OPC–Some answers

Today, I’ll finish giving my answers to the questions I posed earlier.

My answer to the most basic question, “Why do we need them?” or in fact any large cutters, is here.

What missions will not get done if the program is canceled?

  • Drug Interdiction
  • Migrant Interdiction
  • Defense Readiness
  • Other Law Enforcement (foreign fisheries enforcement)
  • Living Marine Resources (domestic fisheries enforcement)

These missions are largely accomplished by the ships the OPCs are intended to replace and will be impacted severely if the OPC program is canceled.

“Ports, Waterways, and Coastal Security” could also be adversely effected if the current terrorist threat levels take a turn for the worst.

Marine Safety and offshore SAR will also be adversely effected. Large cutters check compliance with commercial fishing vessel safety regulations on board U.S. vessels in isolated areas like the Western/Central Pacific and Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands. Additionally, flight deck equipped cutters with higher sea state capabilities are often essential for offshore SAR.

Are those tasks worth doing?

I have my own doubts about the efficacy of doing maritime drug interdiction, so I am not a fan of sending ships to operate off of Colombia, but that is only a small part of the drug enforcement effort, which is only a part of what these ships do. On patrol in the US EEZ, they are multi-mission resources, and if they are not involved in drug enforcement, they will be doing something else useful.

Frankly, I don’t think we have properly prepared for the possibility of our enemies using a medium to large ship to make an unconventional attack on a US port. Neither the ships we have now, nor the ships that we are building have weapons that can reliably stop a ship from reaching its objective. Nevertheless, adding the weapons that can do that, is easier and quicker than building ships. The ships are needed in any case, to hopefully intercepts inbound threats and make a determination if they are hostile before they get to our ports. (This likely requires attempting to stop and board the vessel.) The larger cutters, as opposed to patrol boats, are likely to make that determination further from the ports, giving us a better chance of successfully stopping an attack.

Offshore fisheries are already among the most dangerous professions in the US, I don’t think we want to make it any more dangerous.

Migrant Interdiction and Fisheries Patrols appear worthwhile, but ultimately the law makers are going to have to decide if the laws they have created are worth enforcing.

What can they do that you can’t do with the 154 ft Hero class fast response cutters (FRC)?

The new Fast Response Cutters are likely to prove unexpectedly useful, even so, they are certainly at a disadvantage compared to the OPC. Much less endurance. Much greater stress on the crew in even moderately bad weather. No helicopter facilities. Only one smaller, less capable ship’s boat. Smaller crews means less depth in the boarding teams, and less experience. OPCs can do boardings in more severe weather. The FRCs will also not have access to some of the intelligence resources that the OPC will have. In some limited circumstances, particularly operating in company with larger cutters, I think the FRCs will prove useful as a patrol asset, but bottom line, they are designed to “respond’ not to patrol.

Why don’t we let the Navy provide the ships, and “You can just put a detachment on board to do law enforcement missions.”

The Navy has been saying that they do not have as many ships as they need. They have about 288 and have repeatedly expressed a need for 313. Using Navy ships to do Coast Guard missions distracts them from their normal operations. Any navy ship used to replace an OPC is likely to cost more both to procure and to operate and will not have the benefit of the more focused and experienced Coast Guard Crew that routinely executes these missions.

Senators and Representatives will ask, “What’s in it for my constituents?”

  • For those concerned about the loss of American productivity, the program preserves the nation’s ship building infrastructure, including smaller yards that can’t build some of the more complicated Navy ships. Using more than one yard could foster competition while broadening political support for the program. Completion of these ships might allow a smaller shipyard to develop the skills and credibility to compete for more complex Navy contracts.
  • For those concerned about unemployment, the program can be thought of as a jobs program that also creates long lasting resources.
  • For environmentalists, these ships police fishing, protect endangered species, and support environmental policy.
  • For those concerned about terrorism and the National defense, in times of crisis these larger cutters will protect US ports from covert attack, freeing Navy ships for offensive roles.
  • For those concerned about the epidemic of drugs in the US, they help to curb the importation of illegal drugs.
  • For those concerned who advocate globalization, these ships insure that our part of the “global commons” are safe for commerce and the exploitation of our resources.

Why do they need to be so big and complicated?

