Rebuttal to Economic Case Against OPVs


Photo: Chilean Navy photo of OPV Toro, 2012

A German blogger I worked with earlier on a project for CIMSEC, Sven Ortmann, has written a post contending that building dedicated Offshore Patrol Vessels (e.g. Coast Guard cutters) does not make sense, that it is more economical to have a navy’s warships, augmented as necessary by law enforcement officers, perform these peacetime functions. He is planning to publish the post, 24 December at 6:00PM Eastern, at his Defense and Freedom Blog here.

Sven asked if I would like to write a rebuttal, and this is the product of that query.


For the purposes of this post, I will lump fisheries, law enforcement, and SAR together as coast guard work, or for brevity CG work.

I would contend at least some OPVs are really warships, and on the other hand, that navy auxiliaries, not normally considered warships, might also be used also be used to perform CG work, as the British Royal Navy has done, but for the sake of avoiding repeated long explanations I will lump the ships that might do this work into two categories as Sven has done: “warships” and “OPVs.”

The Contentions: Sven’s argument is based on a number of questionable assumptions. I will try to address each of these.:

  • That OPVs are not warships and that they have no value in wartime.
  • That if a nation builds a proper sized navy, it will include enough warships to also do CG work.
  • That those warships will be in geographic positions that will allow them to do CG work.
  • That a Navy crew, supplemented as necessary by a law enforcement team, can do CG work as effectively as a crew whose primary task is CG work.

Waesche Carat 2012

US Navy photo

That OPVs are not warships and that they have no value in wartime. “What do you need in war (and for deterrence of war)? Combat capability. Warships are built for it, OPVs are mere targets in combat.”

This assumes OPVs have no role in wartime. The truth of this statement depends a great deal on:

I did an earlier post which examines what Coast Guard cutters, and by extention, what OPVs might do in wartime, “What Might Coast Guard Cutters do in Wartime? Part 2, Coast Guard Roles.”  Their potential missions include Maritime Security, Blockade/Quarantine, Sea Control, Administrative Escort, Combat SAR, Deception, Special Warfare support, Naval Surface Fire Support. and with suitable modification, MCM and ASW. I would add that in the case of China’s very large OPVs, they might also be used as Attack Transports, being equipped, as they are, with extra accommodations, a number of boats, and facilities for large helicopters.

Why China Is Building The World's Largest "Coast Guard" Cutter

Image from FoxtrotAlpha, “Why China is Building the World’s Largest ‘Coast Guard’ Cutter”

Photo: Japanese Coast Guard Cutter Shikishima, this class of two are currently the largest offshore patrol vessels in the world. China is building even larger OPVs. Photo from Japanese Wikipedia; ja:ファイル:JapanCoastGuard Shikishima.jpg

In many cases the only difference between what people see as OPVs and frigates or corvettes is how the ship is equipped.  If an OPV is upgraded and people start to see it as a frigate, is it no longer an OPV? I don’t don’t think so. Offshore Patrol is a job to do, rather than a type of vessel, though a certain type of vessel is typically used as an OPV. World wide, the typical vessel built to perform OPV duties is 1500 to 2500 tons, has a medium caliber gun, some machine guns, and a helicopter deck. Some are better equipped than others. Some even include anti-ship cruise missiles Usually they don’t have some of the more sophisticated equipment found on warships, because of both initial cost and manning requirements, but given some time, frequently they can be upgraded.


Photo: Spanish BAM, Meteoro Class OPV

That if a nation builds a proper sized navy it will include enough warships to also do CG work. “Scenario A: A fleet with warships, no OPVs. Result: Enough warships for war’s needs, enough ships for policing and rescue.”

This is what I believe Sven suggests is the best choice, but it assumes there are enough warships for marine policing and rescue, but this is not necessarily the case.

We must ask how many ship-days we need to effectively perform the CG work. Then we must ask how many ship-days the navy will have remaining after maintenance, work-up, exercises, and out of area deployments.


