Irresponsibly Rebuilding the Fleet–a Look at the Future

I have seen several references to how the FY2013 budget is “Responsibly rebuilding the fleet,” as if we might otherwise have gone off willy-nilly building ships we don’t really need because we haven’t done prior proper planning. In fact we have been in analysis–paralysis for two decades, since we finished the last 270 in 1990, without building replacements for ten WWII vintage ships that continued to serve.

In the last 22 years the Coast Guard has taken delivery of 21 ships (one WAGB, three WMSL, one WLBB, and 16 WLBs), less than one ship a year, while we should have averaged at least two ships a year (and should do so for the foreseeable future to maintain the current fleet and replace ships at what is generally recognized as the economical end of their useful lives at 30 years).

It gets worse. Over the last eight years, since 2004 the Coast Guard has take delivery of only four ships (one WLBB and three WMSL). We are now in a situation where it may be four years between delivery of NSC#3 and #4 (funded in 2006 and 2010 respectively).

Let’s take look a what will happen if more money is not allocated to the AC&I budget.

The Problem:

By the end of 2020 the Coast Guard can expect to loose the services of at least half the existing fleet of large patrol vessels, 20 ships (six 378s and 14 WMEC 210s). During that time, if there are no changes to current budget, we can expect no more than four new ships to be added (three “National Security Cutters” (NSC) already funded and one “Offshore Patrol Cutter” (OPC)).  This will give the Coast Guard a fleet of 24 large patrol cutters (6 NSC, 3 WHECs, an OPC, the Alex Haley, and 13 WMEC 270s), down from 40 ship in the current fleet, and far less than the 33 ships in the “Program of Record.” Even this is probably overly optimistic in that it assumes all existing ships will be decommissioned only after 50 years of service, with three 378s still in service in 2020.

Unless there is a substantial increase in AC&I funds, and the Coast Guard builds only one OPC per year (the most we could possibly afford without a substantial AC&I increase–even that may be impossible) the situation will improve only slightly, if at all, through 2025. In fact the fleet will drop to a low of 22 ships by the end of 2021 through 2022. By 2025, the Coast Guard will have built five more ships, assuming one OPC per year, but will have lost Alex Haley and the last three 378s giving a total of 25 in the Fleet, still well below the 33 envisioned in the “program of record.”

If we are going to get to 33 ships (20 NSC/OPC and 13 WMEC 270s) by 2025 we will need to build eight additional ships. We can do that by restoring the two NSCs that had been planned for FY 2014 and 2015 and funding two OPCs a year beginning in 2016 or by funding 14 OPCs in six years (again beginning in FY2016). If we don’t fund the additional two NSCs but build two OPCs a year we could still get to 33 ships by 2026.

On the other hand, if we build only one OPC a year, we will not reach 33 ships until 2033, but then, almost immediately, we will see numbers drop again, down to as low as 28 in 2041, as 270s retire faster than they are replaced. We will not reach 33 again until 2046. Again this is assuming we can keep the WMEC 270s viable until they are 50 years old.

The Background:

There is a look back at the size of the fleet here: “Is the Fleet Shrinking?” There is a history of Patrol Cutter construction here: “How We Got in this Mess-a Short History of CG Shipbuilding.”

The Plan:

I haven’t seen a clear explanation our intentions regarding the build plan for the Offshore Patrol Cutter, but we can draw some inferences from the FY 2013 Budget Justification provided to Congress. Looking at the “FY 2013-2017 Five Year Capital Investment Plan (CIP)” on page CG-AC&I-12 and CG-AC&I-25 through 27, provides this information as to OPC funding:

  • FY 2004-2011 Funding Received:                 $85M
  • 2012 Enacted Budget Authority:                   $25M
  • FY 2013 Requested Budget Authority:            30M
  • FY 2014                                                          50M
  • FY 2015                                                          40M
  • FY 2016                                                        200M
  • FY 2017                                                        530M
  • Total Acquisition Cost                               $8,098M
  • Estimated Completion Date                            2031

This gives an average cost of approximately $325M per unit, about half the cost of an NSC and about six times the cost of the Webber Class FRC. There is not enough money to fully fund a ship until FY2017, but it looks like the plan is still to award the contract for the first ship in FY2016 with the first ship delivered in 2020. The “Estimated Completion Date” of 2031 appears to be a delivery date for the last ship, rather than the last FY funding is provided. If we assume that is the case, then 25 ships would be delivered over 12 years from 2020 to 2031 or just over 2 ships a year.


The parsimony and stewardship of the public trust exercised by the Coast Guard cannot be in doubt.

The Coast Guard needs a substantial increase in AC&I, precisely because the account has been underfunded in the past. GAO still says this is “unachievable.” We will talk about that again soon.

