Offshore Patrol Cutters–Why?

OPC Conceptual Rendering

Yesterday a report surfaced that OMB was recommending eliminating the Offshore Patrol Cutter Program. I don’t know how serious this threat is to the program. It might just be one of hundreds of line items that might be considered as ways to trim the budget. An OMB recommendation doesn’t necessarily reflect the intent of the President or the department. Certainly the Congress will also have something to say about it.

On the other hand, we know there will be serious attempts to reduce the budget shortfalls, so we can expect any high profile program to get looked at seriously. Within the Coast Guard, it doesn’t get any more high a profile than the OPC program.  This is potentially the most expensive ship building program in our history.

We should expect a fight over this program. There are going to be many questions. Hopefully we will have the answers ready, because if this program is canceled, the character of the service will be changed radically, and the country will loose a vital capability.

  • Why do we need them?
  • What missions will not get done if the program is canceled?
  • What can they do that you can’t do with the 154 ft Hero class fast response cutters (FRC)?
  • Are those tasks worth doing?
  • Why don’t we let the Navy provide the ships, and “You can just put a detachment on board to do law enforcement missions.”
  • and our Senators and Representatives will ask, “What’s in it for my constituents?”

Even if the program is not canceled outright there will be questions about the choices made:

  • Why do they need to be so big and complicated?
  • Aren’t the current ships doing the job? Why can’s you build a simpler ship like the 210?
  • Do you really need that many?
  • Why don’t buy Littoral Combat Ships and get economies of scale?

11 thoughts on “Offshore Patrol Cutters–Why?

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  2. Placing LEDET’s on Navy ships is an extremely limited option. Currently Navy funding and US law only allow LEDET’s to operate outside of US waters, board foreign ships, and only conduct counter drug enforcement and migrant interdiction operations. Also, the Navy doesn’t have extra ships at the ready to provide for the mission. Whether the Coast Guard builds OPC’s or the Navy builds extra LCS’s, the US is going to have to build more ships. At the end of the day, the LCS is going to cost much more than the OPC over the life of the respective classes.

    You asked why we need these cutters and I think it is pretty easy to summarize:

    Offshore SAR platform for D1/D17 – You need that embarked helicopter on a flight deck capable cutter sitting out there. With an OPC you either have a short range helicopter that can respond immediately or a refueling platform to extend the reach of a land based medium range helicopter. Without a an OPC to respond you have to launch both a land based helicopter and if its over 50NM, a fixed-wing aircraft. When you compare the per hour cost of a medium endurance surface asset ($1,000-2,000 per hour) to a double Eagle flight package ($3,000-$4,000 helo and $7,000-$9,000 fixed) the cost per case goes up dramatically. Also keep in mind that you need a cutter that can sustain operations in weather that causes SAR cases. What are dangerous seas for a patrol boat is just another day for a major cutter.

    Coastal and offshore fisheries for D1/D5/D7/D8/D11/D13/D14/D17 – You can’t send a patrol boat offshore with any sort of sustained presence. A patrol boat is only underway 1/3 of the year (even the FRC is only going to go at 2800 hours and the current dual crewed 110’s are at 4000 hours) and they only stay out for 3-6 days at a time. This isn’t just fuel and food, the watch standing and pace of operations for the small cutters burns the crew out quickly. This also has to include the transit time to offshore fishing grounds. An OPC-like cutter instead will go about two weeks between breaks so there is much more time actually spent on station as opposed to just transiting.

    Migrant Interdiction Operations for D7 – You need cutters deployed with the command and control capability to manage, control, or supply multiple cutters, multiple aircraft, and large areas throughout Southern Florida, the Bahamas, Cuba, Dominica, Mexico, TCI, Jamaica, and Mexico. This type of “flotilla” operations cannot be coordinated from a desk in Miami, it requires an on scene commander. There is also the need for large cutters with the multiple small boats to interdict and safely transfer migrants. Also, you need a large amount of deck space to hold and care for migrant awaiting repatriation.

