June 07, 2022

The Coast Guard: “Always Ready,” Except for Change


The Coast Guard motto, “Semper Paratus,” translates to “Always Ready.” While this is true in the Coast Guard’s everyday emergency response and operations, which provide great value to the nation for comparatively little cost, the service remains unable to chart a path for the future. This is not a new development. Aging assets, dilapidated infrastructure, insufficient budgets, and archaic conceptions about the workforce are the logical outcomes of the Coast Guard’s inability to identify its preferred state and craft a strategy to achieve it. Examination of legislation, existing studies, and Coast Guard strategic documents shows that the service mistakes strategic planning—the discrete, analytic programming of existing and expected resources—for the skills and processes of strategic thinking and strategy development—the holistic syntheses of the organization; its operations; and past, present, and future states. The result is a large gap between Coast Guard strategic foresight activity and the service’s strategy development and actions: the Coast Guard cannot identify its future and move toward it.

The Coast Guard: Past and Present

The modern Coast Guard was established in 1790 as the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, which enforced customs laws. In 1915, the Revenue Cutter Service merged with the U.S. Life Saving Service to create the Coast Guard. Over time it absorbed more missions, organizations, and authorities, including the U.S. Lighthouse Service in 1939 and the Navigation and Steamboat Inspection Service in 1946. In keeping with these varied backgrounds, the Coast Guard has been in three departments in its history: the Treasury Department from 1790 to 1967, the Department of Transportation from 1967 to 2003, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from 2003 to the present day. In addition to its daily operations, the Coast Guard is an armed military service—the only one outside the Department of Defense (DoD)—and has participated in every major conflict from 1790 until today.

The Homeland Security Act of 2002, which created DHS, broke apart some agencies and created others. However, it incorporated the Coast Guard under DHS without ceding any of its assets or responsibilities, although it did finally codify its 11 missions in statute (Table 1).

Table 1. Coast Guard Missions

Homeland Security MissionsNon–Homeland Security Missions
Ports, Waterways, and Coastal SecurityMarine Safety
Drug InterdictionSearch and Rescue
Migrant InterdictionAids to Navigation
Defense ReadinessLiving Marine Resources
Other Law EnforcementMarine Environmental Protection
Ice Operations

The Coast Guard is a premier emergency and crisis response organization. It demonstrates this daily in its law enforcement, marine safety, search and rescue, and other missions. It is also called on for major crises and disasters, like Hurricane Katrina (2005), the Haitian earthquake of 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (2011), Hurricane Harvey (2017), and other events throughout history. Its motto is a testament to the service’s central identity as a highly capable, reactive response agency.

The scope and scale of Coast Guard operations are best summarized by the service’s own “Average Coast Guard Day,” available on its homepage. It has about 41,000 active-duty personnel, 9,000 civilians, and 6,000 reserves deployed worldwide. The Coast Guard also has a 26,000-strong civilian volunteer force called the Coast Guard Auxiliary, which supports several missions, including boating safety and education. Its people and its approximately 200 aircraft, 259 cutters (watercraft 65’ or greater in length), and 1,602 boats (watercraft less than 65’ in length) execute its 11 statutory missions. Its operations are supported by a budget of about $12 billion annually.

Evergreen: An Attempt at Strategy Development

But what of the Coast Guard’s future? The service has a strategic forecasting process called Evergreen, designed to create and sustain strategic intent. It began in 1998 as Long View, but was updated to reflect post-9/11 needs and renamed in 2003. Evergreen is a scenario-based strategy development process built on alternative futures, a method that “works particularly well for organizations with diverse mission portfolios that face operating environments marked by potentially rapid structural change and high uncertainty.” However, there is one problem. As the RAND Corporation’s Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center concluded in 2020:

Coast Guard strategy-making and planning activities generally lack obvious connections to any structured, systematic strategic foresight activities, and no obvious guidance is available on how to connect the more distant future with nearer-term plans and actions. … Although a variety of planning-type documents and inputs are considered in Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution, none of them has a robust connection with the work that Evergreen does. Furthermore, long-term issues do not appear to be strongly or typically connected with nearer-term plans and budget requests in ways that move from generic concerns to specific actions.

The underlying cause of this ongoing deficiency is contained in the Long View and Evergreen documents themselves; the Long View process was “expressly … counter-cultural. Traditionally, the Coast Guard has rewarded people for superior reaction and response [emphasis in original],” rather than looking to the future, creating a vision, and achieving it. The RAND report conclusion must be viewed in the context of that first effort in 1998: strategic thinking, strategy development, and strategy implementation remain counter-cultural for the Coast Guard.

This report builds on RAND’s 2020 conclusion by answering three questions:

  1. Does the Coast Guard show strong strategic thinking? This is tackled by analyzing its strategy documents and the Marine Corps’ current Strategic Planning Guidance through the same strategic thinking framework and comparing the results;
  2. How good is the Coast Guard at creating and managing needed changes over time? Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports about ongoing deficiencies and legislation that forced the Coast Guard into organizational change offer key insights;
  3. And finally, does the Coast Guard care about the education and skills required to think strategically, create strategy, and achieve the desired outcomes? Answers to this question came from interviews with current and retired Coast Guard officers who have relevant career histories.

