Offshore Patrol Cutters (OPC), the Other LCS

This is another post I prepared for Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) as part of “Corvette Week.”

The US Coast Guard is currently in the first part or a two part program to select a design for a planned class of 25 ships referred to as Offshore Patrol Cutters (OPC) also called the Maritime Security Cutter, Medium (WMSM). In many respects these might be thought of a third class of Littoral Combat Ships. They have different characteristics and different strengths and weaknesses, but there is considerable overlap in there characteristics. Like the LCS they will be small, shallow draft, helicopter equipped warships with the 57mm Mk110 gun. It seems likely the OPC will be 2,500 to 3,500 tons, similar in size to the Freedom and Independence class LCS.

The existing LCS classes emphasize adaptability, are faster and have more spacious aviation facilities. The cutters will emphasize seakeeping and will:

  • have greater range (minimum 7,500 miles @14 knots) and endurance using all diesel propulsion. Typical operations as outlined in the Concept of Operations (CONOPS) were 14 days between refueling, 21 days between replenishment, and 45-60 day patrols.
  • be ice-strengthened,
  • have ballistic protection over critical areas,
  • have a larger crew, and
  • be able to operate their boats and aircraft in higher sea states (through sea state 5).

The acquisition process:

A two step Acquisition process is being used. First, up to three contractors will be selected to develop their concepts into fully detailed contract proposals. This selection is expected by the end of the second quarter of FY2014. These three will then compete for a contract which will include all documentation, construction of the first OPC (expected delivery in FY2020) and options for up to ten follow-on ships.

Eight yards have submitted bids:

  • Bollinger Shipyards, Lockport, La.
  • Eastern Shipbuilding, Panama City, Fla.
  • General Dynamics Bath Iron Works, Bath, Maine
  • General Dynamics Nassco, San Diego
  • Huntington Ingalls Industries, Pascagoula, Miss.
  • Marinette Marine, Marinette, Wis.
  • Vigor Shipyards, Seattle; and
  • VT Halter Marine, Pascagoula, Miss.

There has been international interest in the project. VT Halter has partnered with French Defense Contractor DCNS. Vigor is allied with Ulstein, Bollinger is working with Dutch Ship builder Damen. It appears Eastern may have teamed with STX (supposition on my part, based only on their concept‘s similarity to the New Zealand Navy’s Protector Class OPV.

VT Halter Marine, Inc. (VT Halter Marine), a subsidiary of VT Systems, Inc. (VT Systems), today announced its partnership agreement with DCNS to submit a proposal to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for the design and construction of the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC). VT Halter Marine will be the prime contractor and DCNS will be its exclusive subcontractor for the OPC platform design.

An early DCNS concept

The funding schedule is expected to look like this:

  • FY 2016 Detail Design
  • FY 2017 OPC #1 Construction
  • FY 2018 OPC #2
  • FY 2019 OPC #3
  • FY 2020 OPC #4 and #5
  • FY 2021 OPC #6 and #7
  • FY 2022 OPC #8 and #9
  • FY 2023 OPC #10 and #11

There was also a statement of intent to hold the maximum price of units four through nine to $310M each.


The ships are to be built to modified American Bureau of Shipping Naval Ship Rules excluding explosive or underwater shock hardening.

They are expected to operate in cold climates. They will be equipped “to operate in areas of broken plate, pancake, and sea ice ranging from 10 to 30 inches thick.”  There is also a required capability to operate an ice capable small boat and to have automated topside de-icers.

“The WMSM will provide increased protection for (sic.) small caliber weapons and shrapnel fragmentation around the bridge, CIC, and magazine spaces.”

It will tow up to 10,000 tons.

The ships are expected to be able to do Fueling at Sea (FAS), Replenishment at Sea (RAS), Vertical (Helicopter) Replenishment or VERTREP, and to refuel smaller vessels (apparently reflecting an expectation of sustained operations with smaller patrol vessels (WPCs or WPBs) at locations remote from their bases).

