From cyber to hybrid war and cocaine busts, the U.S. Coast Guard has an ever-increasing role in addressing America’s national security challenges in today’s rapidly changing global landscape.

The Coast Guard is currently carrying out a record number of narcotics seizures, and at the same time developing plans for manufacturing three heavy polar icebreakers and one medium icebreaker to tackle rising maritime and security challenges in the Arctic.

All the while, the service is studying hybrid warfare tactics being employed by Chinese coast guard ships in the South China Sea.

The increasing roles of the Coast Guard highlight a rapidly evolving geopolitical landscape, one in which the service must quickly adapt to meet America’s security challenges.

Under the leadership of Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul F. Zukunft, the service has centered its focus on four strategic areas: the Western hemisphere, the Arctic, cyber, and energy and marine transportation, Vice Commandant Adm. Charles D. Michel told audience members at the annual Sea-Air-Space symposium on Monday.

“In the Western hemisphere, the good news is record cocaine seizures and record number of detainees,” Michel said. “Bad news is record flow rates.”

Regional instability in Mexico and Central America has been fueling transnational criminal gangs, an issue the Coast Guard has been front and center in addressing, Michel explained.

“It’s a tough world here in the Western Hemisphere,” he added, and the Coast Guard is “bringing great capability into the fight down there.”

Michel credited much of the counter-narcotics trafficking success to the service’s national security cutters, high-tech ships that can operate thousands of miles from U.S. coastlines in conjunction with U.S. Navy operations. The new cutters went into service in 2009 and are replacing the aging High Endurance Hamilton-class cutters.

“Best ship we ever fielded by far and it is paying tremendous results,” Michel said.

And soon, the service will float a new offshore patrol cutter into the effort. That ship will be built out of Panama City, Florida, according to Michel.

In the Arctic effort, the service just received its “second slug of money” to build the first heavy icebreaker since the 1970s, Michel told audience members.

The Coast Guard currently only has one working heavy ice breaker, known as the Polar Star.

An evolving challenge in the Arctic is that the melting polar ice has opened up new maritime routes and energy exploration that were once closed off to the world, resulting in new security challenges and competition.

Making that challenge even more difficult to meet is an atrophied U.S. industrial base. Today, most cutting-edge icebreaker technology is developed abroad in places like Finland, Michel explained.

Hybrid warfare is also playing in the “wheelhouses” of the U.S. Coast Guard and the coast guards of other nations as well, according to Michel.

In the South China Sea, for example, China has increasingly pushed forward its coast guard in “an exercise of state sovereignty,” Michel said, and as a “different way of projecting national power.”

Recently, the Chinese military folded their coast guard under their defense establishment, an echo of the U.S. model.

Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.

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