Coast Guard Cutter + Navy Reserve + Mission Module = ASW

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

The Threat:

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.

The Mission: 

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 Cutters: 

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).

USCGC Stone, the ninth National Security Cutter. Dual helicopter hangars clearly visible.  (Huntington Ingalls photo)

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
  • AN/SLQ-32B(V)2
  • 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 UASWikipedia 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.

AN/SQS-62 Variable Depth Sonar intended for Littoral Combat ships. Photo Raytheon.

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.

Conclusion: 

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.

19 thoughts on “Coast Guard Cutter + Navy Reserve + Mission Module = ASW

  1. Great article Chuck! Very thorough and well laid out. It would seem to be a great answer to a fast approaching problem. By seem, I mean it makes perfect sense to me but I have no authority on these matters other than the fact that I was a SA/SN on a pre-FRAM 378 with sonar, real torpedoes and ST’s. In a near peer conflict, subs will be an interesting area. From what i understand a sub vs. a surface contact almost always favors the sub. If the Chinese or Russians were involved, our cutters would be sitting ducks. That is the big question though. Would either China or Russia actually torpedo any U.S. surface ship. Let’s hope we don’t have to find out.

  2. I think the LCS module has too much gear to store even for the NSC as a bolt on. I think the TRAPS deployed like on the Canadian Kingston is the more likely. It might also be prudent to invest in a towed decoy as standard equipment. It would also be good to add ASIST for the MH-60s. Could they even use the Trigon system from LCS? Don’t they need room in the hangar for those?

  3. ASW is already out there. All that needs to be done is to re-activate a dozen or so FFGs from the ready reserve fleet, paint them white and man them with USCG personnel. Seems like a more cost effective and expedient solution.

  4. I don’t understand how in the modern era, that neither the NSC nor the OPC will have an organic hull-mounted sonar. That and 1 CIWS, whether Phalanx, SeaRAM or RAM, should be part of the basic armament of any decent sized combatant.

    That said, your plan to add bolt-on systems plus Navy crews is a good one. Not sure how or if those systems fit on the tail of an NSC considering the current configuration aft, but it appears that they could mount a 20′ container on either side of the boat launch area.

    • I agree with you DaSaint We are in an era where even non-state actors have access to anti-ship missiles and drones. Not taking steps to mitigate the risks of operating in what could suddenly be a non-benign environment seems almost irresponsible.

      A hull mounted sonar would give the cutter better situational awareness and valuable training opportunities.

      Chuck and others have raised very good points and thoughtfully suggested a path forward. Coast Guard leadership has to be behind it though and it just does not seem they are.

      Nobody is talking about trying to turn the Cutters into Burkes but there are, as Chuck points out, some practical steps that could be taken to make them more survivable and more useful in wartime scenarios.

      • OK, there is some age-old history here that is murky at best since the newspaper I read from has long ceased production.

        The Hamilton-class WHECs do have sonar, but the NSCs and OPCs do not.

        From my fuzzy memory, I seem to recall reading in the newspaper that has since ceased production (hence no archives) that the US Navy was pissed that the USCG cutters can find their lurking nuclear subs in littoral CONUS waters by just a few active sonar pings, revealing sub locations to the then-late Soviets. As such, the US Navy said that from now on, the US Navy will provide CONUS ASW protection via ships, P-3 Orions, and SSNs, which I found OK for that time until the FFG-7 frigates and P-3s were decommissioned. Recall that this was during the Cold War with the Soviets and before BRAC and 9/11/2001.

        So now we have US Navy SSNs lurking off our coast providing ASW protection and the P-3s are decommissioned. BRAC really closed a lot of port bases. But SSNs only is really myopic because ships and helicopters with sonar are what pings and drives foreign subs away. A SSN pinging with active sonar will reveal its location to the entire ocean.

        With BRAC of Navy bases and the retirement of the FFG-7 Oliver Hazard Perry frigates, the USA city coasts are vulnerable, hence the Russian POSEIDON nuclear torpedo—hit us where vulnerable. THAT is why we have no new USCG Cutters with sonar and torpedo tubes—politics—the Navy muscled out the USCG in the ASW business just to keep their SSNs stealthy. And now we don’t have enough SSNs.

        NOW, of course, hindsight is 20/20 because that very same out-of-business newspaper said that during bridge pier inspections decades ago, frogmen discovered propeller tracks and hull scrapes on the muddy bay floor and figured out a Soviet sub must have sneaked its way into and around the Bay and there was nothing the DoD did about it because they didn’t know about it! That’s all the newspaper and DoD disclosed…didn’t say if the bridge piers were tampered with. So much for the US Navy’s SSN ASW protection.

        Hence, Cutter X does make sense, as does Corvettes and smaller patrol boats equipped with sonar and ASW.

        Recall back then that the US Navy was more open in providing information than Post-9/11/2001.

      • And I think I posted here before that I read from the newspaper that the USCG didn’t want to pay for the crew training of using missiles and torpedoes as a cost-cutting measure during one of the many Recessions that the USA experienced.

        Hence NSC and OPC Cutters are “All gunboat” not because of the USCG Leadership’s attitude, but due to BRAC and not having to pay for missile and torpedo Armories, guards, guided missile and torpedo training manuals, maintenance and repairs, simulators, and exercises…just to fund the Deepwater Program. Yes, the USCG was cash-strapped and thus cut a lot off the meat block.

        This news was decades ago and dated to the Hamilton WHEC FRAM and around 1988-1995 BRACs.