EEZs in the Pacific (partial)

A nation’s wealth, its perception of threat, and the size of its EEZ are not necessarily proportionate.

Germany is a wealthy nation, with a potential great power adversary relatively close at hand. It has a substantial navy and a relatively small EEZ. Consequently using a small part of their navy a small part of the time may be sufficient to perform CG tasks.

Comparing the total number of cruisers, destroyers, frigates, corvettes LCS, and OPVs, Germany has about 20. The US has a lot more, about 140, or seven times the number, but the US EEZ is 197 times larger than that of Germany. Additionally, while the German Navy’s primary operating area is near or within their territorial sea and EEZ, the US Navy’s primary operating areas are far from US Waters. The circumstances are very different. The US could not be able to build a proportionately large number of pure warships to also patrol its EEZ.


SLNS-Samudura, SriLanka

Photo: Former USCGC Courageous (WMEC-622)

There are other nations that feel relatively little threat and see little need for a navy, but have relatively large EEZs that are a major source of economic prosperity. They need to patrol their waters, they may very rationally build OPVs and they can mitigate any apprehension about their naval position by giving their OPVs more warlike capabilities.

That those warships will be in geographic positions that will allow them to do CG work. “Why the warships’ manning and fuel expenses are sunk costs? Simple; the warship would be out at sea for training anyway. Warship fuel and manning expenses may be (slightly or very much) greater in this case, but they’re sunk costs!” This assumes that policing and SAR does not interfere with the warship’s training and missions.

CG missions tend to require wide distribution of assets. Warships tend to operate in teams that are geographically concentrated. During workup they need to use the services of training facilities which are in only a few areas.

The US chooses to regularly deploys virtually all of its Navy ships far from the US EEZ as soon as they are fully worked up. If instead they hung around the US, they might be able to perform some CG missions, but it would require a change of national priorities. As it is, there are very few Navy vessels available to conduct counter-drug operations in the Forth Fleet Area (Latin America/Caribbean), and we very seldom see US Navy ships in Alaskan Waters

If we took the resources to maintain the Coast Guard’s offshore fleet and diverted it to additional Navy vessels,

  • first, there would be fewer of them, because of their higher cost and greater manning requirement
  • second, because of their more complex nature they would be available few days per ship because of the additional training they require.

I suspect Sven’s position is largely influenced by the frequent argument that OPVs should be used for counter piracy operations off Samalia. Actually we agree that using warships that are deployed to the area for other reasons, to do counter-piracy is perfectly reasonable.

On the other hand, if a nation wanted to keep its high cost navy units close to home where they can be used for defense, but it also felt an obligation to participate in counter-drug or counter-piracy operations far from any serious threat, OPVs are a relatively cheap way to fulfill the obligation without the diversion of more expensive assets.

I will note that OPVs also tend to become obsolete more slowly than more sophisticated warships. Currently the average age of USCG OPVs is over 40 years, while the average age of USN ships is about 14 years. This was not good policy, but it was possible because of the less sophisticated requirements of the OPV’s missions. In some cases frigates or corvettes are stripped of obsolete weapons and sensors and become OPVs as has been done by Spain, Portugal, and Italy.

Photo: Ship of the Spanish Navy Infanta Cristina, commissioned in 1980 as corvette with pennant F-34; in 2000 she was reclassified as oceanic patrol ship, pennant P-77, by José María Casanova Colorado, importé par Takashi kurita

That a Navy crew, supplemented as necessary by a law enforcement team, can do CG work as effective as a crew whose primary task is CG work. This will depend very much on the support provided by the command team on the ship, but I believe there is more of a tendency for those who view themselves first and foremost as warriors to view the CG missions as a distraction. They are less likely to view their career success as tied to the way they do these peacetime missions. The larger and more powerful the warship, the less likely they are to assign priorities to CG missions. This suggests a separate service, like the USCG, but at least navy officers assigned to smaller ships and OPVs that are dedicated to CG missions must feel greater pressure to succeed in these missions than those assigned to ships where these missions are well down the priority list.