I did not have access to the latest specifications, but have deduced some details of the proposed equipment from the Allowance Equipage List included in the Draft RFP. All the systems below are referenced. (In a few cases there may be duplicate listing if different nomenclature is used for the same system.) The outfit, in most respects, repeats or even improves on that of the National Security Cutter:


  • Military SAT com
  • Tactical Data Link System
  • IFF
  • SBU (presumably “Sensitive but Unclassified”) Network
  • SIPRNET (Classified Network)
  • NIPRNET (Unclassified Network)
  • Entertainment System


  • TSR-3D RARAD System, a multimode surface and air surveillance and target acquisition radar
  • Electro-Optic/Infrared Sensor system


  • Mk 48 mod 1 Gun Weapon System (pdf), which includes the Mk 110 57mm gun, AN/SPQ-9B  Surface search and Fire Control Radar, Electro-Optical sensor system Mk 20 mod 0, the Mk 160 GCS Mod 12, and Mk 12 Gun Computer System
  • Mk 15 mod 21-25 CIWS (Phalanx) (apparently equipped for but not with)
  • Mk 38 mod 2 25 mm
  • Gun Weapon System SSAM (remotely controlled stabilized .50 cal)
  • Four crew served .50 mounts including Mk 16 and Mk 93 mod 0 or mod 4 mounts
  • Mk 46 optical sight

Electronic Warfare:

  • Mk 53 Decoy launcher
  • AN/SLQ-32 (v)2


  • Encrypted GPS
  • Electronic Chart Display and Information System


  • Ships Signals Exploitation Space
  • Special Purpose Intel System


  • Hangar for helicopter up to and including Navy and Coast Guard H-60s (There may have been some backtracking on the requirement for a helicopter larger than the HH-65)
  • Facilities for the support of unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS)
  • Visual Landing Aids

Coast Guard HH-65 Dolphins


Having watched this program develop over a number of years, it is remarkable that the specifications have moved from specific to general as the need to minimize cost has resulted in softening of the requirements. As with many contracts, threshold and objective characteristics were defined, but if there are incentives for going beyond threshold requirements, they have not been made public. For this reason there seems little reason to expect the capabilities to exceed the threshold requirement which include a speed of 22 knots (objective 25).

The aviation support requirements also seem to have gone soft and may result in the ability to support only smaller helicopters and UAVs

Potential Naval Roles

Weapons–A minimal projected fit has been identified, but the Commandant has stated that the ships will have space and weight reservation for additional weapons, but I have not been privy to the extent of this reservation. It may be limited to replacing the Mk38mod2 with a Phalanx, but there is reason to hope the ships have greater potential.

The ships do have an unusual specification. For the Alien Migrant Interdiction Operations, they are required to be able to feed and provide basic shelter for up to 500 migrants for 48 hours, all while keeping them on the main deck or above.  This actually constitutes a substantial weight/moment reserve for other missions. If we assumed 150 pounds for each person, that would equate to 37.5 tons.

Modules–While there was apparently no stated requirement to host mission modules or containers in the specifications, some of the foreign designed potential contenders may already include provision for taking containers. For instance, the Damen designed OPV 2600 (ton) has provision for five 20 foot containers. Others may use containers as part of their plan to meet the 500 Alien Migrant holding requirement.

Vigor Offshore Patrol Craft 01

Vigor concept with its Ulstein X-bow. It was reported to have a length of 328 feet, a beam of 54 feet, a draft of 16.5 feet, and a max speed of 22knots. It included a reconfigurable boat hangar.


The Coast Guard’s latest Manpower Estimate for the Offshore Patrol Cutters (OPCs), completed 18 March 2011, was 104 (15 officers, 9 CPOs, 80 E-6 and below) plus an aviation detachment (five personnel) and Ship’s Signals Exploitation Space (SSES) detachment (seven personnel) for a total of 116. Accommodations are planned for at least 120 (threshold requirement) and hopefully as many as 126 (“objective”). The manning assumes four section underway watches.

Unlike the two current LCS classes, the OPCs are expected to train junior personnel: “The Coast Guard depends on cutters to expose our junior personnel, officers and enlisted, to our wide mission set. With this real world experience derived from a first tour operational assignment, these sailors populate critical billets such as law enforcement detachments, independent duty corpsmen, and XOs on patrol boats.”

