Is Our Fleet Recapitalization on Course? Do We Need to Change the Destination?

The Coast Guard started its recapitalization voyage almost three decades ago with the “Deepwater” Project. After false starts and course corrections, it seemed we finally got on course, but for too long we have relied on dead reckoning. It has been a long time since we have taken a fix to see if we are still on course. Meanwhile the world has changed. The fleet designed many years ago may not really be the fleet we want in the future.

To make our procurement case before Congress and the Department, we need a rigorous analysis of our requirements.

The Congressional Research Service issued an updated version of its “Coast Guard Cutter Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress” on August 7. As always one of the questions was what is the proper number and mix off assets, specifically, “the planned procurement quantities for NSCs, OPCs, and FRCs.”

The Coast Guard’s Program of Record (POR, 8 NSCs, 25 OPCs, and 58 FRCs, 91 total) has not changes since 2004. In that period the Navy has updated their requirements eight times.

As in previous reports, the Congressional Research Service author refers to the Fleet Mix Study. The Fleet Mix Study, which was apparently begun in 2007, seemed to indicate that while the Program of Record Fleet would be an improvement over the legacy fleet, it would not provide sufficient assets to meet all statutory requirements.

The last analysis of requirements, the “refined objective mix” of 2011, apparently based on a review of the initial study results, which were deemed unrealistically demanding, showed that the POR would provide only 61% of the vessels required to fulfill the Coast Guard’s statutory missions (9 NSCs, 49 OPCs, and 91 FRCs, 149 total).

But it has been a long time since the one and only “Fleet Mix Study” was done, and many of its assumptions were incorrect. The initial fleet mix analysis was to have been followed by follow-on FMA phases that would assess capabilities needed for coastal and inland missions as well as emerging missions, such as Arctic operations and those of the Deployable Operations Group (DOG). These were apparently never completed, but we did at least get the High Latitude Study that documented a need for three heavy and three medium icebreakers. 

We need a new Fleet Mix Study, and according to the CRS report, we have been directed by Congress to do a new analysis.

Asset Acquisition Report.—The Commandant is directed to provide to the Committee, not later than one year after the date of enactment of this Act, a report that examines the number and type of Coast Guard assets required to meet the Service’s current and foreseeable needs in accordance with its statutory missions. The report shall include, but not be limited to, an assessment of the required number and types of cutters and aircraft for current and planned asset acquisitions. The report shall also specifically address regional mission requirements in the Western Hemisphere, including the Polar regions; support provided to Combatant Commanders; and trends in illicit activity and illegal migration. (Pages 39-40)

Additionally the Congress has repeatedly directed development of a 20 year ship building plan. So far we have failed to deliver while the Navy provides a 30 year plan every year.

How was the Fleet Mix Study Wrong:

“The OPC and NSC will operate 230 days away from homeport (DAFHP). No specific crewing method is assumed (i.e., crew rotation concept [CRC]).

They may not have explicitly assumed the Crew Rotation Concept, but 230 days away from homeport certainly reflects an underlying assumption that the NSCs and OPCs would be operated at a higher tempo than could be sustained with only one crew per ship.

“Additional acquisition/next generation platforms have the same capabilities and cost as the FMA Baseline Fleet mix cutters and aircraft.”

These new, larger, more sophisticated assets cost more to maintain than the vessels they replace. According to the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard, “our new ships costs almost twice as much to maintain as our old ships, but our money to maintain them has been relatively flat.” The OPCs and the FRCs require more people to man them than the ships they replace, adding to their operating cost. It appears the Coast Guard is going to need a substantial growth in its budget just to operate its assets in the Program of Record (POR).

What did not happen:

The Crew Rotation Concept was rejected as a “cost saving” measure, cutting the theoretical availability of NSC and OPC mission days.

The plan included 36 HC-144s, but when 14 C-27s became available, the HC-144 program was truncated so now we have only 32 Medium Range Search Aircraft instead of 36.

Shipboard Unmanned Air Systems (UAS), of lesser capability, in the form of ScanEagle, are only now being deployed on NSCs.

No Coast Guard land based UAS has been deployed.

The networking that was envisioned has proven problematic.

What has Changed: 

The original “Deep Water” program was developed after the collapse of the Soviet Union but before “9/11.” It was modified to at least theoretically address the terrorist threat, and the result was the 2004 Program of Record we still live with. At that time the US had no near peer naval competitors. The US Navy was unchallenged at sea, so there was no need for the Coast Guard to shoulder any significant war time role.

The Navy has all but abandoned any attempts to assist in drug interdiction.

The Coast Guard has begun to assume significant roles in the Western Pacific in the US EEZ and in support of the Federated States of Micronesia.

The Coast Guard is also supporting efforts by COCOMs in Africa and Asia to build additional coast guard like capabilities.

