Rethinking the New Cutter Programs

Preparing to write this, I reread some older material from the Acquisition Directorate and was surprised to find that my long held assumption that the Coast Guard would be building OPCs at a rate of three a year (since that was the rate we had built the 210s they are replacing) is not the case. The plan as expressed in the CG9 Newsletter for Oct/Nov 09 by Captain Brian Perkins was to build only two ships a year.

Plus, the same newsletter notes, the OPC program is linked to the NSC program in that it will not be started until after the last NSC is contracted.

As we have discussed the progress on the National Security Cutter Program has been slow. In the nine years since the ships were ordered, only two ships have been delivered and a third is building. Instead of seeing one new ship a year as might have been expected, there was an almost two year gap between the Bertholf and the Waesche, another almost two year gap between the Waesche and the Stratton, and it looks like an almost three year gap between Stratton and the forth NSC, Hamilton. Assuming that Hamilton is awarded this year (FY 2011) and one a year after that, the eighth and last NSC won’t be awarded until FY 2015 and we probably won’t see it in service until 2019. The first OPC(s) will not be funded until FY2016. The last 210 replacement will be funded in 2023 with deliver not likely until at least 2026 at which time the last 210 will be 57 years old. When the last 270 is replaced, in 2031 it will be 41 years old.

This is a plan for disaster.  That our fleet is already in trouble was demonstrated by the difficulties we encountered during the Haiti earthquake relief. How are these same ships going to perform in 10, 15, or 20 years.

There has got to be a better way.

First it surely isn’t necessary to take four years to make a decision on the OPC design. Its been discussed and mulled over for years. Might it not be possible to truncate the NSC program at six ships, fund the first OPCs in FY2014 and build them at the rate of three or four a year? And rather than multicrew the NSCs, increase the OPC program by six to provide one for one replacements for the 378s for a total of 6 NSCs and 31 OPCs. That still leaves us four ships short of where we are now, but a lot closer than the eight ships short currently planned.

Because the OPCs are considerably smaller than the NSC and made in greater quantity, they are potentially much cheaper while providing nearly all the capability of an NSC or 378. We are typically spending around $600M per NSC. I’ve heard that the Acquisitions Directorate expects to keep the costs for the OPC around $200M/ship. The ship I think they should build would be a bit more, because it would have added value for national defense, but building three or even four instead of one NSC is not a huge increase in the total Coast Guard budget and will save money in the long run.

The OPCs will have a smaller crew than the NSCs and a much smaller crew than the 378s.  The crew may even be smaller than that on the 270s. They are also likely to be much cheaper to maintain than the legacy ships. The sooner we get them in the fleet, the more we will save in manning and maintenance.

If we truncate the NSC program at 6 and begin the OPC program in FY 2014, funding three ships a year, we will have the 33 new ships currently planned by 2025, six years ahead of the current plan, and the entire program, including four additional ships, will be finished by early 2027.

If instead, in 2014 we began funding four ships a year, we would have our 33 new ships finished early in 2024, seven years ahead of the current plan and the the entire program would be completed in early 2025. Still a long way away, but better than the current plan. If we did that, the last 210 to be replace will only be 51 years old.

8 thoughts on “Rethinking the New Cutter Programs

  1. Yes, lets keep it down to only 50-52 years.

    The six 327s were all pushing 50, but on the other hand the 18 311s and 12 255s did not last nearly that long.

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  3. Choices: 1. Cease building large WMSL’s 2. Only build OPC small cutters.

    How about a third choice ? Build a dozen CHEAPER WMSL ‘s. Priced somewhere in between the gold-plated National Security Cutters, and the (proposed) future smaller Offshore Patrol Cutters ?

    Since Bertholf and Waesche are “proven” to handle all sorts of seas very well, they are fast at 29.5 knots sustained speed, and they are designed well: exceptionally long legs, very smooth and quiet while underway, 2 separate helo hangers, an excellent well deck capable of handling beyond the largest RHIB’s, room onboard for a decent sized crew, which sufficient extra racks to carry visitors from other cutters working on their at-sea qual’s, etc.

    Given the recent dismal track record with brand newly designed NAVY ships like LPD-17 class, LCS-1 class, and very soon the DDG-1000 frankenstein monster, it’s amazing that this new design for Large Maritime Security Cutters has turned out to handle and perform so well. Admittedly Bertholf will most likely retain some chronic first-of-class weaknesses, but this pain was and is the result of suffering through that awful DEEPWATER Inc. Lockheed Martin and Northrop bureaucracy; however, DEEPWATER is (almost) behind the Coast Guard now as it officially breaths its last gasp in 2011 as the USCG takes full acquisition control in-house.

