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.
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.”
- What you consider an OPV to be, since they range from little more than trawlers, to the 4,500 ton Bertholf class, to the at least 10,000 ton vessels being built in China?
- What kind of war it is? and
- How long the war will last?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).