The replacement assets, particularly for the WMECs, are coming on line too slowly, and we are likely to see a drop in capability as these already difficult to maintain assets continue to age over the next 15 years current plans require to replace them.

Congress has departed from the Program of Record and funded eleven National Security Cutters instead of eight.

The Webber class seem to be exceeding our expectations and have proven more capable that I believe was originally envisioned.

Ship Debt:

The Fleet Mix Analysis was not linked to time of fulfillment except to say that it was looking at requirements for the year 2025. A reasonable service life for naval vessels is typically 30 years. Our youngest 210 is now 50 years old and the oldest 55. Two of the 210 were already passed off to Sri Lanka and Colombia. The youngest 270 is 29 years old and the oldest, 36 years old. We really should have started the OPC program 24 years ago. The plan to build the OPC provides the first coming on line in 2021, one in 2022, one in 2023, and two per year with the last to be delivered in 2034. That is 25 ships to replace 29 that were in the legacy fleet, one of which, Acushnet, was decommissioned in 2011. The remaining overaged ships are already having difficulty meeting their scheduled commitments. This situation will only get worse over the next decade. We really need to introduce the time element into our analysis. Some things just cannot wait.

The Bottom Line:

  • We need a new fleet mix study.
  • It needs to include the WPB replacement.
  • It needs to consider more than just the ship types as we are currently building as they are currently configured. We need to ask if equipment changes could make them more effective and reduce the total platform requirement. Specifically I think better armed WPCs and WPBs could eliminate a need for additional OPCs to fulfill the Ports, Waterways, and Coastal Security role.
  • The objective the Coast Guard has set for itself in Drug interdiction is I believe about 10%. That really serves no purpose, but to impose something less than an income tax penalty on drug shippers. It needs to be much higher.
  • The mix should also consider an alternative to meet the apparent need for more medium sized cutters using a notional alternative about half the size of the OPC, such as Cutter X.
  • We need to consider the Coast Guard’s role in the national fleet and what capabilities need to be incorporated to fulfill those roles in a potential conflict with China or in worst case, a combination of China and Russia.


Each commandant should prepare a new fleet mix to provide a best estimate of the Coast Guard’s future needs for his successor. Since a typical term is four years, the Commandant could take two years to frame a new fleet mix study. This would still allow about a year for completion and a year for evaluation and refinement of the results before passing it along to his successor.

In the period since the development of the program of record in 2004 we have had five Commandants, but only one, not completely comprehensive, look at our resource requirements. It is well past time for another.



29 thoughts on “Is Our Fleet Recapitalization on Course? Do We Need to Change the Destination?

  1. Agreed Chuck…good thoughts. I do find it fascinating that the Navy pumps out new ship requirements/studies every year while as you mentioned, the Coast Guard really hasn’t put out a rigorous study/evaluation of the current program of record in quite a while. Do you think it’s a lack of resources and staffing or lack of motivation or something else?

  2. Great article Chuck. I can tell you that most everything you have in this article has/is being discussed at present. Agreed a periodic critical review of mission needs is a must do if the USCG is to ever get on track with a normalized CIP, and begin to not only recapitalize the fleet accordingly to actual data driven needs, but work to eliminate the perturbations in acquisitions that are being seen today. Such a huge wave of Acquiring followed by a few decades of just maintaining, just creates another wave of need. It needs to be level loaded with realistic Acquisition planning timelines baked in so the proper planning, requirements development, funding, and personnel can be put into place. While the DON may put out some change paper each year, I think the actual big model spin is happening closer to every 3-4 years. Which is still much better than “Not since Deepwater”. I agree with your “Fear of not departing from the party line” assessment, but there is a little more in there. USCG unlike the DoD is far more beholding to OMB, and also DHS. So far affordability, and costs are king, with no one wanting to throw real data driven unconstrained numbers out there for fear of sticker shock. Easy button for that is to not have those real data driven numbers laying around and accessible. The USCG should also be part of the big DHS picture, and DHS should be driving some of the Global Threat Analysis that would then drive a portion of the requirements analysis for the USCG. That is the best way to ensure alignment and resource utilization across a department, but that is certainly not how it is working in todays fragmented environment. The world is changing, the population on the coasts are changing, number of pleasure craft, commercial craft, immigration, techniques used by smugglers, technology, weather, etc. all changing and at a pace that leaves many agencies falling behind. There are a great many data points that need to be rolled up into supporting the real needs of the USCG, and not just ships and aircraft. Aging stations, and major shore that has been neglected for decades due to the flat O/S budget. The best equipment, still needs people to power it, and the people need the support in place to be able to accomplish the mission. It is time for a big, unconstrained, truth to power model spin, and a complete look at what the USCG is being asked to do, and what they really need to keep doing it.

      • I think the China Coast Guard is carefully watching how the USCG is doing things. Although it’s nice how they see the USCG as the Gold standard and benchmark for how Coast Guards should look like and function.