    Proposal: Continue to replace another dozen of the Coast Guard’s Smithsonian museum piece cutters (both WHEC and WMEC) with 12 brand new WMSL’s. But let’s knock off $100,000,000.00 cost from the price of each new WMSL cutter ! It really shouldn’t be that difficult.
    I notice alot of Navy equipments installed onboard Bertholf and Waesche. For starters, they have the newest version of the SPQ-9B radar, which they use in conjunction with the newest Gun Fire Control computer, taken from the DDG-51 class. While this permits NSC’s to actually shoot their 57mm gunmount at surface targets on radar, this is too expensive for the future OPC’s. Which is what the Coast Guard is heading for anyway. Why not delete this excellent 57mm gun control system and simply fire optically, just like USS FREEDOM does. It’s good enough to shoot optically for Littoral COMBAT Ships, then why not for WMSL’s ? Besides, the optical gun sight is already onboard every NSC right now, so no added cost. OK, that eliminates $10,500,000.00 just to purchase the SPQ-9B radar and the AEGIS gun firecontrol computer. Plus another, say, $2,000,000.00 to install the 9B antenna platform, antenna, align it, all the below decks radar cabinets, as well as the large AEGIS GFCS computer. Installation and checkout of these 2 systems alone is easily $2 million.

    Now, brainstorm. What else can be eliminated from US Coast Guard cutters that will spend 99 percent of their time in US waters ? How about CHAFF launchers ! Do terrorists shoot missiles at WMSL’s off the coast of Los Angeles ? And give the ax to both NULKA decoy launchers as well. And that ancient SLQ-32 system that is useful, but can be replaced with the same ESM suite that the Navy has installed onboard USS FREEDOM. Their modern LCS-1 ESM suite (made in America) is probably $7-8 million dollars cheaper to purchase and install than the cumbersome old SLQ-32 with all its associated water cooling and dry air requirements. What’s good enough for the Navy’s LCS is certainly sufficient for a WMSL that never will deploy overseas. End of Part 1.

  4. Making Less Expensive WMSL ‘s ?? (Part 2).

    The Navy granted LCS-3 USS FORT WORTH permission to not install the Decontamination Washdown Station for sailors caught on deck when bio-chem weapons are fired In their direction. So ? Let’s drop the WMSL station for decontamination washdown also. Might as well face the facts, the USCG is too busy and too small to run around the rest of the World, even though that past liaison has been a great idea. Just too expensive to continue.

    Also, the new, “improved” affordable WMSL’s certainly do not need all those heavy Deguassing cables and associated equipments installed and pulled all over that hull. Why ? Is San Diego harbor mined now ? Besides, even with Deguassing ON, most mines are simply contact and not magnetic anyway. We must face realistic facts. We need MORE numbers of WMSL’s and the likelihood of magnetic mines in US waters is small vs. the impending fiscal crisis looming for the next 15 years. Running out of money and numbers of cutters is very, very, very likely. What’s the cost of buying, installing, QA, Testing, and then running deguassing ranges, etc. ? More than the USCG can afford and we must replace those decrepit old white cutters right away. As in Now !

    What else can be deleted to make WMSL’s affordable ? Do they need ASSIST landing aids for helo’s ? Haven’t USCG cutter pilots been landing on cutters for 30 years without the ASSIST system that is now onboard NSC 1 and 2 ? Delete it. The Coast Guard web site proudly explains that Bertholf has a special command and control space called SCIF onboard. Does this exist on the ancient Medium and High Endurance Cutters right now ? If not, kill that requirement. Or build the next dozen cheap stripped down WMSL’s and reconsider perhaps adding a SCIF system onboard a few of these WMSL’s maybe in the future, as necessary. Does anyone know whatever SCIF suite costs ? Perhaps ranging from $10 to 20 million ? Plus installation and checkout ? Maybe even more expensive than that ? During the last public tour I had onboard Bertholf, the tour guide proudly explained that outside, on both port and starboard bridge wings, were consoles that completely duplicated all the engine and rudder controls that were inside the Pilot House. Now come on, It’s a small Bridge. Just yell rudder commands thru the weather deck doors, like all the other Navy and USCG ships have been doing sucessfully for 100 years. Those were huge, complicated control consoles duplicated on both bridge wings. Cost to purchase, run hundreds of cables to each wing, thoroughly test each console inport and underway, debug, certify, etc. ? It adds up quickly.
    Brainstorm. The goal of reducing the cost (and un-needed complexity) of WMSL’s by $100 million dollars can easily be achieved. Meanwhile, back on land, the Coast Guard selected designers can continue thinking about the next Offshore Patrol Cutter design. And maybe, if USCG is really lucky, it won’t have serious design or construction flaws ! And in future years, Coasties would be very pleased if these brand new OPC’s won’t turn out to handle like a dog in any sea state above two.

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