121203-G-XX000-001_CPO Terrell Horne

There is another advantage to ships that are clearly intended for peacetime missions. The perception that the US 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. This has opened doors for the Coast Guard that are closed to Navy ships.

File:Bad Bramstedt (BP24).jpg

Photo: German Police Coastguard ship Bad Bramstedt (BP24), by Hans Hillewaert

In conclusion. Sven’s prescription may be right for Germany, but for other nations different circumstances including EEZ size and threat perception may make OPVs a good choice. But even Germany has seen the need for at least three small OPVs (pictured above, as Sven pointed out to me).

25 thoughts on “Rebuttal to Economic Case Against OPVs

  1. There is another advantage to ships that are clearly intended for peacetime missions. The perception that the US 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

    Since many of the personnel have came up through the ranks of smaller vessels the LE & SAR attitude plus the help people is ingrained into the whole attitude of the Coast Guard – just putting a few LE people on a Navy vessel will not automatically change the Navy vessel into the same vessel as a Coast Guard vessel.

    Then there is the tendency to send Navel vessels far far away in large groups and that has the potential to leave areas with no coverage or support.

    As you note above there are areas the Navy just does not send many ships to. Also having CG ships stationed in wide areas helps to build local support for the Coast Guard.

  2. Does this mean we can get rid of the Marines since they pretty much mimic the Army. Granted the Marines do specialize in quick reaction and amphibious warfare.

  3. Apparently it is something called Christmas today so I will have to be quick.

    At one time until quite recently really I would have said an OPV can’t replace a warship. And that I suppose is still true. The problem though isn’t with the OPV but the “escort” classes of warship and ever advancing technology. Drones are becoming ever cheaper and more intelligent. Just as the helicopter removed the need for the small ASW we are now seeing robotics replace the need for the remaining traditional escorts. Not even lean manning but no manning on least aboard. We could have 4 cheap sonar carriers plus rotary craft being controlled both from a lead ship and ground stations ashore. The rising cost of traditional escorts and the lack of a real enemy at sea may mean there are not any warships to do the OPV work which is work at human scale if you will.

    The threat the West is facing is Third World populations on the move and for that we need bespoke classes to tackle that problem like the Italian Luigi Dattilo class. Here in Europe it is the Mediterranean, Europe’s soft underbelly, which will be the arena for our next protracted conflict at sea. It cannot be to hard imagine a North African coast as lawless as the coast of East Africa and or with rogue governments operating seaborne militias such as the Iranians do. In that case OPVs would be unsuitable too. For me the important letter in OPV is O which to me means deep draught and robustness. It isn’t a large patrol “boat” like the BP24 pictured above; patrolling is a task not a class of vessel. And for the most part large patrol boats would be under unarmed. No to police a hostile chaotic we would need something like a Saar class or Peacock class; that is a small corvette. Heavily armed with guns and fast. But still something that acts at a human level. And something that could be built in numbers so we can pin them to their coast. The sort of thinking sits outside thinking of today’s navies who are more interested in EW, doctrine, and political correctness policy.

  4. Another thing to consider is that the traditional work of OPV’s is reducing. For example, in fisheries protection there are electronic data loggers which have impacted on poaching greatly. Couple that with AIS and again drone surveillance you don’t need as many OPVs. Saying that most governments don’t have enough assets so probably the few OPVs we have in the West may be enough or perhaps we could do with a few more……….!

  5. Kudos that Sven and you organized this cross-posting. It was an interesting read.
    Staying with Svens focus on cost efficiency, I like the Iberian model of converting dated warships to less armed OPV. As soon as the ship is stripped of armaments, it is no longer a capable military unit (different priorities and perception) and much more simple to maintain. But, because of the military heritage it would be a suitable training vessel that could be manned with military and police personnel. During wartime, it could be reconverted with stored former warship systems to perform the rear echelon tasks of OPV.

  6. Comparing an OPV to a GP frigate is like comparing a big deck amphib to a carrier. There are overlapping capabilities but the ships and crews are optimized for different tasks.

