Bring Back the Coast Guard ASW Mission

With the end of the Soviet Union, it looked like there was no longer a significant threat from submarines. The Coast Guard, whose ASW assets were already largely obsolete, took the opportunity to simplify its training and maintenance requirements by eliminating what remained of the Coast Guard’s ASW capability. It made sense at the time, but times have changed.

The Emerging Threat

For the first time, with narcotics traffickers starting to use true submarines, it looks like an ASW capability is essential to do a peacetime mission. (The primary surface ship ASW sensor, the towed array, can also help us find semi-submersibles and possibly other targets as well.)

In addition, the threat of military submarines has reemerged.  There are still relatively few nuclear submarines in the hands of possible adversaries (other than possibly Russia) but their numbers are growing, and new air independent submarine technologies are making diesel electric submarines deadlier then ever.

Why the Navy will need Help

The Navy’s ASW forces, which were also scaled back after the collapse of the Soviet Union, while high quality, have been drastically reduced in numbers. The number of Maritime Patrol Aircraft, Attack Submarines and ASW surface ships is now only about half what they were in 1991. Soon the last of the once numerous frigates, that were the Navy’s ASW specialists will be decommissioned. The only remaining ASW surface ships will be cruisers,  destroyers, and those Littoral Combat Ships equipped with ASW modules.

By 2020 the Navy expects there will be about 99 Cruisers and Destroyers. Currently there are 82. These are multipurpose ships, optimized for Anti-Air Warfare along with the relatively recent addition of Ballistic Missile Defense. They have high quality ASW systems, but they also have notable omissions. The 28 Arleigh Burke Class Flight I and II destroyers  (DDG 51-78) have no helicopter hangers, and the Flight IIA Destroyers (currently about 32 ships, at least 37 by 2020, DDG-79-115) have no towed array.

The LCSs may or may not be equipped for ASW. 55 are planned, but  they also do mine countermeasures and anti-surface warfare. Only 16 ASW modules are planned. With a maximum of approximately 115 ASW ships, probably less than 60 each in the Atlantic and Pacific, some in maintenance status and many committed to non-ASW missions, the Navy will not have enough ships to protect all the possible targets. The Navy’s preference is to forward deploy, so if any submarines make it to the US coast, their opposition could be minimal. To assume that no hostile submarines will make it into the waters off the US would be the ultimate in arrogance, considering in 1942, both the Germans and the Japanese managed to get submarines as small as 740 tons off our coasts.

A lot has changed but ASW is still a numbers game. As a point of reference, at the end of June 1943, when the U-boat had finally been defeated and the Battle of the Atlantic won, but not yet over, the US Navy and Coast Guard had 1281 vessels of all sizes used in anti-submarine warfare and escort duty world wide. (The British Commonwealth and the European Governments in exile, probably had even larger numbers, so close to 3,000 vessels.)

What the Coast Guard Can Do

This will require some coordination with the Navy, but at relatively little cost, the Coast Guard can insure the design of the Offshore Patrol Cutter incorporates an ASW capability. I would think this would include the same multi-mode towed array that is being used on the LCS and facilities (including magazines and storage space) to  support the MH-60R. We can look at modifying the NSCs but back fitting is likely to more complex.

Ultimately the Navy plans to establish 20 MH-60R squadrons, and purchase 300 aircraft, so there should be enough to equip the OPCs in addition to all the Navy ships.

It appears the LCS will use the towed array as a component of its replaceable ASW module, rather than have it permanently installed. The Coast Guard could follow their example, but it would be better if the array were permanently installed. Not only will it be useful against drug smuggling submarines and semi-submersibles, it has the potential to provide beyond radar range detection against all sorts of surface targets including go-fast boats. It might even help us distinguish between fishing vessels doing bottom trawls instead of mid-water trawls long before boarding.

Why Would We Want to Do It?

First, it’s the right thing to do. We don’t build ships for the purpose of fighting wars, but if we are building ships with the potential of being useful warships, that the nation needs, by making additions at small marginal cost, it would be negligent not to make those additions. (Conversely, if the Nation needs to build warships (with appropriate characteristics) for wartime, but the Navy doesn’t really need them in peacetime, why shouldn’t the Coast Guard use them.)

