Small Wars Journal

The Coast Guard and Stability Operations

Sun, 10/25/2020 - 9:51pm

The Coast Guard and Stability Operations

By Christian Gaudio

            In today’s operating environment military force alone cannot guarantee enduring peace.[1] Stability is an inherently inter-agency mission that requires a whole-of-government approach to properly address its primary tasks of establishing civil security, establishing civil control, restoring essential services, supporting governance, and supporting economic and infrastructure development.[2] Stability operations grew out of the United States' experiences in counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and have been refined through practical lessons learned fighting the global war on terror. The Department of Defense’s shift to near peer power competition threatens to wipe away critical skills and lessons learned through years fighting counterinsurgency. The Joint Force must determine a means by which it can shift emphasis back to high-intensity conflict without losing the valuable lessons learned in stability operations. A means to do this is through designating certain military services with maintaining stability operations as a primary emphasis. This service should be comfortable working in the “grey zone” conducting military operations other than war, and provide auxiliary functions as a secondary role as regards a high-intensity fight.[3] Traditionally, light forces are uniquely suited to these tasks as they are most effective when they function through continuous interaction and engagement with the populace. As a service that is both a military force and a member of the inter-agency with law enforcement authorities, the United States Coast Guard is uniquely trained and suited for a stability role in the maritime environment.[4]

The United States Coast Guard exists to protect American prosperity both domestically and globally. Domestically the service maintains regulatory authorities relating to shipping, coastal, and offshore operations interacting at every level of the domestic maritime environment. As a military service, the Coast Guard works best on the periphery of the continuum of joint operations where it can use its constabulary functions to shape the operational environment and deter competitors prior to a conflict while post conflict it stabilizes the environment and enables civil authorities.[5]   The Coast Guard is a unique instrument of national power that functions in the capacity of a “law enforcement organization, a regulatory agency, a first response agency, and a member of the intelligence community.”[6] The service envisions its role as advancing transparency, bolstering the rule of law, supporting market-based economic competition, and maintaining freedom of navigation and overflight in alignment with international standards and norms.[7] These are roles and missions that the Coast Guard has fulfilled since its inception as the Revenue Marine in 1790 when a small fleet of cutters were judiciously deployed on patrol to collect the tariffs and revenues for a new republic. Whether on the high seas or in domestic waters stability is a mission inherent to the service and something that the Coast Guard has conducted in one form or another for over two hundred years.

At its heart the primary stability tasks fall into seven military missions and activities:  protecting civilians, security sector reform, support to security cooperation, peace operations, foreign humanitarian assistance, counterinsurgency, and foreign internal defense.[8] As a force-in-being that is constantly on patrol or on call, the Coast Guard is uniquely suited and has fulfilled a role in each of these missions within the maritime environment.[9] Admiral Schultz summed up the service’s role best when he wrote in his Strategic Plan that:

“The Coast Guard plays a critical role in strengthening governance in areas of strategic importance. We mature other nations’ inherent capabilities to police their own waters and support cooperative enforcement of international law through dozens of robust bilateral agreements. Our leadership on global maritime governing bodies and our collaborative approach to operationalize international agreements drives stability, legitimacy and order. As global strategic competition surges, adversaries become more sophisticated and the maritime environment becomes more complex. The Coast Guard provides a full spectrum of solutions, from cooperation to armed conflict.”[10]

The Coast Guard’s military and law enforcement authorities oblige it to protect civilians by providing a safe and secure environment, enabling good governance, maintaining the rule of law, enabling the social well-being of society, and providing a stable commercial environment for a robust and sustainable economy. In 2005 the Coast Guard responded to the land fall of Hurricane’s Katrina and Rita. These storms devastated a large swath of the U.S. coastline along the Gulf of Mexico and for a short period of time caused the erosion of domestic law and order in and around the city of New Orleans. The Coast Guard responded with an unprecedented whole of service response that pushed capabilities into the region. Law Enforcement Detachments (LEDETs) and Maritime Safety and Security Teams worked with the New Orleans Police Department and the  Louisiana State Police to maintain the rule of law, and provide visible force protection and deterrence to protect the local citizenry as well as responding aircraft, small boats and specialists. Marine inspectors and the National Strike Force deployed to assess and respond to hazardous material spills ensuring a safe environment throughout the recovery operation. Aids to Navigation Teams worked to open up the Mississippi River and ports to trade, while Cutters and LEDETs conducted off shore boardings of merchant vessels, under the Captain of the Port’s authority, before clearing them to proceed up river into New Orleans positively impacting the local, state, and national economies.[11]

             The Coast Guard is seen as a global model for maritime constabulary forces. As such, the service is in high demand regarding security sector reform. In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia the Coast Guard, in concert with the Department of State, assisted in the development of the Maritime Infrastructure Protection Force which worked under the Ministry of Interior and was formed to provide security to sites deemed critical to Saudi Arabian national security.[12] Combating transnational organized crime is another area in which the Coast Guard contributes in depth. The Coast Guard is a recurring force provider to United States Southern Command and deploys cutters, aircraft, LEDETs, and training teams to the area in support of counter-drug operations.[13] The service partners with South and Central American forces working in conjunction with both military and law enforcement personnel to disrupt the flow of drugs through known transit corridors.[14] Closer to home the Coast Guard plays an active role securing the nation’s border and works in the maritime environment, and on the southwest border to ensure border integrity. The Coast Guard serves as a working model and mentor to similar organizations throughout the world and maintains professional relationships with domestic local, state, and federal law enforcement personnel, foreign navies, coast guards, border guards, interior troops, worldwide port partners, and the shipping industry. Through these continuing relationships the Coast Guard leads through example, and ensures freedom of the seas and international norms.