The Coast Guard Ably Programs the Present but Struggles to Build a Future

Strategic thinking and strategic planning are often conflated, but they are different, complementary capabilities. Strategic thinking synthesizes a whole from detailed knowledge of system parts; it identifies patterns, cascading effects, multi-order impacts, relationships, and complexities. This leads to a comprehensive vision of desired future states and how to flexibly achieve them. A common framework for strategic thinking has five elements: it shows a systems perspective; is intent-focused; incorporates intelligent opportunism; thinks in time by linking the past, present, and future; and is hypothesis driven—it identifies key drivers and causes. The output, which we call strategy, is a logic chain that connects past, present, and future to explain what needs to change and why, and the boundaries of acceptable versus unacceptable solutions. By contrast, strategic planning does not synthesize; it analyzes. It breaks large objectives down into a series of discrete tasks that are then assembled in a logical order, with timelines and resources assigned. It constitutes “strategic programming” of existing and expected resources against already established and agreed-on strategy. Both strategic thinking and strategic planning are necessary for organizational success, but strategic planning does not—and cannot—develop strategy.

Coast Guard strategy documents, then, should show the five properties of strategic thinking. As direction and guidance to the service, they should focus on permanent and lasting changes to the organization, including structural, organizational, workforce, and environment-shaping actions. An abundance of direct tasking that redirects existing resources and work hours, however, would indicate a preoccupation with organizational programming.

Coast Guard Strategy Documents Exhibit Low Strategic Thinking

The Coast Guard maintains a publicly available “strategic library.” There are no indications which documents remain in effect and which are rescinded. For this study, the author reviewed eight documents in the library that contained the word “strategy” or “strategic” in the title and appeared to be the latest guidance. To create a tool for evaluation, the author assigned three indicators to each of the five elements of strategic thinking, then coded each document according to the presence or absence of the indicators. The results were summed within each element, and then across them, to derive the document’s total strategic thinking score (min score = 0, max score = 15). This analysis revealed that Coast Guard strategic documents exhibited low levels of strategic thinking (Table 2).

To provide a frame of reference, the author used the same method to evaluate the Marine Corps’ 38th Commandant’s Planning Guidance (CPG), chosen because the Marine Corps has recently radically altered itself by divesting from legacy capabilities and operating concepts and using the resource and work hour savings to pursue what it terms a modernization. The premise of this long-term strategy is that changes in warfighting require the Marines to adapt for future success. The CPG contained all 15 of the indicators, achieving the maximum possible score and suggesting high levels of strategic thinking (Table 2).

Table 2. Coast Guard Strategic Document Scores and Marine Corps CPG Score for Strategic Thinking

Element of Strategic Thinking

DocumentSystems PerspectiveIntent FocusedIntelligent OpportunismThinking in TimeHypothesis DrivenTotal
Western Hemisphere Strategy112
Human Capital Strategy112
Security Sector Assistance Strategy112
Maritime Commerce Strategic Outlook112
Arctic Strategic Outlook1113
Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing Strategic Outlook11
Cyber Strategic Outlook22
Coast Guard Strategic Plan11
United States Marine Corps 38th Commandant’s Planning Guidance3333315

Source: Based on author’s review of documents.

The CPG’s high score is unsurprising. As a narrative, it presents a clear line of causal thinking about the past, present, and future that explains why the future will be different, how the current Marine Corps is not ready for that future, and how and why the Marine Corps needs to change. As guidance, it identifies the boundaries of acceptable tradeoffs and end states, explains the intent and purpose of all lines of effort, and establishes the role of executive-level leaders in the strategy.

The Coast Guard Emphasizes Operational Tasks, Not Organizational End States

Good strategy identifies what the end state must be, what approaches will be used to reach it, and key decisional boundaries, rather than specifically redirecting existing resources. It follows that well-crafted strategy should have a high proportion of items focused on the organization, its structure, environment shaping, and the workforce, and a low proportion focused on how to operationally use existing resources.

To examine this, the author extracted the explicit and implied tasks from the eight Coast Guard documents and the CPG, coding them as per Table 3. Nearly two-thirds of the tasks are operational items, showing heavy bias toward reprogramming existing resources, time, people, and assets against perceived operational priorities, rather than identifying the service’s future, creating an organizational strategy to achieve it, and managing the change process over time. These directed shifts in operational asset use, e.g., “Targeting our operations and engagement in priority regions and countries” or “Use national and regional data portals to identify potential conflicts and impacts to inform decisions and to enhance opportunities,” etc., are perhaps laudable but do not drive to any perceivable end state.

Both strategic thinking and strategic planning are necessary for organizational success, but strategic planning does not—and cannot—develop strategy.

Similarly, the Coast Guard Arctic Strategic Outlook states that the service “must be able to provide physical presence, at will, to uphold sovereignty, carry out operational missions, promote freedom of navigation, and fulfill other national and international obligations.” The document acknowledges that the Coast Guard cannot do this at present, and that it is investing in polar icebreaking ships and cold-weather-capable assets. However, there is no discussion at all about whether the Coast Guard has the skills, education, end strength (personnel and assets), or organizational structure required to provide that presence, or even to determine its needs and establish a way forward. This should be of particular concern to DHS and Congress, as the National Strategy for the Arctic Region Implementation Framework assigns the Arctic awareness mission—a catch-all term for understanding the Arctic and being able to see activity inside it—to the Coast Guard.

Table 3. Categorization of Explicit or Implied Tasks in Coast Guard Strategic Documents

CategoryDefinitionCoast Guard TasksMarine Corps Tasks
OperationalDirects or involves changes to operational priorities, resource allocation, etc.194 (65%)3 (5%)
StructuralDirects development or reorganization of components or relationships (internal or external)9 (3%)14 (26%)
OrganizationalAddresses aspects of how the organization thinks about something, its culture, or its identity 30 (10%)26 (50%)
Environment ShapingAttempts to create changes in the organization-environment “system of systems”32 (11%)2 (4%)
PersonnelAddresses some aspect of the personnel system33 (11%)8 (15%)

Source: Based on author’s review of documents.