Making a good ASW ship also makes it a good cutter and helps to justify desirable characteristics. Being able to escort 20 knot amphibs, fleet train, and merchant ships with a speed margin to move around them requires the 25 knots we think is needed for our Coast Guard Missions. The ability to support Navy MH-60R helicopters means the ship will have good aviation support facilities for our own MH-60s in addition to MH-65s. The size ship required to support a towed array and ASW helicopter tends to be large enough to have the seakeeping ability we think is necessary. The quietness that is desirable for ASW ships is also one of the “green” technologies and concepts already identified as an OPC objective.

Why Prepare for War?

However unlikely a major war may seem now, the country devotes a lot of assets to its military services. Much of it, like F-22s, Ballistic Missiles, Aegis missile systems, Submarines, and Nuclear Weapons, reflect a fear of a major conflict against an adversary of comparable power. We can think of this as creating a credible deterrent. Creating a credible deterrent means having no obvious vulnerabilities. Right now our ASW capability is an obvious vulnerability.

Giving 25 Coast Guard ships an ASW capability is far cheaper than providing 25 Coast Guard ships and 25 ASW ships to the Navy. We spend a tremendous amount of money preparing for war, but wouldn’t it be better if some of fruit of that spending was also being routinely used for peacetime purposes.

49 thoughts on “Bring Back the Coast Guard ASW Mission

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  2. I don’t really see a negative here. Expanding our role to keep our country safe and save money by using asset that are already patrolling the seas seems like a good plan.

  3. Might even still be an ex-ST around in the upper ET ranks or ELC warrants to provide some guidance on how it ‘was’. Always thought it was short-sighted to kill the ASW component and Harpoons on the large cutters but I guess cuts had to come somewhere.

  4. The harpoons I heard were an issue for ship safety they caused a heck of mess when fired. So at least I heard I have never seen this in writing.

    • I could see the harpoons being messy, the pics of the launch from Mellon looked like it made crazy amounts of smoke, but still would have been good to keep the sonar/fish on them.

    • Whether this was the real reason or not, I can see two issues that may have cause the removal or Harpoon beside pissing off the deck force and filling the Bridge with toxic fumes.

      One the Navy lost some of its faith in the system. The limited experience with actually employing them seemed to indicate they were as likely to hit an innocent merchant ship as the target, and

      Second, the launchers didn’t provide much ballistic protection for the missiles. The most likely combat situation a 378 was likely to see was in close range, precipitated by an attempt to make a boarding. At close range an RPG round fired into one of the missiles would likely lead to fire and/or explosion right below the bridge and in close proximity to the 76 mm gun and its ready ammunition one deck below.

      Unfortunately getting rid of the ASW back then has made it easier to overlook the issue now. It’s unfortunate, but I can understand the rationale. The threat had largely gone away; the 378s were never equipped to support LAMPS; the SQS-38 was relatively short ranged; and the tube launched light weight torpedoes are short ranged, almost exclusively urgent attack self defense weapons.

      Of course it wrecked some career, and it was the time we should have been building the 210 replacements, that might have been given a shallow water, coastal defense ASW capability.

  5. Chuck,
    “Second, the launchers didn’t provide much ballistic protection for the missiles.”

    Yep, few have experience in this and I suppose I am one of them. In 1965, we sat off the Santo Domingo River watching the fire fights among the locals. We were within rifle range and after a few rounds hit outside our work space, my LPO called the bridge and gently reminded them the ASROC launcher that sat before them had but one-quarter inch aluminum sheathing for sides. It was, of course, to save weight.

    We soon backed off because many on board also remembered an accident in Mayport where one ASROC booster motor ignited. It was a mess.

    Preparedness had never been a strong suit for the United States. Just today I was studying the events leading up to the Civil War and the only decent vessel available in 1861 was the Harriet Lane. Captain David D. Porter, who’s father commanded one of the first revenue cutters, thought it a “miserable condition of the Navy” when there was “nothing but a revenue cutter[Harriet Lane] to depend on”. I have often wondered if he told his brother, a RCS lieutenant aboard Harriet Lane, this.

