“New Missions Push Old Coast Guard Assets To The Brink” –Forbes

The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Bruckenthal participates in a fueling exercise with the Coast Guard Cutter Campbell on the Chesapeake Bay, April 11, 2020. The Coast Guard acquired the first Sentinel Class cutter in 2012, with the namesake of each cutter being one of the service’s many enlisted heroes. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Isaac Cross)

Forbes evaluates the Coast Guard’s performance and the dangers inherent in its aging fleet.

“With all the new interest, America’s Coast Guard is transitioning from an overlooked national security afterthought into a more significant geopolitical player, befitting what is, after all, the world’s 12th largest naval force.”


“It all looks pretty good so far. America’s Coast Guard can be proud of its current operational record and new strategic potential. But as the geopolitical importance of Coast Guard missions ramp up, so too will the ramifications of mission failure. The Coast Guard has a lot of fragile ships that can break at any time. The stress may already be showing…”

There is a lot of criticism of the 270 foot WMECs here. I have never been a great fan. When they were being built, the Chief Engineer made keeping the cost down a number one priority. He saw cost closely related to length. Contrary to stories that they were supposed to have been longer, in fact the original design was three feet shorter. I heard at the time, that Naval engineers went “down on bended knees” to get an additional three feet of shear on the bow.

USCGC Citrus, 1984, after conversion from buoy tender to WMEC. US Coast Guard photo.

When the 270 program began, the Coast Guard still had 18 World War II vintage WHECs and WMECs

  • Six larger, slightly faster, and much loved 327 foot cutters.
  • USCGC Storis, 230′, but actually a little larger in displacement
  • Three 213′ former Navy rescue and salvage  vessels, Escape, Acushnet, and Yacona
  • Five 205′ former Navy fleet tugs, Chilula, Cherokee, Tamaroa, Ute, and Lipan
  • three converted 180′ buoy tenders, Clover, Evergreen, and Citrus

Twelve of those, including all the 327s, were decommissioned 1980 to 1991. Tamaroa and Citrus were decommissioned in 1994, Escape in 1995, Yacona in 1996, Storis in 2007, and Acushnet hung on until 2011.

210s Courageous and Durable were decommissioned September 2001.

Until the first National Security Cutter, Bertholf, was commissioned Aug. 4, 2008, the only addition to the fleet, after the completion of the 270s, was 283′ Alex Haley, transferred from the Navy in 1999.

So at the end of 1991, the year the last 270 was delivered, we had 47 WHECs and WMECs (12 x 378s, 13 x 270s, 16 x 210s and 6 WWII vintage ships). By the time the first NSC came out, we were down to 41 (12 x 378s, 1 x283, 13 x 270s, 14 x 210s and 1 WWII vintage ship). We are currently at 37 (8 x NSCs, 1 x 378s, 1 x283, 13 x 270s, 14 x 210s) and working toward 36 (11 NSCs and 25 OPCs). I suspect we will the the number drop below that before the OPC program is complete.

USCGC Tahoma (WMEC-908)

While I always felt we would have been better off evolving an improved 327, the 270 was a net improvement. Unlike the ships they replaced, they had a helicopter deck and hangar. Even the 378s did not have a hangar at that point. The 270s introduced the digital Mk92 fire control, 76mm Mk75 gun, SLQ-32 ESM, and Mk36 SRBOC. They were a half knot slower than the 327s, but were substantially faster than the other ships they replaced, none of which were capable of more than 16 knots.

It was perhaps a lost opportunity to build something better, for only a little more money, but they were an improvement. We should have built at least six more to replace the WWII built ships, and maybe another 16 to replace the 210s beginning in 1994 (perhaps a block 2 with a bit more bow). We should have awarded contracts to start replacing the 270s more than a decade ago.

Now that we do have bipartisan support in Congress, we need to translate that into consistently larger Procurement, Construction, and Improvement funding and an accelerated build rate for the OPCs. After all, we currently have only one WMEC less than 30 years old, that just barely. We really should not wait 17 or 18 years to replace them all.



19 thoughts on ““New Missions Push Old Coast Guard Assets To The Brink” –Forbes

  1. I will be really surprised if we see more than 10 OPCs. The money tap is going to stop flowing before they can get 25. Some smart guy is going to see how cost effective the 154 is and start asking hard questions. Why can’t you just use several FRCs supported from a MSC supply ship (or even a leased USCG operated offshore supply vessel) vice an OPC? With the steady improvements in VTOL unmanned aircraft, the need for flight decks is diminishing. Yes, the larger size of the OPC is needed for northern fisheries patrol but for migrants, drugs, etc FRCs are filling a lot of WMEC roles now.

    • Mainly because there aren’t enough MSC supply ships to go around for the Navy as it is.