Strategic Thinking Deficiencies Earn Congressional and GAO Attention

Without a defined end state and a strategy to achieve it, the service cannot articulate what it needs or why, nor what is lost or placed at risk if the end state is not achieved. This means the Coast Guard cannot justify needed improvements in a cohesive and comprehensive way. In turn, one cannot expect DHS, the president’s budget, or Congress to support requests much beyond existing baselines. GAO reports and congressional legislation show how the Coast Guard’s lack of strategic insight, which informs strategic thinking, creates budgetary, structural, and workforce problems.

Without a defined end state and a strategy to achieve it, the service cannot articulate what it needs or why, nor what is lost or placed at risk if the end state is not achieved.

Strategy requires prioritization. Strategic thinking clearly identifies where the organization is willing to assume risk in the present (e.g., lower relative levels of effort or resourcing) to achieve a greater strategic gain in the future. This is predicated on the organizational insight necessary to understand how these prioritization decisions affect both the present and the future. For example, can the Coast Guard articulate the cost/benefit for giving up one of the planned National Security Cutters, a $670 million platform, and investing that money into state-of-the-art data systems, revamping its workforce models, and providing mobile connectivity to needed Coast Guard information and services? GAO reports suggest that the service cannot answer these kinds of question with any degree of confidence, and in turn cannot make smart decisions about its future. Short summaries of four exemplar reports follow:

Coast Guard: Actions Needed to Improve Strategic Allocation of Assets and Determine Workforce Requirements (2016)

The GAO launched this study at the behest of the House Subcommittee on the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation. It found that the service “[did] not have sufficient staff and a system to help analyze and prioritize the manpower requirements analyses that need to be completed.” It also determined that the service consistently over-advertised the asset hours it had available, because it did not incorporate field unit information about how asset age impacted capabilities and repair needs. It took until 2021 for these issues to be resolved and closed.

Arctic Strategy Is Underway, but Agency Could Better Assess How Its Actions Mitigate Known Arctic Capability Gaps (2016)

On request of Congress, the GAO examined if the Coast Guard could accurately determine if its 2013 strategy in the Arctic was having the desired impacts. The GAO found that the Coast Guard could not assess whether its actions in the Arctic were achieving results. It had no measures of effectiveness, nor a process to collect and analyze the needed data. The GAO acknowledged that the Coast Guard updated its strategy and had issued a contract to help develop the framework tool in 2019. Both items remain open, and the Coast Guard has no estimated date for completion.

Coast Guard Shore Infrastructure: Applying Leading Practices Could Help Better Manage Project Backlogs of at Least $2.6 Billion (2019)

On request of Congress, the GAO determined that the Coast Guard failed to meet six of nine best practices for infrastructure management, leading to deferred maintenance costs of $900 million and a construction backlog of $1.77 billion in 2018. Hundreds of the recapitalization projects had no cost estimates. The Coast Guard has no method to evaluate the current operational and future costs of deferred maintenance and construction and compare them to the actual cost of fixing the problems. This prevents tradeoff analysis and prioritization, and means that the service could not report accurate information to Congress about its 2012–2019 (at minimum) budget needs. The GAO cited the Coast Guard culture of “making do” with what it has on hand as a contributing cause. The GAO made six recommendations, prioritizing the ability to predict investment outcomes, analyze tradeoffs, and optimize among competing projects. Two of the six recommendations are closed; the Coast Guard reports it will close the GAO’s priority recommendation in September 2023.

Actions Needed to Ensure Investments in Key Data System Meet Mission and User Needs (2020)

In 2020, the GAO evaluated the Coast Guard’s Marine Information for Safety and Law Enforcement (MISLE) system. The service has been attempting to update MISLE since its debut in 2001. The most recent upgrade began in 2008 and was only completed in 2015. It did not include needed functions, nor did it follow best systems development processes. Data are routinely missing, incomplete, or improperly formatted, which impacts usability. As an example, search and rescue operations from 2018 returned negative response times (physically impossible) in about 20 percent of cases. The Coast Guard stated that its long-term plan is to replace MISLE, but work will not begin until 2024, the first year the service says it can be resourced. The GAO made four recommendations, none of which has been implemented.

GAO reports are routine and are geared to show where organizations can improve. However, these reports all display the same feature: the problems stretch and multiply over years and are foreseeable. Assets do not suddenly show their age, nor does infrastructure. Both wear out over a long time. The Coast Guard has had an Arctic Strategy since 2013 but did not build it in a way that enables the Coast Guard to figure out if it works. The service still does not know, and its decision to hire contractors to create an evaluation framework betrays a lack of both Arctic and strategy expertise. This last presents a conundrum: the same knowledge and skills needed to determine if the strategy is working are the same ones required to build an effective strategy in the first place. Continuing on, the MISLE data system is unacceptably inaccurate after 20 years of updates—and work on the replacement does not start for two more years. The service does not submit its full budgetary needs to Congress because it does not know them. All of these problems demonstrate a lack of strategic insight that has persisted over decades.