    It was by happenstance the Harriet Lane was available. She was certainly not designed for her war role other than her interdiction, patrol and escort duties.

    With the exception of pre-WWII, the Coast Guard has never seen the benefit of building vessels on which the Navy could depend.

    • As I recall there were two versions of the Harpoon launcher with different wall thicknesses. Of course we got the WalMart special.

      Secondary explosions may be one reason that high tech warships need to worry about “the Swarm.”

      At the start of WWII the Navy was desperate for anything that could function as an escort. Any cutter, even 125s actually looked pretty good compared to a number of privately owned vessels they inducted.

      Of course 327s and 165″B” class were among the best of their type once they got weapons and sonars.

  6. Question, When was the last time the US Coast guard has ever conducted ASW . Do we have the ships, Manpower and know how to bring back ASW.

  7. Adding an ASW capability to the 25 OPCs would probably add about 6 people to the crew of each ship, so given you need a sea shore rotation, about 300 total for the service. That would be less than one percent of the service total. If we had an sonar tech (ST) rating, I’m sure we wouldn’t have any problem getting people into the rating. In the past we got a number of our senior STs from the Navy.

    The training would be at Navy schools. Some of our people on shore would be assigned to the staff of the Navy school.

    The last time the Coast Guard sank a submarine was about the same time the Navy sank one, WWII.

    • Thanks, I think most of the depth charge handling scenes were on 165B class cutters. Through June 1942, US forces sank only six U-boats. Two of those were sunk by 165s.
      U-352 by Icarus 9 May, 1942
      U-157 by Thetis 13 Jun, 1942

      Though April 1943, US Forces had only sank 27 German and Italian submarines. Of those five had been sunk by the Coast Guard. In addition to the two by 165s,
      U-225 by Spencer 21 Feb,1943
      U-606 by Campbell and Polish destroyer Burza, 22 Feb, 1943
      U-175 by Spencer, 17 Apr, 1943

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  11. I love this article, Chuck. I must have missed it first time around. Another angle on this issue, which wasn’t exactly stated above (possibly because it is obvious, but I find it helps keep “the big picture” in view):

    There are only 4 ways to suddenly attack CONUS militarily: long-range aircraft (bombers), ballistic missiles, surface ships, and submarines. The CG is strategically placed and operating (even in peacetime) to interdict TWO of these methods. The CG should have a more robust capability in surface and anti-submarine warfare.

    Another supplemental detail for your article: The CG’s intelligence operations are excellent in terms of preventing a civilian-vessel-based sneak attack, but you have made the point repeatedly that the CG needs an effective large-ship stopper (5″ gun, moderate missile, etc. — thinking of your “what does it take to stop a ship” article, but you’ve pointed out this issue in other posts). In terms of ASW, the CG should have ship-board ASW capability as you described above (MH-60R, Towed Array Sonar, and torpedoes [even though “light” and short-ranged Mk.54s would be effective]). However, there should be an integration with CONUS-based P-3/P-8 squadrons as well. While SOSUS has been turned over to civilian uses, it is still out there and operating. There should be an integrated Navy, CG, Air Force ASW intelligence & coordination center on each coast. Possibly a joint-manned center under each of the MDZs.

    • Oh, and one other point: It’s not just Russia and narco-traffickers, don’t forget the Chinese. Along with everything else they’ve been up to, they are trying to strike a deal with Russia for Lada-class (air-independant, hydrogen fuel-cell powered) SSNs. There’s a good article at from January about it.

      • Well with the realities of our tiny budget and the fact that our current and outgoing Commandant’s vision of our service has been one being a law enforcement agency rather than a military service, I don’t see us ever picking up an ASW role ever again. Even if the new Commandant pushes the national defense role more than ADM Papp did, our budget guarantees no more ASW mission capability anytime in the near future.

