This is the second of two parts. The first part focusing on what I believe are the current shortfalls in the US Navy force structure is here.
Since part one, additional cuts to the Navy’s plans have been announce. Attack submarines which have an important ASW role are now expected to decline from a current 55 to 40 in 2030 and all SSGNs will be removed from service. Additionally the Navy will prematurely retire seven cruisers and two amphibious warfare ships. The planned five year building program is going from 57 ships to 41.
Now we will look more closely at what Coast Guard Cutters may be called upon to do in future conflicts, what changes to our existing force might be prudent, and desirable characteristics for future cutters.
Normally Coast Guard cutters only go to war for two reasons:
- Either they have capabilities the US Navy cannot supply in sufficient quantity,
- or the scope of the conflict is so large, every effort has to be thrown into the struggle.
As noted in part one, in a major war the Navy is likely to have problems with these missions:
- Base Security
- Sea Control
- Mine Counter Measures (MCM)
- Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW)
- Naval Surface Fire Support (NSFS)
The range of potential conflicts is virtually infinite, but I will suggest where each of these potential difficulties start to emerge considering five levels of potential conflict.
- War on Terror
- Assisting an ally deal with insurgency
- An extended conflict with a hostile nation with limited naval and airpower, possibly in support of an ally, e.g. S. Korea vs. N. Korea, Colombia vs. Venezuela
- Conflict with a near peer
- A multi-nation, multi-theater, non-nuclear conflict
Base Security: Base (and Homeland) Security may be an issue at every level of conflict. Even now the Coast Guard is providing a level of base security for the Navy. Four 87 foot patrol boats (WPBs) were paid for by the Navy (Sea Dragon, Sea Dog, Sea Fox and Sea Devil). Unlike the other vessels of their class, they are armed with a remote controlled stabilized heavy machine gun. They are stationed at Bangor, WA and Kings Bay, GA. These and other boats are part of Maritime Force Protection Units that escort Ballistic Missile Submarines (SSBNs) during their transits between their bases and deep water.
Other Coast Guard units also regularly escort other high value/high risk units, both civilian and military (CVNs, LHAs, LHDs, passenger ships, and certain dangerous cargoes), during transit to and from open sea. The escorts currently provided seem appropriate for preventing a “USS Cole style” attack by small boats, but are inadequate if the enemy employs a medium to large size vessel for making an attack.
As the level of conflict escalates the danger also increases. As you move toward conflict with a near peer, using highly trained special force, unconventional attacks become more probable, and in the case of nations that control substantial merchant marine and fishing fleets, the early days of a war are likely to be very complex. Their ships will likely be in or near our ports. Are they innocent, or are they carrying agents, explosives, mines, or even cruise missiles?
The inshore problem is a special, local case of sea control. The Navy needed assistance even in the case of Iraq’s limited coast line, so if the coastal zone is large they are likely to need substantial assistance.
Coast Guard forces were called upon to assist an ally during the Vietnam War by boarding and inspecting coastal traffic, even though the US Navy still had a large force that could be used for maintaining patrols close to shore. (On June 30, 1968 the USN had 35 cruisers, 219 destroyers, 50 destroyer escorts/frigates, 84 mine warfare vessels, and 6 patrol vessels, a total of 394 vessels compared with a current total of approximately 136 similar types) The Coast Guard had unique capabilities in the form of 82′ patrol boats. 26 of these boats were assigned to Operation Market Time and in the first year they boarded approximately 35,000 junks. The Coast Guard still has far more capability for this type of operation than the Navy.
The patrol line off South Vietnam’s coast was over 800 nautical miles long. To interdict covert enemy operations, in addition to the 26 patrol boats, the Coast Guard added a squadron of five to seven larger cutters to the already large fleet of USN and South Vietnamese vessels. These ships provided Naval Surface Fire Support (NSFS) in addition to surface interdiction.
Coast line lengths of about 1,000 miles are not unusual. A patrol line for Colombia’s coast would be about 850 nautical miles. Yemen’s coast almost 900 nautical miles. Somalia’s over 1500 miles.
Having enough boarding teams to inspect coastal traffic, where we need them, while meeting other Navy commitments, that will not disappear because we are engaged in a limited war, will almost certainly demand more ships that the Navy will have at the time. Coast Guard cutters, both large and small, may be in demand for this capability in the future.
The primary mission requirement is again stopping and boarding. Again cutters are well prepared to contend with smaller vessels, but the ability to stop larger vessels is currently in doubt. It would also be desirable if the CG vessels could provide Naval Surface Fire Support (NSFS) as they did during the Vietnam War.
As the level of conflict escalates, cutters are likely to be called upon to similarly control access, protecting allies and enforcing blockades. At the higher thresholds, engaging a openly hostile nation, submarine and air threats become more probable, as do overt threats from the land. This suggest, once the conflict involves more than supporting an ally with an insurgency, more self defense capabilities may be required.
