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Combat Coasties needed, professor says

Apr. 7, 2013 - 10:03AM   |  
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While many are concerned with the environmental impact of a melting Arctic Circle, one Naval War College professor is pushing strategy.

Specifically, creating a combat-capable Coast Guard.

“We are looking at the emergence of a new maritime theater,” said James Holmes, a former lieutenant and Navy surface warfare officer and a combat veteran of the first Gulf War.

In a March 15 opinion piece for Foreign Policy magazine, Holmes said the Coast Guard should be doing more to prepare for battle.

“The Coast Guard fleet need not be a U.S. Navy in miniature, built to rule the waves,” he wrote in the op-ed. “But the long arm of U.S. strategy needs battle capacity — not just the light gunnery that now festoons American cutters.”

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp, in his State of the Coast Guard address in February, talked about the “emerging frontier of the Arctic.”

“As the receding ice increasingly gives way to commercial ventures and human and economic presence increases, so do our responsibilities,” Papp said in the speech.

Holmes is choosing to focus on the inevitable “geopolitical competition.”

The Navy and Marine Corps’ main focus will be on East and South Asia, Holmes said, so it’s up to the Coast Guard to prepare.

His opinion piece included four recommendations to make the Coast Guard fit to fight:

• Coast Guard leaders should assess what it would take to go beyond support services.

For that, he recommends the Coast Guard look into its past. The Coast Guard participated in military operations in the “Quasi-War” with the French, the War of 1812, both World Wars and Vietnam, said Chris Havern, a historian with the Coast Guard Historian’s Office, via email. During World War II, Coast Guard-manned warships sunk almost a dozen submarines. In Vietnam, Coast Guard pilots flew combat search and rescue missions with the Air Force.

• The Coast Guard should “renovate its high-end combat capability” and work with Congress and the Navy to get better armed.

• The service should foster good working relationships with “navies and coast guards from fellow Arctic powers.”

• Finally, the Coast Guard should evolve its organizational culture to prepare for the potential of combat. He said there will need to be a change in the service’s way of thinking.

Holmes admits it would be “hard to wage maritime war in the Arctic” and that he can’t think of a specific scenario where the Coast Guard would be fighting.

“But neither could I, or anyone else, have thought of a scenario circa 1980 that would have seen China build a strong navy, claim the South China Sea as its own, and start patrolling Philippine-, Vietnamese- and Malaysian-claimed waters as though China were the rightful sovereign,” he said. “And yet that has happened in the intervening 30-some years, the same space of time that separates now from the time the Arctic Ocean may open.”

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