  12. I was poking around the internet and found a discussion thread on another site with several ST coasties talking about the “good ol’ days” (pre-1992/3). Even when that thread was going (2008), there were only 5-10 former STs (changed rating to ETs) still in the CG. I bet there are zero left now. (They would have to have more than 24 years in right now, just to have made through A-school before the last class.)

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    • In some ways ASW is similar to missile defense. Relatively small amounts of expenditure can force the US to spend massive amounts to counter it. Hell, take a look at how many Royal and US Navy resources were tied up by the Uboats.

      The USN is always talking about ways to change the cost curve on missile defense with things like direct energy weapons. It seems that they are trying to do the same thing in regards to ASW with UAV’s, trying to change the math.

      I agree with that idea. But they also have to (and I suspect they do) look at other ways to change the math besides UAV’s. One idea could be using cheaper conventional subs in the Med and Persian Gulf instead of nuclear attack subs. Another idea could be outfitting cutters with towed arrays and ASW helicopters.

      People focus on surface warfare but in this era I think it would be suicide for a country to deploy a surface fleet against the United States. Threats will be asymmetric. They’ll be electronic warfare, pseudo warfare like what we see in the South China Sea, mines, terrorists, and submarines are a very real threat, as are land based cruise missiles.

  14. If the Navy ever gets the modules for ASW meant for the LCS working and in production, this may afford a solution. Have Coast Guard cutters able to take on the LCS modulse that would be manned by Navy Reserve or Navy surge team. So this becomes not a 24/7 CG mission, but one used when the need is most keenly felt. The modules stay at a port, then a Cutter going out to intercept drug subs off the South American coast, or to the Persian Gulf. it gets the module, then has it removes when it returns and does a mostly LE/SAR mission of the Atlantic Coast. I mention the reserves as they would be perfect as mobilization force for “big”war ala WW2. This could in fact be the best way to keep the CG ready for military service without going full throttle like we did with the old Hamilton class during the 1980s. We could use it for others as well: Anti-surface for anti-piracy patrols (or even just normal patrols for that matter), an anti-air module for cutters if intel says aircraft terrorism like 9/11 is being plotted by ISIS, or even mine-sweeping if anyone tries to block our ports (even North Korea has mine laying subs).
    We could make provision on the final OPC or stretch NSC cutters (I know that stretching leaves a bad taste after the 110/123 debacle but it is fine when done properly). We wouldn’t need space for more than one mission at a time. The CG retains their primary role while the USN gets dozens of extra hulls in an emergency. We might even get them payed for by DHS as “just in case” weapons especially if the personel for the modules are reservists.

    • I’ve been hoping the OPC would have some provision for accepting LCS modules. There could of course also be some CG mission modules too, e.g. disaster assistance/hospital, prisoner detention, cadet class rooms for cadet cruises, etc.

      • I was told there was no specific requirement to use modules, but the parent craft for all three of the proposed designs include provision for mounting containers, so there is reason to hope we will see some similar capability.

  15. Actually there has been talk of humanitarian relief modules and others similar to what you suggest Chuck. The Navy does plenty of Non-combat ops as well. That is why working together makes not just sense but financial sense. The Navy buys the modules and supplies module personel (which if reservists will also cost less). The CG supplies the hulls and crew–with ships we already have planned.
    The CG could also team up with FEMA to fund disaster relief modules. After all, the modules are containerized. How hard would it be to have a bunch of standard shipping containers filled with MRE’s, blankets, and medicine in storage? These could be used on CG cutters, Navy LCS, MSC supply ships, or even on contracted trucks for inland delivery. This ability could certain have come in handy during Katrina.
    The modules fit with my personal analogy for the CG/Navy relationship. The CG is your friendly neighborhood cop. The Navy is SWAT. The neighborhood cop is armed lightly, mostly for defense when enforcing the law. The SWAT team is heavily armed and ready for when things hit the fan in a major way. In the cop world, So our neighborhood cop CG does his job, then when needed, we load up our “SWAT” modules with extra, specially trained personel.

    • I see no problem with you approach. We could also have lab modules for national science foundation or NOAA.

      I’m hoping the requirement to support a large number of migrants (I think it was 500) on the OPC will drive the design to include provision for special modules.

