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Op-Ed: It's Time To Beef Up The U.S. Coast Guard
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Op-Ed: It's Time To Beef Up The U.S. Coast Guard


Op-Ed: It's Time To Beef Up The U.S. Coast Guard

Op-Ed: It's Time To Beef Up The U.S. Coast Guard
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Read James Holmes' Foreign Policy piece "America Needs a Coast Guard That Can Fight."

The U.S. Navy estimates that by 2035 the Arctic Ocean may be ice-free for a month each year. In an op-ed for Foreign Policy, James Holmes, U.S. Naval War College, argues that in preparation for the increased activity in the Northwest Passage, the U.S. needs a Coast Guard that can fight.


As global warming accelerates, the Arctic Ocean melts and the U.S. Navy estimates that by 2035 it may be ice-free for a month each year - that will mean more activity through the Northwest Passage, the Arctic shipping route which is already busier than ever. In an op-ed in Foreign Policy, James Holmes argues if and when that icy expanse opens regularly to shipping, the Arctic will need policing like any other marine thoroughfare, and he nominates the United States Coast Guard.

So coasties, we want to hear from you. How do you see your job changing as a result of climate change and should that change include a combat role? 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at, click on TALK OF THE NATION. James Holmes is a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College, co-author of "Red Star over the Pacific." That comes out in paperback this summer. And he joins us from a studio at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Good to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

JAMES HOLMES: Hi. Thanks for having me on board.

CONAN: And what makes the Coast Guard the best choice for this polar assignment?

HOLMES: Well, I mean, I basically make three basic points in the piece. First is that the nature of the theater is going to be very - going to be rather different from any other nautical expanse that you can see. When you look across the map of the globe, it's essentially a theater that will almost disappear each year, and then as the ice pack retreats, open up again to shipping and then potentially to conflict each year.

So essentially, what I was doing is looking at various options for the United States as it considers its maritime strategy to the north. It appears to me that the United States Navy is not going to have the assets to spare for a new secondary theater like the Arctic - excuse me - like the Arctic Ocean that I suitably re-equipped and somewhat changed U.S. Coast Guard might be the best strategic option to have that. So basically - and then I basically close by suggesting some material and human changes that the Coast Guard may need to undertake if it wants to indeed take on that role.

CONAN: And we'll get to those in a moment. But among the changes, you say, the Coast Guard, which is at the moment largely a constabulary force, I think it's fair to describe it, might need to consider a more robust combat role.

HOLMES: Yeah. I think that's true. I think there's one thing that's perhaps not obvious to the person who looks out to the sea and sees ships that look much the same except that some of them are gray and some of them are red, white and blue, is that the sea services are actually quite different. The Coast Guard has a different capacity simply as a law enforcement and disaster response, primarily, service from the United States Navy who's enemy is a pure navy for which it might have to fight for command of the sea. And that's actually quite a different - that's actually quite a different outlook on life particularly given that the Coast Guard, that was long under the Department of Transportation and now, of course, serves within the Department of Transportation. So you have two very different cultures at work there.

CONAN: And as you pointed out, there are parts of the world where neither the Coast Guard nor the Navy is very evident. The Mediterranean where the U.S. Sixth Fleet was once a mighty force is now down to a one regularly assigned ship, a command and control vessel. And why can't the Arctic be the same way. Why do we need any force at all?

HOLMES: Well, I think the answer is that there will be some sort of cooperative arrangement. There's already an Arctic council that brings together the Arctic powers and some of the other nearby powers along with some observers - Japan, for example, is applying for observer status in there. So I think there will be some sort of cooperative arrangement. But nonetheless, when you consider that, there are potentially contested sea lines of communication in that northern sea, and also lots of resources. The potential for conflict cannot be underestimated much as we see contested expanses n the East and South China Seas today. So I think we can't simply rule out the possibility of some form of conflict in the future. So we're pointing out that even in the Mediterranean, you're starting to see some contested maritime claims, particularly in the eastern Mediterranean.

CONAN: Well...

HOLMES: So it's - history may not be over there, either.

CONAN: No, it may not, and that's over resources beneath the seabed, like natural gas and things like that. But as you look to the polar region, which is what we're talking about, just about everybody there is a member of NATO, except for one rather large exception.

HOLMES: Yeah, that's true. That's absolutely true. And I think that provides a framework for the United States to pursue its own interests working through the nature of framework and also in - and also there's a preexisting outrage framework too to NATO or from NATO to Russia, rather, through the NATO-Russia Council. So I think there's - so I think that's actually a good sign that there's actually some sort of framework to - for all the powers to work together or to at least consult on their differences.

CONAN: And it is not unheard of in the history of the United States Coast Guard to take on a more robust role.