    Counter Drug Operations for D7/D11 – These operations simply cannot be done without a major cutter. Patrol boats cannot operate more than a days trip from shore given the need for high-speed chases. After just one protracted chase a patrol boat will need fuel. Also, the only proven effective means of finding and stopping drug traffickers is close air support. You need flight decks to deploy with them and you need the C2 capability to control them.

    PWCS (Coastal Security) – Surprisingly, these day to day operations can be mostly accomplished with patrol boats, at least at MARSEC level I. Wait until the threat level rises, you will see a major cutter near ever port, and port state control boardings will take place much farther offshore. This isn’t a situation where you can stick a Navy ship there. You have to be able to carry out the domestic business in a higher threat environment while still at peace. The OPC gives the ability to defend the port during peace and wartime, a Navy ship can only do it once the bullets fly or the bombs explode.

    There are many things the Coast Guard can do with shore launched assets and patrol forces but there are many other things the Coast Guard cannot do, or at least cannot do as well without offshore forces. I think about how well the Coast Guard accomplishes the mission with the paltry assets available and I feel pride. What is frustrating to know is what we can no longer get done with the loss of the cutter days from the aging fleet. The fleet has started to crumble, 1/3 of the WHEC’s are effectively decommissioned, it just costs $10 million a piece to actually do it and no one wants to actually make the call. The 210’s are going through their second mid life overhaul, the newest class (270’s) are going through their mid life overhaul, the patrol boats are cracking everywhere, and even the buoy tenders (the newest classes in the fleet other than the 87’s) aren’t far from their mid life. I hope for everyone’s sake the OMB is ignored.

    When I look at the difference between the capabilities of the WHEC and the NSC (I’m a former WHEC and NSC sailor) I get so excited about the future. If the pitiful MEC’s can get the job done, then we are going to be able to do them much better with a proper mix of NSC’s, OPC’s, FRC’s, and CPB’s. The total Deepwater program is cheaper than some DOD aircraft programs. While I don’t discount the need of DOD forces, I must ask whether it is better to replace perfectly capable and currently dominant assets or to replace out-dated, aged, and broken assets.

    • I think “Desk Riding Cutterman” pretty much hit that one out of the park in terms of identifying the mission requirements.

      In terms of cost, I’ve seen few discussions of why Coast Guard shipbuilding needs such advanced hardware and reliance on electronics. I do not mean within the realm of command & control, but in actual shipboard systems. Minus the stern launch, the 87 brings little to the table that wasn’t available on the 82. The major quibbles had to do with crew comfort and rearranging the layout, items that didn’t require changing almost every system to electrical control. What could we get in reduced maintenance costs by sticking to the KISS principle with all of our ship acquisitions? With few exceptions, major cutters need to do only a few things:
      1. Support boarding/R&A operations
      2. Launch and recover aircraft
      3. Have staying power for sustained operations
      In my humble opinion, we don’t have a strong need to demand all of our assets do more…. and yet we do.

      Regardless, the previous comment is probably the clearest explanation the “why” we need to be out there. The big question is “how”.

      Bradley Soule

      • Bradley,
        I have to disagree with your comment regarding the quibbles of 82 vs. 87. I’m a Plankowner on the CORMORANT and believe the 87 was/is a significant improvement over the 82 in not only comfort but speed, navigation, and communications abilities. GYRO stabilized compass; ECDIS; A/C in a pilothouse that’s not the size of a 41; 25kts all day long; too much more to list here but I’ve been fortunate to sail aboard both and for all it’s negatives the 87 is the better tool in my opinion. I’ve also sailed on on a 180 and 225, same opinion. Currently attached to BERTHOLF, and although I’ve never been assigned a 378, I’ve been aboard and can’t imagine anyone saying this isn’t better. Just my thoughts.

