Transfer the Coast Guard to the Defense Department?

New presidents and their administrations often bring an opportunity to take a fresh look at existing government institutions.

President Trump has taken aim at many federal agencies, promising to eliminate some (EPA), pull back the reach of others (Education Department), and give a few more money and power (Defense).

He hasn’t said a peep about the U.S. Coast Guard, which currently operates as part of the Department of Homeland Security. But in some quarters within the Coast Guard and Congress, there is a growing sense that now is the time to revive an old discussion: Should the Coast Guard move in with their military brethren over at the Defense Department?

By law, the Coast Guard is a military, regulatory and law enforcement agency. It has been bounced between four cabinet departments over the past century: Treasury, Navy, Transportation and now DHS (also home to border control and Transportation Security Administration agents).

The main argument emerging for a move is that the Coast Guard should finally get its due as the nation’s fifth military service and be on equal footing with the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. Proponents of this view argue that the Coast Guard’s budget has been squeezed at DHS, its military mission has been overlooked, and it has been refashioned as a law enforcement agency.

Rep, Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a former Marine and current chairman of the House Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation subcommittee, wants to change that. He believes that the Coast Guard “is a military organization that deserves its place — with word, respect and funding — among the rest of America’s military under the command of the Department of Defense.”

Hunter detailed this position in a commentary published in Defense News on Feb. 13. Acknowledging that the challenges facing the Coast Guard — readiness shortfalls, inadequate budgets for maintenance and repairs of equipment — are similar to those facing the Marine Corps, Hunter argues that the Coast Guard has most of all been missing a patron.

The Coast Guard has lacked “any real advocate outside its own ranks and was routinely rolled by the two previous secretaries of DHS and Office of Management and Budget who viewed the Coast Guard budget more as a nuisance and even a source for reach-back funding for other programs.”

Hunter places most of the blame on “eight years of the Obama administration and its failures in prioritization” pointing specifically to the lagging progress on building a new polar icebreaker.

Support for a move is coming from other quarters as well.

In the February issue of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine, Jim Dolbow, editor of the Coast Guardsman’s Manual and a former member of the U.S. Naval Institute editorial board, and Jim Howe, a retired Coast Guard captain, built a complementary case.

“The Coast Guard’s culture, worldview, operational focus, training regimes, maintenance programs and work ethos are similar to those of the DoD services but markedly different from those at Transportation Security Agency, Immigration and Citizenship Services, and Federal Emergency Management Agency,” they wrote.

Among the benefits: stability of having the Coast Guard under DOD during wartime without need of a “disruptive transfer” to defense; opportunities to keep the Coast Guard’s “warrior edge” sharp that would also enhance its homeland security and maritime enforcement missions; a stronger chance to achieve budgets that actually reflect expanding missions; and better access to technological innovations and well-established logistics, command-and-control, research and development and acquisition programs and expertise.

The writers dismissed critics that argue that the Coast Guard is too small to survive at DOD, would be smothered by the Navy, and that the service’s civilian missions have no place within the military.

The Posse Comitatus Act, an 1878 law that prohibits the Defense Department from engaging in civilian law enforcement, wouldn’t be an issue, Dolbow and Howe say because Congress could keep the current prohibitions on military services intact, but exclude the Coast Guard in the transfer legislation.

So, what do you think? Would this be a good move for the Coast Guard? Are their missions compatible with DOD? Should some Coast Guard roles be farmed out to other agencies? Would your relationship with the Coast Guard change?

About the author

Pamela Glass

Pamela Glass is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for WorkBoat. She reports on the decisions and deliberations of congressional committees and federal agencies that affect the maritime industry, including the Coast Guard, U.S. Maritime Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Prior to coming to WorkBoat, she covered coastal, oceans and maritime industry news for 15 years for newspapers in coastal areas of Massachusetts and Michigan for Ottaway News Service, a division of the Dow Jones Company. She began her newspaper career at the New Bedford (Mass.) Standard-Times. A native of Massachusetts, she is a 1978 graduate of Wesleyan University (Conn.). She currently resides in Potomac, Md.


  1. Robert Stanley on

    USCG, when left to its best instincts and given adequate funding, has been capable of near-miracles. Prime example is HAMILTON-class cutters, which ran rings around anything the U.S. Navy had or has been able to develop in the many years since. Witness the current travails with the U.S. Navy Littoral Combat Ship as the examples (2 radically different designs, both with independent problems) of how not to do a design and build program. But with USCG in Department of Homeland Security, the development of the fleet replacement program known as Deepwater was more of a mixed bag. The smaller ships program had a bad start but now seems to be shaping up well. The medium ship Offshore Patrol Cutter was a disaster in the hands of the Northrup-Grumman consortium, who did not have a clue. But now the program seems to be re-starting well. The large ship program – well, let us leave that bloated derivative of a U.S. Navy design alone and let it sink of its own absurdities.