HOLMES: Not at all. And in fact, if you look at the Coast Guard's strategic documents which are widely available on the Internet should you choose to look at them, the Coast Guard actually does bill itself as a combat service. It does have a great tradition of working alongside the Navy in various conflicts. For example, even on - during the Vietnam War, cutters took part in gunfire support and other missions along the Vietnamese coast. The Coast Guard - Coast Guard mariners battled submarines during the Second World War.

All of these sorts of things are part of the Coast Guard's past. So in a sense, the challenge is for them to rediscover that part of their past that both the Navy and the Coast Guard have more or less let slip since the Cold War when the most likely adversary disappeared.

CONAN: We want to hear from coasties in the audience. How does global warming change your role? Might it include a combat role or a bigger combat role in the polar regions? And 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us: Gabriella is on the line with us from Cleveland.

GABRIELLA: Yes. I realized that we're talking basically about national security, and my concern is that once the north passage opens is because the permafrost is going to be actually starting to thaw. And according...

CONAN: I think you mean sea ice, but go ahead.

GABRIELLA: Right. (Unintelligible)...

CONAN: And I think...

GABRIELLA: ...and gas consumption. And so unless we address that, there's no need to even patrol the areas there because it will be a threat to our existence, our livelihood, our food, our environment. There will be not enough food for us to go around once we get to worry about it. So the subject is really perhaps misguided because what's the point of worrying about patrolling the air when we don't have any economy to live with. According to Bill Clinton, these folks who - various mayors around the world, and he said - and we - I quote, "That unless we address global warming now, we have a window of opportunity of eight years, there will be no future for our grandchildren." And I think that that's may be why Chelsea doesn't want to have children because there's not going to be any chance for us to survive. So we...

CONAN: Gabriella, everybody has great respect for the former president, not everybody totally agrees with him on this issue.

GABRIELLA: Well, if you read a study of Yale that just came out right now, it talks about the tundra is in a lethal tipping point. And once that starts melting, there will be no chance for us to reach the sea.

CONAN: I think we're talking about two things. You're talking about release of methane from beneath permafrost, which is melting and thereby adding to the problems of global warming. And I...

GABRIELLA: Exactly, so...

CONAN: I think the...

GABRIELLA: ...(unintelligible) problem...

CONAN: I think our guest is talking about sea ice, which is retreating more and more each year also as global warming comes up and makes more activity in these areas possible. And, well, I guess one of the arguments you have, James Holmes, is we've got some time to think about it. I guess you could look at it the other way and think maybe not.

HOLMES: Yeah. I think we do - and I think the caller is exactly right. We do have time to think about this problem because, as you pointed out, the chief Navy oceanographer estimated that we're not talking about - till about 2035 that the Arctic might be open to shipping, mostly ice free for about eight months each year. So we're not talking about an immediate thing, which I think is a good thing because when we look down range, if you try to remake an organization, even a modest-sized organization like the U.S. Coast Guard, it does take time.

Bureaucracies do not change course easily. With the Coast Guard on the material side, you would essentially be talking about restoring certain capabilities. Two Coast Guard cutters that were removed at the end of the Cold War such as anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare capabilities and you can - it's also interesting to note that the people who - coming into the service now who would oversee Arctic strategy, they can now start having those habits of mind inculcated and start thinking ahead essentially to what they might be doing when they're at the very senior levels of the service in that timeframe (unintelligible).

CONAN: So the officers who would then be senior commanders in 2035 are just entering the service now.

HOLMES: Absolutely. And if you could get to those people early, help starting to acculturate them to think about that northern expanse, I think you're - I think that the Coast Guard would be setting itself up much better if indeed the United States pursues the option then I think it might be a wise one.

CONAN: Email question from Richard: What role do you see for Canada? Canada claims ownership of the Northwest Passage. He's writing us from Waterloo in Ontario.

HOLMES: That's a great question, and I think that's where I want to take the inquiry next is to start looking at the question that you opened with about the coalition aspects of this. It's kind of interesting to note that the last time that I'm aware of that the United States and Canada got into a sort of a dispute over a territory was about a century ago with the Alaskan boundary dispute. So in a sense, this almost feels like a throwback to the days of Teddy Roosevelt in that era.

I would certainly see the United States and Canada working together once the - the good thing about having that NATO framework is simply that we can consult and come to some sort of agreement on the - our views of the - of those expanses and what our navies and coast guards can do together. But exactly how all that will play out, I guess, we will see in the coming years.

CONAN: But whatever disputes the United States and Canada may have, there's a great deal more that unites them. In fact, they're both - each is their largest trading partner.

HOLMES: Oh, absolutely. And I mean we've been able to sort out our differences on the Georges Bank, off of New England, here with regard to fishing rights and all that sort of thing. So, no, I wouldn't expect that to be a major source of dispute between the two countries.