        Honestly, newspapers don’t publish such revealing articles anymore, and the Defense magazines are but a shadow of what they once were (magazines used to be a lot thicker and now not many public libraries carry them with the all the Anti-War movements). What a difference the collapse of the Soviet Union and 9/11/2001 made. And now peer nations’ navies are rising up again….

      • Peter, don’t really think the Navy was ever really jealous of Coast Guard ASW capability, or that inter-service politics played a part in removal of sonar and missiles from Coast Guard cutters. It was the collapse of the Soviet Union. Simply the threat went away.

        Now the threat is back.

  5. This does make strategic, tactical, and logistic sense, and if nothing else, will train future ASW crews in the art of ASW.

    There is an article on RealClearDefense today that says that the US Navy should admit that it will never out-build China’s Navy. As such, every active US ship should have increased lethality and the ASW Module for the USCG is about as simple as one can achieve outside of the MQ-8C Fire Scout UAV Module. MH-60s can also be armed with Anti-Ship Missiles.

    As the years go by, it seems very obvious that the USCG doesn’t want to handle and train with missiles and torpedoes, so the US Navy should handle these tasks.

    The logistics is that if the US Navy needs to deploy a ship to the region for ASW and ASuW, and the USCG is the closet or the most available, then send the Cutter with the Navy Reserve crew. The HH-60s can also perform Anti-Drug, SAR, Inspections, Maritime Law Enforcement, etc.

    These days, even a red stripe Coast Guard plastic wrap or decal on the tail of the MH-60 can change the appearance and function of the Navy’s HH-60 instead of making it an all-gray helicopter.

  6. There are some other thoughts I have-

    1) Without a hull based or towed array sonar system the vessel then becomes totally dependent on off based sensors in ASW. Is that safe?
    2) Again, with only basing your armament on embarked helicopters, does that make the vessel itself vulnerable? What if your helicopter is unable to fly or the weather too bad? I know SVTTs are not “sexy” and old technology, but do they not still present some capabilities and usefulness? And if we say the SVTTs are too small to be dangerous to subs, how are smaller systems effective?
    3) What will be the lead time to install helicopters and FFBNW systems? Will they be available when needed? I imagine the US Navy would want as many MH-60s on it’s own ships in war, so what will the USCG get?
    4) This “come as you are” type of warfare may not recognize the need for training in systems PRIOR TO THEIR DEPLOYMENT AND USE for them to be effective.

    While I know that it was inferred that the threat to ships “Ended With The Cold War”, might that not be the case now, and if so, does the USCG itself need to recognize this and increase it capabilities back to something that it had near the end of the Cold War?

    Just my thoughts.

    • I think a lot has to depend on the new Biden Administration. Yes, I know people don’t want to talk politics here, but that’s the answer.

      During the Surface Navy Association 2021’s Virtual Symposium held in mid-January, I noticed that a lot of future USCG plan and Acquisition questions were deflected because of the incoming Administration. I thought that SNA 2021 was held a bit too early this year during the transition of Presidents. Icebreakers and FRCs were the “Hot topic” and everything else wasn’t answered. Please remember that during Q&A, it’s like a scramble to get questions submitted first before other reporters, and the hosts screen the questions so it’s not always asked in chronological order.

      SNA 2020 was held in mid-August so the Trump Administration was already in full end four-year swing, meaning decisions will change with these new four years. It’s a whole new plate, so to speak.

      • For something like this to happen, we need support from the Coast Guard leadership, from at least elements of the Navy leaderships (they do have different communities that each have their own agenda, the Navy Reserve should be a strong supporter of this idea) and then we need administration and Congressional support. Each of those elements can grow support concurrently.

        We might also get support from MARAD since they need escort and rescue services for their ships,

    • The idea is that the ASW mission module which includes and active passive towed array will provide the detection capability and the helicopter would provide the prosecution capability. Even this would require some modification of the ship but those modifications should not be too difficult and they really should be done before there is an emergency. In the case of the OPCs they could be incorporated in most ships during construction.

      Surface Vessel Torpedo Tubes (SVTT) are a weapon of last resort since long before you get in range of the sub, you have been within range of the subs torpedoes or cruise missiles. That is why they are on my nice to have but lower priority list. ASROC would provide a lot longer range, but it requires a launch system, that while not impossible is much more difficult.

      I would like our ships to have SVTT if only as a ship stopper for use against the terrorist threat.

      In most cases I would think the ships would work in teams so that there is a high probability we would always have a ready aircraft in the air or at least on standby.

      I don’t assume that these systems could be installed instantly, but it could be done is a relatively short time compared to conventional installation of new systems and training Coast Guard crews. That would take months.

      The Navy has only so many ships where they can put MH-60Rs and those are filled in peacetime but they also have extra airframes and extra crews in the Reserves. The concept does require that the Navy buy a lot more ASW mission modules.

      The concept takes advantage of the fact that the Navy Reservists and second rotational crews are already trained in the systems that would be used.

      Ideally the systems and Navy augments should join with the cutters and train with them, probably every couple of years.

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  8. This concept is DOABLE! It will of course, take the US Navy swallowing its pride and agreeing to it. More to the point:
    Surely using naval funding to procure ships of a under-resourced naval mission is a good and timely solution? From a procurement POV, it is far easier to add to existing ship production contracts than to start a new program. It is far easier to buy more mission modules and/or reassign existing assets and active duty sailors; and easy to reassign helos and their crews, than to procure full-up ships. It is somewhat more difficult to program more naval reserve strength, but re-assigning reservists in existing units is possible. Most of the above have a shorter timeline to deployment.

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