      • Have to agree with grumpy. The 87′ WPB is well advanced in Nav and comms compared to the 82′

      • Colin and McCoy,

        I agree on all. The advances in command and control as well as livability are a huge lift and the 87 might not be the best example seeing as the cost was around $3m per hull the last time i looked. Specific items that I was thinking about for my point for 82/87 or 180/225 were things like mechanical steering linkage vs. electrical systems or the computer driven vacuum toilet on the 87.

        My larger point/question is: Is it possible for the U.S. Coast Guard to buy cheaper ships that still meet our needs? Where are the major cost drivers? Is it speed? Obviously sea state capability adds some or DHS wouldn’t have had as much issue as they did about the sea state capability of the OPC. I honestly don’t know the answer to the question but it seems that U.S. military shipbuilding cost inflation is affecting us as much as the Navy, but I wonder if it really needs to given that we simply don’t have the same warfighting demands across our entire fleet that the Navy does.

        I readily admit that I am not smart on the issues surrounding shipbuilding construction, but the appearances are that cost saving should be possible.


      • With respect to the platforms doing more… the service as a whole has ben asked to do more, much more than at any point in my career. Additionally, most of the platforms now come with less, much less in terms of people to make up the difference. Doing more with the same capabilities we aquired in the ’60s isn’t cutting it. To complete the 11 statutory missions we are tasked with conducting we need modern comms, sensors, nav, engine and weapons controls systems etc. Added it up and you have an OPC.

    • I think you hit an important point right here:
      “While I don’t discount the need of DOD forces, I must ask whether it is better to replace perfectly capable and currently dominant assets or to replace out-dated, aged, and broken assets.”

      The fact is that there is nobody around who has even a fighting chance at taking control of the oceans from the U.S. Navy. In fact, we haven’t fought a serious naval war since WWII, and in my opinion it is extremely unlikely we will see widespread naval conflict in the forseeable future. If we ever went to war with China (bad news, that!) then perhaps we would, but I beleive even in that scenario the United States still has a huge advantage.

      On the other hand, our Coast Guard assets are severly underwhelming. It is a minor miracle that we are able to do the outstanding job we do with the aging, inadequate assets we currently are running. Our success is due almost entirely to the fact that our deckplate Coasties are the best and brightest folks I have ever run across. Like you, I am extremely proud of what we have done and are doing.

      But the hammer is falling…You can only push so far no matter how hard you try. Without new ships, the Coast Guard of 15 or 20 years form now will be much, much less effective, and the nation will finally realize what we do for them as we are unable to do it any longer.

      I guess what I’m saying is, the Navy is good for now…Lets get the Coast Guard fixed.

  3. Here’s my question, why hasn’t the US Coast Guard gone looking for off the shelf and something that is being used right now by other navies and coast guards around the world. Such as looking at OPC designs that European navies are using right now. Buy the designs and put the bid out for the shipbuilder to build the OPC based on the design the USCG brought and paid for.

  4. Nicky that last sentence is what I have been saying about Navy ship acquisition for years, and I certainly think it would be a better method for the USCG – IF and only IF – the HQS engineering shop was smart enough to buy and modify someone else’s design properly.

    To repeat my steps: USCG buys an EXITING OPC/cutter design with technical support of the designers, USCG modifies the design to include fleet standard systems and adtl naval features like helo deck systems, weapons & sensors, nav/comm. Then the design package is put out for bids allowing for more than one shipyard to build the cutter. That brings in competition, could save costs and time to complete a full flight of new ships.

    • That’s why I believe the US Navy and US Coast Guard should overhaul and revamp their ship acquisition process. Go off the shelf, that is currently being used by navies and coast guards around the world. Buy the design rights and put the bid out to US Shipbuilder to build the ship based on the designs that the US Navy and US Coast Guard buys. Also I would heavily fine shipbuilder if they go over budget and deviating from the design. I would also Reward Shipbuilders that hire Americans and displaced workers to build the ships and cutters.

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