Make Maritime Stability Operations a Core U.S. Coast Guard Mission Focus

Ocean Governance Topic Week

By Dan Owen

A fundamental step toward achieving long-term peace and stability in developing nations remains the establishment of rule of law and a corresponding system of stable governance. This primacy assigned to rule of law and stable governance is consistent across the military and civilian development sectors. Specifically, the U.S. military’s foundational doctrine on Stability (Joint Publication or JP 3-07) and the U.S. Institute of Peace’s (USIP) Guiding Principles for Stabilization and Reconstruction list rule of law and stable governance as core stabilization functions. Establishing key “maritime governance” structures, in particular, is of vital importance to the multitude of maritime nations now dependent on the sea as their primary source of production, resources, employment, and overall socioeconomic stability.

Maritime stability is also increasingly if not inextricably linked to larger global stability. Currently, over three-quarters of the nearly 200 UN recognized countries are interconnected through the maritime domain or otherwise deemed maritime nations. Maritime trade already accounts for 90 percent of global trade and over half of the world’s trade (by value). Many nations are also dependent on the sea as their primary source of protein and other extractable resources. These numbers, however, do not account for an equally substantial volume and corresponding value of illicit maritime enterprises that many malignant, destabilizing elements need to sustain their power and influence.

In order to sustain some semblance of stability and resist growing pressure from external malign actors, maritime nations must secure the means necessary to stem if not outright stop rising cases of illegal and exploitative maritime activities. These activities include the poaching of natural resources, pollution, piracy, weapons proliferation, human and contraband trafficking, and a multitude of other safety, security, and sovereignty enforcement challenges. Thwarting such activities cannot be possible absent functioning rule of law and supporting governance structures.

Fortunately for the U.S. and the larger international development community, a basic framework or mechanism to address maritime instability already exists, called Maritime Stability Operations (MSO). Additionally, one U.S. government agency in particular is especially qualified and well-suited for this mission, the U.S. Coast Guard.

The following provides a re-introduction to MSO, its preeminence amid the multitude of modern maritime challenges, along with why the Coast Guard—in coordination with the U.S. Department of State (DOS)—must not only be the lead implementing agency but make maritime stability operations its core or priority future mission focus.

Framing the Issue

Many developing and several small island nations still lack sufficient legal and regulatory structures, resources, capacity, and in some cases even the political will to institute governance regimes needed to address growing maritime instability and corresponding sources of conflict. Many of these issues may stem from a simple lack of experience and sufficient education on basic maritime governance structures and reforms. Nevertheless, these weak or lax enforcement zones enable malign actors to operate with relative impunity; thus, enabling them to profit and plunder unimpeded at the expense of local populations and public institutions. Left unchecked, such conditions can diminish any prospect of achieving local and regional stability—let alone prevent the rise of potential large-scale insurrections and armed conflict.

Collectively, the multitude of maritime stability challenges remain at the forefront of modern great power competition and growing global instability. This is increasingly the case in the Asia-Pacific where an overly aggressive, expansionist China routinely preys on smaller states within its self-proclaimed sphere of influence. However, modern maritime disputes are not limited to the South and East China Seas. In Europe, many Black Sea countries also face aggression over contested maritime claims extending from the Crimean peninsula and waters adjacent to the Russia-backed separatist region of Abkhazia, Georgia. Europe also faces human trafficking issues and the threat of more mass migration due to lingering instability throughout the Middle East and parts of Africa. Additionally, the Middle East regularly faces threats to its vital hydrocarbon trade and industry, and several strategic maritime chokepoints.

Areas of weak maritime governance also become particularly attractive to and, thus, prone to exploitation by other destabilizing forces ranging from smaller scale, locally-based criminal elements to vast transnational criminal networks, violent extremist groups, and even some state-sponsored proxy forces. Prominent examples include Africa’s vast coastlines where maritime piracy, exploitative fishing, and the trafficking of contraband remain hotly contested issues on both coasts and, in particular, the Gulf of Guinea. Also, the trafficking of illicit narcotics continue virtually unabated throughout the Western Hemisphere—largely by way of maritime conveyance.

Amid the rising instances of maritime exploitation, crime, competition, and instability, revisiting maritime stability operations, as a core U.S. foreign assistance and national security priority, is of utmost importance—if not fundamental to improving global stability. Such strategies, however, must be committed to ensuring that all maritime nations have the necessary means and mechanisms not only to identify violations but ultimately enforce and—if necessary—defend their maritime space.

