“Coast Guard Cutter Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress” CRS

The crew of USCGC Kimball (WMSL 756) arrive in Honolulu for the first time Dec. 22, 2018. Known as the Legend-class, NSCs are designed to be the flagships of the Coast Guard’s fleet, capable of executing the most challenging national security missions, including support to U.S. combatant commanders. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Sara Muir/Released)

The Congressional Research Service issued an updated version of its “Coast Guard Cutter Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress” on August 7. I have reproduced the report’s summary below. 

Summary

The Coast Guard’s program of record (POR) calls for procuring 8 National Security Cutters (NSCs), 25 Offshore Patrol Cutters (OPCs), and 58 Fast Response Cutters (FRCs) as replacements for 90 aging Coast Guard high-endurance cutters, medium-endurance cutters, and patrol craft. The Coast Guard’s proposed FY2020 budget requests a total of $657 million in procurement funding for the NSC, OPC, and FRC programs.

NSCs are the Coast Guard’s largest and most capable general-purpose cutters; they are intended to replace the Coast Guard’s 12 aged Hamilton-class high-endurance cutters. NSCs have an estimated average procurement cost of about $670 million per ship. Although the Coast Guard’s POR calls for procuring a total of 8 NSCs to replace the 12 Hamilton-class cutters, Congress through FY2019 has funded 11 NSCs, including the 10th and 11th in FY2018. Six NSCs have been commissioned into service. The seventh and eighth were delivered to the Coast Guard on September 19, 2018, and April 30, 2019, respectively, and are scheduled to be commissioned into service in August 2019. The ninth through 11th are under construction; the ninth is scheduled for delivery in 2021. The Coast Guard’s proposed FY2020 budget requests $60 million in procurement funding for the NSC program; this request does not include funding for a 12th NSC.

OPCs are to be smaller, less expensive, and in some respects less capable than NSCs; they are intended to replace the Coast Guard’s 29 aged medium-endurance cutters. Coast Guard officials describe the OPC program as the service’s top acquisition priority. OPCs have an estimated average procurement cost of about $421 million per ship. On September 15, 2016, the Coast Guard awarded a contract with options for building up to nine OPCs to Eastern Shipbuilding Group of Panama City, FL. The first OPC was funded in FY2018 and is to be delivered in 2021. The second OPC and long leadtime materials (LLTM) for the third were funded in FY2019. The Coast Guard’s proposed FY2020 budget requests $457 million in procurement funding for the third OPC, LLTM for the fourth and fifth, and other program costs.

FRCs are considerably smaller and less expensive than OPCs; they are intended to replace the Coast Guard’s 49 aging Island-class patrol boats. FRCs have an estimated average procurement cost of about $58 million per boat. A total of 56 have been funded through FY2019, including six in FY2019. Four of the 56 are to be used by the Coast Guard in the Persian Gulf and are not counted against the Coast Guard’s 58-ship POR for the program, which relates to domestic operations. Excluding these four OPCs, a total of 52 FRCs for domestic operations have been funded through FY2019. The 32nd FRC was commissioned into service on May 1, 2019. The Coast Guard’s proposed FY2020 budget requests $140 million in acquisition funding for the procurement of two more FRCs for domestic operations.

The NSC, OPC, and FRC programs pose several issues for Congress, including the following: 

  • whether to provide funding in FY2020 for the procurement of a 12th NSC; 
  • whether to fund the procurement in FY2020 of two FRCs, as requested by the Coast Guard, or some higher number, such as four or six; 
  • whether to use annual or multiyear contracting for procuring OPCs; 
  • the annual procurement rate for the OPC program; 
  • the impact of Hurricane Michael on Eastern Shipbuilding of Panama City, FL, the shipyard that is to build the first nine OPCs; and 
  • the planned procurement quantities for NSCs, OPCs, and FRCs.

9 thoughts on ““Coast Guard Cutter Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress” CRS

  1. No mention of the Polar icebreakers, or is that a separate report?

    The desire to replace the aging cutters with less seems an awkward approach (not new news though). Sure, the new cutters are more capable than their predecessors, but in reality, one always needs a ship to be at one place at one time as the cutter obviously can’t split in half and be at two places at once.