These ships, like the LCS are expected to have multiple crews, with four crews for a group of three ships, allowing them to operate up to 225-230 days away from home port per year. (I personally don’t like the concept as proposed)

Survivability: The preliminary manning documents assumes that two full Repair Lockers (27 crew members in each locker) plus a Rapid Response Team (RRT) will be constituted for General Emergency Situations, but only one full Repair Locker and the RRT will be available at General Quarters. Two engine rooms will provide a degree of propulsion redundancy.

LCS Council:

The CNO saw the need for high level coordination of the introduction of the LCS to insure that they made the most of their potential. Since established they have added oversight of the Joint High Speed Vessels.

I see a need for the Coast Guard to also have a seat the Council to

  • share experiences with multiple crewing and other lessons learned
  • maximize the wartime potential of the Offshore Patrol Cutters by exploiting commonality with the LCS
  • ease coordination of Navy’s LCS and JHSVs partnership station, drug interdiction, and constabulary efforts which often involving Coast Guard detachments.

LCS 2.0, or a Missed opportunity?:

I keep hearing that many, including former undersecretary Bob Work, may not be entirely happy with the characteristics of the existing LCS designs, but that because they are the design we have, we should continue to build them. I have hoped that the Offshore Patrol Cutters would offer a possible alternative for an LCS 2.0. It may be that cost considerations and program choices will make them unsuitable, but at the very least, the eight design proposals and the three fully developed contract proposals should make interesting reading for those who would like to consider alternatives to the existing designs.

In addition, these ships, or designs developed from them, may offer a cheaper alternative basis upon which to offer our allies interested in American built corvettes or OPVs.

If I had my druthers:

If I had my druthers these ships would be designed, but not necessarily equipped, from the start, for wartime roles including ASW and NSFS.

Background: “What might Coast Guard cutters do in wartime.”

23 thoughts on “Offshore Patrol Cutters (OPC), the Other LCS

  1. Despite its unusual look, I love the Vigor concept with its Ulstein X-bow. Having reviewed the capabilities of this design, it seems like a very capable and proven design for rough cold climates. I hope the CG gives it a fair shake and does not turn away since it does not look like a traditional CG cutter.

  2. Great post Chuck, very nice insight into this development within CG. Sometimes I wish we could move as quickly as the Navy on these things, and then I realize what nonsense im thinking

  3. Pingback: Two from Chuck | Think Defence

  4. Chuck – if you had your druthers, what would you add to give them a war fighting role ? I am thinking an “air weapons magazine” for torpedoes and anti-ship missiles to equip the helo might be the easiest add. I am not sure if some of that considerable top space weight margin might take NSM / JSM tube launchers. I suppose an upgrade to a 76mm with Vulcano type rounds might help on the NSFS role.

    What are your thoughts ? Personally I think the RN and Royal Canadian Navy should join this program as both have requirements (Canada) or funding (RN, as long as vessels can be built in Portsmouth yards).

  5. Why, oh why, does the Coast Guard keep flogging the dead horse of multi-crewing?

    In 2007, a CBO study pointed out the downsides of this approach.

    “Crew rotation has several potential drawbacks, however. Depending on the type of rotation scheme used, crews may have less familiarity with the ship they are going to
    operate and thus a reduced sense of “ownership” about it. Crew rotation is also more complex to administer than single crewing—although the success of rotational crewing
    on the Navy’s strategic submarines suggests that once the transition to crew rotation is complete, administering the practice becomes routine. Finally, crew proficiency,
    morale, and retention are not necessarily as high as they would be on single-crewed ships. The extent of those problems may depend on the size of the ship (and thus
    of the crew), the nature of the ship’s mission, and the amount of time that a particular crew rotation concept has been in use.”

    Blue/gold crewing on the missile subs works because those ships are essentially single mission ships. You don’t see the Navy using it on their attack subs, do you? The same goes for a CG OPC – mission variability makes those platforms less suited for multiple crews cross-decking on a single vessel.

  6. Chuck, great post, but disagree with the following statement:

    “Having watched this program develop over a number of years, it is remarkable that the specifications have moved from specific to general as the need to minimize cost has resulted in softening of the requirements.”