Congress Forces the Coast Guard to Change

Like every agency, the Coast Guard is a service subject to external powers as part of its operating environmental system. A refusal to act can be met with mandates. Congress has forced major changes upon the Coast Guard at least twice as a response to the service failing to examine and act on its future. One such change restructured Coast Guard acquisition processes and personnel. The other mandated changes to Coast Guard specialties and career paths. Both were spearheaded from 2007 to 2010 by then-U.S. Representatives Elijah E. Cummings (Md.) and James L. Oberstar (Minn.).

The Coast Guard’s attempt to recapitalize its aging equipment and assets began with the Integrated Deepwater System (IDS) program in the late 1990s. The program was initially planned for a pre-9/11 workload that did not include many aspects of port and maritime security. In 2002, the Coast Guard asked the RAND Corporation to evaluate if the planned assets would meet post-9/11 burdens. RAND found that the Coast Guard’s program of record (POR) undershot the original needs and met only about 60 percent of post-9/11 estimates. Apart from this, IDS was beset from the beginning by contract management and oversight problems created by insufficient Coast Guard expertise and capability, so in 2010 Congress imposed laws preventing the service from using certain practices and mandated changes to acquisition policy, organization, training, and execution.

Like every agency, the Coast Guard is a service subject to external powers as part of its operating environmental system.

In the same act, Congress also felt compelled to intervene in the Coast Guard’s management of officer careers, stemming from the dearth of “resources and attention needed” to address organizational and operational shortcomings, such as a 15-year backlog of regulatory revisions. It mandated establishing career paths to create necessary expertise throughout the service, as well as standards for marine safety inspector training and qualification, Coast Guard Academy courses in marine safety, and the requirement that either a deputy commandant (vice admiral/O9) or assistant commandant (rear admiral/O7-O8) possess at least 10 years of marine safety experience.

These future force structure and acquisition woes remain. In 2011 a fleet mix analysis showed the same results as the initial RAND report, leading the Congressional Research Service (CRS) to question in January 2022 if the POR needed an update, reflecting that over the same time frame, the Navy updated its force-level goals eight times. The same CRS report included a letter to the Coast Guard from one of its oversight subcommittees expressing “concern that the past Fleet Mix Analyses … are outdated.”

As with the GAO reports, none of these issues were new, and all of them had long time horizons. Although 9/11 added significant operational requirements, assets age over years, not all at once. Similarly, the regulatory backlog of 15 years did not appear overnight, nor did other marine safety concerns. The Coast Guard knew or should have known about all of this, should have developed and maintained a workforce with both the capacity and knowledge to manage these kinds of functions, and should have had good projections about its needs.

Coast Guard Culture Still Avoids Strategic Thinking

Apart from document reviews, external reports, and legislation, interviews with active-duty and recently retired Coast Guard officers cement the idea that strategic thinking remains “counter-cultural” in the service. One senior captain, soon retiring from a command tour, declared the Coast Guard is trapped in “a tyranny of the now.” A retired commander (O5) with 30 years of experience who is now a senior government civil servant (GS-15) remarked on the service’s lack of follow-through: “We are littered with ‘false starts’ where declared or promised changes just seem to evaporate.” An active-duty officer with significant interagency experience described how the relevant program leadership at Coast Guard headquarters did not appear to understand the service’s “location” in the interagency system. This lack of awareness prevented the service from giving “coherent and timely answers about basic opportunities and challenges raised by [my interagency unit]. So we eventually stopped asking.” Another officer described Coast Guard strategies as “roads to nowhere.” An O4 slated to retire in the summer of 2022 opined that efforts to discuss how her unit’s area of responsibility might impact operations in the next few years were seen as a “time suck” distracting from important day-to-day operational decisions. One echoed congressional frustration: the Coast Guard does not change unless there is a crisis and it is forced to adjust.

One senior captain, soon retiring from a command tour, declared the Coast Guard is trapped in “a tyranny of the now.”

The most telling story about the “tyranny of the now” was relayed by an active-duty O6. In 2003, the Coast Guard began incorporating its field operations under a single command, the Sector. The premise was that Sectors would “stand up” with an initial operating capability (IOC) of people, assets, and equipment, but eventually transition to a more robust full operating capability (FOC). This has not yet occurred. At a recent conference, this O6 asked several flag officers (O7–O9) if the Coast Guard would ever bring Sectors to FOC. These flag officers indicated that the status quo (IOC) would remain in place, and that the hard work of Sectors was letting the Coast Guard allocate operational resources elsewhere. This sacrifices the future of the Coast Guard to satisfy current programming ideas.

Recommendations: Moving Beyond Readiness and Response

The Coast Guard lacks strategic thinking and has lacked it for decades. Its continued overemphasis on shifting inadequate resources through a flurry of high-level tasking does not chart a path to the future. Moreover, the Coast Guard only implements serious change when forced to. In effect, it outsources its future to external entities: Congress, GAO reports used to force changes, or, as in the case of IDS, “lead systems integrators.” The Long View and Evergreen documents foreshadow both the root cause and the solution: Strategic thinking is counter-cultural in the Coast Guard. This must change.

Make strategic thinking an enduring core competency

Currently, strategic thinkers are not identified or rewarded, nor do they have a career path in the Coast Guard. The service must create permanent billets to create this path, revamp evaluation instruments to identify good strategic thinkers, and offer educational opportunities to build the right knowledge base.

At lower echelons, this includes developing a systems understanding of the unit and its operating environment and, given the operational data, intelligence information, and other inputs, developing a probabilistic forecast of how its operations might need to change. These are evidence-based, causal models that can inform everything from operational planning and programming to headquarters-level budgeting and resource requests. At higher echelons, the strategic thinker encounters more complex systems and would be part of a strategy development team. Strategic management could occur at the headquarters level, ensuring that programmatic decisions support and implement strategy. This charts a viable career path with roles at all echelons.

