Cutter Class Names and Descriptors

On an earlier post, a conversation developed over how we refer to the various Coast Guard vessel classes. I had called the 154 foot WPC, Fast Response Cutters (FRC), of the Sentinel Class, the Webber Class. It went like this:


Jimmy, “If you’re shooting for an A+ in accuracy, it’s the Sentinel class, not the Webber class.”

Chuck Hill, “Let’s just say I like Webber better, and it fits the international norms of usage.”

EBurley, “That being said, the Coast Guard has, at least, a decent tradition of naming cutter classes after something over than the first ship in the class – the WEBBER is just the most recent example:
418′ WMSL: Legend class (lead ship: USCGC BERTHOLF)
378′ WHEC: Secretary/Hero class (lead ship: USCGC HAMILTON)
270′ WMEC: Famous (cutter–ed.) class (lead ship: USCGC BEAR)
110′ WPB: Island class (lead ship: USCGC FARALLON)
87′ WPB: Marine Protector class (lead ship: USCGC BARRACUDA)
“Other examples include the Cape and Point classes of patrol boats, the Bay class ice breaking tugs, the Polar class icebreakers, Keeper class coastal buoy tenders, and the Treasury/Secretary class cutters (327′).
Desk riding cutterman, “I’ve heard the WHEC’s called the HAMILTON class a few times, the 210′s called the RELIANCE class, and the Navy kept trying to call the WMSL’s the BERTHOLF class when they were ramping up for the WAESCHE testing. It was really funny to watch the crew of WAESCHE get frustrated.
“I’m fine if we want to continue down that road but for the love of God, please start naming the first of class with the understanding that people will call it the”____” class. The BEAR class, the BARRACUDA class, and the BERTHOLF class don’t really roll of the tongue like the PERRY, TICON, or BURKE classes. It’s like naming a child, don’t give them a name that will be easy to pick on in school.
“So the story I heard with the 378′s was that we shifted the names mid stream because we changed departments and no longer wanted to name cutters as treasury secretaries.
If we look at just one class, we see they can be referred to as 378s, Hamilton Class, Secretary Class/Hero Class, WHEC 715 class, and because they are the only units in that category WHECs or simply HECs. Depending on the context there might be some confusion between this “Secretary” Class and the previous “Secretary” Class (327s).
When the Coast Guard wants to build a new class of ships, they have to call it something, so we got names like National Security Cutter and Fast Response Cutter. In the previous generation it was “High Endurance Cutters,” “Medium Endurance Cutters,” and Patrol Boats (No one wanted to advocate for “Low Endurance Cutters.”) These are programs that describe needs. When we get a little further along, there is a proposed design to meet the needs, we have to call it something, so we get names like “Sentinel” Class cutters, before the first of class is ever named and before the design is finalized. To my mind, these names are only placeholders until the design is finalized (giving us the final length) and first of class is named giving us the actual name of the class.
The Navy usually handles this need for a place holder name by using a hull number, e.g. DD-963, FFG-7. The Coast Guard could have done this if they had called the Bertholf’s the WHEC-750 class, but instead they chose to invent a new ship type to describe the class, WMSL.
Calling the class National Security Cutters offered a poor description of the ship, because that is not what these vessels do most of the time, and further–if these are National Security Cutters, then it implies that other cutters don’t do National Security.
I’m not sure of the intent in calling the Webber class, Fast Response Cutters. Are they intended to respond quickly, or are they fast cutters that sit around waiting to respond. In either case it implies passivity and something of an emergency response role, when I suspect these vessels will actually spend a lot of time on patrol.
Offshore Patrol Cutter at least seems to be reasonably accurate as a descriptor, but why didn’t we simply call it the MEC replacement cutter. It is pretty obvious they need replacement. It is obvious to anyone who has spent at least ten minutes reading about the program any where but here, that, that is their purpose (for some reason the Acquisitions Directorate OPC web page fails to mention this fact).
Historically I believe the Coast Guard only went to type designations proceeded by “W” in preparation for operations with the Navy prior to WWII. Bill Wells tells me as late as 1938 references were to cruising cutters, patrol cutters, and patrol boats.  The type designations they used, WPG, WPC, WSC, were standard Navy type designations with the addition of the Coast Guard designator (CG–Patrol Gunboat, Patrol Craft, Sub Chaser). This helped the Navy make proper use of Coast Guard vessels. The system persisted until the mid 60s when vessels were re-designated WHEC and WMEC.  The 125, 165 and new 210 foot WPCs were redesignated WMECs, and existing 327 and 255 foot WPGs and 311 ft WAVPs, as well as the 378 foot WPGs, then building, were redesignated WHECs.
If our object were to help others understand what these ships do, we might consider using designators that are more easily recognized by the rest of the world, as we have done with the Webber class WPCs. The Bertholfs might be WFF (CG frigate) or perhaps a more descriptive WPF (CG patrol frigate. This goes back to the CG manned patrol frigates (PF) of WWII). The  Offshore Patrol Cutter might also be designated WPF. If we wanted to differentiate them, we could use an optional suffix WPF(L) and WPF (S) (large and small).
Convincing others that the Coast Guard needs ships begins with an understanding of what the ships will be used for. If we create a new type designation for each class, it becomes redundant in the Coast Guard and incomprehensible to the rest of the world.

