The future of the U.S. Coast Guard is in outer space

The U.S Coast Guard Cutter Diligence (WMEC-616) arrives at its new homeport at Naval Air Station Pensacola on a stormy day Monday, July 27, 2020. The 210-foot Reliance-class cutter joins the cutters Decisive and the Dauntless currently calling Pensacola home.Uscg Homeport Diligence

In December 2018, the U.S. Coast Guard joined the space faring community. It teamed up with the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Division and SpaceX to execute the launch of two small cube satellites (“cubesats”) — Yukon and Kodiak — as part of the Polar Scout program.

These two cubesats were intended to serve as the vanguard of enhanced telecommunications coverage in the Arctic, a domain that has always been important but is of increasing strategic significance today because it is at the intersection of great power competition and global climate change. In short, a warmer climate results in greater access; greater access results in greater maritime traffic, including by Russia and China. The Chinese, in particular, are constantly pressing to exploit resources the world over, be it living marine or hydrocarbon-based. Likewise, greater traffic means more need for increased governance presence to ensure safe, rules-based operations within the Arctic.

The Coast Guard is statutorily charged with serving as the United States’ Arctic governance presence. This means the Coast Guard increasingly requires the ability to communicate over-the-horizon — thus, Polar Scout. And while the Coast Guard lost linkage to Yukon and Kodiak shortly after launch, the mere fact that the service had the vision to go boldly to the heavens to meet that need should be a forerunner of things to come.

The key questions

Space issues are a hot topic in 2020. Indeed, we are at the start of a second great space age, one that is shaping up to be turbo-charged by the commercial market and the seemingly never-ending, exponentially increasing power of computer processing. The United States is pursuing the Artemis Accords, the Space Force is getting off the ground, NASA is looking towards Mars (but first to the moon! To stay!), and commercial space pursuits are booming. The Coast Guard has already gotten in the game, but it must continue to seriously consider space as it develops budgets and strategies for the future.

To succeed as an information-age military service and total-domain governance agency in the 21st century, the Coast Guard should view space through three lenses. First, how can the service best capitalize on cheap, ready access to space to facilitate its missions, as it had already started to do so with the Polar Scout launches? Second, how do commercial space efforts interact with the maritime industry and maritime domain; and to what extent, if any, does the Coast Guard need to adjust or modify its extensive suite of operating authorities and regulations to ensure that any risk to the safety and security of the maritime is adequately addressed? And third, how can the Coast Guard, as part of the joint force, assist the Space Force in executing the latter’s own responsibilities?

Capitalizing on cheap access

The Coast Guard should lean hard into the increased, affordable access to space that commercial space opportunities provide. This will require both a focused staffing and budget commitment, but every established position established and every spent dollar will pay dividends in terms of enhanced mission effectiveness and efficiency savings. Nearly every one of the Coast Guard’s 11 statutory missions can be better facilitated by improved access to space-based capabilities, whether they’re organic Coast Guard capabilities or capabilities provided by a partner department or agency. For example, various types of space-based surveillance can assist with many Coast Guard missions.  These missions include maritime law enforcement (specifically drug interdiction), intelligence, buoy tending, vessel traffic management, and icebreaking.

Thus, the Coast Guard should develop a space-focused program office to integrate space considerations throughout its extensive mission set. As a start, this office should ensure that Coast Guard assets still in development — specifically the Polar Security Cutter (PSC), any follow-on icebreakers, and the Offshore Patrol Cutter — account for the space, weight, and power requirements to ensure access to secure satellite uplink/downlink data. This is especially important with respect to the PSC and any additional icebreakers, considering where they are intended to operate. Focusing here could allow these vessels to serve as information-age ocean station sentinels in a manner quite similar to that legacy Coast Guard mission, but updated with a modern twist to account for the value of orbital “real estate” at the poles.