      The CG/Navy used “Mother ships” in Vietnam to support everything from PBRs to the 82’ Cutters of Squadron One. It’s definitely a workable concept, but to truly make it work, the CG would have to buy, man, supply, amd operate the Mother Ship, not ride on the Navy’s MSC coat tails. Factor in that cost plus the difference in ability to handle heavier sea-states, and the OPC is the correct path.

      The FRCs do a great job in the Caribbean, Gulf, and other continental-shelf waters, but they’re not ocean-operating ships. More like a yacht; it can transit the ocean, but you must plan around the weather and accept delays when operations are not prudent.

      • There is a surplus of offshore supply vessels from the oil patch that could easily be purposed into mini-oilers/grocery supplies with small crews by either leasing the vessel or contracting for services to supply a squadron of FRCs. Even if you built a new OSV they are cheap compared to the typical USCG platform. Except for a few fisheries in high latitudes, how many WMEC are working outside of the Gulf, Caribbean, and continental shelf now?

        I guess my point is that you can buy 6 FRC for the price of one OPC. If the CG keeps using FRC for MEC jobs they are going to lose their main argument for building a large expensive fleet of OPCs.

  2. Chuck, the issues in this post reminds me of the CG’s current process on developing a replacement for 87’ WPB or the lack there of. It seems like they are behind the eight ball on its program just like it is in the replacing the WMEC’s with OPCs…You may remember a question I posted several weeks ago wondering with the CG 2021 budget plan to decommission eight of the 87’ WPB because their missions were being assumed by Webber Class units if CG Leadership was thinking of replacing the 87’ WPBs with the FRC? You replied, “with the increase capabilities of the FRC and 45’ RB-M SOME of the mission of 87’ can be taken over by these units”. So, I have a follow-up question. Hypothetically, with an increase number of FRC (say 76 vs 58) and the 174 fairly new 45’ RB-M could they REASONABLIY assumes most all of the mission sets (SAR, LW and Port n Harbor Security) of the 87’ WPB. I not advocating for this, just wondering if it would be feasible?

    • @Allen, The Webbers can certainly do the WPB missions. And there is probably a lot of inertia to continue to construction.

      As I said in the Part 2 of the recent look at homeports, even if we upgrade the weapons on the 58 Webber class, we still probably need at least 26 well armed “Response Boat, Large” WPBs. Could we do it with 26 more Webber class? Sure, but I think properly armed Webber class are more expensive than WPBs with the same weapons–and they would not be as good at the response mission.

  3. I don’t know how well it worked out but, I remember one 87 had a gyro stabilized remote weapon installed. It was in Portsmouth I believe. Think it was the 25mm chain gun. Does anyone know what happened with that?

      • Along the lines of the sub screening boats: Would the 64 foot SPC be a candidate for your Response Boat Large concept? Slightly smaller than the Navy Mark VI boat but fast probably cheaper to run and maintain.

      • @ropeyarn, for the Response Boat, Large (WPB replacement), I would like to see something capable of forcibly stopping any merchant ship regardless of size. Also its weapons should be able to do that from outside the range of improvised weapons that could selectively destroy the weapons on the cutter, like anti-tank guided munitions. 4000 yards looks like a good range to maintain until it is clear what we are up against.

        The weapons fit I think most appropriate right now is a medium caliber gun, about eight vertical launch Hellfire, and a pair of light weight torpedoes with capability to home on the ship’s propellers.

        I think that means a vessel of about half the size of the Webber class, 110-120, and 150 to 200 tons. preferably with a speed of about 40 knots and an over-the-horizon boat in a stern ramp.

        It would also be a SAR response boat.

  4. Quantity has a quality all its own. It would be great to see another 60 uparmed FRC, but doubt that will happen. So the 87′ needs to be replaced. But until the CG designs and begins construction of the a suitable replacement (something let what Chuck identified above) I hope they see fit to continue construction of the FRC at 3-4 per year.

    Chuck, what medium caliber gun would you like to see on this improved WPB?

    • @Alan, If you’re following the discussion on the “Home Ports Part 2” thread, you’ll see part of the problem is if a Cutter has too good a capability set, it will be pulled away for other missions/operations. The 87’-Replacement (I call “WPBC”) needs to be kept in the holster of the Sector Commander, so he always has a powerful response vessel for major threats. Two per “less-risk” Sectors and 3 at “high-risk Sectors (the 31 ports Chuck identified in the other thread) seems ideal to me. Chuck has rightly convinced me that Sectors which are heavily equipped with 154s, such as San Juan, Miami, and Key West, may not need an 87’-replacement, so that results in a program for about 80 boats, if CGHQ sees it my way. 😆

      As far as the replacement Cutter, my thoughts are:
      30m (98’) x 20’ x ~105-115 tons
      (2) BIG diesels (MTU 12V1163 = 4440 kW ea.) for about 40 knts.
      (2) 12.75” torpedo tubes for wake-homing torpedoes **
      Mk.38 25mm mount with APKWS pod (I prefer over Hellfire)
      Extra mast-mounted FLIR, big Surface radar (SPS-73 improved?)
      8m RHIB with stern-launch pocket
      Fire pump and monitor (good less-than-lethal tool + firefighting)
      SAR well pockets for over-the-side recovery
      Oh, and a stack – (Is it only me who hates side exhausting the engines? Smelly [possibly dangerous], makes coming alongside underway tricky, and it’s dirty/ugly as hell on the white paint!)