    France is a country that seems to use low end naval ships for many tasks that the U.S. and Japan delegate to the Coast Guard. It seems to work for them, but it wouldn’t work for us. Both for operational and political reasons. As an American I am very uncomfortable with the idea of the DoD policing American territory.

    We have the best Coast Guard in the world because we have the best trained people. It’s not realistic to expect the USN to do what the Coast Guard does as well. Vice versa holds true too.

    • France has the largest EEZ in the world. The US’s bigger if we add continental shelf, but they have a huge area to patrol. They have a very small coast guard, but it is strictly coastal, not much offshore capabilities. Their Navy has eleven ships, which they rate as frigates, that are very close to large Coast Guard cutters in capabilities. five 3600 ton, 25 knot La Fayette class ( and six 2950 ton, 20 knot Floreal class (

      Neither class has an ASW suite right now although the French are planning to add sonar to the La Fayettes. The only thing that really distinguishes them from our cutters is that they are equipped with anti-ship cruise missiles, but only two older model Exocets in the case of the Floreals.

  7. I disagree that an OPV can be upgraded into a useful (for combat) warship.
    Acoustic emissions management, shock hardening, fire protection, combat control centre below waterline, much weigjthigh up in masts for radar systems, displacement and volume for comvat systems and additional crewmen cannot be added unless it’s a “built for, but not with” warship already.

    • In some cases OPVs are “built for but not with” warships. Like I say it depends very much on what your notion of an OPV is. USCG cutters are OPVs, and they are built to modified naval standards. But even so ships do not have to built to naval standards to be useful in wartime.

    • We’ve needed and used “OPV’s” (they have been called different things at different times) in almost every war we’ve been in the past 100 years.

      • The Flower class corvettes of WWII were originally intended as patrol vessels. They were not even built to naval standards, but they built 294 of them plus a bunch of improved Castle class.

        Our 327 foot cutters were certainly OPVs though ones developed from Navy gunboats and they proved the most successful US ASW vessel class of WWII, in spite of the fact that their mission was changed from ASW to amphibious warfare command and control two years before the end of the war. .

        We used Coast Guard OPVs to intercept North Vietnamese vessels smuggling arms and agents into S. Vietnam as part of Operation Market Time.

        The Brits used the patrol vessel Endurance and an RFA oiler to retake South Georgia during the Falklands War.

        It is probably true that these things could have been done as well or better by true warships, but in wartime there are never enough.

    • Sven, (yes this is that Sven) I would grant that an OPV is probably not going to be much help to the German Navy,if the fight is against the Russians, but there are a lot of different potential conflicts, for instance Colombia vs Venezuela or Bangladesh vs Myanmar.

      Even in the case of the US vs China, while I would not suggest sending them into the South China Sea, outside they would likely have a role in controlling the large fleet of Chinese merchant and fishing vessels. They would need to be seized, the crews interned. This has the effects of preventing them from being used to strengthen our enemy, prevent their doing anything nefarious and we can use the ships for our own purposes.

      • Currently, the German navy is conducting a kind of coast guard mission to control the stream of refugee boats crossing the Mediterranean. German EEZ can not be limited to their territorial waters, they also police a share of the European EEZ according to demand. This mission and the one on the Horn of Africa can be expected to last for a long time and require an affordable “coast guard”, even if it happens to be in gray.

      • Their EEZ is their EEZ, what you are talking about is additional areas of concern where they along with the Irish and British and others are augmenting local forces to meet a crisis. That is being responsible and helping out your neighbors. It is fortunate people want to do this, and as long as there is no immediate threat to the homeland and they have navy ships to address the problem it makes a lot of sense to use them.