    With an economic surge and more wealthy people buying private yachts and sailboats, the need for SAR increases, not to mention an ever growing population requires more fish protein, thus more fishing Law Enforcement needs. The 11 NSCs are an immense welcome over just eight although I would believe that the demands of the USCG in the future outweigh what they have slotted for cutter inventory. The Congressional issues in the bullet points bear merit.

    • The Coast Guard has not attempted to make a case for more cutters than included in the Program of Record. I really think that needs to be revisited and am writing a post to suggest some fresh analysis including not just numbers but also capability.

      Fortunately the FRCs are providing some of the numbers we need. They are substantially more capable than the 110s and will also be more numerous.

      • The US Military believes in the “Cookie Cutter” (pun or no pun intended) approach to ease logistics and maintenance burdens. But the USCG isn’t really “Cookie Cutter” in the sense that it has unique ships such as the one-of-a-kind Alex Haley, Polar Star, Healy, and Great Lakes Mackinaw bouy tender/icebreaker.

        Therefore, would it not make sense to customize some of the NSCs, OPCs, and FRCs to their responsibile Area of Operations such as up-arm (76mm, 30mm or 40mm, SeaRAM, Hellfire Longbow, torpedo tubes), new and different sensors, one-of-a-kind helicopters (MD969 or HH-60 DAP), UAVs, USVs, mini-missiles (SPIKE NLOS), Mission Modules (surgery and EW), other deployable RHIBs or Interceptors (landing barges or hovercraft), or what not? Breaking free from standardized equipment, vessels, and gear might make the USCG cutters more capable in that region, custom-tailored to that area’s requirements.

  2. Given the increased use of USCG vessels in the Western Pacific, I’d push for the following:

    15 NSC.
    30 OPC.
    80 FRC.

    This would allow for additional coverage in SAR, additional patrols in the Southern Pacific, and more ships for Western Pacific activities. It would also reduce the wear and tear since the required hours per year can be divided amongst more vessels.

    The newer ships are more capable, which is great, but a given ship can’t be in two places at once.

    I agree with Mr Krashnovians post about customization of some of the fleet,

    • The Coast Guard uses weapons in common with the US Navy. If the Cutters are to be uparmed at some point, they will surely be uparmed with weapons already in US Navy inventory.

      • I am thinking that if the US Army gets a Short Range Air Defense System that the US Marines will also get it. That would put it in the US Navy system. It is probably a long shot.

    • I’m OK with 12 NSC, 30 OPCs, and 72 FRCs. Manning is always an issue, so we probably need to somewhat trade presence with capability.
      6 Polar Security Cutters and 3 Great Lakes Icebreakers.
      And a new class of multipurpose Tenders.

      All NSCs should be upgraded to have an 8-cell Mk41 VLS, with 4 ASROC and 16 VL ESSM Mk2.
      All OPC should have 1-20mm Phalanx CIWS aft above the hangar, in addition to 1-57mm and 2-25 or 30mm Mk38 Mod3. OPCs should be built at 2 yards, the other not situated in the Gulf Coast.

      • I don’t think that it would be too difficult to add ESSMs to NSCs and OPCs since the actual missile is so thin (search HDMS Absalon frigate’s ESSM launchers; they don’t require VLS).

        The problem I see is that the USCG has abandoned torpedoes and missiles in their inventory and training for cost-cutting reasons long time ago (someone correct me if I’m wrong) and to reintroduce them might be difficult for the cutters’ training and logistics. That philosophy has to change if the USCG wants to sail with the USN for patrols and combat.

        At the very least, if the USCG cannot afford to modify and up-arm the new WHEC and WMEC cutters with better arms and sensors, the USCG should at least have rotorcraft that carry torpedoes, anti-ship missiles, and ATGMs such as the USN’s MH-60 or armed Fire Scouts. That would be the cheapest way to show some better “teeth”—armed USCG helicopter gunships.

      • The NSCs at least were designed for but not fitted with, the Mk56 VLS. I think that is true anyway. The Mk56 with ESSM and replacing the Phalanx with Sea Ram should be very doable. ESSM Block 2 with essentially the same guidance as SM6 should be a very capable missile.

        I doubt there are huge technical challenges in doing these upgrades. As you point out, there are serious challenges in training, command, control and money to pay for these upgrades.

        I also am not aware of the Navy having any interest in upgrading the NSC to what is essentially a light frigate. I think HI has pitched the idea multiple times to the Navy to no avail.

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