Guardians of the Sea: National Security Missions of the United States Coast Guard

2167 Rayburn House Office Building

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0 Tuesday, December 12, 2023 @ 02:00 | Contact: Justin Harclerode 202-225-9446

This is a hearing of the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.

Witness List:
  • Vice Admiral Peter Gautier, Deputy Commandant for Operations, United States Coast Guard | Witness Testimony

Washington, D.C. - Opening remarks, as prepared, of Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee Chairman Daniel Webster (R-FL) from today’s hearing, entitled “Guardians of the Sea: National Security Missions of the United States Coast Guard”:

We meet today to examine the national security missions of the Coast Guard, focusing on the Service’s vital efforts in the Indo-Pacific and Arctic regions.

I’d like to welcome our distinguished witness joining us today — Vice Admiral Peter Gautier, Deputy Commandant for Operations at the U.S. Coast Guard.

In 1787, Alexander Hamilton wrote that “a few armed vessels, judiciously stationed at the entrances of our ports, might at small expense, be made useful sentinels of the laws.” Over the last 200-plus years, the Coast Guard has grown from these origins to become a vital sentinel of national security.

Nowhere is this more evident than the Indo-Pacific and the Arctic regions where the Coast Guard’s mix of military, regulatory, and law enforcement abilities provide the United States with a flexible tool that is essential to advancing national interests.

The Indo-Pacific region, which spans from our Pacific coastline to the Indian Ocean, is home to more than half the world’s people, nearly two-thirds of the world’s economy, and seven of the world’s largest militaries. As the strategic value of the Indo-Pacific continues to grow against the backdrop of increased Chinese territorial activity, the Coast Guard’s robust law enforcement presence in the region is needed to ensure U.S. security and prosperity.  

The Coast Guard leverages a fleet of three Fast Response Cutters in Guam, a rotating presence of National Security Cutters, twelve bilateral law enforcement agreements, and over sixty multi-lateral agreements to enforce the international legal order. But this order is being challenged by China through state-subsidized illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing, unauthorized incursions, and harassment of foreign vessels. China intentionally acts below the threshold of armed conflict, limiting traditional U.S. Navy response.

But, with their white hulls, Coast Guard cutters act as the modern version of Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet.” They leverage a unique blend of authorities to counter Chinese malignant and grey zone activities in a non-escalatory manner unavailable to the U.S. Navy. Furthermore, since most Indo-Pacific nations have maritime forces resembling the Coast Guard, the Service is well-positioned to provide operational training and advice, and forge partnerships with key regional allies. 

In the Arctic, the United States similarly has substantial territorial and economic interests, including 1 million square miles of territory, a $3 billion seafood industry, and trillions of dollars of mineral and oil reserves. As Russia and China challenge these interests, Coast Guard efforts to project U.S. sovereignty, improve navigation, provide search and rescue capabilities, enforce fisheries regulations, and ensure vessel safety are the cornerstone of U.S. security and prosperity in the region.  

With its distinctive red hull and Coast Guard racing stripe, icebreakers are a beacon of U.S. power in the far north. Yet, despite the strategic importance of the Arctic, the Coast Guard only has two icebreakers. Only one of these, Healy, deploys annually to the Arctic to engage in everything from National Science Foundation research to capacity building.

Conversely, Russia has a fleet of 55 icebreakers, and China, which has deemed itself a near-Arctic state, has a fleet of 4 icebreakers. Russia and China have declared the Arctic region national priorities and have made corresponding investments in the capability and capacity needed to expand their influence.

The United States and the Coast Guard are racing to play catch up, but I fear we are losing.  

While the Coast Guard has been working for years to replace and expand its fleet of heavy icebreakers with at least three Polar Security Cutters (PSC), this committee has serious concerns about the Coast Guard’s ability to execute this acquisition program and deliver the ship on time. We expect updates as program milestones are met, but no less frequently than every 60 days.

To help plug the gap in the near term, this committee supports the Coast Guard’s efforts to acquire a commercially available icebreaker. And we hope the Service can apply some of the lessons learned from the PSC program as it seeks to expand its medium icebreaker fleet.

So, as we explore the Service’s national security missions today focusing on the Indo-Pacific and the Arctic, I look forward to learning what the Coast Guard will do to strengthen its capabilities in these critical regions and how Congress can assist.

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