There should be no doubt the Coast Guard needs to build new ships. The final number and the exact character of the ships may be up for discussion, but they have to come very soon. The question now should be what is the most economical way to build those ships to provide savings in the long run.

We will need to build at least two OPCs a year. The Navy’s LCS program demonstrated the advantages of using multi-ship, multi-year contracts. The first LCSs cost almost exactly the same as the first NSC, about $700M, but since then, while the NSC program has proceeded in fits and starts and the cost per ship has remained essential unchanged, the LCS program has gone on to include to multi-ship/multi-year contracts that dropped the price down to about $400M per ship. The OPCs should be substantially cheaper. We need to follow their example.

23 thoughts on “Irresponsibly Rebuilding the Fleet–a Look at the Future

  1. It is readily apparent to everyone that we are far behind the curve in building replacement cutters: WMEC and WHEC both. But the cost of those new NSC’s is really too high, I think. And as you can read on the attached, over $80 million more is planned to update their existing Command and control and this will total over $263 million lifetime improvements on the 6 planned NSC’s. Why ? these are brand spanking new with the latest and greatest installed. s=opportunity&mode=form&id=a328d315305a48b47c48049ac5ce5e72&tab=core&_cview=0

    That’s a lotta money to spend on brand new National security cutters. Whatever happened to our great reputation for stretching a dollar ? NSC’s are just plain too expensive by far and as a result, we only get 6 total vice the 12 needed High Endurance Cutter replacements. 6 NSC’s cannot be in 12 different places at the same time. Multiple crews won’t help situations like the recent NSC-3 hull damage mistakes. When will Stratton be drydocked and repaired and put back into action patrolling our coasts ? If we don’t take better care of our limited assets than how can we expect more to be built ? The 3rd NSC was commissioned and went to sea in early April and now it is headed into drydock for major repairs already. Not a good situation at all and you cannot entirely blame congress either.

    • Back 1975 when I was a young lad straight out of the Alameda Hilton. I was first assigned to USCGC Midgett WHEC 726 out of Alameda Ca. It was almost universally accept by most of the crew member on the Midgett at that time, that the she was a floating pile of junk! Now folks at the time, that cutter had been in commission service for only three years. Everybody was of the opinion that not only would the Midgett would not last 20 years of service. But none of her sister cutters would last 20 years either. As of early June 2012, both the Midgett and 8 of her sisters are still in active service. Not bad for a cutter that everybody thought would be on the scrap pile or on the bottom of the ocean by now. So let give the NSC a chance to prove them self’s, before we condemned them.

  2. I’m confused, everyone acts like we stopped building ships! The 90’s may not have focused on the deepwater fleet but it was steady, especially considering how deeply the CG got cut in the post cold war environment.

    110’s were finally completed in 1992 and those C class cutters were the ones the CG bought instead of the Navy.
    378′ FRAM went until 1992 at $55M per cutter
    210′ MMA went until 1996 at $20M per cutter
    282′ conversion in 1999 at $20M
    87’s a total of 74 starting delivery in 1998

    225’s a total of 16 starting in 1996
    175’s a total of 14 starting in 1996

    Given how bad the 90’s were for the CG, the effort was there. Can anyone of the historians shed some light on the FRAM/MMA decision? It seems like we made our bed when we did the life extensions instead of replacement. The story I heard was that the 378/210/82 fleet was supposed to replace everything but we only built 12 instead of 26 HEC’s when ocean station keeping died out. Then the Famous class was supposed to replace all of the off shore cutters but we compromised on the design at some point and it wouldn’t meet the PAC/OFCO requirements so we had to cut back and extend the 378/210 fleet and only decom the WWII era ships.

    It looks like when we do stretch the buck, it bites us.

    Can we settle the cost of the WMSL? Considering what it does, I don’t see it being that expensive. Its 1,000LT more than a 378′ and much more capable. Remember, it may look like overkill now but how will it stack up +40 years down the road. Also, you can’t compare the numbers for the LCS and WMSL. The scale of the LCS drives the price per hull down. Also, you are only quoting the delivery cost to the Navy while comparing it to the CG’s total acquisition cost. The Navy still adds +$100M after delivery, and they aren’t doing much right now while WMSL’s have been doing the mission for +3 years. Additionally, the ships don’t compare at all. Having served on one and worked with LCS-1, I can tell you they are completely different. LCS is just a big empty trailer/hanger, fast engines, a few guns, and small fuel tanks. It has low endurance and meager sea keeping. There is a reason the seats on the bridge have five point harnesses. If you really want to compare them then you should actually factor in the oiler that has to follow it around.