The Coast Guard can no longer rely on this generalist approach, and must create specialists at the executive levels by developing narrow, “single track” officer career paths for a small subset of its officer corps.

The Coast Guard must have people who can fill these jobs. Interviewees agreed that existing personnel evaluation instruments cannot reliably identify strategic thinkers, nor do they get promoted for this skill. This can be fixed by changing evaluation forms to reflect strategic thinking qualities and skills. This requires the Coast Guard to directly link actions to results and track them over time, as strategic thinkers create lasting changes. Educational opportunities to promote strategic thinking and its core five elements run the gamut, from systems science and engineering to industrial/organizational psychology or MBAs in business strategy and development.

Create a permanent strategy development office at headquarters

Strategy is the input for planning. There is currently no standing body to provide strategy development continuity across service leadership teams, which change every four years. The Coast Guard has two units that might form the core of a permanent strategy development office, the Emerging Policy Staff and the Commandant’s Action Group. Both examine emerging issues and make recommendations. Combining these teams and converting them to a permanent strategy development office would provide the continuous cycle of development, evaluation in response to data, and strategy adjustment necessary to achieve strategic change. Both the processes of strategy development, and the strategies themselves must be socialized with the Coast Guard’s vice admirals (O9), who are all possible candidates for the next commandant and vice commandant. Otherwise, the service runs the risk of abruptly versus smoothly transitioning shifts in strategy every four years.

Create viable “single track” officer career paths to flag rank

Based on interviews, the Coast Guard continues to maintain the precept that officers should have two specialties. One of these specialties should be in a “mission” area, such as marine safety, or an officer may be a “cutterman” with multiple tours assigned to a ship. The other specialty might be in something like human resources or the legal field. The underlying argument is that the Coast Guard does not have enough officers for them to become single-mission specialists, and that civilians are employed to provide expertise and continuity. However, the congressional workforce and leadership mandates about acquisitions, marine safety, and career paths are a direct rebuke of this model. The GAO reports, which consistently highlight the Coast Guard’s failure to implement best practices in specialty areas, form a similar message: the service does not have the specialty knowledge needed to make good strategy and organizational management decisions.

The Coast Guard has an upcoming window to embrace strategic thinking.

Five out of six interviewees, for example, stated that Coast Guard executive leaders (flag officers in the ranks of O7–O10) lacked the specialized expertise needed to understand and make good programmatic decisions for the service. For instance, newer research suggests that when the rate of change in a field is high, specialists outperform generalists and add more value. Their depth of knowledge allows them to create ideas and solutions the generalist cannot see.

The Coast Guard can no longer rely on this generalist approach, and must create specialists at the executive levels by developing narrow, “single track” officer career paths for a small subset of its officer corps. These would culminate in a final tour as an assistant commandant (O7–O8) in their chosen specialty (e.g., intelligence, human resources, etc.) at Coast Guard headquarters. The tradeoffs for both the service and the officer are clear and simple: the Coast Guard loses some flexibility in assignment in exchange for knowledge depth, while the officer accepts a narrow career path with its attendant risk of non-promotion, a limited choice of billets, and a hard cap on their highest possible rank.

Speed executive decision-making and action follow-through

Speed matters. Without prompting, four of the six interviewees said that the speed of executive decision-making and subsequent follow-through is far too slow. For example, the failure of the Coast Guard to create a data system that meets its needs after nearly two decades of tinkering makes it impossible for the service to connect its foresight to strategy development, implementation, and budget, because data drives strategic insight. The service’s inability to clear its infrastructure backlog increases operating costs and lowers effectiveness. The lack of good data, causal models, and the right experts means the service is unable to explain how much bad data and dilapidated infrastructure increase costs while hurting performance. One interviewee also identified a cultural bias for full consensus that often allows a single unit, office, or even individual to stall decision and action indefinitely. The Coast Guard must streamline its internal decision-making to capitalize on external opportunities and manage risk. Obstructionist behavior must be prevented and penalized.


The Coast Guard has an upcoming window to embrace strategic thinking. On June 1, Admiral Karl Schultz passed leadership of the service to Admiral Linda Fagan. As with any transition, this event provides an opportunity to embark on changes. Similarly, the Coast Guard Academy—the primary source of Coast Guard officers—is reorganizing its programs and curricula to answer a “need for officers grounded in a technical education, but versatile in broad interdisciplinary domains such as cyber systems, data analytics and emergency management.” It may also wish to consider shifts that explicitly emphasize strategic thinking skills and applications, such as system design and system modeling. For example, a government major can currently choose from three concentrations. A fourth option might be public policy design, which would emphasize development, implementation, and evaluation of policy solutions to problems. Similar concentrations could exist in other majors; the management major could offer a concentration in business strategy development, while civil engineering might list systems engineering and design.

Embracing strategic thinking and strategy development to create its organizational future is the only way for the Coast Guard to live up to its motto.

