Why Arm Coast Guard Assets?

Historically there have been two reasons to arm Coast Guard assets. Since 9/11 there is clearly another. Historically Coast Guard units were armed for law enforcement and to act as a naval reserve. The rationale added since 9/11 is to stop a maritime terrorist attack, and while there may be overlaps with the law enforcement and naval reserve mission capabilities, there are differences as well.

In terms of law enforcement, machine guns and other automatic weapons are usually adequate to convince perpetrators that fighting is not profitable. We need only demonstrate that fighting is not a good prospect compared with their chances in court. The medium caliber gun on our cutters reinforce this point.

In the past we have armed cutters to make them potentially useful as warships, or we have operated ships that had been built for the Navy and they retained some or all of their naval capability. For instance, 378s don’t look impressive as warships now, but when built, they were equal or even superior to many of the Navy’s destroyer escorts. They would have been welcomed additions to any convoy escort.

The Navy operates ships for no other purpose than to be prepared for war. 100% of the cost can be attributed to that goal. If the Coast Guard can, for a small incremental cost, operate a ship that is useful both for peacetime missions and for wartime naval missions, it is a bargain for the country.

In other countries, their navy handles coast guard type mission. Mine countermeasures ships do fisheries patrols. Frigates do law enforcement. We see a little of this when LEDETs embark on Navy ships to do drug enforcement or even conduct fisheries while transiting through the South Pacific. Some people, not recognizing the benefits of a separate service, may see this as a way to achieve savings by letting the Navy do Coast Guard work in peacetime. We have already had a call to move the Coast Guard into the DOD.

The need to defend against terrorist attack adds an additional, but in some ways very different rationale for arming Coast Guard assets. Specialist units like MSSTs have been created, but they are not a complete, or perhaps even the best answer to the threat. We are unlikely to have actionable advanced intelligence of an attack and terrorists may choose to use vessels of virtually any size, from canoes to super tankers. The most robust counter is for a variety of geographically diverse Coast Guard units to be prepared to respond. As long as terrorists choose to use small vessels for an attack, the way our units are armed for law enforcement is probably adequate, but if they choose a larger vessel, stopping it will require something more.

Unlike Coast Guard units that might expect to operate as part of a Navy task force units, units that find themselves in a counter terrorism situation are unlikely to have any support from Navy units. It is likely to come as a surprise, at close range, probably beginning with what appears to be a routine boarding.  There may be hostages. Innocent civilians may be in the vicinity. Our own boarding party may be on board, either as hostages or in an ongoing firefight with the terrorists. Precision in application of force may be required.

On the other hand, terrorists are not likely to have large, long range, weapons or sophisticated countermeasures. Their most sophisticated weapons are likely to be man portable air defense and anti-tank missiles and most likely nothing more than automatic weapons and RPGs. Properly equipped, using appropriate tactics, units that might not be appropriate for operations with Navy strike groups can be adequately armed to deal with a terrorist attack, even those using a large ship. Extreme range is probably not required.

Right now we aren’t arming our assets to function as a naval reserve, the NSCs can move with a Navy task group, but they just don’t have the weapons to contribute much. If the Coast Guard is to remain relevant as an armed force, and fulfill its role in DHS, at the very least we need to be armed to deal with the terrorist threat.

I’m sure there are others, but in addition to the common automatic weapons, the systems I see as most appropriate for the counter terrorism mission, are:

  • the Mk 38 Mod 2, both for its precision compared to crew served weapons and its electro-optic, night vision, surveillance capability.
  • a reprogrammed light weight ASW torpedo for the capability to destroy the propeller(s) of any size ship.
  • a laser designator paired with either the Raytheon Griffin or 2.75 inch, 70mm rockets with a laser guidance upgrade for their precision and light weight and the ability to give even small vessels the punch of a medium caliber gun.

All three of these systems could be mounted on units as small as 87 foot WPBs, although Fast Response Cutters, which are already getting the Mk 38 mod 2, probably should have priority.

In different circumstances, these capabilities could also prove useful in dealing with piracy and against swarm tactics.