What is the Maritime Stability Operations (MSO) Framework?

MSO was formally introduced as a military operational concept in 2012, with the release of an interim naval force (i.e., U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard) publication, aptly titled Maritime Stability Operations. The given U.S. Navy title is Naval Warfare Publication 3-07 or NWP 3-07. The release of NWP 3-07 represented the naval response to the Department of Defense (DOD)’s 2005 directive establishing stability operations as a “core U.S. military mission,” with a corresponding mandate to incorporate stability into service-related doctrine and planning. NWP 3-07 was released with the expectation of evolving into formal naval force doctrine and incorporation into future iterations of JP 3-07.

The actual definition of MSO varies. The first known definition appeared in a 2011 Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) report, The Navy Role in Confronting Irregular Challenges. The report identifies MSO as a core naval mission, defined as “assistance and promotion of host nation maritime infrastructure and economic development.” NWP 3-07 provides a more comprehensive definition, describing MSO as “…ensuring that the maritime commons and its structures support the safe flow of commerce and contribute to good governance. Also, by denying those who wish to engage in illegal activity using the maritime domain.” 

Unfortunately, NWP 3-07 was never updated in 2014—as was intended—and has yet to be incorporated in JP 3-07. Also, the term “maritime stability operations,” has yet to be adopted within DOD’s official “military and associated terms.” MSO’s stalled momentum is not a reflection of MSO’s diminished importance but rather a shift in U.S. Navy mission prioritization. Additionally, after many years of political infighting over lingering stabilization challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan, it became apparent that DOD wanted out of stability operations. Following the release of the 2018 Stabilization Assistance Review (SAR) and a related DOD directive issued in the same year, it became clear that the Department of State (DOS) would become the new lead for international stabilization efforts with DOD relegated to a supporting element.

The Navy’s shift in mission priorities creates a critical gap in future MSO efforts that must now be filled by DOS and the Coast Guard. Despite the Navy’s shift in mission priorities, MSO remains vital to U.S. national security and, in particular, preventing global conflicts. Echoing DOD’s earlier directive, stability “shall be given priority comparable to combat operations” in order to “secure a lasting peace” through the development of “…indigenous capacity for securing essential services, a viable market economy, rule of law, democratic institutions, and a robust civil society.” Absent this commitment from the Navy, DOS and USAID face another key challenge in that both are lacking in maritime forces and MSO expertise. The primary U.S. government agency with MSO expertise resides within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and, specifically, the U.S. Coast Guard.

Why the U.S. Coast Guard?

Having already articulated the immense global threat posed by growing maritime instability and how maritime governance serves as a core function or aspect in fostering maritime stability, it is important to examine the strategic Coast Guard nexus. Specifically, how does the Coast Guard perceive its roles and responsibilities related to addressing instability in the maritime environment and, in particular, maritime governance? A variety of foundational Coast Guard documents not only acknowledges the vital importance of supporting maritime governance, but how it represents the very essence of everything the Coast Guard does. More importantly, many of the same documents assert that the Coast Guard has a responsibility (i.e., obligation) to act in support of global maritime governance initiatives.

Beginning with the Coast Guard Strategic Plan 2018-2022, the Coast Guard “has the enduring responsibility… to promote our security in a complex and persistently-evolving maritime environment.” A key aspect of this is how “[t]he Coast Guard plays a critical role in strengthening governance in areas of importance.” The plan also acknowledges that pockets of weak governance are routinely being exploited by malicious actors, including “[t]ransnational criminal organizations (TCOs) and other malicious non-state actors [that] erode maritime governance, the rule of law, and regional stability.” In response to these known threats, the plan includes several governance-related objectives; i.e., objectives: 2.1 – Strengthen Maritime Governance; 2.2.2 – Leverage Joint Capabilities and Authorities to Complement DOD; and 2.2.4 – Align International Engagement with National and Departmental Priorities.

Objective 2.1, in particular, states that:

Full spectrum maritime governance provides the foundation for an adaptive and stabilizing framework that is essential to resilience. Nefarious activities destabilize and threaten vulnerable regions. To address these sources of maritime disorder, we will [emphasis added] employ our singular capabilities, authorities, and established partnerships to maintain law and order and uphold accepted behaviors.

