- In April, Coast Guard ships had close encounters in the Persian Gulf and sailed into the Black Sea.
- The missions reflect the Coast Guard's role overseas, set to grow amid competition with China.
- But that will add to the service's responsibilities as it balances current missions and future needs.
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Encounters far from home in April underscored the US Coast Guard's growing overseas role, which is set to expand as more attention and resources are dedicated to countering China.
On April 2, an Iranian ship repeatedly sailed in front of Coast Guard patrol boats Wrangell and Monomoy at "an unnecessarily close range" as they operated in the Persian Gulf, which the US deemed "unsafe and unprofessional."
Three weeks later, Iranian vessels again approached US ships - Navy patrol boat Firebolt and Coast Guard patrol boat Baranof - in the Gulf. After verbal warnings to the Iranian ships went unheeded, Firebolt fired warning shots.
Wrangell, Monomoy, and Baranof are all based in Bahrain as part of Patrol Forces Southwest Asia, the Coast Guard's largest unit outside the US, which was set up in 2002 to support operations in the Middle East.
Hours after Baranof's encounter, the Coast Guard cutter Hamilton sailed into the Black Sea, where longstanding tensions increased this spring, amid a Russian military buildup on the border with Ukraine.
Hamilton had escorted two cutters sailing from the US to join Patrol Forces Southwest Asia but remained in Europe, sailing into the Black Sea on April 27. Russia's Defense Ministry said that day that its Black Sea Fleet was monitoring Hamilton's "actions."
Hamilton is the first Coast Guard vessel to enter the Black Sea since 2008 and is "emblematic of our presence in the Black Sea," Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, said in response to a question from Insider at an Atlantic Council event on April 29.
The Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security, not the Defense Department, but it often works with other branches of the US military and with foreign militaries.
"We particularly appreciate the Coast Guard's ability to cooperate with other equivalent services ... around the world, but in this case in the Black Sea," Cooper said.
Cooper echoed Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz, who said in March that while the service hadn't operated in Europe "in a good number of years," the deployment suited its ability to cooperate and compete.
"I think the Coast Guard brings access. The Coast Guard brings a different look. The Coast Guard brings some unique, complimentary capabilities," Schultz told reporters after his annual address to the service.
'We're going to push them out'
The Coast Guard often ventures long distances to enforce US laws and help other countries assert their own.
Coast Guard ships patrol the eastern Pacific Ocean to intercept drug smugglers. Cutters were deployed to Africa's Atlantic coast to assist countries there in 2019 and 2020 for the first time in nearly a decade. In late 2020, a cutter was deployed on a South Atlantic patrol for the first time "in recent memory."
The Coast Guard's presence in the western Pacific Ocean is also increasing amid broader competition with China.
Since mid-2020, the service has stationed three new fast-response cutters in Guam, a US territory. Those ships have "about a 10,000-mile reach," Schultz said in March.
"We're going to push them out to some of the outer reaches of Oceania. We're going to team them up with national security cutters on occasion," Schultz added, referring to the service's largest cutters, which include Hamilton.
Many recent Coast Guard operations have focused on countering illegal fishing, a growing source of friction with China. In December, a Coast Guard cutter helped Palau apprehend a Chinese vessel suspected of illegal fishing.
Coast Guard ships also work with the US Navy in the region. In May 2019, a Coast Guard cutter transited the Taiwan Strait for the first time, sailing alongside a Navy destroyer.
"I just think those lines are going to thicken," Schultz said of Navy-Coast Guard cooperation.
The Navy's operational tempo "has been very high for a considerable period ... so it's not surprising that they'd reach out and try to supplement" with the Coast Guard, said Michael Desch, a professor and international-security expert at Notre Dame.
But the Coast Guard's more overt role comes as the US military's service branches balance resources between current missions and modernization.
The Coast Guard has a number of domestic responsibilities and a growing role in the increasingly accessible Arctic but didn't see the same budget increases as other branches did during the Trump administration.
While the Coast Guard is very capable and often better suited than the Navy to work with foreign forces, the growing workload should raise questions about the scope of US commitments, Desch said.
The recent encounters "seem to be indicative of the fact that we're being stretched by all the things that we're doing," Desch told Insider. "Rather than throwing everything we've got but the kitchen sink at some of these missions, we ought to ask ourselves, are these missions really essential?"