The idea of two small Balkan navies battling each other with cruise missiles and rockets in the Mediterranean in the very near future may sound a lot like the next Tom Clancy novel. But the possibilities of such a scenario are something the Coast Guard's top officer has at least considered.

Why the Coast Guard? Mainly because Adm. James Loy, its commandant, sees many similarities between it and the nascent navies that are emerging in other nations in the aftermath of the Cold War.And in those similarities he sees an opportunity.

Like the Coast Guard, the navies in the Adriatic or Baltic seas, or off the coasts of Africa and Asia, are more concerned with illegal immigration, drug smuggling and piracy than they are with the projection of seapower, Loy said. Who better, then, to tutor these navies than the Coast Guard?

Loy sees his service as a ''unique instrument'' that operates on what he called the ''fine line between military authority and law-enforcement authority,'' which is precisely where the Coast Guard exists.

That distinction allows the service to act as a maritime ambassador of sorts, capable of going to places where the U.S. Navy cannot, due to political, social or cultural sensitivities.

As Loy put it, the white-hull cutters of the Coast Guard that ply the ocean protecting mariners and enforcing laws aren't the ''Tomahawk-lobbing gray hulls'' of the U.S. Navy that other nations - particularly small ones - may find intimidating or offensive.

''We are an armed service of the United States,'' the commandant said, ''but our legal authority as a law-enforcement and regulatory agency, combined with our international reputation as a humanitarian service, often produces instant acceptability.''

He pointed to the American intervention in Haiti in the mid-1990s as an example. Prior to the arrival of American combat troops, Coast Guard vessels entered Haitian waters and provided support.

Helping other nations define for themselves an indigenous capability to deal with law-enforcement and regional threats encourages regional stability, Loy said. It also affects U.S. national security in a subtle, but revealing, way.

''If they're Coast Guard-trained,'' Loy said, ''they aren't inclined to be blue-water, offensive navies. They're going to be less inclined to go to the deep blue sea and launch Tomahawks at each other.''

But to do the mentoring overseas, the Coast Guard needs to get there. And getting there is becoming increasingly difficult for a service that finds its operational tempo increasing but its outdated equipment faltering.

This reality has been noticed by lawmakers. But the Coast Guard needs - and deserves - more than recognition.

What is really needed is a commitment from Congress and the White House to ensure the Coast Guard has the funding and the equipment to remain capable of doing its job for years to come.