All interviewees agreed that the Coast Guard is risk averse because of resource constraints, but a more accurate phrase might be “change avoidant.” Risk aversion is a preference for more certain outcomes over less certain outcomes, but unresolved issues create greater uncertainty over time. So, because the Coast Guard fails to “think in time,” it chooses to accept higher levels of future risk in exchange for reducing its (perceived) present risk, rather than institute necessary changes. Similarly, the Coast Guard must recognize that its budgetary constraints are the product, not the cause, of change avoidance: the president, DHS, and Congress cannot be expected to support budgets and plans for what the Coast Guard needs if the service cannot make a logical case or show the value it would return. The GAO, RAND, and Congress itself have made this abundantly clear with repeated questions and recommendations about how to better document and convey the Coast Guard’s budget needs.

Resourcing, future uncertainty, and risk are constants for any organization. The only way to make progress is to create good strategies for needed change. Without strategic thinking as a core capability, the Coast Guard can count on more externally imposed solutions to its problems and flat budgets that continue to constrain its organizational management ever more tightly and reduce adaptability. The service must close its decades-long era of programming existing resources against the new Commandant’s “grab-bag” of mission priorities. Embracing strategic thinking and strategy development to create its organizational future is the only way for the Coast Guard to live up to its motto.


Table 4. Coast Guard Strategic Documents

DocumentYearPurposeLines of EffortTasks
Western Hemisphere Strategy2014Establishes three strategic priorities/lines of effort for the Coast Guard in Western Hemisphere operations.Combating [threat] networks
Securing borders87
Safeguarding commerce
Security Sector Assistance Strategy2015Define and guide the Coast Guard’s security sector assistance operations, to help “partner nations build sustainable capacity to address common security challenges and to disrupt and defeat threats from the sea.”None15
Human Capital Strategy2016Provide “an agile flexible and adaptive Human Capital System that ensures a thriving, proficient, and effective workforce for complex global missions.”Meet mission needs
Meet service needs11
Meet people needs
Maritime Commerce Strategic Outlook2018“The Coast Guard must have the adaptive capacity, strategic awareness, and modern systems, assets, and workforce to facilitate, safeguard, and advance commerce on America’s waterways.” Facilitate lawful trade and secure waterways
Modernize aids to navigation and mariner information systems52
Transform workforce capacities and partnerships
Coast Guard Strategic Plan 2018–20222018“The Coast Guard Strategic Plan 2018–2022 provides the framework for a Ready, Relevant, and Responsive Coast Guard to address America’s most complex maritime challenges across the full spectrum of maritime operations.”Maximize readiness today and tomorrow
Address the nation's complex maritime challenges79
Deliver mission excellence anytime, anywhere
Arctic Strategic Outlook2019“The Coast Guard will protect the Nation’s vital interests by upholding the rules-based order in the maritime domain while cooperating to reduce conflict and risk. We will help safeguard the Nation’s Arctic communities, environment, and economy.”Enhance capability to operate effectively in a dynamic Arctic
Strengthen the rules-based order14
Innovate and adapt to promote resilience and prosperity
Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing Strategic Outlook2020“The U.S. Coast Guard will apply our broad authorities, capabilities, capacities, and partnerships to be a global leader in the fight against IUU fishing.”Promote targeted, effective, intelligence-driven enforcement operations
Counter predatory and irresponsible state behavior18
Expand multilateral fisheries enforcement cooperation
Cyber Strategic Outlook2021“As a military service, federal law enforcement agency, and federal regulator, the U.S. Coast Guard will use its broad authorities and unique capabilities to protect the Marine Transportation System from all threats, to respond to attacks on maritime critical infrastructure, and to incorporate cyber effects to achieve all mission outcomes.”Defend and operate the U.S. Coast Guard Enterprise Mission Platform
Protect the Marine Transportation System22
Operate in and through cyberspace

About the Author

Commander James Valentine, USCG (Ret.), is a 1997 graduate of the United States Coast Guard Academy with 21 years of service. He is currently pursuing his PhD in earth systems and geographic information science at George Mason University, examining national and homeland security issues, and is a research associate with the University of Idaho’s Center for Resilient Communities.


Many thanks to the interviewees, who provided excellent insight and feedback. This paper and project on DHS oversight and accountability is made possible with the generous support of the Democracy Fund.

