The US is seriously short of Anti-Submarine Warfare escort vessels, but a little forethought and some cooperation between the Navy Reserve and the Coast Guard could seriously reduce the deficit, without a huge impact on either the Navy or the Coast Guard’s peacetime budget, operations, and manning.
It is a simple concept, a payload/platform solution. The Navy provides the payload. The Coast Guard provides the platform and drives “the truck.” It would allow the Coast Guard to have an important wartime role without significantly increasing its manning or training requirements. The costs to the Navy would be minimal and it would allow them to exploit their reserve pool of trained ASW personnel long before additional ships could be built.
In peacetime, the Coast Guard has been placing detachments on Navy ships. In wartime, Navy detachments could be placed on Coast Guard ships.
The essential elements are:
- 36 Coast Guard Cutters, 11 National Security Cutters and 25 Offshore Patrol Cutters built, building, or planned.
- Navy Reserve Helicopter Maritime Strike (HSM) aircraft and crews
- An ASW mission module for each cutter
- Navy personnel (active or reserve, officer and enlisted) trained and experienced in operating the ASW mission module equipment and ASW operations
If we have a non-nuclear war with a near peer, e.g. China or Russia, it is almost certain we will need more Anti-Submarine Warfare escort vessels than we currently have. The Chinese have almost 80 submarines (60 conventional and about 19 nuclear) and they are doubling their capacity for building nuclear submarines. Russia has about 63 submarines, mostly nuclear.
US Navy ASW escorts, we are short:
The Navy’s force level goal is 156 surface combatants, out of the projected fleet of 355. These would include 104 large surface combatants (LSC, cruisers and destroyers) and 52 small surface combatants (SSC, LCS and frigates), but so far, there is no clear path to that goal. The Navy’s fleet will vary over time, but for the foreseeable future it will include less than 120 surface combatants. These include fewer than 90 cruisers and destroyers. A total of 35 LCS are built or funded, but it appears four of those may be decommissioned. Only ten LCS will be equipped as ASW escorts. The FFG(X), now FFG-62 program, is expected to produce 20 FFGs, but that program, is unlikely to produce its first ten ships before 2029.
The “Battle Force 2045” plan, which was never approved by DOD, projects a need for 60 to 70 Small Surface Combatants.
In any case we are going to short of escorts. A little over two years ago, the Military Sealift Command was told that ‘You’re on your own’: US sealift can’t count on Navy escorts in the next big war.
That is really not a good plan. We already have a minimal number of logistics support vessels and only a small pool of American mariners to sail them. Maritime Patrol Aircraft might be able to provide some degree of protection for transiting logistics vessels but one thing they cannot do, is rescue mariners from ships that are inevitably sunk. Coast Guard ships might be able to rescue mariners, but without ASW equipment, they themselves would be vulnerable.
I would not expect the cutters to be on the forward edge of battle, but by providing escort service from the Continental US to forward logistics bases, they would free more capable assets for areas where the threat level, particularly the air threat, is higher.
The Coast Guard has or is building two classes of cutters that might be useful as ASW escorts, the Bertholf class National Security Cutters (NSC) and the Argus class Offshore Patrol Cutters (OPC).
Nine NSCs have already been completed. Two more are building or on order. Though they lack any current ASW capabilities, the Bertholf class National Security Cutters are in many ways already equipped to serve as frigates. A modified version of the design was apparently a contender for the FFG(X) program. They are a bit faster than the new FFGs and have a longer range and greater endurance. They have a flight deck and hangars capable of handling two MH-60s or one MH-60 and UAS. Like the new frigate and the LCSs, they have a 57mm Mk110 gun, but with a better fire control system than found on the LCSs, that includes a SPQ-9B Fire Control Radar. They also have a Phalanx CIWS and a sensitive compartmented intelligence facility (SCIF). They were designed with provision to accept twelve Mk56 VLS and Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles. Their equipment includes:
- EADS 3D TRS-16 AN/SPS-75 Air Search Radar
- SPQ-9B Fire Control Radar
- AN/SPS-79 Surface Search Radar
- 2 × SRBOC/ 2 × NULKA countermeasures chaff/rapid decoy launchers
- AN/UPX-29A IFF
- AN/URN-25 TACAN
- MK 46 Mod 1 Optical Sighting System (WMSL 750 – 753)
- MK 20 Mod 0 Electro-Optical Sighting System (WMSL 754 – 760)
- Furuno X and S-band radars
- Sea Commander Aegis derived combat system
- Link-11 and Link-16 tactical data links
The Offshore Patrol Cutters are only slightly less capable than the National Security Cutters. They are about the same size at 4,500 tons full load. Speed is lower at 22+ knots sustained. They also have a 60 day endurance and an over 10,000 mile range. They are designed to support and hangar both a helicopter and a UAS, but while they clearly could hangar a MH-60R, it is not clear if it could also support an MQ-8. It is currently unclear if they will have a SCIF as built, but they have space for one. Their equipment includes:
- Saab Sea Giraffe AN/SPS-77 AMB multi-mode naval radar
- AN/UPX-46 IFF
- AN/URN-32 TACAN
- MK 20 Mod 1 EOSS
- Link 22 Tactical Data Link
- AN/SLQ-32C(V)6 Electronic Warfare System
- 2 x MK 53 Mod 10 NULKA Decoy Launching Systems
Navy Reserve Helicopter Maritime Strike (HSM) squadron(s):
HSM squadrons fly both the MH-60R and MQ-8 Fire Scout UAS. Wikipedia reports there are currently 18 HSM squadrons. They are now the only provider of shipboard airborne ASW capability. Only one of those is a Reserve squadron. Reportedly the Navy currently has 34 excess MH-60R which could equip virtually all the large cutter currently planned.
The ASW Mission Module:
The Navy apparently intends to equip ten LCS with ASW mission modules. But the new FFG-62 class will share the same ASW equipment including the TB-37U MFTA (Multi-Function Towed Array) which takes the form of a three inch cable towed behind the ship. The LCS ASW module also includes a variable depth sonar, the AN/SQS-62. This may or may not be required for the cutters’ open ocean escort mission. Even 36 complete ASW modules at the current cost of 19.8M would cost less than a single new FFG.
Manning the ASW Modules:
There are at least two possible sources of crews to man the ASW modules:
- Active duty personnel assigned to rotational crews of LCS and FFGs
- Navy Reservists
All LCS are now expected to be manned by rotating Blue and Gold crews. A similar scheme is being considered for the FFGs. Upon mobilization it is likely crew rotations will stop. That may mean experienced ASW officers and crew will be available to serve on similarly equipped ASW capable cutters.
As of Sept 30, 2019, the Navy’s Ready Reserve Force included over 100,000 members, 59,658 Selected Reservists (SELRES) and 44,020 Individual Ready Reservists (IRR). Currently I doubt there are organized reserve units prepared to operate ASW mission modules, but that might be a future option that would allow them to operate with cutters during training and exercises, while maintaining their training using simulators. There will certainly be recently separated IRR members, trained in the operation of the relevant systems who could be recalled to active duty.
This is a simple low cost way to add about 30% more ASW capable surface combatants to the fleet, putting it much closer to its projected requirements. They may not be ideal ASW escorts, but they may be good enough to make a difference.