Further emphasizing the Coast Guard’s commitment to MSO, the entire Fall 2019 edition of the Coast Guard’s Proceedings journal is singularly devoted to, “Maritime Governance: Addressing the Nation’s Challenges.” Then-Deputy Commandant for Coast Guard Operations Vice Admiral Dan Abel headlined the edition by stating that, “…the vastness, anonymity, and inherent challenges of governance over the maritime domain make [the nation] vulnerable to dangerous threats, including transnational crime, terrorist activity, illegal exploitation of natural resources, and territorial expansion” and that “…strengthening maritime governance is a key objective to enhancing the Coast Guard’s ability to police, detect, deter, and counter maritime threats.” The journal edition also emphasizes the immense “…value the Coast Guard brings to the nation and the world through implementation of its maritime governance responsibilities.” Not the least of which is how “[m]odernizing and improving maritime governance remains a top priority [emphasis added] for the service’s senior leaders.”

Other key journal contributors reinforce why the U.S. Coast Guard, unlike any other U.S. government agency or department, is best-suited to lead the implementation of MSO. The Chief of the Coast Guard’s Office of Standards, Evaluation, and Development, Captain Timothy Brown, noted that, “Maritime governance is a wide ranging topic, with a nexus to all [emphasis added] 11 of the Coast Guard’s statutory missions.” Additionally, the Chief of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s Government section, Capt. Russ Bowman, and an Assistant Professor for Maritime Policy, Strategy, and Governance, Dr. Tiffany Smythe, collectively emphasized that maritime governance “…is arguably the essence of everything the U.S. Coast Guard does.” 

The Coast Guard’s Security Sector Assistance Strategy also emphasizes that the “Coast Guard’s broad mission portfolio touches all aspects of maritime governance” and, thus, has “a responsibility to share its best practices and hard-fought lessons learned to positively influence the development and operational effectiveness of near-peers and aspiring organizations alike.” Enhancing good maritime governance is also a consistent theme throughout many other core Coast Guard strategic documents such as its Western Hemisphere Strategy, Arctic Strategic Outlook, and Maritime Commerce Strategic Outlook.

Coast Guard Cutter Stratton’s crewmembers aboard Coast Guard small boat return to Stratton after a humanitarian assistance/disaster relief event for Rim of Pacific Exercise 2016, Wednesday, July 13, 2016. (Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Loumania Stewart)

Even several DOD publications highlight how the Coast Guard is uniquely suited or “especially qualified” to support MSO. JP 3-07 not only references NWP 3-07, it states that “including United States Coast Guard (USCG) personnel or assets into the joint force maritime component significantly expands the scope of authorities available to the JFC [Joint Force Commander].” Current naval doctrine also uses the all-inclusive (i.e., Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard) label of U.S. “naval” or “maritime” forces. This inclusive language enables DOD to effectively incorporate as well as leverage complementary aspects of the Coast Guard’s unique competencies and authorities related to MSO functions. Also, a 2008 Memorandum of Agreement between DHS and DOD On the Use of U.S. Coast Guard Capabilities and Resources in Support of the National Military Strategy, outlines nine agreed upon “activities for which the Coast Guard is especially qualified.” Incidentally, these nine activities directly correspond to the core functions outlined in NWP 3-07 and most of the missions outlined in the “Global Maritime Partnerships and Security Cooperation” section of Joint Maritime Operations (JP 3-32).

Overall, the Coast Guard is clearly the preferred entity to lead MSO. The Navy’s stated mission is to “maintain, train and equip combat ready Naval forces capable of winning [not preventing] wars…” Conversely, a primary mission of the DOS is preventing wars from occurring in the first place. The Coast Guard, given its broad authorities and inherent multi-mission construct, is commonly caught in between these strategic paradigms but generally favors development and diplomacy over its defense capabilities. Emphasizing this unique position, the Commandant of the Coast Guard, Admiral Karl Schultz, described the Coast Guard as “…a maritime bridge between the Department of Defense’s lethality and the State Department’s diplomacy.” And as tensions related to maritime instability increase, the Coast Guard’s “specialized capabilities and expansive international relationships enables the United States to build partner-nation capacity and model the rules-based values and behaviors” that are fundamental to good governance. Additionally, as highlighted in the Coast Guard’s Security Sector Assistance Strategy, since “[t]he majority of the world’s maritime organizations, regardless of name or ministerial affiliation, are charged with carrying out U.S. Coast Guard-like missions,” the Coast Guard offers a much more relevant, relatable, and least escalatory option for engaging global maritime partners.

