Defending US Borders and the Role of the US Coast Guard

By Robbin Laird

President elect Trump made it clear that defending US borders would be a priority for his Administration. Although he used the image of building a wall often, his clear focus is on border security. He noted the paradox that we send troops abroad to defend other people’s borders but are not doing much of a job defending ours.

At the heart of this issue is clearly the redesign, reset and energizing of the role and approach of the border patrol. And the union representing the border patrol has been at clear odds with the current commission of CBP.

In fact, the union representing the border patrol made an unprecedented endorsement of a presidential candidate, namely, Donald Trump.

The national union that represents more than 16,000 agents of the United States Border Patrol issued its first-ever endorsement of a presidential candidate on Wednesday by throwing its support behind Republican Donald Trump.

Lauding Trump as an outsider who bucks political correctness, a National Border Patrol Council spokesperson said in a statement that Trump’s honesty on immigration, though ill-received by some, is what the nation needs to stop the “open borders” mentality of current office holders.

“The fact that people are more upset about Mr. Trump’s tone than about the destruction wrought by open borders tells us everything we need to know about the corruption in Washington,” the statement said. “Our current political establishment has bled this country dry, sees their power evaporating, and isn’t listening to voters who do all the heavy lifting.”

During the first few years after 9/11 as the Department of Homeland Security was stood up, there were many innovative approaches suggested to provide for enhanced border patrol capabilities.

Industry was mobilized to suggest ideas, but many of these simply fizzled on the vine as DHS became a bureaucratic empire within which the imported agencies jockeyed for position and an integrative focus was to be seen more on briefing charts than on operations.

With the coming to power of President-elect Trump, there is a possibility of re-energizing creative and efforts to provide for significant enhancements to border security. And given the nature of US borders notably to the South, threats come in by sea and air, not just over the land.

And in this role the US Coast Guard working with the air arm of the CBP provides key capabilities.

But these capabilities have been suffering from funding shortage and flailing strategic purpose.

The USCG provides ships, helos and fixed wing air to provide for the safety and security of Americans and the defense of the homeland against migrant, drug, and terrorists threats coming by water and blending into land migration into the Southern and Northern borders of the United States.

Cooperation with Canada and Mexico is crucial in this area, but there is a clear need to re-energize the effort and to provide CBP and the USCG with the capability working together to provide for a more effective mobile wall to protect the United States.

I conducted many, many interviews with USCG leaders and personnel during the first term of the Obama Administration. The Coast Guard is not political but it was clear that the USCG was on the cliff with regard to resources. The demand side was growing; the resources were diminishing.

This was put well in an interview with 11th USCG District Commander.

The Eleventh Coast Guard District encompasses the states of California, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah, the coastal and offshore waters out over more than a thousand miles from the California-Oregon border to the California-Mexico board, and the offshore waters of Mexico and Central America down to Ecuador.  Coast Guard operational units are located throughout the state of California, with the Eleventh District and Pacific Area headquarters located on Coast Guard Island in Alameda, California along the east side of San Francisco Bay. (

You need to have enough assets so that you are actually near or physically present in an area of interest.  With the vast area to be covered, and the fact that ships move relatively slowly, a significant number of assets are needed to maintain this presence due to the simple reality of time-speed-distance..

And modern and capable ships, to me, are at the heart of persistent presence in terms of ability to execute the mission in the offshore area.  For example, if you are pursuing a go fast vessel, you can have an MPA (Maritime Patrol Aircraft) tracking them.  That is helpful, but I will need a ship partner with the MPA that is able to intercept, stop and board that ship to fully execute the law enforcement mission.

What I need is a persistent presence that can not only survey the area and identify the traffic in that area, but also be able to sort and target from among that traffic to identify those threats or challenges that are of interest to us.