        The German government has decided to build four F125 class frigates to operate far from home in support of stabilization missions.If they had been ready, presumably they would be the ships in the Mediterranean and off the Horne of Africa. In many ways these are very large OPVs (7,200 tons, 491 feet long) in that they are intended to enforce international law and do small scale interventions rather than defending Germany from attack. They have relatively small crews. They have facilities for four boats and two helicopters. They will have land attack capabilities in the form of a 5″ gun with extended range guided projectiles and missiles. They will have a good self defense AAW capability in the form of two RAM launchers, but no area defense capability. Remarkably they have no ASW systems. On a much smaller scale, they are intended to do what US Aircraft Carriers and Amphibious Warfare ships do, project power on to the land..

        If you have read Sven’s post you will see that he thinks the F125s were an ill advised concept. “Even more stupid than adding OPVs to a fleet of warships is what Germany did and does: It buys ships with hardly more than an OPV’s capability at the price of real warships. K130 and F125 are outright scandals.”

  8. The F125 is controversial. But the K130 seem like a prototypical corvette. What is Svens’ reason for not liking that design? Lack of ESSM?

    • I would ask Sven to answer that, but in our discussions, he indicated he did not believe any surface ships could survive in the Baltic if there was a war with Russia.

      I think he sees it as a slow, oversized, overpriced missile boat, less effective than the smaller boats they replaced.

      Note they also have no ASW capability.

    • Let’s look at the K130’s usefulness regarding the constitutional mission, (collective) defence – that is, (deterring) warfare against a power that can invade, bomb, or blockade us or one of our allies:

      ASW: Nonexistent capability
      AAW: Insufficient even for self-defence ( ), unacceptable even for picket duty due to lack of ASW self-defence
      MCM: Nonexistent capability.
      ASuW: Capability equivalent to a ~400 ton FAC (the old Stockholm Class corvettes), and inferior to what air power can bring to the table (which is a synchronized ARM + ASM attack or an attack with IIR-guided missile from the direction of a dawning sun which negates hard kill defences like the K130’s RAM/SeaRAM entirely).
      Land attack: Marginal capability (few RBS-15), and terribly limited (and unneeded) in comparison to air-launched cruise missiles like Taurus.
      Training: Too small crew and too high expenses for an efficient training ship.

      The best use for the K130 – assuming nobody is stupid enough to buy some for more than scrap value – is a SINKEX. The navy should be punished for its wastefulness and bureaucratic selfishness in the case of K130 and F125 by deleting those hulls with no replacements for the hulls or personnel slots whatsoever.

  9. Lots of small countries simply can’t afford naval warships and OPV’s provide the capabilities we absolutely need at a price we can afford.

    Ireland has a large EEZ and need to enforce our sovereignty in this area in relation to fishing, natural resources and drug interdiction. We’ve recently bought three new OPV’s for 200 million which allow us to continue to do so. Boarding super-trawlers and stopping hundreds of millions in hard drugs shipments is unflashy but important work.

    We also contributed to Frontex border patrols in the med and rescued 9000 drowning migrants this year. One OPV also repatriated a bunch of military equipment from Irish peacekeepers in Lebanon. One of the decommissioned old Irish OPV’s is serving temporarily in the Med for Malta until their new OPV’s is ready.

    No the new Irish OPV’s aren’t advanced ships but built with the ability to upgrade capability when funds become available they are decent designs. With diving modules and UAV modules they can be pretty capable. Upgrading the radars would be next if peacekeeping commitments don’t require additional funding for the army.

    OPV’s are affordable.

    • A designation is just a designation. What really matters is what the hulls are capable of. How many Ships and aircraft did we re-purpose in WW2. Then you have the whole A-26/B-26 fiasco postwar. Post war helicopters Jayhawk/SeaHawk/Blackhawk, Even the C-130 have different purposes. DDG/DD sharing same hull, along with Frigate equivalents.

      • I’m not sure I get your point. A designation is just a designation but OPV just means non-warship offshore patrol thingy. The argument seems to be that everyone should just buy warships and use them for coast guard duty. Ireland can’t afford warships.

        We would like warships but realistically we have shit to be doing and we need to a certain number of hulls for that and we can’t afford warships.

        So we want an OPV because of what that designation means. Not a fully fledged warship.

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