    Current body of specification documents (sum of all the first tier and sub-teir requirements) is 20,000 pages of specification. That seems pretty specific. Also consider the fact that no ship has yet to be *classed* to the NVR, which is the most demanding specification collections in ship design and as far from commercial standards as you can get. Fun fact: MIL-SPEC breakers cost 10x their commercial counterparts and are about 2x as heavy. Remember that both LCS’ have been built with some NVR-compliant features, but not in full class (100% compliance).

    If anything, this ship specification represents one of the most specific and demanding of any surface ship procurement thus far, with the exception of DDG 1000. Remember though, DDG 1000 started as a 25 ship program and ended up at a 2 (maybe three ship) build.

    The USCG can simply not afford to have that happen. If I sound critical of the USCG’s procurement directorate, its because I am. The shipyard I worked with proposed over $67M in cost reductions to the specification during the comment stage, most of which leveraged commercial shipbuilding practices in design, procurement and process. No meaningful reduction was accepted. In fact, the final specification contained more requirements than the draft. CG-4 is unwilling to accept any modifications to the specification and has paid program affordability lip service. “Affordability” is not the programs prime concern as the Commandant says it is (although I think he has be led to believe that).

    The procurement directorate’s solution is to put a price on the table ($310M) for an average ship cost on ships 4 – 9, but no single ship cost estimate is required for Phase I. So now you have incentivized two things:

    – Companies who offer all the bells and whistles of an OBJECTIVE design with absolutely no cost reality to differentiate an affordable design. My company offered a THRESHOLD design with some objective capabilities, where we could prove (to ourselves) there were no adverse affordability impacts.

    – Companies who do not operate with cost reality from start to finish, “We’ll figure out how much it takes to build it once we win Phase I.” This is a high-stakes game of liars dice that companies with a high tolerance for risk can play. The shipyards who established a design with affordability, figured out how to build it, then knew how much that ship was are all at a severe disadvantage. What shipyards did that? NASSCO, Vigor and Marinette.

    The outcome of this will be worse than Deepwater, because the cost growth associated with the selected shipbuilder and USCG finding out that $310M isn’t achievable will come a t a time when fiscal increase will simply be untenable. It won’t be possible to ask congress to finish the class (as is being done with NSC). Instead the program will follow a DDG 1000 construct: it will contract to a 5 ship procurement and the USCG’s dream of recpaitlaizing its surface fleet will come to a disastrous halt.

    Having a porterhouse specification on a cheese steak budget is a classic recipe for government procurement calamity.

    • Wow! (Thanks for that, Eric. Very insightful.)

      I wonder if acquisitions ignored some of the cost savings for good, but undeclared reasons? Making the assumption they did, and assuming NASSCO, Vigor, and Marinette are out, that’s kind of a strange way to narrow the field of contenders…

      By the way, has there been any decision on who the final 3 competing yards will be? Has it been confirmed the above 3 companies are out?

      • Officially we should have the down select to three by the end of March. The way things have been working we will not hear until the very last of the month, and I would not be surprised to see the decision delayed.

  7. “Having a porterhouse specification on a cheese steak budget is a classic recipe for government procurement calamity.”

    I really like this comment because it is one of historical consistency. It began for cutters in 1790 and has not changed much to the present.

  8. Pingback: Equipment for the Offshore Patrol Cutter | Chuck Hill's CG Blog

  9. This from the German Navy Blog, Marine Forum, “17 January, USA ,7th US Fleet officials tell media littoral combat ships are “ill suited for duty in the Pacific” … in general might be “better prepared for operations in confined waters such as the Persian Gulf” … a GAO reports also claims both LCS variants are overweight and “not meeting performance requirements”.

  10. Pingback: Navy Rethinks the LCS–Manning, Crew Rotation, Homeporting | Chuck Hill's CG Blog

  11. The the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) tells the Navy they should be looking for an LCS/frigate replacement that is not based on Freedom or Independence class LCS.

    “The committee said that the replacement should have over-the-horizon surface attack missiles, air defense and missile defense capability, long-duration escort/patrol endurance and robust survivability”

    The letter is here:

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