Reorganizing the Coast Guard for Steady-State Surge

I’m now zero for two in USNI’s Coast Guard essay contest. Reading Ryan Holiday’s Perennial Seller made me reevaluate my previous position that one should write for themselves. I still think the motivation must be internal, but without an external audience no one will care. Below is my 2022 submission. Enjoy!


The Coast Guard in general, and aviation in particular, needs to get better at flowing mission support to operational demand.

– ADM Charles Ray1

The Coast Guard’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic showed me the strength of their ability to respond to disaster.  When it became evident that normal operations would be disrupted, Coast Guard Headquarters quickly set up an O-6 led COVID-19 Crisis Action Team (CCAT) to cut across the organization and tease out a signal within the noise for senior executives.  When real time communications became overwhelming, they utilized their O-8 led Directorate of Operational Logistics (DOL) to coordinate the 17,000-person mission support enterprise through its Directors’ Council.  The surface fleet continued to deploy at home and abroad.  The C5I community quickly established capability and capacity for telework.  The aviation fleet navigated collapsing international supply chains while still standing the ready. 

The Coast Guard is not new to disaster response while sustaining steady state operations.2 What was new with COVID-19 was that 1) the disaster was not localized and 2) the timeline became steady state.  When COVID-19 struck the entire Service, collective muscle memory pulled out the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) National Incident Management System (NIMS) playbook.  In my opinion, this was correct.  However, the widespread impact created role confusion and duplication of effort between the disaster response and steady state structures.  Why then, two years later, does the Coast Guard continue to have two operational command control structures?

The Coast Guard should integrate NIMS’ 14 Management Characteristics3 into all of its steady state operations.

Coast Guard Command and Control

Coast Guard Command Structure4

The Coast Guard is operationally organized around areas of responsibility: two areas, nine districts, and 37 sectors.5  Units that don’t remain in one place – aircraft, cutters, boats, and deployable specialized forces (DSF) – can work for any of these three echelons depending, in general, on their size.  Coast Guard units pride themselves on being Semper Paratus for any of their 11 statutory missions that are best summarized as protecting those on the sea (safety); the Nation from threats delivered by sea (security); and the sea itself (stewardship).6  Coast Guard Publication 3-0, Operations, adapts the Department of Defense’s (DoD) 12 Principles of Joint Operations, which align perfectly with and are expanded by NIMS:

Coast GuardNIMS
Clear ObjectiveCommon TerminologyManagement by Objectives
Effective PresenceComprehensive Resource Management
Unity of EffortEstablishment and Transfer of CommandChain of Command and Unity of CommandIntegrated CommunicationsUnified Command
On-scene InitiativeManageable Span of Control Incident Facilities and Locations
FlexibilityDispatch/DeploymentModular Organization
Managed RiskIncident Action PlanningInformation and Intelligence Management

The 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act drew a clear boundary between service chiefs’ responsibility to “organize, train, and equip” forces and unified combatant commanders’ (CCMD) operational control of their employment within functions or geographic areas.7  This created the “purple” joint military services we know today.  The Coast Guard already uses a federal, state, and local interagency approach to its operations, thus a similar organizational bifurcation that fully integrates NIMS into steady state operations would have several benefits:

  • The Atlantic and Pacific Areas should be redesigned to clearly mirror existing DoD geographic command and control.  Given existing Coast Guard strategy, organization by Eastern and Western Hemispheres may be best for clear objectives, managed risk, and restraint.
  • Service chief responsibilities should clearly map to Coast Guard headquarters staff, leaving day-to-day operations managed by field commanders.  Effective presence and flexibility would be improved through role clarity as this change would allow each of their four 3-star staffs to focus on their policy and resource responsibilities.
  • Coast Guard forces that span geographic areas – such as cyber and DSF – would benefit from clear administrative and operational control, strengthening on-scene initiative.
  • Non-DoD CCMDs could fuse the unity of effort across DHS’ 22 agencies and their varied authorities.  

How will we grow senior executives?

The elimination of nine Coast Guard districts also means the elimination of nine rear admirals’ worth of staff.  Redistributing those standard personnel costs across the organization is beyond the scope of this essay, but I would like to address the need to grow senior executives and propose another DoD solution: the Navy Systems Command (SYSCOM).

The Coast Guard formed aviation, cutter/boat, C5I, and shore infrastructure resource councils to align domain effort across headquarters staffs.  They consist of requirements, acquisitions, and sustainment O6 office chiefs and as well as representatives from the two areas, finance, human resources, etc.  Each is chaired by the requirements representative, but there is no single point of responsibility or alignment of resources.  Consensus is built over time by junior staff and the principals continually nudge their own executives in the desired program direction.  However, DHS’ realignment of Coast Guard financials8 by domain provides the opportunity to elevate these resource councils’ authority akin to that of a SYSCOM.  Led by a rear admiral and senior civilian, the resource councils would be able to make financial tradeoffs through a single point of accountability and further integrate NIMS’ remaining management characteristics.

