AFTER sinking billions of dollars into the Reagan administration's dream of building a 600-ship Navy, American taxpayers might be forgiven for scratching their heads in wonder over the notion of sending the United States Coast Guard to help the Navy patrol the Gulf. The bewilderment is justified. Domestically, the Coast Guard is being stretched thin as it is; and the Navy's interest in tapping the Coast Guard suggests that the architects of the 600-ship Navy left something important out of their design. It's not unusual for the Coast Guard to augment the Navy in wartime; it's supposed to. Coast Guard vessels ably patrolled rivers and harbors in South Vietnam during the Vietnam war. And the service has responsibility for defending US maritime interests to the 200-mile limit.
But the Coast Guard is also responsible for vital peacetime missions, many of which are being scaled back because of budget cuts. Take drug interdiction. For the balance of this year, drug and fishery enforcement patrols have been reduced 55 percent. No wonder the Coast Guard has ships to send east. Drug lords in Latin America must be grinning, even if slightly, at the thought of six fewer Coast Guard vessels to dodge along the southeastern coast of the US.
From the Navy's standpoint, sending in the Coast Guard makes sense - the 110-foot vessels represent a capability the Navy lacks. And there's the rub. During the heyday of the Navy's buildup, few seemed to pay attention to those strategists who argued that even if a 600-ship fleet was desirable, the mix needed to include vessels appropriate to dealing with the smaller actions that are more likely to occur than is war with the Soviet Union. Instead, the Navy continued to focus on the large carrier groups and submarine fleets deemed necessary to deal with the Soviet Navy.
To be sure, the Soviet Navy is a potential foe to be taken seriously. But it's also worth noting that one of the Navy's bigger sea battles since World War II came not against Kirov-class cruisers and Backfire bombers in the North Atlantic, but frigates and speedboats in the Middle East. The Navy's need to tailor some forces to deal with that kind of threat won't go away with temporary assignment of Coast Guard vessels to the Gulf.