to exchange ideas, and discuss common objectives and capabilities, and demonstrate American engagement in the region.

As I travel around, I realize that the USCG is respected internationally because of our law enforcement and regulatory capabilities and our history. When people see our response to Katrina, or to Deep Water Horizon, they want a piece of us.

SLD: And because you’re a security and defense entity that allows you to have a larger dialogue than simply a pure military force?

Admiral Manson Brown: It comes down to common interests.  The common interests are those for maritime safety, security, and stewardship.

Other nations understand that we’re also a military service, and we play that security defense interface, but that’s not how the conversation starts.  They’re interested in protecting their shores, protecting their shipping, protecting the ports, and waterways, and protecting the environment.

SLD: The role of the USCG as a Title X or defense agency is crucial to the effectiveness of the USCG role here in the Pacific as well?

Admiral Manson Brown: Part of our framework of respect and credibility is the fact that we wear this uniform. People are intrigued in the international community by us.  Our unique military and law enforcement character, combined with this uniform, makes it work for us.  If I had gone to Beijing in a suit, I would’ve had a very different reaction.

When I was in Iraq in 2004 working for Ambassador Bremer, it was a civilian position. But I took along my Coast Guard uniforms; and it didn’t take too many days for me to figure out that I better wear the uniform because it’s a symbol that commands respect within the international community. That’s something that cannot be lost in the discussion about the future of the USCG and its role in the Pacific.

There is not much different in 2011 than 2023 except perhaps with some policy urgency but we shall see.

The USCG tried to alert the Obama Administration to the national need and had a solution which the Obama Administration chose to slow roll.

To be clear, the USCG was clearly sounding the alarm.

In a 2011 interview I did with the head of USCG Acquisition, Admiral Currier made a clear case for a significant National Security Cutter Fleet.

Admiral Currier: We have a legitimate requirement for persistent presence off the Atlantic Coast, Pacific Coast, Bering Sea, the Eastern Pacific and the Caribbean for the interdiction of migrants, narco-terrorism and the insurance of safety and security at sea.

In the past, our formula has been 12 major cutters at 185 days a year away from homeport. And that’s based on over 40 years of operation with the 378-foot high endurance cutter.

Currently, we are looking to replace those twelve antiquated high endurance cutters with a minimum of 8 National Security Cutters.  Given a unique manning concept called crew rotation, we have modeled the ability to do 230 days a year at sea, rather than 185, which we did with the previous class of high endurance cutters. In effect, the days at sea, or the days engaged in mission execution, will be roughly the same between the National Security Cutter with 8 hulls and the Hamilton class with 12 hulls.

But it’s even better because of the enhanced capabilities of the National Security Cutter.  The ship can loiter, sprint, carry aircraft, and deploy small armed interdiction boats. Eventually it will carry unmanned aerial vehicles. Currently, the NSC can process intelligence information operating as a deployed system, not just a hull yielding so many days at sea.

It’s a much more capable platform than anything we’ve had in the past.  Even though our top-line metric is days away from homeport, the effectiveness of the platform in- theater will be an order of magnitude greater.  And that’s been proven in deployment of the first two ships.

When we published our book on rebuilding American military power in the Pacific we started by emphasizing the key role of the USCG.

A role not recognized.

I hope Obama III really seizes the opportunity this time around.

Featured Photo: Vice Admiral Manson Brown during the SLD interview (Credit: SLD)