The current concept is not much more complex than the 270s, and only slightly larger. Most of the additional complexity is to allow the ships to take advantage of intelligence resources which should also make them more efficient and effective.  I can even save fuel by pinpointing where the ship should be going instead of more random patrolling. Increasing size has only a small impact on life cycle costs, but it will make the ships much more capable than the smaller ships they replace.

Aren’t the current ships doing the job? Why can’s you build a simpler ship like the 210?

We can build simpler ships,  but depending on our choices they could be unable to catch up with a modern merchant ships, unable to use available intelligence information, unable to make a meaningful defense contribution, unable to use modern sensors, unable to function in severe weather, and unsurvivable in more demanding situations.

Do you really need that many?

25 is really is not that many. In fact it may not be enough. Even building 25 ships as planned the total fleet of large cutters is expected to drop from 43 to 33. The waters off the South Pacific islands and the rapidly expanding Arctic waters are already under served. The US has the largest EEZ in the world, but with only 33 ships, assuming 17 ships underway, their average patrol area would be over 200,000 nautical miles square.

Why don’t you buy Littoral Combat Ships and get economies of scale?

The average cost of Offshore Patrol Cutters are expected to be considerably less than the marginal cost of additional LCS. Perhaps more importantly, the LCS don’t have the endurance we expect from the OPC and their maintenance and operating costs is likely to be considerably higher (bigger ships, more complex and exotic propulsion). The LCS-1 FREEDOM class cannot use their diesels for more than cruising, and have to switch to very thirsty Gas Turbines for higher speeds. The LCS-2 INDEPENDENCE class trimarans have better diesel cruise performance, but their extreme beam, 104 feet, may be problematic for basing at existing Coast Guard facilities and will certainly be more expensive to dry dock.

The LCS manning concepts are yet to be proven and require unusually skilled crews that absorb a disproportionately large percentage of outstanding petty officers to man them, while providing little opportunity to “growing” junior enlisted into the highly qualified petty officer they require. That would have a more severe impact on a small service where these ships would constitute a much larger percentage of the total fleet.

23 thoughts on “OPC–Some answers

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention OPC–Some answers - CGBlog.org -- Topsy.com

  2. I didn’t think Chuck was promoting the LCS? Certainly there are plenty of other ship designs which should be looked at in the AOA.
    I think his mission analysis is good with these comments:
    The drug intediction mission will SOON be much more in the blue and green waters as SPSS become the preferred platform of the cartels for drug transport.
    Endurance is a quality in and of itself.
    Sure minimalist designs like the 215 have worked in the past but with needed capabilities such as multiple boats and full helo deck/hangar, I think a larger hull is needed?

    Once again, the key is a full Analysis of Alternatives. The Coast Guard has to look a the full range of affordable candidates.

  3. Chuck,

    You might also add Marine Safety and SAR to your list of missions with diminished performance. OPCs will be the work horse of checking compliance with commercial fishing vessel safety regulations onboard U.S. vessels in areas like the Western/Central Pacific and Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands. Additionally, flight deck equipped cutters with higher sea state capabilities are a must have to provide SAR capabilities for the offshore D1, D5, D13, and D17 AORs.

    Bradley Soule

  4. I think we need to go back to our source for this ongoing rumor mill. DoD BUZZ cited an unnamed source “who follows the Coast Guard.” Thats not very newsworthy to me!! True or not, lets question the validity of this information first!

    • John, I agree we don’t know how reliable the information is. Unfortunately it seems to be the nature of these things that we may only know for sure when it is too late.

  5. Chuck, you say that you aren’t a fan of sending ships to operate off of Colombia, and that this is only a small part of the drug enforcement effort.

    I’m not sure where you get your statistics, but since 1994, the Coast Guard has seized 1400 metric tons of cocaine, operating primarily in the eastern Pacific and deep Caribbean. Do you really think that this is a “small part” of this nation’s drug enforcement effort?

  6. What I was saying was that patrolling off of Colombia was a small part of what the WMECs do, and even if the drug enforcement mission went away, they would still have work to do.

    We only claim to interdict about 15% of the drugs coming by sea. That rate of interdiction does not discourage the attempt. My earlier post outlines what I think would be a better national strategy.

  7. Yes, the rate of interdiction is not a deterrent. But if we pull the CG off the EPAC and Caribbean drug patrols, hundreds of metric tons a year of cocaine will wind up on US streets. I’d rather see us do that mission than count fish.

    • Sorry, but I disagree Mouse.

