Offshore Patrol Cutters–Why the Navy Should Support the Program

A number of things have happened that makes the Offshore Patrol Cutters potentially important to the national defense, and suggest that the Navy should support their design and construction, including helping with project administration if we need that and testifying before Congress to justify the additional cost of naval features.

  • The number of ships in the Navy has decreased dramatically. From almost 600 ships 20 years ago, the number has fallen to about 280, in spite of constant statements to the effect that 313 is the minimum number required. Many expect that the number of Navy ships will fall to as low as 230. Much of the decrease has been in ships at the low end of the high/low mix and the planned replacement is behind schedule, and in the eyes of many, a failure. Our allies’ fleets have also been shrinking, in many cases, more rapidly than our own, while new challenges to American naval supremacy are developing, so the importance of any Coast Guard contribution is proportionately greater.
  • Despite having entered service between 1979 and 1989, the FFGs, which are the “maid of all works” within the Navy, are being rapidly decommissioned and will soon be all gone because of maintenance problems. These are the ships that do most of the Navy’s partnerships station and drug enforcement work. (29 of 51 built currently in service)
  • The Cyclone Class Patrol Craft, that entered service between 1993 and 2000, have been found to have deteriorated much faster than expected and have been sidelined. Never quite what the Navy hoped for, too small for some roles and too large for others, they became busiest vessels in the US Navy with proportionately more underway time than any other type. (Of 14 built, 10 in service with the USN, 3 with USCG, one transferred to Philippine Navy)
  • The Littoral Combat ships (LCS) were supposed to fix some of these problems. This was a program to build 55 ships that would replace the Navy’s 14 Mine Warfare ships, the remaining FFGs, and the Cyclone Class PCs. They were to be cheap to build, minimally manned, and use removable mission modules that would allow them to become alternately mine countermeasures, anti-submarine, or anti-surface warfare ships. The LCS program is in trouble. Ship construction is behind schedule, and module development is even farther behind. The ships are much more expensive than expected. The manning concepts appears flawed and berthing limitations mean more people cannot simply be added to the crew. If the program is killed the Navy is going to need a replacement.

If the LCS project is killed, a class based on the OPC’s hull might be able to take its place. If the LCS program is terminated at less than the planned number, Navy ships based on the OPC can supplement the LCS and do many, perhaps all of it’s missions, at a lower cost. Even if all 55 LCSs are built, Coast Guard OPCs can still make a significant contribution to the Nation’s defense; particularly, if they can use systems designed for the LCS.

Navy vessels based on the OPC could cost less than half the price of an LCS. Even without mission modules, the Navy could use the class as the basis for a common hull that could be fill the partnership, patrol, presence, counter-piracy, and drug enforcement roles of the FFGs at a much lower cost and also perform many of the PCs missions with greater endurance and better sea keeping. They are potentially affordable, relatively low tech platforms, that can be exported under the Foreign Military Assistance Program to help our friends. If their aviation facilities are made adequate for MH-60R and MH-60S helicopters (not much different from our own H-60s), with LCS modules they could fill the LCS roles. (This might require them to operate in pairs to carry all the equipment planned for a LCS)

To fulfill its potential in these roles, the OPC need not be much different from current planning. The ship’s description over at the Acquisitions Directorate web site has gotten progressively fuzzier over time, but I will be specific about what I think it needs.

  • Speed: 25 knots
  • Aviation Facilities including a hanger for at least: one USCG MH-65 and one MQ-8 Firescout UAV/one USCG HH-60J or MH-60T/one USN MH-60R or 60S with magazines and storage space for independent operation with these aircraft, not just the ability to land and refuel.
  • Air Search Radar that can track our helos at least 100 miles
  • Launch/recover facilities for at least two boats, 11 meters or larger, including at least one “Long Range Interceptor.”
  • Medium caliber gun and associated radar/optical firecontrol system–presumably 57 mm Mk 110, but Mk 75 would work too and might save money
  • At least one/preferably two Mk38 mod2 auto-cannon positioned as required to cover any bearings not covered by the medium caliber gun
  • Four mounts for .50 cal. positioned to provide coverage by at least two mounts any bearing
  • Two OPC operated together, should have the sufficient space/weight reservation and necessary supporting connections/utilities/etc to take on at least one full suite of LCS MCM or ASW mission modules.
  • Fitted for but not with: CIWS, ESM/decoy systems, and anti-surface missile chosen for the LCS, ie NLOS or system chosen to replace it

9 thoughts on “Offshore Patrol Cutters–Why the Navy Should Support the Program

  1. Here is a hi-res photo on an OPC type vessel underway in the ocean:

    Funny coincidence: this LCS-1 is 360 feet long, and supposed to displace 3,000 tons.

    Those are the intended spec’s for the USCG’s future Offshore Patrol Class of cutters. Notice that this sized vessel looks fairly small while underway, even in relatively smooth seas. So, please don’t expect too much air ops to be conducted by OPC’s when the seas pick up a little. LCS-1 based so much (too much) upon the sensors and weapons that were to be carried by embarked aircraft. Giant mistake, because the Ocean and coastal waters are not always Sea State = 0 or 1. Certainly hope that the USCG does not design and build top heavy OPC’s.

  2. That was a bad choice of hull form, plus it is trimmed down by the bow. We won’t need a semi-planing hull (or the bustles they put on LCS-1)
    We commonly operate helicopters from much smaller ships.
    The Hamilton Class cutters are also 3,000 tons full load.
    The Bear Class 1,780 tons
    Active Class 1,050 tons
    On the Confidence, an Active class, with no hanger we commonly would take a helo out for weeks and operate in the Aleutians. Of course there were days when it was too rough to fly, but most days we did.

  3. Chuck,
    I think the US Coast Guard and the US Navy should have gone with a version of the FREMM Frigate in the general purpose version. Maybe the Navy and the US Coast Guard can go with the FREMM Frigate or the FREMM 400 Frigate and modify them to include a stern launch ramp

      • Chuck,
        I would look at the FREMM 400 because they can go up to 4,000 tons and they are multipurpose as well. They would be perfect as a OPC because of the high degree of automation and modular design as well.

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  5. This 2005 article ( quotes the FREMM 400 at ~$483 Million USD. And that cost is spread out over 27 vessels.

    Perhaps there are more current cost estimates, but the cost would need to be slashed by more than %50 to get in the ball park of what the USGC has budgeted for OPC. Considering that this vessel would be built in a US yard, without the government subsidies and offsets that are common in European yards, I think that the FREMM 400 is out. NSC is currently at 4500 LT, per Wikipedia.

    I really liked the discussion that RhodeIslander had going on regarding reducing the cost of the ships. We need to keep thinking along those lines. What the USCG has budgeted will not buy you much. We need to be smart about the equipment selection. We really need to keep the pet rocks and “nice to haves” off the ship, unless DoD or someone else is paying for them (like a NOC/NTNO requirement).

  6. For those who might have missed Rhode Islander’s comments, they are here:

    chbrow10, I agree, the FM400 is bigger and more expensive than the Coast Guard can afford. Not only are the prices five years old, I have also come to believe that the prices you see on foreign built ships frequently don’t include all the costs that the US programs use to define costs for their programs. Sometimes quoted prices that you see may only reflect the price paid to the yard and may not include government furnished equipment. Beyond that, looks like there are other costs that are included in US procurement costs that others would not include in building costs.

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