    • Commander Cobra on

      Agree on the Hamilton Class, not so much the 270s (which were to supposed to be 320s) and the aviation side in rotary wing lags behind. Icebreakers have suffered most. At the end of the day the nation suffers the most.

  2. B. Willauer, Captain, US Mercant Marine on

    Simply, moving the United States Coast Guard into Department of Defense is the absolutely right move! And, increasing it’s size, funding, new vessels and equipment authorizations is a given. It’s about time!!!

  3. Mark Bisnette (USCG, ret) on

    Sounds great on paper, but i find it interesting that the article says “Hunter detailed this position in a commentary published in Defense News on Feb. 13. Acknowledging that the challenges facing the Coast Guard — readiness shortfalls, inadequate budgets for maintenance and repairs of equipment — are similar to those facing the Marine Corps…” So, the logic is that the Marine Corps, which IS a part of DOD, is facing similar issues, but the USCG, a smaller organization, would do better? Doesn’t make sense. The CG is certainly a military organization, but it’s primary missions are not DOD-oriented…how long will they last when we belong to someone else? Believe me, we look at the nice DOD facilities and housing and hospitals and dream, but with a few exceptions, that’s not where we work. DHS is a much better home for us than DOT was, but the reality is no one cares unless there’s a disaster where we’re needed. Exxon Valdez, 9/11, Katrina, Deepwater Horizon, etc. Keeping the faith…

  4. John Comar LCDR USCG (ret) on

    This would be a huge mistake. If you think that the Marine Corps struggles in the budget fights, how in the heck would a service roughly 1/4 the size of the Marine Corp fare in budget battles against Big Army and Big Air Force and Big Navy. DHS was a good fit 16 yrs ago, but it seems that the TSA bureaucracy has taken over DHS. CBP and Coast Guard is a natural fit. What might be a better option would be to integrate NOAA’s assets, missions and budget into the Coast Guard. Using DOD’s acquisition programs would be a disaster for the Coast Guard and ensure the death of the cutter and aircraft fleet. CG acquisition experts do it better, faster and much cheaper than DOD ever could.

  5. Ray Soler BM2 (RET) USCGR on

    Not sure I understand the need for a move to the DOD. Why not just increase thd CG budget and funnel it directly to them instead of via Homeland Security!
    What good will an administrative move do?

  6. Douglas Lee, MCPO USCG (Ret) on

    The CG operates so efficiently because it is small. Search & Rescue, Aids to Navigation (working buoys and lighthouses), Law Enforcement, Ice Breaking, Maritime Environmental Protection (oil spills, pollution), Maritime Safety, Drug Interdiction, Migrant Interdiction have no place in DOD. I agree with John above that CBP and ICE would be a much better fit.

  7. Michael Jendrossek, LCDR, USCG (ret.) on

    I’ve been with the U.S. Coast Guard for over 44 years (29 on active duty). I have an opinion and here it is: The U.S. Coast Guard should be, as it is today, an Armed Force of the United States. I also believe that the U.S. Coast Guard should also be an Independent Agency of the United States Government with a civilian administrator and our current military leadership. No DOD, no DHS, no DOT, no Treasury Dept. We’ve been blended too many times in our 226 plus years of existance. When left to do our mission sans departmental interferance (that’s any department) the Coast Guard has succeded. We’ve been the pull-toy of too many other departments. That’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it!

  8. Regrettably, transferring to DoD would seem to be the best option for the USCG. Currently the Coast Guard is slowly being taken part. Current staffing shortages, reported to be 15% below the prescribed levels, are having negative impacts on morale and credibility with the maritime industry. When I was on Active Duty I was dead set against going to the civilian side, since moving to the private sector and having time to think about the Service’s future it’s apparent that Coast Guard people, I maintain it’s most important asset, would be far better served under DoD, resulting in better service to the American people. More efficient utilization of resources, and unity of effort when it comes to conducting operations. Absent this move, I think combining NOAA and the USCG should be considered. Maybe a Department of the Oceans? Doesn’t seem that hard to absorb the 350 Commissioned NOAA officers and vessels into the USCG inventory.

  9. Doug Schofields on

    If the Coast Guard was to run a DOD acquisition like new Navy destroyers, not only would it be at least twice over budget as compared to the Navy, but it would be not compliant with the requirements.

    Nice try as far as trying to make the Coast Guard into some efficient, hero organization.

  10. Michael Kleving on

    I think the DoD would be the wrong move for the Coast Guard. I think it should be out of DHS and merged in with CBP while maintaining a deep water fleet. Politics and bureaucratic maneuvering would spell the end for any functional coastal patrol and meaningful maintenance of a security force.

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