            Support to Security Cooperation is a recurring role for the Coast Guard and an area in which it can best contribute overseas. The African Maritime Law Enforcement Partnership (AMLEP) is a recurring operation, by United States Africa Command, that works to build partnerships and interoperability within African coastal nations, enabling them to properly maintain coastal sovereignty. Coast Guard efforts “strengthen partner-nation capability for self-policing in order to thwart transnational threats such as piracy, illegal fishing, and contraband trafficking.”[15] For the past decade the Coast Guard has supported this initiative with cutters, LEDETs, training teams, and riverine/small boat subject matter experts (SMEs). The response from African partners has been overwhelming. The Coast Guard provides the knowledge and capabilities that are needed by African nations to strengthen their sovereignty and enforce rule of law in their littorals. Coast Guard SMEs provide instruction on basic capabilities that help establish these domestic forces as advocates for the rule of law.

            Peace Operations or what used to be termed Peacekeeping Operations became more common in the 1990s following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. During that time the Coast Guard was involved in conducting maritime interdiction operations enforcing United Nations (UN) embargoes off the coast of Bosnia-Herzegovenia and Iraq.[16] Cutters and LEDETs provided a visible law enforcement presence, backed by UN resolutions that reinforced the international rules based order by holding despots and tyrants to account. Their actions positively impacted sanctions placed on warring countries and assisted in the implementation and maintaining of peace following negotiated cease-fires. The Coast Guard provided the Joint Force with vessels and skillsets refined daily in peacetime missions and applied them to military operations providing a unique and complementary capability to the geographic combatant commanders while enabling combat trained forces to continue to train for high-intensity operations.[17]

            The Coast Guard led foreign humanitarian assistance efforts and disaster relief during the response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Cutters were the first on scene at Port au Prince and immediately began landing relief supplies, while providing on scene surveys and assessments to the Joint Force enabling the mobilization and deployment of sister service personnel to the scene. The majority of the world’s populations live along the coastline and international trade has become increasingly reliant on seaborne transport, thus quick and decisive responses to natural and humanitarian disasters must continue.[18] The Coast Guard is best positioned to provide this assistance through its existing statutory missions. It regularly supports alien-migrant interdiction operations and ensures safety of life at sea for dislocated civilians. In times of crisis, the service deploys its LEDETs and Deployable Specialized Forces to provide security and stabilize the disaster zone. Coast Guard members and training teams provide technical assistance to host nation personnel and work collectively with locals to quickly establish community support functions including electricity and potable water. The Coast Guard’s steady state operations enable its forces to remain forward deployed and on scene able to respond quickly and decisively to events as they happen. This maximizes the service’s impact and enables the Coast Guard to hit above its weight class despite its inherent capacity limitations.

.           Coast Guard counterinsurgency efforts reflect its relative size and position within the Joint Force. Island Class Patrol Boats have patrolled the Arabian Gulf since the before the initiation of the War in Iraq in 2003. Comprising Coast Guard Patrol Forces Southwest Asia, (PATFORSWA) these cutters and crews have secured gulf oil platforms, provided search and rescue response, trained local navies and border guards, and currently form the front line of the service’s role in countering Iran.[19] While relatively small in comparison to the other services, this contribution has been reliable and consistent for the past seventeen years, expanding to include a Middle East Training Team, and an Advanced Interdiction Team which exponentially increases its reach and impact in the area. Through the personal relationships and interactions of this relatively small component of Naval Forces Central Command the Coast Guard has remained relevant in the nation’s response to violent extremist organizations.

            Foreign Internal Defense is a mission historically done by the Coast Guard’s Deployable Specialized Forces.  LEDETs and the International Training Division led efforts in the 1980s and 1990s in Bolivia and Ecuador to bolster domestic law enforcement agencies and stem the flow of cocaine north. Documented in the book Not Your Father’s Coast Guard these operations placed Coast Guard personnel on the ground in South America, working alongside host nation personnel in the development of their air and maritime forces.[20] Coast Guardsmen patrolled alongside their counterparts, leading by example, while providing a bridge between host nation forces, the Joint Force and U.S. interagency partners. The mission enabled the service to increase its commitment to suppressing illicit trafficking, increase its role in combatting transnational organized crime, and positively impact the development of internal security forces within drug producing countries and the transit zone.

