June 03, 2018

So You Want to Build a Modern Navy - Coast Guard Part 1

Bean: Now that we’ve gotten at least some clarity over our strategic mission, it’s time to turn our attention to our surface fleet. Taking a broad view, this covers an incredibly wide array of missions, everything from high-end AAW and ASW to land attack to maritime presence and low-end escort operations right down to inspecting shipping and maritime law enforcement. Most of us were Americans, and thus view the last two of these as missions for the Coast Guard. But the US Coast Guard is the world’s 12th-largest navy, and we at this point need to figure out how to fill those roles.

Actually, those are our most urgent problems. We’re already starting to get reports of undesirables on our coasts, so we need to work fast. The basic outline of what we need to do is fairly simple. At the bottom end, you have boats in the 25’-50’ range. These do all sorts of missions, maritime security, harbor patrol, delivering boarding teams, fishing idiot boaters out of the drink, enforcing environmental laws and so on. We’ve already ordered a few under law enforcement auspices, but we’re going to need quite a few more.

Above that, we're going to need proper ships to carry the same missions further offshore, as well as doing things like smuggling interdiction and fishery protection. These can handle heavier seas, and are capable of staying out for at least a few days, instead of having to return to base at the end of each shift. This will probably involve a couple sizes, maybe 80', 120', and 200', with an increase in size and capability at each step. The biggest one will be a fairly classic offshore patrol vessel. Maybe 2000 tons, a single medium gun, and a hangar and helipad. Not fast, but cheap by naval standards, and capable of doing the day-to-day work of keeping our coast and waters safe.

At this point, I'm not sure if we should roll these into the Navy, or keep them separate. It does seem a bit silly to copy the US model of two separate maritime services, when you could cut a fair bit of overhead by only having one. On the other hand, an independent Coast Guard has advantages of its own in the political arena. The Coast Guard mission is unsexy compared to that of the Navy, and it's easy for someone looking at a single service to get confused and try to push the Coast Guard part towards the Navy roles. For instance, it's common in Britain for people to suggest that their OPVs be given SAM systems. There's no good reason for this, as their current armament of a 30 mm gun is more than adequate for what they do. The SAM would add massive cost and complexity, as well as exacerbating the RN's manpower problems. A separate Coast Guard totally avoids this problem, and provides resistance to slashing the guard roles to support the warfighting roles. Overall, I think we'd be better off keeping them separate. It might even be worth looking at combining the Coast Guard with the civilian auxiliary organization, such as the RFA or MSC. I'm not sure how much we need in the way of uniforms. Thoughts?

Le Maistre Chat: Well they'll at least need briefs and hard-toed shoes to avoid injury on the job. :)

Bean: In retrospect, that was a poor choice of words. But there was something there I think deserves to be gone into in more detail. Basically, uniformed military services have benefits and drawbacks from a personnel-management perspective. They're a tested recipe for shaping groups of men and women into an organization that's capable of operating in really difficult situations, the kind where you have to order someone to go out and die. But there are also drawbacks. Careers are pretty standardized, which means you lose a lot of the options that you get when staffing a civilian organization. You could try to apply these to a military organization, but I suspect it might not work well. The military has a very clear hierarchy, and tends to work up-or-out. We can and should fight that to some extent, but I don't think that it's entirely possible to get the same flexibility. We could run the Coast Guard like they do workers on oil rigs, a week on and a week off, with lots of money and Blue/Gold crewing. More than that, we can get people who want to do this long-term, and we don't have to worry about what happens when someone who doesn't want to do the job gets rotated in. We'd have to commission some of the crew as law enforcement officers, but that's easy to do.

Andrew Hunter: As a brief addendum to the same point: is there an argument for building and commissioning the coast guard as fundamentally a law enforcement agency, not a uniformed military service? They seem to pattern match well, not least because most of their mission are in fact law enforcement.

Bean: I'm suggesting something more radical. The mechanic on a 100' patrol boat doesn't need a uniform, whether that uniform be a military or a law enforcement one. He definitely doesn't need a badge and a gun. He's doing pretty much the same job as a mechanic on a 100' fishing boat. The guy who actually does the boarding needs the badge and the gun, but he can have those within a largely civilian hierarchy. The captain might not have a badge and a gun, either. Well, he does have the gun on the ship, which might require some sort of commission. The structure I'm seeing is weirdly reminiscent of the structure of an early 19th century warship, actually.

Le Maistre Chat: So we absolutely want our coastal boat crews to be uniformed military if we foresee a reasonable probability of having to die defending the coast. Otherwise go civilian and commission certain roles on the crew as cops as needed.

Bean: That's not something we're going to plan for. I refuse to plan to throw away my men like that. Small boats are really terrible weapons platforms. Shooting guns from anything of the size we're talking about without a good fire control system is just going to waste ammo. Even bigger ships with FC systems and missiles are very vulnerable to air attack, and if we're going to provide air cover, we might as well just put the missiles on the planes. To be survivable in the face of air threats, we need at least a thousand or so tons, maybe more. The bigger patrol ships, particularly the 200' ones, can either be run directly by the Navy or taken over in an emergency. If we really need to, we can even draft the existing crews and run them through a quick training scheme.

Davy Jones: Do we have any idea of who we're protecting our coast against? Smugglers who are our citizens? Smugglers who aren't our citizens? Other countries' navies encroaching on our territorial waters? Fishermen? The amount of force that we will want to bring to bear will differ markedly depending on the adversary.

Bean: All of the above, which means that we're going to need a lot of different options. Dealing with other navies is the job of our own navy, but the Coast Guard will have to get the rest, which is why we have several different solutions.

