Ships vs. Areas of Responsibility

There are a lot of other considerations, but looking only at the waters under US jurisdiction, how does our large cutter fleet stack up? (All miles referred to here are nautical miles)

The US has the world’s largest EEZ, 11,351,000 km sq (3,393,921 mi sq). In addition there are 2,193,526 km sq (638,713 mi sq) of continental shelf under US jurisdiction. This is in addition to waters inside the territorial sea. The EEZ alone is larger than the total land area of the US.

Doing a little back of the envelope calculation, how well can our ships cover this area? The Coast Guard currently has 40 large patrol cutters and plans a fleet of 33. Typically, considering inport, maintenance and training, you need three ships to keep one on task. Best case, no more than half the fleet can be kept on patrol. So we can plan on having no more than about 16 ships on patrol and for the future, 11 would be more realistic.

If we consider the area of responsibility as roughly 4,000,000 mi sq, that is about 250,000 to 363,363 mi sq per ship. Thinking of the ships as response units, responding to SAR or sightings by maritime patrol aircraft, how far apart are the ships? The areas of responsibility are not square, generally they are 200 miles wide, so dividing by 200, ships are, on average 1,250 to 1,818 miles apart.

Next I looked at where our areas of responsibility are relative to the ships. Using, this is how it breaks out:

  • Location                            Area in km sq.
  • Alaska:                                      3,770,021
  • Hawaii:                                     2,474,884
  • East Coast:                                   915,763
  • West Coast:                                  825,549
  • Gulf of Mexico:                            707,832
  • Caribbean Islands:                       211,429
  • Other Pacific Islands:             3,328,925

Or by percent per fishery council:

  • New England Council 2%
  • Mid-Atlantic Council 2%
  • South Atlantic Council 4%
  • Caribbean Council 2%
  • Gulf of Mexico Council 6%
  • Pacific Council 7%
  • North Pacific Council 29%
  • Western Pacific Council 48%

Grouping these:

  • Atlantic/Gulf of Mexico: 16%
  • Pacific: 84%

If we look at where the ships are, there are 26 (65%) homeported in the Atlantic/Gulf of Mexico and only 14 (35%) in the Pacific.

If we do the same sort of exercise as above to determine average distance between cutters, we get:

  • Atlantic: 246 to 356 average miles between ships
  • Pacific: 2,400 to 3,360 miles

The Pacific areas of responsibility are getting roughly one tenth the coverage of those in the Atlantic.

It appears the areas around the islands South and West of Hawaii are particularly under served, particularly considering the scarcity of other Coast Guard assets such as WPBs, SAR stations, and aircraft in these areas.

Map of the EEZ zone.

It might be assumed there is relatively little activity out there, but while I haven’t been able to get current figures, in terms of value of fish landed, in the late 1990s, Pago Pago, American Samoa was the number one fishery port in the US, ahead of Dutch Harbor and New Bedford, and Agana, Guam was number four. (

A little time spent at this site suggest most of these areas’ fisheries need more protection.

There are a lot of considerations in determining a proper fleet mix. Congress has been waiting for the Coast Guard’s plan. I hope we see it soon. I’ve heard the Offshore Patrol Cutters are in danger because we haven’t shown a return on the investment. Basically, if there are no large patrol cutters, we are abandoning our stewardship of the EEZ. How much is that worth? Testimony before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard, has indicated that our fisheries alone support more than 1.9 million jobs and generate $163 billion in sales impacts.

We certainly need more than 35 large cutters. To get the average distance between cutters down to an average of 1,000 miles, we would need close to 60.

But even if the size of the fleet doesn’t increase, we need to consider putting more in the Pacific, particularly the 14th District that includes almost half the US EEZ. To meet a standard of an average of no more than 1,000 miles average between ships in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico would require only ten ships. We have six WMECs (five 210s and a 270) homeported in Florida, presumably primarily for drug and migrant interdiction. As the Webber Class come on line, they may be able to take over some of this task. Yes, there are lots of other things to consider, but this needs to be part of the decision. perhaps 210s could be moved to Guam, Pago Pago, and Honolulu and some 270s into the Pacific.

10 thoughts on “Ships vs. Areas of Responsibility

  1. Chuck,

    You nailed this one, I have actually been thinking about this recently following the FY12 resourcing conference. If you actually look at the conservative requests from each OPAREA/District you see a realistic breakdown of resourcing. Generally you have the following needs:

    D1: 2.0 for SAR coverage
    D5: 1.0 for LMR/SAR/PWCS
    D7: 4.0 for Florida Straits and Windward Pass plus other threat areas and LMR enforcement
    D8: 1.0 for LMR enforcement
    D11: 0.5 for CONUS enforcement and Southern WOC fisheries
    D13: 0.5 for CONUS enforcement and Northern WOC fisheries
    D14: 1.0 for Western fisheries
    D17: 2.0 for offshore SAR (1.0 during summer) and berring fisheries
    1.0 for RIMPAC and High seas drift net operations with Asian partners
    2.0 for DOD deployments (AFRICOM, CENTCOM, and PACCOM)
    6.0 for JIATF (3.0 in each theater)

    That makes for a total of 21.0 resourcing coverage and results in a total of 63 ships. Looking at the mission needs, at least 6.0 should probably be a WMSL (OOH, EPAC CD OPS, and one of the D17 cutters). This makes for a need of 18 WMSL’s and 45 OPC’s. I think some of this could be accounted for by the added capabilities of the FRC (D7, D8, D11, and D13) but there seems to be a lack of realism. Even with a fleet of 63 offshore assets, there is still be minimal coverage to D14 and the LMR mission coast guard wide.