16 thoughts on “Why Arm Coast Guard Assets?

  1. Chuck,
    I buy into this more then I do MSST or airship. Simply said if we just become another navy then why not let the navy do it. Our efforts need to focus and the concept of preparing our fleet to defend against terrorism makes lots of sense. I have always wondered how 11 MSST’s are going to protect this country. But have our fleet with a mixed capability increases the chance of success. Through I am not against MSST concept but expanding it more then current state is not cost effective or reasonable. The question of course is getting these system in place and increasing our awareness training.

  2. The MSST concept seems to be based on the presumption that either there will be actionable intelligence warning of a terrorist attack or that we can figure out where terrorist are likely to strike. I find both possibilities unlikely. More than an hour’s warning of an attack in progress seems improbable. MSSTs also are not equipped to take on a medium to large size vessel. I don’t think “FAST roping” is viable against a determined enemy, equipped with automatic weapons.

    The only defense against an attack using anything larger than about 100 tons seems to be a large cutter or calling for help. A large cutter is unlikely to be where you need it and I also think their weapons are inadequate. The other services have the equipment, but again they are unlikely to be in the right place and and properly armed, and they don’t seem to be set up to respond in a timely fashion. As a result of 9/11, the US now has a ready air-to-air capability, but do we have a ready air-to-surface capability?

  3. Also I agree maybe 87’s and FRC would be a concept with some of these ideas. When I worked VTS NYC the two most common cutters in port were 110’s, 87’s and Cutter Line/Wire and Penobscot Bay.

  4. The Coast Guard’s attitude toward armament is about as steady as a menopausal women in a sauna. The mood swings depend on the prevailing make up of the officer corps at any one time. When there is an officer corps that wants to be accepted as humanitarians, then the drive for weaponry declines sharply. When the warrior hormone peaks the run on weapons becomes the same as being on “Crack”.

    Of course, all this depends upon how much money there is and how much the Coast Guard wants to turn loose. Fortunately, for nearly 100 years the Navy has been footing the bill and also thankfully to a couple world wars the Coast Guard did pretty well in updating its antiques.

    The Service did not get into weapons until those pesky French (well, some were American captains and crews) privateers began terrorizing the Southern Coast and something had to be done to stop the deprivations and piracy being visited on our coasting vessels and fair damsels ashore. After this bit of a war, the revenue cutters used their few cannon largely for ballast in the hold or put them ashore because the guns and carriages took up too much room on deck. One cutter had to tow their long boat because there was not room for it on deck. The early cutters may have been “pierced” of ten or more guns but the average number was about four or less. Some cutters were too small to carry more than one. The famous, or infamous, capture of the French pirate Le Brave in 1819 both Louisiana and Alabama had two-three pound cannon on board. Later the Treasury Department refused to increase the number and caliber because of costs. Cost was always paramount and is a part of the Coast Guard’s culture. In the 1830s a cutter continued to mount a brass 6-pound cannon captured from General Burgoyne in 1777. In the 1850s, one San Francisco cutter saved for historical purposes and mounted a cannon captured from the Brits at New Orleans in 1814. It was not uncommon for cannon to be shifted from cutter to cutter whether the gun was in good condition or whether or not it was an appropriate size for the cutter.

    Besides, having the guns did not ensure their use or even training. In 1928, then Commander Russell R. Waesche reported to the Commandant that most of the first class cruising cutters did not perform their annual gunnery exercises because the commanding officers claimed they were an emergency service and did not like this gunnery stuff.

    The Coast Guard works better in this area when the heat is on. When things are cool it looks in different directions.

  5. Having watch a few video’s of 57mm on the NSC. Not really impressed by this fire power. I am not fully confident it can take down even a small ship.

    • There certainly hasn’t been any great improvement in ship killing ability to compensate for the increasing size of potential targets.