14 thoughts on “Cutter Class Names and Descriptors

  1. Ok, so I won’t go into all the detail except to note that many of these discussons occurred during 2002-2004 when the designation issue was addressed. There was a period of WNSC, WOPC talk but you already noted the problem with National Security Cutter and what the ship does. The WOPC was quickly modified to “Woopsie” by those non-cutterman in the building and objections were raised to several flag officers (mostly cutterman but at least two aviators). Thus you get Maritime Security cutter, Large (WMSL) and Maritime Security cutter, Medium (WMSM) as the invented type designations. It was noted that type designations beginning with M were taken and these new ships didn’t really fall in that realm but to no avail. The FRC actually falls back into place and in my opinion is properly designated as a (WPC) Patrol Coastal (todays PC equivlent) or Craft specifically to differentiate from the WPB (patrol boat) due to size and increased sea keeping and endurence. It is essentially a modernized 210′ w/o a flight deck. Of topic, if the 210′ was initially designated as a WPC and expected to conduct 2 week patrols, what will the CG be doing with 154′ WPCs in 30 years?

    • As originally conceived, the 210s were SAR response cutters. Expected to cover SAR cases out to 500 miles. Law Enforcement was a very distant second. The territorial sea was only three miles. There were essentially no fisheries patrols and drug enforcement was a non-issue. They also were built with space and weight reservation for sonar and ASW weapons.

      More on the origins of the previous generation of cutters here:

      Definitely hard to say what cutters will be called upon to do in the next 30 to 40 years.

    • Continuing with the older WHEC and WMEC type designators has the virtue of continuity. Because they have been around for over forty years, there is an understanding of what these designations imply. Seeing these ships as replacements, strengthens the case for procurement.

      WFF or WPF has the virtue of being almost instantly recognizable by those familiar with NATO ship designation conventions and by virtually all English speaking Naval personnel.

      WMSL and WMSM has no virtue.

  2. To me, the lack of knowledge or understanding how the simple naming of a class of cutters indicates the much larger problem of knowing Coast Guard history. The discussions of who decided what and when should be common historical fare.

    I was not a fan of the word “Sentinel.” I suppose it was supposed to convey some protective meaning but to me a sentinel is stationary. The first steam patrol boats build for a guarding purpose were Scout and Guard with Patrol added later to the Puget Sound patrols in the 1890s. Of course, these were put in place to run down the smugglers of Chinese migrants and opium. They were also commissioned vessels.

    • To me the sooner we drop NSC, FRC, and Sentinel the better.

      As for type designators we could go with the “KISS” principle and go with
      WP(S), WP(M), and WP(L)–Coast Guard Patrol (small, medium, and large).
      But I also think WPC is the proper designation for the Webber class.
      Some times we try to be too clever for our own good.

  3. Chuck, I agree, we are well beyond NSC, OPC, FRC, and thank you for concurring on WPC. There is some virtue to the new designations and we can still make the connection to replacing current cutters. Bill, the discussion is over, they are designatedWMSL, WMSM, WPC; no going back there. And I bet there was similar discension when we adopted WHEC/WMEC from the old timers… No I didn’t mean to call you all old timers… heck my crew thinks I’m the old timers.

  4. I probably qualify as a old timer here, but I have no problem with WMSL, WMSM, and WPC. The latter in particular is the right designation, and I never was enamored of WHEC and WMEC, especially when at least one WMEC had far greater endurance than the so-called WHEC.

  5. I am sure they will (if not already) come up with good unofficial descriptors for the new designations but it will be hard to beat “We Must Eat Chicken” for the MEC’s 🙂

  6. You know why the headquarters decided to call the Bertholf’s WMLS instead WNSC? Because they already heard that a lot old salts where calling them “Never See Combat Cutters”!

  7. When they first started naming the FRC’s, the first cutter was to be named SENTINAL and others were GUARDIAN, PREDATOR, PROTECTOR, etc. It was some time later that COMDT decided to name them after Enlisted Heros.

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