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  1. Fiona Graetz, “Strategic Thinking Versus Strategic Planning: Towards Understanding the Complementarities,” Management Decision 40, no. 5 (June 1, 2002): 456–62, https://doi.org/10.1108/00251740210430434; Jeanne M. Liedtka, “Linking Strategic Thinking with Strategic Planning,” Strategy & Leadership 26, no. 4 (October 1998): 30–35; Henry Mintzberg, “The Fall and Rise of Strategic Planning,” Harvard Business Review 72, no. 1 (1994): 107–14.
  2. United States Coast Guard, “The Coast Guard: America’s Oldest Maritime Defenders,” 2021, https://www.gocoastguard.com/about-the-coast-guard/learn-the-history.
  3. 14 USC § 103, “Title 14, U.S. Code, Codification and Enactment into Law,” https://uscode.house.gov/view.xhtml?hl=false&edition=prelim&req=granuleid%3AUSC-2000-title14-chapter1&num=0&saved=%7CZ3JhbnVsZWlkOlVTQy0yMDAwLXRpdGxlMTQtc2VjdGlvbjM%3D%7C%7C%7C0%7Cfalse%7C2000; United States Coast Guard, “The Coast Guard: America’s Oldest Maritime Defenders.”
  4. Public Law 107–296, “Homeland Security Act of 2002,” 2002, Sections 888, 187, https://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/hr_5005_enr.pdf.
  5. United States Coast Guard, “About the U.S. Coast Guard,” 2021, https://www.uscg.mil/About/.
  6. United States Coast Guard, “About the U.S. Coast Guard.”
  7. United States Coast Guard, Evergreen: Creating and Sustaining Strategic Intent in the U.S. Coast Guard (September 2013), https://www.uscg.mil/Portals/0/Strategy/Report%20Evergreen%20III%20Blue%20Book.pdf.
  8. Abbie Tingstad et al., “Developing New Future Scenarios for the U.S. Coast Guard’s Evergreen Strategic Foresight Program” (RAND Corporation, 2020), https://doi.org/10.7249/RR3147.
  9. United States Coast Guard, Evergreen: Creating and Sustaining Strategic Intent in the U.S. Coast Guard.
  10. Liedtka, “Linking Strategic Thinking with Strategic Planning”; Zumalia Norzailan, Shazlinda Md Yusof, and Rozhan Othman, “Developing Strategic Leadership Competencies,” Journal of Advanced Management Science 4, no. 1 (2016), http://www.joams.com/uploadfile/2014/1008/20141008051224975.pdf; Ingrid Bonn, “Developing Strategic Thinking as a Core Competency,” Management Decision 39, no. 1 (February 1, 2001): 63–71, https://doi.org/10.1108/EUM0000000005408.
  11. Liedtka, “Linking Strategic Thinking with Strategic Planning.”
  12. Liedtka, “Linking Strategic Thinking with Strategic Planning”; Norzailan, Yusof, and Othman, “Developing Strategic Leadership Competencies.”
  13. Liedtka, “Linking Strategic Thinking with Strategic Planning”; Mark Chussil, “With All This Intelligence, Why Don’t We Have Better Strategies?” Journal of Business Strategy 26, no. 1 (February 1, 2005): 26–33, https://doi.org/10.1108/02756660510575023; Mintzberg, “The Fall and Rise of Strategic Planning.”
  14. Mintzberg, “The Fall and Rise of Strategic Planning.”
  15. United States Coast Guard, Western Hemisphere Strategy (September 2014), https://media.defense.gov/2018/Oct/05/2002049080/-1/-1/0/CG_WEST_HEMISPHERE_STRATEGY.PDF; United States Coast Guard, Security Sector Assistance Strategy (July 2015), https://media.defense.gov/2018/Oct/05/2002049079/-1/-1/0/CG_SSA%20FINAL%20JULY%202015.PDF; United States Coast Guard, Human Capital Strategy (January 2016), https://media.defense.gov/2018/Oct/05/2002049077/-1/-1/0/CG_HUMAN_CAPITAL_STRATEGY.PDF; United States Coast Guard, Coast Guard Strategic Plan 2018–2022 (2018), https://media.defense.gov/2018/Nov/16/2002063979/-1/-1/0/USCG_STRATEGIC%20PLAN_LORES%20PAGE_20181115_VFINAL.PDF; United States Coast Guard, Maritime Commerce Strategic Outlook (October 2018), https://media.defense.gov/2018/Oct/05/2002049100/-1/-1/0/USCG%20MARITIME%20COMMERCE%20STRATEGIC%20OUTLOOK-RELEASABLE.PDF; United States Coast Guard, Arctic Strategic Outlook (April 2019), https://media.defense.gov/2019/May/13/2002130713/-1/-1/0/ARCTIC_STRATEGY_BOOK_APR_2019.PDF; United States Coast Guard, Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulating Fishing Strategic Outlook (2020), https://media.defense.gov/2020/Dec/31/2002559038/-1/-1/0/IUU_STRATEGIC_OUTLOOK_2020_FINAL.PDF; United States Coast Guard, Cyber Strategic Outlook (August 2021), https://media.defense.gov/2018/Oct/05/2002049076/-1/-1/-/CYBER%20STRATEGY%202021%20v27.PDF.
  16. David Ignatius, “Opinion | The Marines Are Establishing a Beachhead for Needed Change at the Pentagon,” The Washington Post, January 18, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/01/18/marines-are-establishing-beachhead-needed-change-pentagon/; Charles Krulak, Jack Sheehan, and Anthony Zinni, “War Is a Dirty Business. Will the Marine Corps Be Ready for the Next One?” The Washington Post, April 22, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/04/22/marines-restructuring-plan-scrutiny-generals/; United States Marine Corps, 38th Commandant’s Planning Guidance 2019 (2019), https://www.hqmc.marines.mil/Portals/142/Docs/%2038th%20Commandant%27s%20Planning%20Guidance_2019.pdf?ver=2019-07-16-200152-700.
  17. Mintzberg, “The Fall and Rise of Strategic Planning”; Jeanne M. Liedtka, “Strategic Thinking: Can It Be Taught?,” Long Range Planning 31, no. 1 (February 1998): 120–29, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0024-6301(97)00098-8; Liedtka, “Linking Strategic Thinking with Strategic Planning”; Chussil, “With All This Intelligence, Why Don’t We Have Better Strategies?”; Norzailan, Yusof, and Othman, “Developing Strategic Leadership Competencies”; Graetz, “Strategic Thinking versus Strategic Planning”; Bonn, “Developing Strategic Thinking as a Core Competency.”
  18. Mintzberg, “The Fall and Rise of Strategic Planning”; Bonn, “Developing Strategic Thinking as a Core Competency.”
  19. United States Coast Guard, Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulating Fishing Strategic Outlook, 29.
  20. United States Coast Guard, Maritime Commerce Strategic Outlook, 27.
  21. United States Coast Guard, Arctic Strategic Outlook, 26.