      The old 5″/38s fired 54 pound projectiles at a rate of about 20 rounds/minute or 1080 pounds/minute
      The 76 mm Mk 75 fired a projectile of about 14 pound at about 80 rounds/min or 1120 pounds/minute (The upgraded “super rapid” version fires 120 rounds/min)
      The 57 mm fires a projectile of about 6 pounds at 220 rounds/min or about 1320 pounds/minute

      Progressively better anti-aircraft weapons, but not a big improvement in stopping ships. There has of course been some improvement in the fire control, not as much against surface targets as against aircraft, but the guns all had pretty nearly the same range and weight on target.

      The amount of shell weight required to stop a ship seems to be roughly proportional to the displacements. While the average merchant ship during WWII seems to have been about 5,000 tons, now it is probably twenty times that, so the problem has gotten much more difficult and even in WWII 5″ guns weren’t great ships stoppers, that’s why destroyers that carried four to six 5″/38s also carried 5 to 16 torpedoes, big monsters that weighed close to 3000 pounds and carried 500 to a 1000 pounds of explosive.

      • Chuck,

        The merchant ships may be larger but all their vital systems are centrally located without redundancy. Many have one engine and a well located round could knock it out. This has been seen in common breakdowns of them.

        The 5″/38 was 55 pounds total weight but the explosive weight was lower. There were armor piercing that could make of for some of the like weight. The German U-boats used their 5″ deck gun to take out some merchant vessels instead of expending valuable torpedoes.

        The large numbers of gun mounts on the typical WWII destroyer was for the AA screen and not so much for ship to ship action. Even the old WAVPs the Coast Guard operated had three 5″/38s on board. The forward magazine could hold over 1500 rounds of powder and projectiles.

      • Probably enough for officially stated their mission and purpose. However, we do not know what is around the corner on any day.

        I tend to lean toward being prepared and as it stands the NSC is not prepared with its current weapons suite. I am sure the Nigerians will upgrade Chase’s armament. They seem to have access to Russian weaponry.

      • Patrick and Bill, Hope you don’t mind my interjecting here. As I’ve said, I don’t think they are adequately armed to stop a medium to large ship with a determined crew in a timely manner if terrorists are determined to use the ship as a weapon. I do think that is fixable without a major rebuild.

        Are they armed to function as a warship in high threat environment? Certainly not, they weren’t designed for that, but then as Bill notes, you don’t always get to pick your fights either.

        Closest thing to a modern high threat naval environment anyone has ever lived through (with the possible exception of the Iranian Navy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Praying_Mantis) was radar picket duty during the Kamikaze attacks off Okinawa. We can recognize the fact that the firecontrol systems have gotten better, but the incoming targets have also gotten a lot tougher too. Their cross sections are smaller, they can pull way higher “G”s than a bomb laden Zero, and they are substantially faster–some are supersonic even in the terminal phase so there is much less time to bring them down.

        The typical picket destroyer at Okinawa was a Fletcher class destroyer. It displaced 2,700 tons full load of which 161.8 tons was armament and 203.1 tons was ammunition. I don’t have a breakdown for the NSC but its full load displacement is more than 50% greater. The Mk110 57 mm with 1000 rounds of ammunition weighs 14,000 Kg or about eight tons. The Phalanz CIWS weighs about seven tons (I don’t know if that includes ammunition). So clearly the NSC is not armed to the teeth.

        Just for comparison I’ll total up theoretical weight of fire in one minute for both ships. Know this comparison is full of holes but I think it will be interesting anyway.

        The NSC has one 57 mm Mk 110 that fires projectiles of approximately 6# at 220 rounds/min or 1320#/minute. The Phalanx fires at up to 4,500 round/min. I’m not sure how much the round weighs, it is not conventional in the it is a sub-caliber discarding sabot penetrator, but for this I’ll just assume it is the same weight as a WWII 20 mm, 0.271# so it adds about 1220#/min. The .50 cals are almost insignificant but for completeness four .50s would add 200#/min. for a total of 2740#/min for the NSC.

        The Fletcher Class at this point in the war typically had five 5″/38s, the 40mm in five twin mounts (later they would have 14), and seven 20 mm (later up to 12).

