USNS Lewis B. Puller (MLP-3/AFSB-1) An artist’s conception of the Afloat Forward Staging Base. USMC Photo
Navy Times recently published an article “In war with drug trafficers, Coast Guard stretched thin.” There was a particular quote by the Commandant that caught my eye,
“Some 400 metric tons of cocaine cross U.S. borders every year — a drug trade valued at tens of billions of dollars, Zukunft said. Once upon a time, Coast Guard cutters would post a watch and wait for drug boats to get close, but now, there’s enough technology to detect them as they approach.
“The only problem: There aren’t enough ships and airplanes to catch them all.
“’We have an awareness of 80 percent, but we can only target 20 percent,’ Zukunft said. ‘We’re giving 60 percent of what we know, literally, a free pass.’”
This repeats similar comments we have heard from SouthCom. We have good information on drug trafficers, and we could catch a lot more if we just had more vessels available to respond. Note we need more vessels, not more highly capable vessels. This is part of what prompted my call for “Cutter X,” but there is another way. Instead of long endurance ships, perhaps, given support, shorter range assets could do the job.
Meanwhile, over in San Diego, NASSCO is building something that might make a useful contribution to addressing the need for more vessels by facilitating the use of less capable assets, a mothership, or Afloat Forward Staging Bases (AFSB).
“The design of the AFSB variant adds a flight deck, berthing, fuel storage, equipment storage, and repair spaces. With a rotating crew of civilian mariners and military personnel the ship can operate forward almost continuously, providing a base of operations for everything from counter-piracy/smuggling, maritime security, and mine clearing to humanitarian aid and disaster relief.”
With the exception of mine clearing, those missions are all in the Coast Guard’s wheelhouse. These or similar vessels could serve as mother ships or tenders for WPBs or WPCs extending their endurance and reach, supporting them far from their homeports and providing a base for supporting helicopters and UAVs.
We may be able to send only one or two large cutter at a time to the Eastern Pacific, but perhaps we could send six or so WPBs or WPCs.
They could also be used in responding to Natural disasters like Katrina or Sandy. They could be effectively a mobile Coast Guard group with both air and surface assets. If ice strengthened they could assume that role in the Arctic.
As big as they are, these ships have very small crews, and are relatively inexpensive to build–more than the OPC, but less than the Bertholfs. Certainly we should try the concept using Navy vessels first. In fact the first is expected to replace the USS Ponce, where it will presumably have some interaction with the six 110s serving with the Fifth Fleet.