Dndnrsn: I think civilian law enforcement would be a good idea. A military force and a civilian police force are going to interact with the public differently. A military force has to put considerable resources into capabilities civilian police forces don't have to worry about. If it skimps on those capabilities, it's going to lose respect as a military force, or become a military force in name only. Might as well just beat the game and use civilian police for civilian policing.

Bean: Well said.

Unfortunately, it looks like that's all we have time for today. I'd planned to go longer, but the diplomats need to talk about the fallout from the last round of Paperclip Riots. We can pick this up next time.


  1. June 03, 2018Inky said...

    I see one problem with mixed civilian/military crews, and it lies in the fact that a ship operates as a single unit, with all her crew performing the necessary tasks. When a police unit departs on a particular mission, it's contingent varies with the mission, detective for the detective work, SWAT for when the things get nasty. A ship, however, requires a maintenance crew to be present on board at all times. A mechanic may perform the same roles as on the civilian ship, but when the ship participates in action, it's the whole ship that puts itself into the line of fire, and the whole crew too. And that is to be considered by the people who seek employment in such positions. Granted, risks are generally less pronounced because this is more boring police/customs/occasional S&R line of work, but they are still there. A technician working on an oil rig may be fairly sure that nothing exciting will happen on his shift if he's doing his work correctly, but coast guard is a bit more complicated.

  2. June 03, 2018bean said...

    Working in the maritime environment is inherently risky. I suspect that a USCG mechanic is safer than a mechanic on a fishing boat, although I don't have the numbers to prove it. I suspect that most deaths in the line of duty (outside of normal maritime hazards) are of people who would be in uniform under this proposal. The occasional member of a boarding party may get shot at, but as far as I know, it never happens to their ships. A few small boat crewman may get uniforms because of the danger, but most of the time, it's pretty safe. Oil rigs probably weren't the best example of safe work, after all.

  3. June 04, 2018ADifferentAnonymous said...

    What's the 30mm gun for?

  4. June 04, 2018bean said...

    The primary job is to put a shot across the bow of a misbehaving vessel. That's the standard signal for "do what I tell you, or else". It's very rare that you have to follow up that "or else", but in case you do, it's capable of overmatching any weapon that a bad actor is likely to mount. In this day and age, sinking the other guy isn't really the objective, and a stabilized 30 mm is quite effective at stopping a ship and destroying any weapons it may have. It's also capable of protecting the vessel from threats like suicide speedboats.

  5. June 04, 2018AlphaGamma said...

    On armed "coast guard" ships- interestingly, while the Royal Navy's OPVs are armed, in Scotland the same job is done by Marine Scotland (formerly the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency) whose patrol vessels are unarmed.

    Similarly, British customs cutters are unarmed and don't even carry small arms for the crew (they will either bring in support from the Navy or carry armed police if that is considered necessary).

  6. June 04, 2018bean said...

    I wonder how much of the unarmed customs cutters is down to the British tradition of not giving their police guns. That's not the case basically anywhere else, and I doubt it's something we can imitate. I don't know what the logic on the Scottish OPVs is, either. The obvious candidate is a jurisdictional dispute with the RN, although it may be something else.

  7. June 04, 2018RedRover said...

    Re the civilian versus uniformed thing, I think 90% of the time you would get similar results, without the limitations of uniformed services. However, I think it's worth noting that the last 10% of the time is quite important, because that's when you want your team to run towards danger, be it SAR in hazardous weather or law enforcement. Without the sort of esprit de corps that comes with uniformed service, I think that would be hard to create on an ongoing basis. It need not necessarily be military, but I think something like a fire department or the RNLI (which seems like a volunteer fire department in some ways?) might also work. However, while normal civilians do face risks, I think generally they (rightly!) run from danger, or at least try to minimize it in ways that I think are contrary to what a coast guard would need, at least some of the time.

    To be clear, this only applies to the operational personnel, as the mechanics back at the air base or the shipyard can be civilians without any real degradation. However, sending a crew chief or a mechanic to sea when their not fully committed to the "You have to go out, but you don't have to come back!" ethos seems like a recipe for problems at key junctures.

  8. June 04, 2018RedRover said...

    To be clear, uniformed in the above encompasses both the traditional military definition, and the uniformed civil services like the police and the fire department. In both cases, you are creating a sense of devotion and service over and above what I think you'd get from general civil service types.

  9. June 05, 2018bean said...

    When I speak of uniforms, I mean hierarchy, not necessarily that they all wear the same clothes. The point is that you're running on a civilian organizational structure, not a military one. The RNLI is a good example of this in action. They don't even get paid, but they have the culture of going out into bad weather to rescue people.

  10. June 05, 2018AlphaGamma said...

    On 30mm guns: They are also the weapons fit on the few remaining armed merchantmen I am aware of- the nuclear fuel transport ships of PNTL, which are British-flagged and carry British police to operate the guns.

    On the unarmed customs cutters: The current UKBA cutters are Dutch-built, based on a design which is also unarmed in the service of various other nations (including the Netherlands).

  11. June 05, 2018bean said...

    Interesting. I had no idea about PNTL, or the fact that there were any sort of armed merchantmen afloat today.

    On the unarmed customs cutters: The current UKBA cutters are Dutch-built, based on a design which is also unarmed in the service of various other nations (including the Netherlands).

    I'm not sure how much unarmed means in this context. A typical armament for a boat of that size is a couple of machine guns. Those are really easy to fit or remove as needed, and I wouldn't be surprised if they were in the arms locker onboard for most nations (thought probably not the British).

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