      The Coast Guard makes a huge commitment of major cutter time to JIATF-South and a more limited one to defending the U.S. exclusive economic zone. If we are going to loose major cutter days, I think that the mission that already gets the biggest piece of the pie should also get the biggest cuts. The U.S. Coast Guard is the ONLY federal agency with the authority and capability to defend U.S. fishery resources. Without the Coast Guard, it will be open season on U.S. fish stocks by the Russian, Taiwanese, Chinese, South Korean, and Mexican fleets in the Bering Sea, Western/Central Pacific, and both borders with Mexico. There is a direct correlation between Coast Guard presence and deterrence. Additionally, while we are there protecting the U.S. resource, we also ensure that U.S. fishermen aren’t fishing illegally, insure their vessels are safe, and act as a SAR platform.

      Compare that to the mission effectiveness of a big white one bobbing around in the East PAC. At best, most of our cutters nab a single interdiction while on patrol. I’m not saying that there is no value to our presence, but the more effective and more cost-effective solution is Navy/LEDET deployments. Our cutters are too slow and lacking in capabilities to effectively interdict the rapidly developing shipment technologies of the cartels. If some U.S. asset has to be down there, let it be the Navy with LEDET support.


      • Brad – you can cover the Bering Sea with the two cutters currently based in Kodiak – there is no need to send up NSC’s to do that mission. And having done the fisheries mission, I can tell you that it is just as futile at times as drug interdiction. For every vessel we catch violating catch limits, nine others are probably cooking the books by underreporting their catch. If we want to protect the fish stock, patrolling isn’t the silver bullet – boarding every vessel as it arrives in port or closing down the fishery altogether is much more effective. As far as EPAC goes, all the LEDETs in the world won’t do a bit of good when there are no Navy assets available for that mission. Watch what happens when the FFGs are gone – it will be the rare Burke class destroyer you’ll see devoted to the anti-drug mission.

    • I can certainly understand the impulse to do something about what is a serious national problem. And the only thing the Coast Guard can do about this problem is maritime interdiction. And since interdiction in our own waters has not solved the problem we have been trying interdiction in waters further south. I understand the impulse. But as they say if all you have is a hammer, it doesn’t mean every problem is a nail.

      Looking at it from the national perspective rather than a Coast Guard perspective, with the idea that we want to destroy the drug distribution system rather than simply annoy it, we need to change our strategy. Rather than dilute our effort attacking every part of the drug logistics system, we need to concentrate our efforts on attacking it where it is most vulnerable. That is what I proposed.

      Don’t worry, I don’t expect us to change our strategy any time soon, even though it has proven an unmitigated failure. What is it they say is the definition for insanity?

      • The reason we don’t do interdiction “in our own waters” is that the traffickers long ago abandoned that route. They use shorter littoral routes into Central America and Mexico, and directly to Jamaica/Hispaniola.

        Other than invading the drug producing countries to eliminate the crop at its source (not something I recommend) deep EPAC and Carib interdiction gives us the most bang for our law enforcement dollar. That is where the traffickers are the most vulnerable. Otherwise, why the shift to SPSS and submarines, and the use of shorter and shorter at sea routes? What is seized on the border is a pittance to what is seized and disrupted at sea.

        JIATFS doesn’t have a shortage of targets, they have a shortage of assets available to interdict.

        I guess what you’re saying is that we should throw up our hands and walk away from the mission because it is just too hard. Wow.

      • On the contrary, we are having a disagreement about tactics. I’m advocating a change in tactics to apply our effort at what I see as the critical vulnerability of the drug organization. You are advocating we continue with a tactic which is a demonstrated failure. Now you are resorting to attacking me. How about we stick to ideas.

  8. Your posts seem to indicate that we should just walk away from the mission, and that is what I was being critical of. My apologies if you considered my last post as an attack on you – it wasn’t intended to be.

    If the deep EPAC and Caribbean aren’t the place where traffickers are most vulnerable, where is that weak spot?

    • I understand. If you would read my proposal. And if you want to continue the discussion lets do it there:


      My feeling is that the dealers are the vulnerable link in the distribution chain and that the country should apply all its effort in breaking that link.

      As a Coast Guard decision maker I would do just what we are doing. But I think the national strategy is basically no strategy. It is everybody, do something, and the result is that the effort is dissipated and ineffective.

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