  16. Chuck, apparently you’re not the only one that likes the idea of the USCG bring back the ASW mission.

    Notice the mention of the “national fleet” and mixed crews for ASW and Mine Warfare. To be honest I don’t like the idea unless it is going to be funded. I think it is a very good idea if they are willing to increase the CG budget by a billion or more a year, but since I doubt they will, I’m reluctant to support the idea. The CG is not adequately funded for the missions currently assigned to it, adding more without adding substantial funding just creates a paper capability that doesn’t exist in reality.

    There will never, ever, be enough ASW assets. And modern ASW assets are very expensive. Utilizing OPV’s (or medium endurance cutters) or NSC’s as ASW resources makes sense, except for the obvious problem that the CG doesn’t have enough resources to do what we are already asking them to do. The ships are only part of the cost, the people, training, and specialized ASW equipment is a significant cost as well.

    ASW is a bottomless pit. We have to do the best we can because it is one of the primary realistic threats to freedom of navigation and the USN. But we aren’t even adequately funding the asymmetric ASuW threat that is not only a possible threat, but a very real existing threat for the USCG deployed overseas right now. Just adding missions to the USCG without adding funding is like unfunded mandates where obligations are delegated to the States while the Feds refuse to fund it.

    • JamesWF, I had a similar reaction to the CSBA report. The National Fleet concept is a great way to bridge the high-low gap that continues to grow wider in the USN, but it only works with additional funding invested into the low-end platforms. Reducing USN assets dedicated to steady-state missions like counter-drug/piracy patrols, security cooperation, etc. frees them up for other tasks that are better suited to their capabilities…which is great as long as the gaps are covered by other platforms such as CG cutters and/or some of the civ-mil ship concepts under development.

      However, CG cutters and other platforms might not have to change their configuration much to fulfill some of the missions discussed in the report. As unmanned sensor systems grow more autonomous, there may be less required of the ship’s systems and crew training to perform the mission. A quick cut-and-paste from part of the report talking about adapting LCS mission packages to other platforms:

      “Systems like mine hunting and clearing UUVs can be operated independently from a wide range of ships and their data uploaded to command and control systems later. The SUW mission package’s RHIBs and helicopters can operate from a wide range of support ships. JHSVs and AFSBs in particular will be equipped with communications and command and control systems to enable the ship to coordinate maritime security operations with other ships.
      Going forward, the Navy should evaluate other mission packages that could be modularized and employed by LCSs and noncombatant ships such as disaster response, preventive medical care, signals intelligence, airborne surveillance, counter-illicit trafficking, and electronic warfare.”

      The National Fleet concept aims to gain some efficiency by finding interoperable and, when possible, common ship designs. So in the “small surface combatant” range, we have in design or production two LCS variants, the NSC, OPC, and a soon-to-be-announced “new” SSC. Any chance future mission modules that were/are the major selling point for the LCS will integrate with all of the above?

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  18. An earlier mention was made of Navy P-3 and P-8 resources for Coast Guard ASW.
    In about 2025, the last two Navy reserve squadrons still operating the most up-to-date versions of the P-3C Orion will transition to P-8s. (Based on the 737 airframe.)
    That would be an excellent time to transition the P-3 assets into the Coast Guard or Coast Guard reserves on both coasts.
    P-3s share many features with C-130s that the Coast Guard already operates and maintains. (Both were built by Lockheed.) Both are four-engine turboprop aircraft.
    The P-3 would be an excellent extension of the Coast Guard’s ASW mission, being able to quickly get to an area of suspected submarine activity, then shut down one or two engines to extend on-station time while locating and tracking a contact until surface units could get to the area.
    In addition there is a large pool of current and former experienced P-3 crew members and maintainers who would welcome the opportunity continue flying or working on the Orions.
    As pointed out in previous comments, funding for the Coast Guard would need to be increased to cover the cost of such project. But it would be money well-spent. If the future need for an airborn arm of the Coast Guard is required, it would cost far more to develop it from scratch than if it was already in place.

    — Pat Henderson
    (USN retired – former AWN1)

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