        5-5”: 5 x 55# shell x 20 rounds/min = 5,500 #/min
        10-40 mm: 10 x 2# shell x 160 rounds/min = 3,200 #/min
        7-20 mm: 7 x 0.271# shell x 450 rounds/min = 854 #/min
        Total 9,554 #/min

        Plus they had ten torpedo tubes and depth changes.

        Even so picket duty was extremely dangerous. Destroyers off Okinawa were hit by Kamikazes 101 times.Twelve Destroyers were sunk. The Laffey was the poster child. She was hit seven times and survived. Some sank after only one hit.

      • Also at one time Taney had four 5″/38s. So did some of the Wind class breakers.

        The larger round usually would have more chance of reaching into the vitals of a ship and damaging something critical. Also, any attempt to provide protection for the vitals is more likely to be successful against the smaller round–except maybe the Phalanx 20mm and the .50 cal M903 SLAP (Saboted Light Armor Penetrator) round


        which are designed as penetrators. I wonder if at close range the Phalanx might have a better chance of going through the hull and going on to damage a big diesel than the 57mm does.

        I suspect, even for ships of the same size, stopping a diesel powered ship is more difficult than blowing up the boiler on the steam powered ships of WWI and WWII. Think how hard it is going to be to damage one of those huge diesels on a large merchant. If the shell is fused to explode shortly after going through the hull it may not have much effect.

        There were some U-boats in WWI that had 5.9″ guns (100#projectile) but most U-boat deck guns were either 88 mm (3.4″, 20# projectile) or 105 mm (4.1″, 32# projectile). If their target was isolated and interference unlikely, they preferred to use guns when they could, but alone they were only effective against small ships. Sometimes they also used scuttling charges; sometimes they just had the ships stop, the crew get in the lifeboats, started fires on the ship using the deck gun, and then only one torpedo would be required to finish the ship off instead of firing a spread.

        The use of destroyer size main guns for AAW as well as anti-surface was pretty much an American innovation. A few other countries, notably Japan started making dual purpose mounts after the US did, but it was very rare outside the US.

    • Torpedoes have several advantages over missiles or guns for stopping surface ships at relatively short ranges (from a few hundred to about 10,000 yards).

      –A light weight torpedo has a smaller footprint on the platform that mounts it than a missile or gun system with similar punch.
      –The explosive that they do carry is generally more effective than comparable explosives delivered by missile or shell because it hits below the water line and water is non-compressible.
      –It is easier to target the propulsion specifically with a torpedo.
      –Torpedoes are less likely to cause unintended casualties.

      A Harpoon missile (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harpoon_%28missile%29) weighs over 1,500 pounds, and has an almost 500# warhead. A light weight torpedo with a much smaller but potentially more effective 96 pound warhead weighs only a third of that. Hellfire is a lot smaller at about 100# but it is likely to take an awful lot of them to be effective against a ship.

      Making a torpedo go for a ships propellers has a long history. The Coast Guard manned Destroyer Escort USS Leopold (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Leopold) had her stern blown off and subsequently sank as a result of an acoustic homing torpedo.

      The US also developed light weight torpedoes for use by submarines for self defense against escort vessels late in WWII. One, the Mk27, was a 19 inch torpedo that weighed only 720 pounds and carried only 95 pounds of explosive (about the same as a modern light weight torpedo) (a standard Mk 14 submarine torpedo weighed 3280# and had a 643# warhead). It had a speed of only 12 knots, it’s homing system was very crude, but even so they were pretty successful: 106 launched, 33 hits and of those 24 resulted in sinkings.

      A missile is probably just as likely to hit the target as a torpedo, but getting it to hit a critical system is a lot trickier. Not only does it have to hit the right part of the hull, which is relatively easy with laser homing, it also has to have sufficient penetration and be properly fused to destroy some very heavy machinery. Having an explosion in the space doesn’t necessarily do that.

      Both missiles and torpedoes can miss their targets and go on to hit where they were never intended, but because torpedoes never leave the water so are less likely to land among civilians.

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