What’s Old Is New Again
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What’s Old Is New Again

Aug 16, 2023

For the first time since the Cold War, U.S. competitors possess military capabilities in quantity and kind to hold the U.S. mainland at risk. As that threat looms closer, the Coast Guard should look to its missions and culture during World War II to prepare again to, quite literally, guard the coasts. While modern efforts likely will not include shoreline patrols by canines or on horseback, lessons from the years pursuing U-boats off U.S. shores will better enable the shift from homeland security to homeland defense.

Resilience versus Efficiency: At its peak in 1944, the Coast Guard had more than 171,000 members, slightly more than 7 percent of the U.S. armed forces. Today’s workforce of just 47,000 personnel represents just more than 2 percent of the nation’s military. Should competition give way to conflict, force resilience will take precedence over efficiency. Increases in manpower may best be sought before the first shots are fired.

Adaptability and Capabilities: During World War II, the Coast Guard augmented its beach patrols, which previously had been focused on search and rescue, with 2,000 sentry dogs and nearly 3,000 horses to more efficiently and effectively secure U.S. coastlines. These patrols, which increasingly incorporated proven technologies, intercepted Nazi saboteurs as they came ashore from German submarines. While modern applications more likely will incorporate drones and machine learning technologies, the need to use all available capabilities to extend maritime domain awareness remains.

Civilian Partnerships: When during World War II the Coast Guard’s domestic security mission exceeded its military capacity, the service drew on an enthusiastic civilian workforce born out of the 1940 Federal Boating and Espionage Acts. The force, which evolved to become the Coast Guard Auxiliary, performed missions from search and rescue to antisubmarine warfare, using civilian vessels and vast local knowledge—and freeing active-duty members to support deployed missions. Today’s 30,000-strong Coast Guard Auxiliary is a world-class peacetime force multiplier and is just one of many civilian partnerships that would be critical to defending the domestic front.

Early Engagement: The USCGC Northland (WPG-49) conducted what many consider to be the first U.S. raid of World War II, months prior to the attacks on Pearl Harbor. While operating with Greenland forces, the crew raided a Nazi radio station, capturing enemy communication equipment and intelligence. With its unique authorities and missions, today’s Coast Guard continues to operate in the space between cooperation and conflict. Cutters conduct joint operations with the Russian Border Guard in the Arctic approaches and provide security enhancement to smaller Pacific nations. While these missions serve a critical diplomatic role, they also position Coast Guard assets to see the first signs of impending conflict.

Arctic (Re)Emergence: Japan’s bombing of Dutch Harbor in 1942 emphasized the strategic importance of the Alaskan and Arctic theaters, and the Coast Guard took a lead role in teaching other military services how to fight in that unforgiving environment. Today’s Coast Guard finds itself in a similar situation, as the Arctic takes on even more strategic importance and peer nations seek to assert dominance in the northern latitudes. The service should be prepared once again to assist other services as they seek to improve operational capability in this unique and challenging region.

Warfighter Identity: The Coast Guard was transferred to the Navy in 1941, and over the course of World War II, its personnel fought alongside Navy, Marine Corps, and Army personnel in every theater, including domestic fronts. Critical to their success, Coast Guard personnel and equipment proved commendably interoperable with that of the other services. Over generations hence, the growing disparity in warfighting technologies may see the Coast Guard challenged to integrate into Department of Defense operations in a contested environment. As important, if not more, the Coast Guard may face challenges being seen (by itself and others) as a warfighting entity. A cultural shift from homeland security to homeland defense is a prerequisite to being prepared to fight on and from U.S. shores.

While today’s emerging threats may seem novel, the Coast Guard adapted its composition and culture to face similar challenges just a few generations ago. By looking to its past wartime missions, it can find ways to be ready for tomorrow.

Commander Austin is stationed at NORAD and U.S. Northern Command. In 20 years of active duty, he has served as a cutterman, Direct Action Team member, and rotary-wing aviator.