Sea Control: The Coast Guard has recognized the need for sea control off our coast as part of the “War on Terror.” This is facilitated by the SOLAS requirements for Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) and there are plans for using long duration, persistent, unmanned aerial systems to maintain a picture of traffic off our coasts. There is the potential for the Navy to substantially help the Coast Guard with offshore surveillance. Various forms of offshore surveillance such as the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) system, woven into a maritime domain awareness system, combined with data base information on expected traffic, might provide a degree of assurance that ships cannot approach the US coast undetected. Still the ability to react effectively is questionable. In wartime, these systems are likely to go away and there will certainly be non-participants in AIS.
Sea Control outside of our own and our allies’ shores would take two forms,
- making it safe for transit of our own and friendly shipping
- and denying access to hostile shipping.
Sea Control, in the boarder sense, will become an issue as the level of conflict approaches a near peer, particularly as in the case of a nation like China that controls huge numbers of vessels, including many not under her own flag, on all the world’s oceans.
The first days and weeks of a major conflict will include efforts to seize or force the internment of all hostile shipping and fishing vessels. This alone will be a massive undertaking.
In the case of a major conflict involving China, we are likely to see an attempt to blockade them. Because the near shore area will be dangerous, the blockade is likely to be distant, exploiting the limited number of approaches defined by the first island chain (stretching from the Kuriles, through Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, Borneo, and on to the Malay Peninsula). This distant blockade could not simply sink any shipping that attempted to cross the line, since much of the shipping would go to allies and neutrals. Just as the British Navy did in blockading Germany in WWI, the US would need to determine the destination and cargo for shipping and let through those bound for allied ports and sufficient shipping to neutrals to allow their economies to survive while cutting off any excess that might be funneled to our enemies. This will again demand ships with boarding teams.
In terms of facilitating our own shipping, even if our cutter are not conducting ASW, they will likely be needed for open ocean SAR, so we might see a form of ocean station make a comeback.
Except in very rare cases, I don’t expect to see closely bunched convoys with ships only a few hundred yards apart, both for tactical reasons, and simply because we no longer have the escorts. But high value, priority shipping is likely to transit in loose groups watched over by maritime patrol aircraft and perhaps with an SSN sweeping known danger areas ahead. Even using a ten mile spacing between ships, a hundred ships could be assembled in a 100×100 nautical mile area. If that happens, a cutter might be assigned to provide SAR coverage and also could act as a communications center for the group, referred to as “administrative escort,” particularly if equipped with sensitive compartmented Information Facilities (SCIF) as the National Security cutters are. This would allow the group to be routed away from danger areas identified by intelligence.
Mine Countermeasures: There is the potential for mine warfare to develop as a terrorist tactic and the Navy minesweepers are not well placed to respond the this threat at most American Ports. The Navy has 14 Avenger class mine countermeasures ships, four in Sasebo, four in Bahrain, and six in San Diego. There are none on the Atlantic or Gulf Coast. Assuming the Navy develops their MCM systems for the LCS, and assuming they are air transportable, being able to transport them directly to the scene without waiting for an LCS to arrive could save the substantial cost (and embarrassment) of having a port shut down for several days. The air assets (helicopters with mine sweeping equipment) might operate from land, while the unmanned vehicles (either surface or sub-surface) might be deployed from cutters including buoy tenders.
In the case of war with a near peer or a more general conflict the need for MCM will likely increase, including the possibility of submarine laid mines. Whether cutters have the flexibility to help with this problem may depend on decisions made in the near future.
Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW): That non-state actors will employ submarines is unlikely, but not impossible, given that drug smuggling organizations have developed the capability. Still there are many less demanding ways of attacking the US. Even so, having ASW sensors might be useful in countering self propelled semi-submersibles and true submarines used for drug smuggling.
Submarines are not likely to be a significant threat unless engaging a near peer. But in that case or in the case of a more general war, almost any force level is likely to be inadequate to prevent major problems.
China already has the largest submarine fleet in the Pacific. Individually, they are not yet up to American standards, but they are likely to improve rapidly. US forces are most likely to have long supply lines that will need to be protected. Additionally our allies shipping may need protection.
While I don’t necessarily believe it will happen, the Russians are saying they will be building six submarines a year, which could ultimately give them a submarine fleet of up to 180. Russian ballistic missile submarines are also expected to start patrolling again soon. Trailing them will reduce the availability of American SSNs for other forms of ASW. Clearly they intend to have a formidable fleet of submarines.
Should there develop an alliance between China and Russia, if we ever have to fight them both, the ASW problem will be acute.
Naval Surface Fire Support (NSFS): Opportunities for Naval Surface Fire Support (NSFS) start to surface in any form of foreign conflict. It was used during the Vietnam War, the Gulf Wars, and most recently during the Libyan revolution. Even in minor conflicts it meets a need. But it becomes essential when conducting amphibious operations against a near peer, not just because the requirements will be large, but also because many of the assets that might otherwise be used, are in demand for other tasks, leaving few available for NSFS. Under those circumstances there will never be enough systems available to answer all the requests for fire support.
Based on the importance being attached to Exercise Bold Alligator, there should be little doubt the Navy and Marine Corps still believe in amphibious warfare. In a major conflict, if there is an amphibious assault, where will the cutters be? There is a good chance they will be doing SAR in the Amphibious Objective Area, rescuing Marines from sunken landing craft. If so, they would be closer to the beach than any of the other potential NSFS providers. If they are, having a NSFS weapon would make a lot of sense.
