The Coast Guard Shipbuilding Program, 1964

I recently had an occasion to dig out an article, “Developments and Problems in Coast Guard Cutter Design,” that appeared in the 1964 US Naval Institute Naval Review (published at that time as a separate hard bound book, copyright 1963, United States Naval Institute, Annapolis, MD, Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 62-21028) that discussed the then new generation of Coast Guard Cutters.

Yes, this was a long time ago, even before I entered the service, but this was a great spasm of ship building, the 82 footers may be gone, but the 210s and 378s designed and built at that time still constitute the majority of our large cutters.

The perspective of the time make an interesting contrast to today’s ship building program. 41 of the 82s had been built, 210s were building, the first three entering service in 1964, and the 378s (referred to as 350′ WPGs) were still in the design phase, with the first, Hamilton, being laid down in 1965 and entering service in ’67.

The article was written by officers intimately involved in defining the requirements and design those ships, Cdr. Robert J. Carlson and LCdr. William F. Tighe. They described the Navy’s ships as old and the Coast Guard’s ships as “ancient.” Somethings don’t seem to change, but in fact the standards were different and, while they were facing block obsolescence,  they were in much better shape than the Coast Guard is now.

“In planning a ship replacement program the Coast Guard uses the following normal service life figures established in 1948 by the Ebasco (management engineering) Corporation’s study of the Coast Guard:

“High endurance vessels    25 years
“Icebreakers                           35 years
“Steel Patrol vessels             20 years

“…recent evidence has proved the icebreaker figure optimistic. A 30 year service life for the 230-foot WAG and a 20-year life for the 269-foot class WAGB are used in current planning.

“Based on the foregoing standards, 15 percent of the high endurance fleet is now over-age and all will be over-age by 1970. In the medium endurance category, 70 per cent is now over-age and the remainder will be 1970. considering the Coast Guard fleet as a whole, 25% is presently overage and approximately 42 % will be by 1970.”

In fact none of the 36 high endurance vessels were over 28 years old. Of the “medium endurance cutters” only the 125s and some of the 165s were over 30 years old and none were over 40. They were not only the oldest, they were the least capable, being the size of the new Fast Response Cutter (FRC) or smaller. Every cutter over 500 tons was 28 years old or younger. (Wish we could say that now.)


It was a very different Coast Guard.

The Ocean Station, with its attendant oceanographic and meteorological observations that placed a premium on low speed maneuvering for long periods and required balloon inflation shelters, balloon tracking radars, bathymetric Nansen casts, lab space, and berthing for scientific personnel, that dominated their planning for the high endurance ships has gone away.

There was no clue drug enforcement would become important. In contrast to the prohibition era the authors noted, “…nor are they (cutters) much concerned with the apprehension of smugglers.” Migrant interdiction wasn’t as much of a concern as neutrality patrol.

Even so, they recognized the unpredictable nature of CG missions. It was long before UNCLOS would define the “Exclusive Economic Zone,” but fisheries was starting to emerge as a significant mission. Military readiness as a “force-in-being” was explicitly addressed, but even then the tension was evident, ” The plane fact is that the Navy would like the Coast Guard to provide  for a maximum of military features , while the Coast Guard would prefer a minimum.”

This new generation was based on a 1959 “Vessel Requirements Report,” that identified High, Medium, and Low endurance mission requirements that ultimately gave birth to the WHEC and WMEC designations:

High out to 1,000 miles,
Medium to 500 miles,
Low, light assistance to 100 miles.

General Considerations

In all three designs there were the now familiar objectives, aimed at ease of maintenance, minimizing manning, and improving habitability.

  • Improved corrosion resistance
  • pilot house controls
  • Controllable pitch propellers
  • Improved boat handling equipment
  • Sound proofed and air-conditioned control booths in the engine rooms
  • Concealed piping and cable runs

Towing was still an important design consideration for all three classes.

For the high and medium endurance cutters helicopter decks were introduced.

Low Endurance Cutters

The 82s were designed to replace the gasoline powered wooden hulled 83 footers constructed during WWII, but in fact a photo caption notes that none of the 83 footers was still active.

They were designed primarily for SAR, secondarily for Law Enforcement (LE). The only concession to a military mission was provision for expandable accommodations for a larger crew. It is perhaps ironic, 26 of these vessels would soon be in a war zone.

A primary consideration was reducing crew size since “crew pay and allowances represent an average of 60 per cent of such a boat’s annual operating expense.”

Cutting down on crew size was most dramatically realized by having an unattended engine room.

Their original boat was only a “16 ft plastic outboard motorboat carried on the main deck aft for rescue work, logistics, boarding and general utility.”