    The WMSL is big, heavy, stable, has long legs, and operates independently. The majority of the inside of a WMSL is berthing, fuels tanks, and engines. Its problems are frustrating but much less than the 378 I sailed on before it. Funny, my wife ran into a SHERMAN sailor from the 70’s that pointed out that five hulls in and six years after commissioning, they were still fixing the shipyard bungles. Maybe its time to realize that shipbuilding is a messy business.

    Also, MEC product line is operating off of the assumption that 270’s need to last until at least 2035.

    Maybe congress should fund out the WPC’s at +6 hulls a year instead of 4 so that we can clear the program. In reality, lets all admit that we are going to build many more than the program of record for four reasons:

    1) We won’t get the full NSC/OPC program of record
    2) They will have to be a stop gap when the 210’s start dying in the next ~5 years
    3) There are many missions the 210’s do that a 154 can do just fine.
    4) They are good pork and congress loves pork

    We kept the 87 line open for the same reason.

    I know this forum loves to speak from the soap box, I just want steel on target. While I would love a few dozen OPC’s, I really need those FRC’s NOW!

  3. Look at the record above we did almost completely stop building ships–as opposed to patrol boats.

    I did not address FRCs here but there are only two in the FY2013 budget request although there is talk in Congress of adding two more. There were six in the FY2012 budget, and four per year is the current build rate, but we are going to need to finish up the FRC program about 2025 as well so we can start replacing the 87 ft WPBs and our helicopters which will be coming to the end of their lives.

    In my post above you will see I anticipated keeping 270s until they are 50 years old that is the first would retire in 2033 and the last in 2040.

    As for what happened in the past I think I covered it here:
    and here

    We should have continued building MEC when we halted the 270s at 13. Even after we finished them, we had WWII ships that we hung onto for quite a while. Then keeping the program going with progressive improvement, we could have started replacing the 210s as they reached 30 years old beginning in 1994.

    The original plan for the 378s was 36 ships, that was also the number of 327s, 311s, and 255s we had when the program started.

  4. Do you think it’s time that the US Coast Guard push their Shipbuilding ideas as shovel ready jobs, to get the unemployed working again and building ships for the US Coast Guard.

  5. Maybe we should have started with 36 NSC’s so we could get 12 instead of asking for 8 and getting ~6.

    Nicky, the HC-144, NSC, and FRC are about as shovel ready as you can get… the OPC not so much. The problem is that not enough people know or care. The people that want to cut military spending consider us part of the military. The ones that want a strong military don’t think the CG is a priority. The secretary only really cares about the Customs/BP and SW border.

    Shipbuilding is expensive so its just easy to cut. What is so frustrating is that its really a trivial amount of money when looking at the total budget. The stimulus as near $1T, a $2B per year acquisition increase would mean alot to the CG and those that would get the business but its just so low impact and such a low national priority.

      • I’m planning on talking about this again soon, but the total annual we need in AC&I is only about $1.7-2.0B, an increase of .6-.8B. Seems the government has become incapable of making decisions regarding priority among programs.

    • I know people and politicians talk about Jobs, Jobs, Jobs and how we have a high unemployment rate. Maybe if the US Coast Guard pushes their Shipbuilding ideas as a way to get the unemployed workers working again. We can get the ships that we want in the fleet.

  6. “Can anyone of the historians shed some light on the FRAM/MMA decision?”

    What historians? No one has researched or studied Coast Guard decision making since –well never. The Coast Guard has no history program. It has public affairs. Creating a history program is in the works, but it seems to be like DRC’s description of shipbulding, “a messy business.”

    The Coast Guard is not kind to researchers about releasing or giving access to its historical information. If it did, the task of digging it out would very difficult because the Coast Guard has no system of information retrieval. In other words, records management is a messier business.

    The other problem is culture. The Coast Guard likes to keep information away from the public as much as possible. History, as one old historian friend remarked of the Coast Guard, is something to be feared and avoided because with it comes accountability.

    I have written about the Coast Guard’s shipbuilding efforts during the Great Depression. It was remarkable what was accomplished with so many fewer people and less funding. There seemed to be a plan in place and part of it included tagging on to established technologies and let the future worry about itself. We have no control on the future and if we build ships today with a too far distant view, then they will fail. The Coast Guard, and the RCS before it, ran ships until they fell apart. That was how they justified new ones. Today, it seems to build them falling apart.

    My take is that the AtoN ships and patrol boats are auxiliary vessels and park of the cobbled together Coast Guard. However, to they count in the scheme of large patrol vessels? What are their capabilities beyond that they were designed?

  7. To which I would add the USCG cannot perform as part of the National Fleet like Navy Undersecy Bob Work plans IF the US Congress does not provide it enough AC&I funding. God forbid that anyone would suggest taking money out of the Navy’ SCN to fund more cutters for the US Coast Guard~?