      ** @Chuck – I didn’t save the link, but I read recently the Navy does have Acoustic-homing torpedoes in inventory. They are training/dummy torpedoes used to test anti-torpedo systems developed to protect high-value ships. They apparently are based on the capabilities of Chinese and Russian homing torpedoes, and primarily use wake tracking for their homing/sensor. I’d think it would be a simple thing to let a contract to develop the technology to retrofit Mk.46/50/56 torpedoes with such a seeker, and you’d have the perfect weapon for ship-stopping in a size compatible with CG patrol cutters.

      • We still have to get the Coast Guard to speak up and say what weapons they need to do their job and either convince the Navy to provide them or get the DHS President, and Congress to fund them.

        Maybe first we need to convince the CG that the mission is real, then convince them what weapons are needed, then step 3 above.

      • First I have heard of the US having such a torpedo, but it does make sense. The Mk46/54 share a lot of their homing tech with the Mk48 which is usable against both surface and subsurface targets. Mk48 also includes wire guidance, which US light weight do not, but I have heard that the Mk46 Mod5 had an anti-surface capability if search ceiling and floor are properly selected. That does not necessarily mean it would counter the props but the same could be said for wake homing torpedoes.

        I almost think if we could just get a torpedo to run reliably at 30 feet, home on the props while rejecting simple noise makes, and explode when it passes under a ship of at least 100 tons or contacts a ship with a draft of 30 feet or more.

        The simpler the fire control the better, but as I recall firecontrol for the Mk46 was very simple.

      • The Marines might want a few of these hypothetical upgunned PBs to work with their proposed LAW light amphib warship. Gets the CG back into war fighting mode. One of the biggest complaints about the LAW concept is how they would be sitting ducks. Shallow draft PBs would be able to operate where the Navy fears to tread.

  5. My questions to Chuck were mostly based on the CG’s apparent lack of interest in procuring a replacement for the 87′ WPB and thinking that the FRC and RB-M can assume their missions. Chuck affirmed that wouild be possible, but not best case scenario. But we don’t really know that is being discussed or planned for inside the CGHQ. The FRC have proved themself as a very capable cutter and I hope we continue procuring them, maybe as many as 91 as Fleet MIx Study identified was need to meet our statutory obligations. But that would not totally replace the need for replacement for the 87′ WPB, which I believe we are all in agreement on.

    Chuck, I am complexed by CG Leadership passiveness in speaking up for their needs. To convince the President, Sec of DHS, Congress and Navy to provide them with units and weapons they need to do their job. A new updated Fleet Mix Study is needed, one that includes the role of the CG in the current near-peer environment we are in. Maybe the Joint Maritime Study that is underway will also address this and support more funding for the CG mission.

    • @Allen, we can’t assume there is no intention to, at some point replace the remaining WPBs. It may be that we are just going to wait until the need becomes painfully obvious as we have done with other classes.

      Lack of transparency.

      Part of the problem seems to be a difficulty getting anything passed DHS. Congress asks for information, but it is never provided. Navy does not seem to have a problem getting information to Congress, even when DOD does not like it. If we are doing it, it is under the table.

      It is not really that the Coast Guard has done badly compared to the Navy in terms of the size of the service. That has remained stable while the Navy has shrunk drastically since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Now we have to play catchup with the number one shipbuilding nation in the world, China.

    • I wonder if the communication problem differences between the CG and Navy goes back to there not being a Secretary of the CG, but there is a Sec. of Navy?

  6. 1. I can’t see the Navy allowing the Coast Guard to equip cutters smaller than NSC or OPC with torpedoes. Not unless it’s wartime.
    2. While a 30mm gun would be better than the current 25mm, that isn’t happening either, unless and until the Navy makes the same transition.
    3. If a second yard is selected for the OPC contract, it will be an indicator of who is in and who is out for a possible ’87 replacement. I can see the FRC line being extended, particularly if Bollinger loses out. If they are selected for OPC, it’s doubtful that the CG would have a yard producing 2 key assets simultaneously, and it would probably be politically unacceptable.
    4. While a 12th NSC would be great, getting 2 shipyards to ramp up production of the OPC would be more welcome. Also, getting another yard to design and produce the Medium Icebreakers, or whatever we’re calling them this week, would also be welcome.

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