Guns are not the only possible form of NSFS, but right now there is no identified substitute. Putting 5″ guns on the Offshore Patrol Cutters might be worthwhile. The LCS’s ASuW module was to have included an NSFS capable element, the NLOS missile. That may yet be replaced and the resulting system may be appropriate for fitting on cutters, including some of the smaller ones.
Coast Guard vessels are unlikely to ever be NSFS superstars, but if properly equipped they could provide a useful service, by taking targets within their range and allowing the more capable NSFS ships, like the Zumwalts, to conserve their limited magazine space for more difficult or longer range targets.
Minimum Requirement, The ability to stop and board a ship
In virtually every scenario, over the entire spectrum of conflict, it is likely that Cutters will need to stop and board vessels. Boats and boarding team are inherent in day to day operations, but if these vessels refuse to stop, cutters need the capability to compel compliance.
The Coast Guard needs the ability to quickly and reliably, forcibly stop a merchant ship of any size, not only in its largest cutters, but with some of its assets in every major port. Some may think that we have that capability now in the form of 57 and 76 mm guns, but I don’t think so. At any rate these systems may not be available when need. The capability needs to be more widely available, extending at least to the new Fast Response Cutters and possibly to the patrol boats.
Weapons needed to compel compliance don’t need great maximum range, although it is certainly desirable that the system out-range simple to add weapons like machine guns, recoilless rifles, and anti-tank missile systems, which suggest a maximum range of at least 4,000 yards.
Perhaps more important is a short minimum range, because the capability is most likely to be needed while attempting a boarding. That suggest a minimum range of 500 yards or less.
Another important consideration is that the weapons may be used near population centers, perhaps even inside US ports, so minimizing the possibility of ammunition going astray is an important consideration.
The medium caliber guns on large cutters may not be up to the task, risk significant collateral damage, and are not available on any but the largest cutters. Missiles might be an alternative, but whatever system is chosen, it will not be enough to simply penetrate the hull. They will have to be capable of either selectively disabling the rudder or propeller(s) or penetrating the engine block, in some cases two engine blocks, of massive diesel engines after passing through the ships side.
Light weight torpedoes modified to be used against surface ships seem to meet these requirements, they are certainly not going to hit anyone ashore, but as of now these weapons don’t exist. Whatever system might be selected, it should be thoroughly tested.
Add-ons that would also enhance Homeland Security missions:
Several systems might serve peacetime as well as wartime needs. These include communications, sensors, and weapons.
Communications: Even in peacetime Coast Guard cutters and aircraft would benefit from a common encrypted communications and tactical picture that is compatible with other services. Link16 could provide this.
Towed Array: Since drug cartels have started using self propelled semi-submersibles and even true submarines, a towed array provides a means for long range detection of these craft in addition to being useful in wartime ASW scenarios.
Weapons: An NSFS weapon, such as a 5″ gun or the Navy’s replacement for the planned LCS ASuW missile, might be a means of also meeting the need to quickly and effectively stop terrorists in control of a medium to large vessel.
Keeping Options open:
The perception that the Coast Guard cutters are law enforcement and search and rescue assets rather than military units, make them welcome in many places where Navy ships are not. Arming them to the teeth might limit their usefulness in many circumstances. Additionally heavy armament in peacetime would increase both acquisition and operating cost.
But that does not mean the ships should not have margins that would allow them to be fitted with additional systems if needed. When the 327s were built, they were lightly armed versions of the Navy’s much more heavily armed gunboats the Erie and Charleston, each of which was armed with four 6″/47s and 16 1.1″ (28 mm) machine guns. They had the margins to carry this additional armament. When war came, we needed ASW ships rather than gunboats, but because they had generous margins, they could carry more depth charges than any destroyer. That helped them become United States’ most successful class of ASW ships, sinking U-175, U-606 (shared credit), and U-626, and probably sank the U-529.
The modular approach the Navy is using on the Littoral Combat Ships offers a way to keep our options open and permit rapid upgrades of combat capability.The inherent flexibility also offers advantages for non-combat operations. The Navy is currently developing mission MCM, ASW, and Anti-Surface modules for the LCS, but they are also developing modules that are appropriate for humanitarian and disaster relief-types of missions. Other potential modules might include medical, teaching, holding cells, or scientific support.
Compared to the Navy’s fleet of approximately 136 vessels that might be available to do “Sea Control” (CGs,DDGs, MCMs, LCSs, and PCs), the Coast Guard has 75 87′ Coastal Patrol Boats, and is expects to build 58 154′ Fast Response Cutters, 25 Offshore Patrol Cutters, and eight National Security cutters, a total of 166 vessels. While certainly not as individually capable as most of the Navy vessels, when numbers count, the Coast Guard is a sizable force. Its wartime roles need to be considered and planned for. If we can afford to build a navy essentially only for its wartime roles, we certainly should also put a little thought and money into the Coast Guard’s preparation.