Finally, while the Coast Guard Academy should absolutely be commended for its effort and initiative in helping to facilitate space operations for the Coast Guard, the Coast Guard should review and assess whether it is best served by having its sole continental U.S. terrestrial satellite link in New London, Connecticut, staffed primarily by cadets. It may be better served by adding additional stations, partnering with its sister-services, or fully committing to the concept, with an appropriately funded and dedicated support staff that would ideally report to the Coast Guard’s new space program office described above.

Maritime intersections

Next, the Coast Guard should immediately undertake a cross-program, deep review of how commercial space interacts with the maritime industry and within the maritime environment. It should develop a Space Operations Strategic Outlook, akin to its recent product with respect to the Maritime Transportation System, Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing, and specifically its forward leaning Cyber Strategy. While the Coast Guard has long supported safe and secure space operations where those operations intersect with the maritime domain (and there are certainly pockets of excellence, like Coast Guard Sector Jacksonville), as commercial space proliferates, there is a more acute need to establish space competencies across the entire Coast Guard.

For example, at least one commercial space company is actively refining its ability to recover its reusable rockets and pieces thereof at sea. This same company’s main test facility also happens to be close to a major commercial ship channel and the intracoastal waterway. This leads to questions as to whether the Coast Guard has sufficient authority, regulatory tools, capacity, and capability to best identify and manage any risk to maritime operations or the marine environment posed by the company’s test operations. Further, NASA’s most recent human space flight mission used commercial space and was recovered at sea — with a bit of drama, because spectator vessels were operating too close to the recovery zone. Here, as a helpful start, the current version of the 2019 Coast Guard Authorization Act, H.R. 3409 — which the House of Representatives has passed — includes some statutory language (Section 311) that would extend Coast Guard Captain of the Port Authority out past its default 12 nautical-mile range to facilitate safe and secure space operations at sea. Extending this authority is just one piece of the puzzle. Doing the assessment and developing a space-focused strategic outlook would help bring these issues into focus and clarify how the Coast Guard intends to address them. It will also inform and educate the public and the commercial space community of the challenges and opportunities that exist at the intersection of the space and maritime domains.

The Coast Guard and Space Force

Finally, the Coast Guard should partner with the newly formed Space Force, to provide competencies that may be useful to the Space Force in the space domain. For example, space search and rescue comes to mind. Despite the ongoing debate over the nature of the Space Force and when/if it will be stationing its members in space, it is clear that commercial space entities fully intend a rapid increase in human space flight. It seems reasonable to believe that if the Space Force were to establish a full-time human presence in orbit, it should have the capability to render assistance to distressed space farers if needed. This is, of course, also consistent with the Outer Space Treaty and the Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, both of which the United States is party to. But currently, there is no specific domestic authorizing statute that would allow for a U.S. government agency to actually conduct such operations. The Coast Guard’s broad search and rescue authority (14 U.S.C. 521) and the affirmative legal duty of mariners to render assistance to each other when in distress codified in U.S. law (46 U.S.C. 2304) both would provide excellent models for developing a domestic law foundation for space-based search and rescue operations. It would benefit the Space Force to have the Coast Guard assist with this and similar analysis — and, if necessary, legislative drafting assistance across the entire space governance realm. Additionally, the Coast Guard should consider what personnel support it can provide to U.S. Space Command on detail, so that Space Command becomes more familiar with Coast Guard space equities and so the Coast Guard can begin to build its own space competence.

Always ready

It is fair to say that “outer space” and the “Coast Guard” are two terms that on their face, do not seem to have much in common. Indeed, many people are shocked when they learn about the Coast Guard’s broad responsibilities here on Earth. But, in the new space age of the 21st century, comparatively cheap, ready access to space is a once-in-a-civilization game changer. We are at the start of it right now, so now is the time for the Coast Guard — and really any government agency with an operational mission set — to seriously consider how space changes their game. Fully accounting for where the Coast Guard can factor space into its future planning is necessary to ensure that the service remains Semper Paratus to meet the challenges and capitalize on the opportunities space provides.

The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Coast Guard, U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.