Advancing the U.S. Coast Guard's Global Impact

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Jan 18, 2024

The USCGC Frederick Hatch returns to Guam following Typhoon Mawar, May 28, 2023

Photo by Chief Warrant Officer Sara Muir/U.S. Coast Guard

The U.S. Coast Guard is in high demand globally, engaging with over 160 countries on every continent and in every ocean. The service could better meet its strategic goals through enhanced internal coordination and prioritization of its international affairs efforts, as well as increased resources.

To help the Coast Guard amplify its international impact and meet growing global demand despite budget constraints, the service asked RAND's Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center to analyze how to improve coordination, alignment, and prioritization of international efforts.

In the report, Improving the Effectiveness of U.S. Coast Guard International Affairs Efforts, RAND proposed tangible, systematic approaches to information sharing, decisionmaking, performance measurement, and relationship-building. RAND found that the service lacked a shared understanding of international affairs efforts and lacked clarity regarding roles, responsibilities, strategic intent, and impact. To address this, the report characterized the international affairs aims and documented how the Coast Guard fulfills them through policy, strategy, operations, activities, and investments. Coast Guard international activities were then linked with direct results, higher-level outcomes, and national strategic goals.

International interest in working with the U.S. Coast Guard stems from its unique combination of law-enforcement and defense capabilities.

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With this information, the report suggests how to evaluate the impacts of Coast Guard international affairs efforts through measurement and how to decide future resource allocation. Given resource constraints, we recommended mechanisms for enhancing international-affairs coordination and processes. These proposed ways forward included the development of a structured, repeatable method to prioritize where to focus efforts, even as global circumstances, relationships, and interests evolve. Other recommendations include the improved management of data, information sharing, and internal relationship building. Also, updated training, further valuing international experience in promotions, clearly defining the roles for different international-affairs stakeholders across the service, and creating more billets for international efforts.

International interest in working with the U.S. Coast Guard stems from its unique combination of law-enforcement and defense capabilities. The force also has a positive global reputation, due to its expertise and it is agile and adaptable. The service trains partner nation coast guards and navies and conducts exercises and operations alongside them. Coast Guard personnel also provide port security assessments, respond to natural disasters, equip nations with operational assets, and conduct high-level leadership engagements that strengthen relationships. In many of its international endeavors, the U.S. Coast Guard works closely with the Defense Department, State Department, other domestic agencies, and through international agreements to enhance their collective impact on global security.

The USCG supports the U.S. goal of sustaining a rules-based international order by strengthening other nations' maritime services and building relationships with them.

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The service supports the U.S. goal of sustaining a rules-based international order by strengthening other nations' maritime services and building relationships with them. Ultimately, the service contributes to U.S. interests by helping countries to improve maritime safety, security, and stewardship, while countering various threats. For example, the U.S. Coast Guard works with partners to counter drug smuggling in the Americas and the Middle East, illegal fishing in the central Pacific, and piracy off the coast of Africa. Coast Guard personnel also participate in forums to discuss law enforcement in different regions including Southeast Asia, given the current U.S. interest in the Indo-Pacific and the service's recent establishment of a base in Guam. Mobile Training Teams also help other nations to better prevent illegal activity. The Coast Guard's work helps to counter transnational criminal organizations, as well as Chinese and Russian grey zone (PDF) tactics. These efforts are done in addition to the service's extensive domestic duties, despite their extremely limited capacity. The service has a force of about 41,000 active-duty personnel, one-eighth the size of the U.S. Air Force. They face gapped billets overseas, and need more personnel, ships, aircraft, and funding to achieve their missions.

The U.S. Coast Guard's implementation of the report's recommendations would provide an avenue for the service to articulate its international impact and value proposition to internal and external audiences. These audiences include the Departments of Homeland Security, Defense, State, other federal agencies, the White House, Congress, international partners, and the global public. This could also help to enhance the U.S. Coast Guard's ability to meet global demand, if it leads to substantial and sustained resources.


Sarah Weilant is a policy researcher, Scott Savitz is a senior engineer, and Vice-Admiral (ret.) Dan Abel is an adjunct senior fellow at RAND.