            The Coast Guard is a ready, relevant, and responsive force focused on protecting U.S. prosperity. [21] Stability missions dovetail into domestic mission sets making the Coast Guard an ideal force, within the Joint Force, for competing below the threshold of armed conflict. Historically, the United States military is regularly involved in some sort of stability operation despite the military preference for high intensity conflict. The emphasis on stability over the past twenty years has developed a Joint Force structured and trained to operate within that environment. The shift to near-peer power competition requires a Joint Force structured to fight in a high intensity conflict. The United States risks losing some of the lessons learned if it does not develop a holistic and complementary Joint Force that can both dominate a peer enemy and conduct stability operations at and below the level of armed conflict. Competition means that forces will be employed across the spectrum of operations with equal emphasis. Designating specific services to conduct stability as a primary mission is one means of ensuring a Joint Force that is equally capable across the spectrum. The Coast Guard is uniquely suited to a lead role in maritime focused stability operations.[22] As a military force that is resident within the inter-agency, the Coast Guard provides a presence that is “instantly acceptable because of their worldwide humanitarian reputation.”[23] This forward presence dovetails with the Department of Homeland Security mission of “safeguarding the American people” by pushing the boundaries of U.S. law enforcement into regions and countries where it can mentor and develop partner capabilities in the areas it is needed most.[24]



[1] U.S. Department of the Army, Field Manual 3-07, Stability, iv.

[2] FM 3-07. Page 1-2. “Stability, ultimately aims to establish conditions the local populace regards as legitimate, acceptable, and predictable. Stabilization is a process in which personnel identify and mitigate underlying sources of instability to establish the conditions for long-term stability. Therefore, stability tasks focus on identifying and targeting the root causes of instability and building the capacity of local institutions.” (FM 3-07, Page iv)

[3] John Chambers. “Countering Gray-Zone Hybrid Threats: An Analysis of Russia’s ‘New Generation Warfare’ and Implications for the US Army,” Modern War Institute at West Point, (October 18, 2016): 4.

[4] While outside of the scope of this article, the author recommends the USMC as a land oriented, stability focused, option. Both the USMC and the USCG have a long complementary history of working together, both are expeditionary oriented, and both fill a light role in relation to the Navy and Army. The two members of the joint force could maintain emphasis on stability while enabling the Army and Navy to shift focus to near-peer power competition and the high-intensity fight, in essence carving out a niche and complimentary role in the Joint Force. This would enable the nation to respond to the wide range of competition and conflict without losing valuable lessons learned during pivots of national defense emphasis.

[5] U.S. Department of the Army, Field Manual 3-0, Operations, 1-12.

[6] Vice Admiral Linda L. Fagan, interview by Zia Syed, June 11, 2019, Asia Pacific Media Hub, 1

[7] Fagan interview, 7.

[8] FM 3-07, 1-6 to 1-7.

[9] James M. Loy. “Shaping America’s Joint Maritime Forces: The Coast Guard in the 21st Century,” Joint Forces Quarterly, (Spring 1998): 15.

[10] U.S. Coast Guard. Coast Guard Strategic Plan 2018-2022, 6.

[11] The information in this paragraph is from the author’s personal experience.

[12] U.S. Coast Guard. ALCGENL 158/17-AY18 Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Maritime Infrastructure Protection Force Training Advisory Group (MIPFTAG) Solicitation. Accessed August 30, 2019.

[13] Associated Press, “Coast Guard makes dramatic drug seizure, raiding submarine,” WTOP, July 12, 2019, accessed August 30, 2019,

[14] U.S. Coast Guard, United States Coast Guard Western Hemisphere Strategy, 41.

[15] Coast Guard Strategic Plan, 6.

[16] Loy, 12.

[17] Loy, 14.

[18] Coast Guard Strategic Plan, 4.

[19] “Patrol Forces Southwest Asia PATFORSWA,” United States Coast Guard Atlantic Area, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, accessed August 30, 2019,

[20] Matthew Mitchell. Not Your Father’s Coast Guard. (Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2009)

[21] U.S. Coast Guard, Commandant’s Guiding Principles 2018-2022, 2.

[22] U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard. Marine Corps Interim Publication 3-33.02, Naval Warfare Publication 3-07, Commandant Instruction M3120.11, Maritime Stability Operations, 1-8, 1-9.

[23] Loy, 13.

[24] U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “Mission,” accessed May 24, 2019,


About the Author(s)

CDR Christjan Gaudio works in the Coast Guard's Office of Counterterrorism and Defense Operations Policy as the Global Force Management Lead. He is a 2018 graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College where he was an Art of War Scholar. Additionally he is a 2008 graduate of Norwich University and a 2002 graduate of the University of North Florida. His assignments include Tactical Law Enforcement Team (TACLET) South, Maritime Advisor to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Border Guard, USCGC GRAND ISLE, USCGC RESOLUTE, USCGC BOUTWELL, Maritime Security Response Team-Chesapeake, and TACLET North. 



Thu, 09/23/2021 - 9:16am

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