What’s Next for MSO?

Some may argue that if the Coast Guard is already doing MSO missions, then why change anything? The answer resides in the need for a clearly defined, national/strategic-level MSO mission mandate with corresponding lines of effort, leadership structures, and funding streams—as none currently exist. Understandably, this may require various legislative changes and shifting strategic frameworks. Traditionally, U.S. maritime forces operate through the lens of many separate and singularly-defined threats (e.g., drugs, illegal fishing, piracy, natural disasters), rather than through a larger, multidimensional or holistic lens. Such rigid, legacy constructs are losing relevance and, as a result, maritime forces must adapt to an increasingly globalized, transregional, and interconnected threat environment.

Shifting to a more modern, holistic approach to MSO—one that clearly prioritizes and delineates appropriate agency roles, responsibilities, and funding based on relevant expertise and strategic global demand—will maximize the potential for improved operational and strategic gains. MSO would not constitute a new Coast Guard mission. Rather, it would merge existing Coast Guard missions under a common, multidimensional strategic mission framework and focus.

This revised approach to MSO may be precisely what CNA research scientist, Joshua Tallis, strongly advocates for in his 2019 book, The War for Muddy Waters: Pirates, Terrorists, Traffickers, and Maritime Security. Specifically, Tallis suggests a growing convergence of networks across multiple streams of illicit activity, along with how maritime security specialists must “evaluate threats in this multidimensional context and collaborate with communities to achieve overarching strategic objectives.” Regarding which agency would be best suited for this mission, Tallis further asserts that:

…as maritime security threats rise in sophistication, it will be increasingly appealing to apply military resources to counter them. Military tactics, however, may not be the ideal mechanisms for addressing challenges that are often closer to crime than they are to war. Leveraging the sea services’ capabilities, without overly militarizing maritime security, is a complicated problem set that requires a more strategic and partner-oriented approach to the challenge.

Fortunately, as previously highlighted, the basic framework for building a revised approach to MSO already exists. National level planners need only model such plans off of existing documents, such as NWP 3-07, current Coast Guard strategies, DOS’ 2014 U.S. Counter Piracy and Maritime Security Action Plan, the 2008 National Research Council report on Maritime Security Partnerships, and portions of the Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower.

Others may still question how such a framework would be organized and actually function. The answer resides within existing organic frameworks. The most prominent example is international counternarcotics efforts. The Coast Guard currently serves as the primary maritime interdiction component under the leadership and direction of DOS’ Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. Similarly, the recently passed Maritime SAFE Act, also positions the Coast Guard—in coordination with DOS—to lead planning and implementation of another key MSO-related challenge, countering illegal, unreported, unregulated (IUU) fishing. Perhaps more importantly, a long-standing partnership already exists between DOS and the Coast Guard on a wide range of international maritime partner capacity building and disaster response efforts.


Ultimately, MSO remains critical to global stabilization and is therefore a key strategic priority. The basic foundational framework already exists to support modernizing a U.S. approach to MSO. It is also already widely accepted that the primary elements of MSO constitute a core Coast Guard responsibility and mission focus. And since there is little hope of MSO regaining momentum within DOD, the Coast Guard—in coordination with DOS—must strongly advocate for and fulfill its responsibility to lead MSO reform and implementation. To ensure that MSO receives the appropriate mission emphasis, global support, and relevant expertise, U.S. and international leaders must strongly advocate for formally establishing “Maritime Stability Operations” as a core mission focus of the U.S. Coast Guard for the foreseeable future—as well as demand that such efforts are fully funded and resourced to meet growing global demand for maritime stability operations.

Dan Owen is a career U.S. Coast Guard officer currently assigned as a joint strategic planner in Washington, D.C. The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or necessarily reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Featured Image: An Air Station Houston MH-65 Dolphin helicopter practices landing on the Coast Guard Cutter Dauntless during a training exercise in the Gulf of Mexico, June 10, 2016. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Dustin R. Williams)

One thought on “Make Maritime Stability Operations a Core U.S. Coast Guard Mission Focus”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.