CONAN: We're talking with James Holmes, a professor of strategy at the United States Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Here's another email question. This is from Chris(ph): Living in Duluth, I look at the number of icebreakers and cutters that service the Great Lakes: one. How many do the Canadians have? How many do the Russians have? We can't even keep our inland seas open. What would make us think we could control the Arctic? And I think you point out in your piece the Coast Guard has a grand total of two.

HOLMES: Yes. That's a big problem for the Coast Guard in general is simply the service has been underfunded for many years, and it's been trying to recapitalize and having an uneven success at doing so. And that's certainly true of the icebreaker force. So I think that's something that's certainly the Coast Guard and potentially the Navy, should the Navy take some role in the north, would have to look at is what the best options are for building new icebreakers for perhaps rehabilitating the old ones.

Our commercial suppliers are the best outlets for that or naval shipyards or what have you. So that's - yeah, that's certainly a major concern as we look ahead because if you think about it, the nature of the Arctic Ocean, it will essentially each summer as we approach that warm period, it will start to look like a doughnut shape. The ice will recede, disappear and then ultimately make its comeback. So you'll certainly need icebreakers and that sort of capability to work around the fringes of those - of the icepack.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Al(ph) who's another caller from Cleveland.

AL: Hello. I'm very glad that you address the issue of Canadian sovereignty. I think that is a huge issue. Commandant Allen addressed the issue of that we need to have a polar presence, but we have two polar icebreakers that are all but worn out and we have the Healy. And we have the obligation to support the National Science Foundation in the South Pole. It takes a decade to get Congress to fund and commit to build something and it also takes a decade to create a seasoned crew.

It would take a commitment from this Congress now, which I don't see happening, to obligate funds out to 10 years plus operation and maintenance for 20 years. How do you see getting past our in-house political obstacles when like everybody else it's because budgets have been cut?

HOLMES: I think it's a huge issue that you raised, and you're quite right. I mean if you look at Congress, if you look at the administration, if you look at pretty much anybody where is the constituency for doing what you and I think I agree needs to be done which is to recapitalize that fleet so that it has adequate assets to meet U.S. maritime strategy in those cold waters to the north and to the south. I mean you're quite right. It takes quite some time to design and build a ship, particularly in this industrial age when it does in fact take years to make the design, find a good vendor for it, build it and put it into service.

And you also pointed out that the human aspect cannot be underestimated. Clearly, it takes time to - for a crew to be brought into the service, trained in the use of various platforms and to go out and actually do its work very effectively. So you're right to call attention to the material and the human side of the problem. But you're quite right. It's - I mean it remains a very remote and abstract issue that we're talking about and that it makes it very hard to focus political attention on taking care of it.

CONAN: Al, thanks very much.

AL: Thank you.

CONAN: And he raises also the political question, which is the Navy and the Marine Corps as they make their pivot to the Pacific, they're going to be suffering from budget problems as well, and they might argue that whatever scant resources are available and, well, we say scant, we're looking at the U.S. military budget, which is gigantic by any rational measure, but nevertheless, they're going to say whatever measure - whatever funds are available need to be devoted to the frontlines where we're going to be in competition with places like China.

HOLMES: That's absolutely true, and there's actually a Coast Guard tie-in that you can make to your question as well. The United States - U.S. - or excuse me, the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard back in 2007 issued a maritime strategy jointly that declared that the American sea services would concentrate their efforts primarily on East and South Asia, the Western Pacific, South China Sea and the greater Indian Ocean region. So long as that strategic directive remains in place and it certainly seems it has some staying power now that it's backed by the pivot. Clearly, the Navy and the Marine Corps will be focused primarily on, as you pointed out, the competition with China, perhaps taking care of the Iranian threat, all the things that might happen far to the south.

So this really makes - it really gives a north-south aspect to U.S. maritime strategy in the Pacific when you start looking towards the Arctic and also towards East and South Asia, kind of an interesting turnabout in foreign affairs.

CONAN: You even predict that maybe the Atlantic fleet will dwindle away to very little, if not, nothing.

HOLMES: Yeah. It's - and I - this is one of my standard talking points when I think about positioning the Navy and the other sea services to meet the challenges that we see is that if you look back a century before the First World War, American decision-makers were very accustomed to having only a single fleet and having to figure out where to put that fleet - which ocean to put that fleet in, in order to manage risk the best. If you look at Teddy Roosevelt and Alfred Thayer Mahan, who was our second president here at the War College, and Franklin Roosevelt, those guys were forever debating which ocean to put the Navy in.

So I could see a day coming in which we have few enough assets that we really have to concentrate assets in the Pacific and designate the Atlantic as a - what we call in the economy a forced theater, a theater where threats are minimal and can be taken care of with minimal forces.

CONAN: James Holmes, a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College, author of "Red Star Over the Pacific," which comes out in paperback later this year. Thanks very much for your time today.

HOLMES: Hey. Thanks a lot.

CONAN: Tomorrow, Ken Rudin joins us with The Political Junkie. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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