This consolidation of responsibility would follow the Coast Guard’s previous modernization efforts through alignment with their Mission Support Business Model.9  I found it ironic in my research that the Doctrine for Mission Support speaks in terms of capabilities, as used by those in operational planning, and not physical assets, as typically used by those in support:

  • Every benefit of product line management would scale up to the resource councils, e.g. prioritized resource allocation, barrier break down, empowered action, reduced complexity, etc.  Empowered resource councils would blend the best of product and functional organizations into one process-oriented team.
  • An empowered resource council would manage the configuration of a capability, regardless of physical form, across its entire lifecycle to provide a consistent level of service.  For example, ISR has evolved to be from crewed platforms to uncrewed, is in demand by the operational commanders, but the platforms are managed by different offices.
  • The delineation between service chief and CCMD responsibilities parallels bi-level support.  In fact, MS-0 states that bifurcation “relieves front line units of work that is not core to mission execution while freeing Headquarters to focus on policy development; strategy setting; planning, programming, and budgeting; and external engagement.”10
  • Empowered resource councils would provide one executive total asset visibility of each Coast Guard program.  Our two four stars could then manage risk across the programs portfolio.


The Air Force recently added a third dimension to the command and control (C2) philosophy they adopted in World War II: centralized command, distributed control, and decentralized execution.11  This philosophy builds off simply balancing strategic effectiveness with tactical agility to account for “increasingly interconnected, interdependent, and challenged”12 joint operations.  The Coast Guard is in the midst of its largest surface acquisition effort in history; beginning to discuss redesign of our tasking, collection, processing, exploitation, & dissemination (TCPED) architecture;13 and integrating similar, if not the same, DoD systems that drove the Air Force’s C2 evolution.  The Coast Guard has evolved its command structure over time as communications have improved (we have a 17th district but only nine total) and it is time to do so again:

  • Centralized command: Coast Guard headquarters’ staff easily get caught in the tyranny of the now.  Intentionally delegating CCMD would allow for more strategic focus on policy and resources. This would also free up senior executive bandwidth to resolve the competing priorities of two operational theaters and their finite resources.
  • Distributed control: Coast Guard district operational roles and responsibilities would roll up into the two areas.  Consolidation of C2 would lead to resource efficiencies that could be reallocated to field units doing the hands on mission execution and support.  This would not only bring mission execution closer to strategic intent, but also break down boundaries that incentivize local optima.
  • Decentralized execution: Sectors would remain the Coast Guard’s public facing service provider and units that span multiple sectors would report directly for the areas, e.g. air stations, major cutters, deployable specialized forces, etc.  If an area asset is needed by a sector, there’s already a NIMS form for that.14  This would allow sectors to act more independently while also better balancing local mission demand with overall resource constraints.

Adopting a new C2 structure also provides the opportunity to attract and retain a modern, diverse workforce.  Beyond the fact that unclassified knowledge work can now be done from anywhere,15 leaders immersed in a NIMS-based organization will naturally absorb the Coast Guard’s desired Principles of Operations as they develop an interagency view.  They will thrive through empowered initiative, develop a natural stakeholder view of operations, and learn to best manage risk by being closer to the result.

1 Paraphrased from speech at the U. S. Coast Guard Aeronautical Engineering Program Management Review, 2021 and

3 Federal Emergency Management System, National Incident Management System, October 2017.

4 U. S. Coast Guard, Publication 3-0: Operations, 2012

5 U. S. Coast Guard, Areas of Responsibility,, accessed April 14, 2022.

6 U. S. Coast Guard, Publication 3-0: Operations, 2012

7 Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, Public Law 99-433.

8 Department of Homeland Security, “United States Coast Guard Transitions to State-of-the-Art Financial Management System”,, accessed April 14, 2022.

9 U. S. Coast Guard, Coast Guard Publication MS-0: Doctrine for Mission Support, October 2015.

10 Ibid, p. 24.

11 Mulgund, Sandeep, “Evolving the Command and Control of Airpower”, Wild Blue Yonder, April 21, 2021.

12 Ibid.

13 Department of Homeland Security, “U.S. Coast Guard Tasking, Collection, Processing, Exploitation, Dissemination Process Analysis”,, accessed April 41, 2022.

14 Federal Emergency Management Agency, Emergency Management Institute,, accessed February 14, 2022.

15 Gavett, Gretchen, “Do We Really Need the Office?”, Harvard Business Review, accessed February 14, 2022.

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