Given the reality of the time/speed/distance problem, I’m just not convinced that you can achieve mission effectiveness without having a large number of assets, or a smaller number of more capable assets, that you can put against the threat or mission.  And until we figure out how it is that we can star trek transport things around, I’m still stuck with the physics of being able to get boots on target right now.

Will there be a way of delivering by aircraft, long distances at sea, to get somebody on the target of interest?  That may be where we can go in the future as opposed to only vessels.  Who knows?

What I know now is that I need to be able to operate in all weather conditions with significant sea states and for extended periods of time and over long distances, and be able to deliver helicopters and small boats to effect end game, be it in law enforcement, search and rescue, migrant interdiction or other missions.   I need to be able to sort, and figure out whom it is that I need to target, and be able to get somebody on that vessel that can take law enforcement interdiction action, and bring it to a successful conclusion.

When it comes to offshore search and rescue, when there’s no Coast Guard vessel anywhere nearby, AMVER has been very successful and saved a number of lives.  This is a voluntary merchant vessel tracking system operated by the Coast Guard where merchant ships share their transit plan and make themselves available to assist fellow mariners in distress in their vicinity. This partnership has been very helpful in identifying merchant vessels that can help out when we can’t get one of our own platforms there.

We’ve also developed many great partnerships with other countries in the search and rescue realm as well.  But we don’t have the same number of search and rescue cases well off our shores, and deep down in the Eastern Pacific than we do in the  counter drug arena.

In the Eleventh District, the counter drug mission is the primary driver of the need for more ships to be available to prosecute, to evaluate, and engage whatever targets of interest we find.

This statement of reality in 2011 is even more true today.

If the new President wants enhanced border security clearly the USCG needs more resources and leadership which does a better job of integrating its assets and efforts with the CBP.

But it is not just resources – it is a clear Commander’s intent to go after the problem.

In the words of the President of the National Border Patrol Council:

“The commissioner and I have serious disagreements on border security,” said NBPC President Brandon Judd in a prepared statement previously published by Breitbart Texas.

 “He believes in amnesty programs like DAPA, DACA and ‘catch and release’ are the right approach. However, we have seen that these programs only add to the crisis, as illegal immigrants believe they are going to be allowed to stay.

It is not often realized that the USCG is also part of the Department of Defense and as the US Navy shifts from the procurement of the LCS to vessels more fitted to its mission statement in dealing with the growing challenges in the Pacific, the new President might one to consider transferring the LCSs directly to the USCG for an immediate expansion of capability in the Caribbean and the Pacific.

Also expanding the work of the USMC, the USN and the USCG working the extended defense of the United States starting with the border areas is a clear area of need.

When I wrote a series of reshaping US capabilities for Pacific security and defense for the then AOL Defense, which is now Breaking Defense, I focused on the USCG as key piece in the effort. But even though we have had a so-called Pivot to the Pacific, it would be hard to find new capabilities for the USCG in this pivot.

But for the United States to play a more effective role in defending its own littorals and to be more effective in the kind of multi-national collaboration which building Pacific security and providing a solid foundation for littoral defense, a key element are presence assets.

“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,” said Vice Adm. Manson Brown. “We need to be very concerned about the balance of power in the neighborhood.

If you look at some of the other players that are operating in the neighborhood there is clearly an active power game going on. To keep the US presence relevant, the Coast Guard’s National Security Cutters are a core asset.

The inability to fund these and the putting in limbo of the smaller cutters, the so-called OPCs, or Offshore Patrol Cutters, underscores a central question: without effective littoral presence (for U.S. shores) how does one do security and defense in the Pacific?

The size and immensity of the Pacific means you operate with what you have; you do not have shore infrastructure easily at hand to support a ship. Ships need to be big enough to have onboard provisions and fuel, as well as aviation assets to operate over time and distance.

In short, providing for littoral defense and security on the shores of the United States requires a reaffirmation of the Coast Guard’s Title X role and ending the logjam of funding support for the cutter fleet and the service’s aviation assets which enable that fleet to have range and reach.

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