    Also, per the requirements two of the WMSL’s should be one the east coast to support the WHEC role as the task unit commander for all contingency operations such as mass migration and response to events such as the Haiti earthquake. The failure of the east coast 378’s was the reason HAMILTON had to go through the Panama Canal during the response.

    • We come up with almost the same gross number, but the numbers you refer to still seem much more generous with the Atlantic/Gulf of Mexico, than the Pacific, particularly for D1 (2 ships) vs D11/12 (1 ship). My calculations also did not include ships for DOD deployments (AFRICOM, CENTCOM, and PACCOM) or JIATF.

      The Pacific Islands may be suffering because they have no representation in Congress. Perhaps if we moved ships to the Pacific for good operational reasons, the votes in Congress would replace the ships taken from the Atlantic (where the majority of votes are).

      If the OPC is the ship we have been told it will be, it should be able to do virtually everything except winter ALPATs.

      Not that having 18 NSCs would not be nice, I’m afraid if we don’t sell the first OPCs as a low cost substitute for the last few NSCs, the program will be redirected and delayed and will result in something something much less capable, offering little improvement over the 210s, if we get any ships at all.

      I’m unconvinced of the need for East Coast NSCs to provide command and control. If it is so serious that the Command and Control capabilities exceed that of the OPC, the Navy will likely have something there with that capability.

  2. For OPSEC purposes I wanted to point out that the above breakdown is not even close to the current CG force laydown. This is based on my personal ranking of each mission area and an assumption that our fleet is not limited by the proposal make by ICGS nearly 10 years ago.

  3. I am a big fan of west coast operations but the reality is that there are only four areas of significant national security and economic concern. EPAC, ALPAT, CARAT, and High Seas Drift netting/NW Coast Guard Alliance (Asia, Russia, and CG) are the only priority operations. Washington, Oregon, and California fisheries are not a big economic impact and their fleets are small coastal operations. The larger wave periods of the Pacific Ocean let smaller cutters like CPB’s and FRC’s safely manage thes operations and there is no need for an offshore platform to support SAR. As a former D11/PAC SAR controller, I can attest that there is no offshore SAR need that an OPC/NSC could augment. The only reason I left one NSC for D11/D13 was for PWCS .
    East Coast fisheries in D1, D5, D7, and D8 all have significant offshore habitats of critical interest that need enforcement and a SAR platform. The two East Coast WMSL’s may indeed be a nice to have but as of right now their use is a presidential mandate. It is also a political benefit to the CG. The current Charleston base can support them as compared to the west coast which still has not figured out a plan for the WMSL’s (Not enough room in San Diego or Seattle, Honolulu is too far from the OPAREA’s, not enough room in Kodiak, and Alameda can only handle four) so are we going to build a new base? Also, its important to remember that it is significantly quicker to sail from Boston to the EPAC than even from San Diego. On the OPC versus NSC use for C2, its not just the systems on the ship, its the space to hold the task unit command staff, the NSC was built with the ability to operate the ship had hold a dozen staff officers to run the overall operation. The same requirement is not found in the specs for the OPC. Finally, you don’t get a Navy squadron sortied for CG operations without a presidential declaration (it has to do with statues regarding authority and funding). For a mass migration, this does not happen until you have a flow in excess of 3,000 per week. Say you are below that, at 2,000 per week you will need +12 OPC’s in the theater to act as holding platforms and interdiction assets. Additionally you would have another dozen fixed and rotary winged aircraft flying in direct support. Such an operation might go on for weeks and could not be supported by an OPC.

    There is a Navy and there is a Coast Guard for a reason. You cannot realistically build one fleet with the assumption that the other fleet will pick up the slack. The Coast Guard is really just one big firehouse. Take the Katrina, Haiti earthquake, or DWH as our most recent examples. If we made the call, we could likely get two thirds of our cutter and air fleet mobilized in less than 96 hours. This is not because we are better, it is simply the result of the special authorities we have to respond to any agencies request without waiting for permission. We are out the door while the other services are forced to wade through red tape, ask permission, and secure funding. We are the stop gap until the bench can arrive with their very impressive resources. Because of this simple truth, we have to be able to initially respond to any domestic situation with our own forces. Think of the CG as a missile and the DOD as a massive steam engine. The missile can launch with the push of a button but as soon as you do there is a finite window it can stay aloft. The Steam engine takes time to build enough pressure but once it does it can run indefinitely.

    I like this post Chuck and I hope we can lend more attention to this issue. I know the budget looks bad but this is an investment in the future for the service.

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