Before becoming Navy undersecretary, Bob Work wrote an excellent white paper on naval power where he sketched out a notional future fleet. Work said that when calculating U.S. naval power it’s important to include the 160 cutters and nearly 800 small boats of the Navy’s “closest ally” the Coast Guard, which together with the Navy make up the “National Fleet.”
Since most foreign navies are more akin to coast guards, Work reasoned, the Coast Guard is often better suited to dealing with those foreign navies than the Navy itself.
On a conference call with reporters yesterday, I asked Coast Guard commandant Adm. Thad Allen how his service’s well-publicized budget woes are affecting that National Fleet idea.
Allen started off by saying he works closely with CNO Adm. Gary Roughead, along with Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway, on refining naval operating concepts that aim to stitch up the “seam” between the high-end of Coast Guard cutter capability which is the low end of naval combatant capability, and figure out how to generate some overlap and redundancy for missions that fall into that seam. However, he doesn’t have much in the way of available ships to feed into that seam.
While there is a clear “demand signal” from the various combatant commanders for cutters to assist in building partner nation capacity around the world, Allen said, maintaining a continuous forward presence beyond a couple of cutters is too much for his force. “The real question for me is how much force can we put at the (National Maritime) strategy given the size of our fleet. The demand signal right now is larger than our fleet.”
The Coast Guard maintains a single cutter about “one-third to half the time” operating with Africa Command and another cutter at “a little less than that” with Pacific Command, he said.
Allen revealed a bit of the tension that exists between Navy and Coast Guard shipbuilding plans, saying the National Security Cutter is better suited to partnering with foreign navies than the Littoral Combat Ship. “[The National Security Cutter] can operate independently, it can steam 12,000 miles, operate for 60 to 90 days without replenishment, and is used to operating independent of a battle group, without the need of an oiler, which the LCS would need.”