  3. I find it extremely interesting to analyze what the next couple of decades will look like for the coast guard. With the arctic region opening, the ever-increasing threat of a conflict with a technologically advanced enemy, and China becoming very aggressive in the pacific, the USCG’s missions are likely to expand to overseas. I really agree with you that we need some sort of “cutter X” platform. With the retirement of the 270s and the 210s, our fleet will be left with a major gap in capabilities. Just looking at length, we will be looking at a ~200 foot difference in length between the 154s and the OPCs. Also, in terms of displacement, the OPCs will displace about 3000 tons more than the 154s. I expect that we will begin to see these “rare” pacific deployments by coast guard cutters, such as this: , become less and less rare, especially with the navy’s lack of a suitable frigate-sized “show the flag” ship. If this is going to be the case, as I think it will be, we will need true medium endurance cutter, as I don’t think that it is practical to send an OPC on, say, a relatively short range drug or disaster relief deployment to South America. Some interesting designs just to look at, followed by why I think they are appropriate. | Similar design to the OPC, but smaller. Could save costs if some of the construction is similar (similarly trained workers, same production techniques, etc…) | Proven Damen design and reliability. Smaller than the example above, it still provides helicopter capability and option for a stern launch ramp. I could see this being built by Bollinger. | German (I think) design. Very similar to the 210s, but provides a stern launch ramp and retractable helicopter hanger. Would be perfectly suited for EEZ/South American patrols. Overall a scaled-up, improved version of the 210s. | Another German design. Features a hangar, davit-launched RIB, and could accommodate the 57mm gun. Similar-ish design to the above vessel, but used by multiple countries and proven reliable.

    Final note: I do not understand the obsession that the coast guard and navy seem to have with the 57mm. OTO Melara actually offered to submit their proven 76mm gun for a competition with the 57mm, but the navy didn’t even evaluate them. I personally think that all larger coast guard cutters should be equipped with the 76mm, and I also agree with your sentiment that coast guard cutters should be more heavily armed (torpedoes, missiles…). Anyway, everything above is just food for thought that I find interesting.

    • From the pace of current events, it does seem like USCG vessels will be seeing more time in the Pacific, especially around our Asian-Pacific allies and partners.

      I will say however that on your point about arming USCG vessels with torpedoes and missiles, I don’t see the need for it. Missions like fisheries patrols, search and rescue, drug and migrant interdiction are USCG’s most frequent deployments. Certainly those types of armaments are not necessary for those kinds of operations. There’s room for discussion on providing a “for-but-not-with” capability should USCG vessels find themselves in a setting where those armaments are desired. I know it’s something that’s been talked about fairly frequently, but I’ve personally felt it’s not necessary right now.

      Of course, World War II saw a pretty beefed up USCG (like the highly decorated Treasury class), so if things reach a boiling point with China…….

      • I was thinking more about the coast guard in wartime/forward deployed. I believe that coast guard cutters should have the capability to operate these systems, as the likelihood of the coast guard being used by the defense department overseas continues to grow.

      • Absolutely, I would agree…I believe the new OPCs are being given a “for-but-not-with” capability with certain advanced weapons systems, which is the right way to go considering their mission profile. My point is that as it currently stands, USCG vessels operate in a very low-threat environment that is primarily law enforcement and occasionally to support national defense (i.e., recent Asia-Pacific cruises that you noted). For those primarily operating in the drug-transit zones and fisheries patrols, the 57mm and .50s have been more than an adequate incentive to obey.

      • The Coast Guard is certainly adequately armed for routine law enforcement operations. It is when things are no longer routine that there might be a problem. I have never felt we were fully prepared to deal with the terrorist threat, but earlier I advocated fitted for but not with, as a way of preparing for war. That may no longer be enough.
        We need to be having a conversation with the Navy about the Coast Guard’s roles in a major conflict.

        How much time would we have to arm up? I don’t believe any such major conflict is going to be short unless it goes nuclear, but being prepared early on might be critical. I have thrown out my thoughts as a possible starting point, but we really need to get serious about arming cutters, and maybe even aircraft, for a possible conflict with China, that could well turn into a world war.

      • If you look at future Conflicts, I think the NSC and OPC should come with “for-but-not-with” capability because we never know if we get sucked into another major conflict. It would also keep the US navy happy because the USCG in a major war could be seen as convoy escort duty of Merchant fleet or even Amphibious ready groups.

      • The USCG needs heavier and more advanced weapons now, or it might as well completely give up the National Defense mission.

        With the admissions everyone is making about the CG being “forward deployed” in the Western Pacific, plus the fact we live in the 21st Century where electronic warfare, stealth, supersonic ‘carrier killer’ AShMs, and expansionist China are escalating the geo-political/military heat, it is foolish and predictably risky to send barely-armed CG ships into an area where threat levels are so high.