  22. United States Coast Guard, Arctic Strategic Outlook, 28.
  23. Government Accountability Office, Coast Guard: Actions Needed to Improve Strategic Allocation of Assets and Determine Workforce Requirements, GAO 16-379 (June 2016), https://www.gao.gov/products/gao-16-379.
  24. Government Accountability Office, Actions Needed to Improve Strategic Allocation of Assets and Determine Workforce Requirements.
  25. Government Accountability Office, Actions Needed to Improve Strategic Allocation of Assets and Determine Workforce Requirements, Highlights.
  26. Government Accountability Office, Coast Guard: Arctic Strategy Is Underway, but Agency Could Better Assess How Its Actions Mitigate Known Arctic Capability Gaps, GAO 16-453 (June 2016), https://www.gao.gov/products/gao-16-453.
  27. Government Accountability Office, Coast Guard Shore Infrastructure: Applying Leading Practices Could Help Better Manage Project Backlogs of at Least $2.6 Billion, GAO 19-82 (February 2019), https://www.gao.gov/products/gao-19-82.
  28. Government Accountability Office, Actions Needed to Ensure Investments in Key Data System Meet Mission and User Needs, GAO 20-562 (July 2020), https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-20-562.pdf.
  29. Errol Morris, “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is (Part 1),” Opinionator (blog), June 20, 2010, https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/20/the-anosognosics-dilemma-1/; this was an interview with David Dunning of "Dunning-Kruger Effect" fame.
  30. John Birkler et al., “The U.S. Coast Guard’s Deepwater Force Modernization Plan: Can It Be Accelerated? Will It Meet Changing Security Needs? ” (RAND Corporation, 2004), https://doi.org/10.7249/MG114, 70; 60% figure calculated by comparing RAND post-9/ll estimate of needed assets to initial IDS build.
  31. U.S. House of Representatives, Coast Guard Modernization Act of 2009, H Rept 111-352, 111th Congress, 1st Session, https://www.congress.gov/congressional-report/111th-congress/house-report/352; “House Passes Cummings Bill to Reform Coast Guard Acquisitions,” Professional Mariner: Journal of the Maritime Industry, July 29, 2009, https://professionalmariner.com/house-passes-cummings-bill-to-reform-coast-guard-acquisitions/; 14 USC § 128, § 303(a)(3)(A), “Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010,” https://www.congress.gov/111/plaws/publ281/PLAW-111publ281.pdf.
  32. U.S. House of Representatives, Coast Guard Modernization Act of 2009; 14 USC § 128, § 303(a)(3)(A).
  33. Congressional Research Service, Coast Guard Cutter Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress, R42567 (January 20, 2022), https://sgp.fas.org/crs/weapons/R42567.pdf.
  34. United States Coast Guard, Evergreen: Creating and Sustaining Strategic Intent in the U.S. Coast Guard. The author sought anonymous interviews with eight active-duty or recently retired Coast Guard officers at the rank of lieutenant commander (O4) to captain (O6). Prospective interviewees were chosen for their diversity of experience in Coast Guard missions and jobs, ranging from field operations to headquarters programs and command. Six consented to the interview, while two declined, citing possible negative career impacts should their identity be discovered. All officers had between 15 and 30 years of service, which allowed them strong insight into Coast Guard culture, strategy, operations, and immediate organizational history. Each officer was asked the same set of 10 open-ended questions to gain their perspective on the Coast Guard and strategic thinking. To prevent bias, the elements of strategic thinking were not presented to the interviewees. The author informed interviewees about the subject of the study, about the affiliation with CNAS, and that their responses would be used in writing this report.
  35. Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010. The Coast Guard is now statutorily unable to use a Lead Systems Integrator in acquisitions as a result of the IDS program.
  36. United States Coast Guard, Evergreen: Creating and Sustaining Strategic Intent in the U.S. Coast Guard. All interviewees agreed that the Coast Guard cannot identify strategic thinkers using its current evaluation instruments, and that there is no career pathway that rewards strategic thinking.
  37. Conversant readers may note that the Coast Guard does evaluate “Planning and Preparedness.” As this study shows, that does not equate to strategic skills or performance.
  38. Mintzberg, “The Fall and Rise of Strategic Planning.”
  39. Government Accountability Office, Actions Needed to Improve Allocation of Assets and Determine Workforce Requirements; Government Accountability Office, Actions Needed to Ensure Investments in Key Data System Meet Mission and User Needs; Government Accountability Office, Coast Guard Shore Infrastructure.
  40. Florenta Teodoridis, Michaël Bikard, and Keyvan Vakili, “Creativity at the Knowledge Frontier: The Impact of Specialization in Fast- and Slow-Paced Domains,” Administrative Science Quarterly 64, no. 4 (December 1, 2019): 894–927, https://doi.org/10.1177/0001839218793384.
  41. Government Accountability Office, Actions Needed to Improve Allocation of Assets and Determine Workforce Requirements; Government Accountability Office, Actions Needed to Ensure Investments in Key Data System Meet Mission and User Needs; Government Accountability Office, Coast Guard Shore Infrastructure.
  42. Krystyn Pecora, “A New, Future-Focused Model for CGA’s Academic Program,” MyCG, March 4, 2022, https://www.mycg.uscg.mil/News/Article/2955377/a-new-future-focused-model-for-cgas-academic-program/.


  • James Valentine

    Commander, USCG (Ret.)

    Commander James Valentine, USCG (Ret.), is a 1997 graduate of the United States Coast Guard Academy with 21 years of service. He is currently pursuing his PhD in earth systems...

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