Medium Endurance Cutters

Intended to replace twenty five 125 ft WSCs, 165 ft WPCs, 143 ft ATAs, 205 ft ATFs, and 213 ft ARS, the considerations that drove the design of the 210s were relatively straight forward, to make “A better rescue ship.” LE was secondary. Military readiness, a distant third, was still considered. The 3″/50 fitted for SAR and Law Enforcement was to be “…augmented for the ship’s wartime role as a coastal patrol vessel….Although their peacetime armament is minimal, space and weight compensation have been provided  for sonar, hedge hog projectors, ASW torpedoes, and additional guns, small rockets, or other armament as may be required.”

The desire for a helo deck drove the size up from an originally planned 160 ft. Other considerations were a desire for a light draft to allow shallow water rescues and a 15 day endurance and 5,000 mile range.

High Endurance Cutters

Design began in 1961. “A 6,000 mile range and 21 day endurance would provide for all SAR operations, but must be extended to 20,000 miles and 40 days for ocean station operations” (with a possible SAR mission at the end of an ocean station patrol). LE and MR drove the speed requirement for the HEC. Drop down bow thrusters were a concession to the Ocean Station requirement to loiter in a specific ocean area.

Other Ships

The Coast Guard had four heavy icebreakers including the Mackinaw and saw a need for seven including a second breaker in the great lakes.

There was also discussion of the possibility of modernizing the 327s, re-engining them and adding a flight deck.


I don’t have a record of funding year to year, but when written in 1963 the funding looked bleak,


“At the average funding level of slightly under 11 million dollars per year established over the past three years, it would take over 30 years to replace the ships presently over-age–it would take another 100 years to replace those which will be obsolete seven years from now. Postponement of replacement ships construction from year to year means only that additional ships will join the “due for replacement list in the interim, requiring further increases in annual spending.”

But they seemed remakably up beat, “…We are confident that the jump to an annual spending level of not less than one hundred million dollars is not only adequately justified but urgently needed.”

That would have been a 900% increase. I don’t know what they actually got but the increase must have been substantial.


The 16 Reliance class WMECs and the 12 Hamilton class WHECs all entered service between 20 June 1964 and 17 March 1972, 28 ships in less than eight years. Deliveries peaked with five ships in ’67, ten ships in ’68, and four ships in 1969.

Ultimately things did not go according to plan. They had intended to build 30 210s, but instead they replaced only 125s and 165s, and the ATAs, ATFs and ARSs stayed with us.

It wasn’t explicitly stated in the article but there had  been a plan to build 36 Hamilton class 378s, to replace all the high endurance ships, but ocean station ended. The 255s and 311s (with the exception of the Unimak) quickly left the service one way or another. The 378 program was truncated at 12 ships and the 327s continued to patrol well past their 40th year.

They actually did manage to reduce crew size on the WPBs, but not so much on the WMECs and WHECs. Crews of 210s were larger than those of the 125s and 165s they replaced. Crews of the 378s were larger than those of the older HECs. In both cases additional capabilities could be sited as justification.

Some of the innovations proved problematic. On the 210s gas turbines and exhausting through the transom were ultimately removed. Concealed piping and cable runs may not have been such a good idea, but generally the designs have been successful.

Then and Now

It’s apparent we were doing business differently. The Coast Guard did its own designs. The Hamilton went from design to finished product in six years. Congress was flexible enough to significantly bump Coast Guard AC&I funding to pay for the ships.

The 87 foot “Protector” is the replacement for the 82 footers. They are over 40% larger but they remained essentially similar ships.

The Fast Response Cutter (FRC) replaces the 110s that entered service 1986-1992, which in their turn replaced the Korean War vintage 95 footers. Over the years the ships have grown and their crews have gotten larger. The FRC is starting to approach the original concept for the Medium Endurance Cutter before the addition of the helicopter deck; they are in fact as large or larger than the ships the 210s replaced–and much more capable.

The Offshore Patrol Cutter replaces the 210s built in the ’60s and the ’80s vintage 270s. We don’t know what the crew will be yet, but will likely be close to that of the 270s. These ships are designed for completely different missions from the original concept of the 210 and in many ways are much closer in capability to the 378s.

The National Security Cutters replacing the 378s have many advantages and will require a smaller crew. More comfortable and probably cheaper to run, their only real disadvantage is initial cost. Cost for the 378s was approx six times that of the 327s. By contrast the NSCs are at least 30 and perhaps closer to 50 times the price of the 378s.

Unlike the 210s and the 378s designed in the 60s, none of the new generation seems  to have been designed with a clear vision of a potential wartime role.

Much as the current generation of ships has done, the generation built in the 60s offered significantly increased capabilities. They may not have reduced manning requirements, but in others ways, they accomplished their goals in ways they could not have imagined.

“To say that all of our fleet replacement problems would be solved, given a large enough budget, is not only an oversimplification but is also misleading. The very real problem of designing for the future will always exist. Our naval architects must be practical dreamers–their vision must be relied upon to produce ships durable enough to survive hard use over a long service life, ships capable of meeting the severest test of operational performance, and ships flexible enough in design to accommodate the inevitable changes in  operational requirements.”

This, I think they achieved. I’m sure the authors would have been surprised to find so many of the ships they helped create still in service.

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