        And, I’ve pointed out before “equipped for, but not with” assumes the next war will be as slow as the last war. The US was pumping out weapons and munitions from late 1939 to 1941 for “lend-lease” and “cash-and-carry” programs for the allies, but it STILL took the US until deep into 1942, and really, 1943, before the military was fighting with more than a shoe-string supply of units, equipment, and munitions. The likelihood of a 21st Century war with a near peer lasting that long is no better than 50/50, probably much less. An unprepared USCG is only going to make good targets, at worst, or be irrelevant, at best.

      • I appreciate your points Bill, and I’d largely agree that there is wisdom in prudence. With that said, I honestly don’t believe China has any stomach for a violent conflict with the US. Our economies are glued together, and violent conflict would upend the world economy drastically. China knows a direct strike against America would open a Pandora’s Box that might never close. As long as we continue to maintain a robust presence in the Asia-Pacific (keeping allied relationships close, FONOPs) their ambitions will be put in check. They can’t afford violent conflict with us, and neither can we.

        Of course, the above is just my own pontificating and things can and do change. In WWII, we were allies with China against Japan. Now, were allies with Japan against China. Geopolitics is always fluid, but typically, that fluidity tends to prefer the path of least resistance.

  4. I believe the prudent thing to do is take steps. What I mean is small upgrades in armament without turning the cutters into defacto frigates. Surely there are small steps that could be made i.e SeaRam instead of Phalanx. 57mm gun instead of 25mm gun. …. 5″ gun on the largest cutters.

    Surely there are things that could be done to make the cutters more useful and survivable in an armed conflict without turning them into Navy frigates.

    I’m advocating for practical steps that could be undertaken without compromising the basic missions of the cutter.

      • Or the British-made “Exactor II” which is a lightweight portable 8-cell launcher that fires the Israel-made “Spike-NLOS” with a range of between 25 to 30-kilometers. Small enough that the entire Launcher and Radar detection system, that it can be mounted on the rear of an “Polaris MZRZ-D4” ATV…

      • I ran into the “Exactor” by happenstance while looking up something else. I found it interesting and tried looking it up by it’s name “Exactor” and ran into a brick wall. Then went back to original article, too see how the article described the “Exactor”, as [British-made Exactor]. Computer search engine isn’t intuitive enough on single word descriptions, without adding word phrase before it to guide the computer to perform the search. Sorry about the long-winded diatribe in explanation…

        ( )

      • I think the NSC was built fitted for but not with the Mk56 VLS with ESSM behind the 57mm.

        As it was designed with the Mk56 in mind you’d think that upgrade would be pretty doable.

      • Secundius, Thanks, but that did not work for me. I have posted photos of an eight cell launcher for Spike NLOS, but it was an Israeli system based on the Typhoon gun mount.

        Malph, my understanding is that the NSCs were designed to accept MK56 VLS between the 57mm and the superstructure. I think it was eight cells maybe 12, and ESSM can be twin packed for launch from the Mk56 to that could provide at least 16 missiles, maybe 24.

        I really think the mission the cutters will be needed for is ASW. Even in that mission they might need better air defense but primarily they need a towed array for detection to cue an ASW helicopter.

      • Chuck, HI put out a roadmap for these kinds of upgrades. They’ve proposed various upgraded takes on the NSC under the banner Patrol Frigates.

        Some of the proposed variants had a 12 cell Mk56 ESSM launcher. Some had a towed array. … The pieces are there. Some thought has gone into it.

        We should take a step in that direction. Smarter people than I can figure out which steps to do first based on probable threats. Perhaps, as you say; a towed array makes sense to do first.

        As other have said, if the US were to find itself in some type of Naval conflict, having the time to bring the cutters in, retrofit armaments and then train the crews is doubtful.

        I’m advocating a step. Certainly the NSCs and OPCs have the most military potential but even small upgrades to the FRCs could be helpful.

  5. Malph, it seems no one has wanted to step on anyone’s toe by asking them to do anything. From what I hear, we have minor commitments in war plans to provide a few ships to patrol in limited wars, but no real plan to mobilize for a major conflict. Navy has not asked the Coast Guard to step up, and the Coast Guard is not going to tell the Navy what they want to do.

    I think it is time to have a serious get together with the idea of figuring out the best way to use Coast Guard assets, including perhaps the aircraft, and decide what to add when, and how we can find synergy with the Navy Reserve that could provide ASW helicopters and perhaps bulk up our crews.

    • Chuck, I think you’ve gotten to the heart of the matter. That sit down is overdue.

      You almost have to pick a scenario or scenarios and then pick the upgrade which will do the most to support those scenarios.

  6. Pingback: “Coast Guard Cutter Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress” –CRS, October 21, 2019, A New Version Reflects RFI | Chuck Hill's CG Blog

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