    I know that the NCS are part of the Under’s grand plan. Chuck’s point about the OPCs lower cost and need for two per year is well made. If the Navy down-selects to one design of LCS (and starts looking for an alternative??), maybe some SCN funds can be reprogrammed into multiple OPCs to supplement the Navy’s medium surface combatant force. The National Fleet needs many such cutters. I am just hoping that OPCs will NOT go to HII, since the quality is not there.

    • Remember that Ingalls is now under Huntington ownership. So maybe they can clean up that operation down at Pascagoula, I hope! If not Ingalls, who? There are not many shipyards still around that can do the work for the Coast Guard. And does that are still in business, are busy doing work for the Navy. Having said that. “I hope whoever wins the contract for the OPC’s, that it’s not Ingalls!”

      • CG-9 has a list of interested ship builders that was effective Nov. 2010. They list twelve: AUSTAL, BAE, Bath Iron Works, Bollinger, Derecktor, Eastern Shipbuilding Group, Marinette Marine, Nassco, Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding, Todd Pacific Shipyards, Signal International, and VT Halter Marine, Inc.

      • I would say let Bath Iron Works build all the ships for the US Government.

      • nicky, biw doesnt have the capacity for really, really large vessels, though being totally biased i’d prefer biw to most. also biw did the fram work on 378s and i haven’t heard or read much of anything bad about the arleigh burkes. marinette marine has built decent vessels for us in the past, (someone correct me if i’m wrong), but they’ve also been part of the lcs program which hasn’t exactly been wonderfull yet. when i here derecktor i still think 270’s. though i know bollinger from 110 commisioning and thought well of it then, i don’t know enough about it’s present performance. the 123′ mess sticks in my mind though. from the little i know about naasco they’ve done well with builing auxuliaries for the navy/msc. northrop grumman i’m sure would do a pretty decent job. i don’t know enough about the rest to comment.

      • I heard earlier that Derecktor has lost its larger yard, so don’t expect much from them, but I suppose a revival is possible.

        Bath has a great reputation as a builder of destroyers going back a hundred years. They are making the DDG-1000s which seem to be an extremely well run program, and will be involved in the restart of the Burke Class.

        Bottom line, for ships like the OPC, there are an adequate number of ship yards in the US to be very competitive.

      • I would still put BIW as the prime contractor and put their management team in charge of shipbuilding. That’s why I like the phrase “Bath-built is best-built.”

      • rlc, I brought ships into service from several Gulf coast yards and know much about Ingalls. My opinion is that HII has not and may not be able to fix that yard. Poor QA, middling management, I would NOT expect much from them. Especially since the USN is not going to be buying as many warships built at Ingalls leading to a downward spiral?

    • I had heard that members in the house are attempting to reinstate long lead time items for NSC #7 and for two more FRCs, but I think we have to wait and see.

  8. I wish they’d push that to 8 FRC’s a year. It might put pressure on speeding up the San Juan pier construction but it would be worth it.

    We need the WPB’s replaced now, just saw CHINCOTEAGUE’s keel, its got more curves than a politician’s spine and will likely never leave the CG yard again. The stories of twisted keels, deflecting structural supports, warped skeds, popping decks, and numerous other serious structural failings are becoming commonplace with numerous hulls. Some engineers are saying that they are seeing the 123 failures starting to show up as well. The 110’s are circling the drain, is one going to have to nearly sink before their is action. Anyone who has a friend or loved one that sails on a 110 needs to pray they make it home safe. Its one thing if the plant breaks alot but these problems make me wonder how safe the ships are.

  9. All the 110s entered service between 1986 and 1992, a period of seven years. 12 entered service in 1986 alone and all but one entered service before 1992. As I recall they were designed to last only 15 years, but even if it were 20, all of them should have been replaced by now. The designers are getting good enough that their life expectancy estimates should be respected. They no longer provide large margins of error to cover poor estimates like they did in the past. If the engineers say it will start to fail after 20 years, you probably ought to believe them.

    If we had expected a 20 year life, they should have started replacing them in 2006, and all should have been replaced by this year. We are well behind the power curve.

    With the first FRCs coming out this year, and building only four to six a year it will take any where from ten to 15 years to finish the 58 cutters planned. That would mean the newest 110 could be 35 years old when the last FRC is completed. Definitely UNSAT.

    We are going to see the same thing happening with the MECs.
    –The vessels are overdue for replacement before the first ship is built,
    –The replacements are built at a much slower rate than the ships they replace, stretching the timeline rather, and if we follow the example of the NSCs,
    –The replacements will also be built in smaller numbers than planned.

  10. Pingback: GAO Responds to Fleet Mix Studies, Part 1, The Report -

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