If They Ditch the LCS, Perhaps the OPC as Frigate

OPC “Placemat”

Criticism of the Littoral Combat Ship Program continues unabated, with additional fuel thrown on the fire by a series of machinery casualties. With the new administration indicating they will take a look at existing programs, looking for savings, at the same time they are seeking a much larger fleet, it seems likely the LCS program will get a second look. After initially choosing to base the new frigate, on one of the LCS designs, it now appears the Navy is willing to look at other hulls.

Perhaps the Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC) might be considered.

  • It is larger than either of the two LCS designs.
  • It cost less–about half as much.
  • It is built to ABS Naval Vessel Rules.
  • It is likely that anything that can be added to the LCS can be added to the OPC.
  • It has two to three times the range and endurance.
  • It can operate in heavier seas.
  • It has 25% more generator capacity than the Freedom class LCS (unable to find info on the Independence class.)
  • It’s more spacious interior makes it easier to maintain.
  • It’s engineering plant is simpler and probably more reliable.
  • It’s efficient hybrid diesel/electric propulsion system permits much long loiter times.
  • It’s propulsion system is probably inherently quieter than the water jets used on the LCSs–an advantage for ASW.
  • It’s only real disadvantage is lower speed and that can be mitigated if necessary.

The GAO has recommended a two year hiatus.

Slowing Planned Frigate Acquisition Would Enable
Better-Informed Decisions

What GAO Found
The Navy’s vision for the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program has evolved significantly over the last 15 years, reflecting degradations of the underlying business case. Initial plans to experiment with two different prototype ships adapted from commercial designs were abandoned early in favor of an acquisition approach that committed to  numerous ships before proving their capabilities. Cost, schedule, and capability expectations have eroded over time, as shown in the table below. More recently, the Navy attributed a series of engineering casualties on delivered LCS to shortfalls in crew training, seaframe design, and construction quality.

Additionally there is Congressional opposition.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) plans to hold hearings on the Navy’s frigate program amidst calls to open the competition to more domestic and foreign designs.

“The frigate acquisition strategy should be revised to increase requirements to include convoy air defense, greater missile capability and longer endurance,” (emphasis applied–Chuck)

The high speed requirement has resulted in ships with water jet propulsion systems that are inappropriate for ASW escorts, ships that have relatively short range and poor seakeeping. These characteristics make the ships less capable of independent operation and helicopter launch and recovery in rough weather, particularly for the mono-hull Freedom class. The Aluminum hull, trimaran Independence class has great aviation facilities and a bit better range and cruise speed, but its aluminum hull raises survivability issues.

The Navy now sees that they need a frigate and they chose to meet this requirement using a modified LCS, but the LCS has notable weaknesses that mean it may not have been the best choice. In addition now it seems they see a need for local area airdefense that was not initially considered  According to a recent DefenseNews report, 

“A study group called the Requirement Evaluation Team (RET) has been formed to examine how to add a local air defense capability to the frigates to protect Combat Logistics Force ships – the supply and support ships that bring fuel, ammunition, spare parts and food to warships at sea. The frigate design as currently envisioned is armed with anti-missile and anti-aircraft missiles, but only to protect itself.

“The goal, according to a draft document, is – at a minimum – to double the loadout of Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles (ESSM) Block 2 from 8 to 16 or incorporate a Mark 41 vertical launch system with at least 8 Standard SM-2 missiles. The SM-2 is one of the primary anti-air weapons carried by the fleet’s Aegis destroyers and cruises.

“…We’re looking at further increases to survivability, and we’re looking at endurance, pushing the envelope. And as always we’re going to balance that against technical risk and cost.”

Additionally it now appears they may be more expensive than previously reported.

A frigate based on the Offshore Patrol Cutter could be a cheaper and, in many respects, superior alternative.


A nation chooses to build frigates rather than destroyers because it needs numbers. They choose to build a frigate rather than smaller corvettes because they want longer range and better sea-keeping.

If you are looking for numbers, it make no sense to build a frigate that cost 75% that of a Burke Class DDG and provides only 50% of the capability. We can’t build enough of them without impacting other programs. The Europeans are making ships like this, but they are not intended to complement destroyers like the Burke class, they are intended to replace them. They are the premier warships of their respective navies.

In navies that actually have destroyers, frigates tend to be around 4,000 tons full load, The Chinese Type 054A are reportedly 4053 tons full load and the Russian Admiral Grigorovich class 4,035 tons full load. South Korea’s Incheon batch II class frigates will be 3,592 tons full load. Japan has recently announced that they will be building two 3,000 ton frigates a year instead a single 5,100 ton destroyer annually (whether this is full load displacement or something less is not clear). The very numerous Oliver Hazard Perry (FG-7) Class were about 4,200 tons full load. While no final official figure has been published, the Offshore Patrol Cutters are also expected to be about 4,000 tons. Any significant modification is likely to make them displace as much or more than the Perry class. 4,000 tons is already larger than any US Navy destroyer of World War II and would have been considered a light cruiser in WWI

Small warships are not the answer for open ocean escort either. When escorting large ships, a small escort may be unable to keep up, regardless of its nominal maximum speed. I had access to the USCGC Duane’s war diary and was a bit surprised to learn that there were instances when, because of weather, the 2,300 ton, 20 knot cutter was out running smaller 1,300 ton World War One design destroyers that were nominally capable of 35 knots. Smaller ships also tend not to have sufficient range for more than theater coastal operations.


In some respects the LCS look appropriate for conversion to frigates. They are not too small, but are notably cheaper than the Burke class DDGs, and their crews are much smaller than the more than 300 member crew of Burke class destroyers. They are a little smaller than most modern frigates, 3,500 tons for the Freedom (LCS-1) and 3,100 tons for the Independence (LCS-2) class. Unfortunately, the original concept of a very high speed, shallow draft, forward based, modular vessel specializing in Littoral combat has resulted in compromises that make them a poor basis for an Open Ocean Escort Vessel.

The high speed requirement has resulted in crowded machinery spaces that make access for underway repair difficult. They have short legs, likely generate a lot of noise, and are reportedly weight critical.


The last contract for two LCS ran about $550M each. The award to Eastern for construction of up to nine Offshore Patrol Cutters (OPC) if all options are exercised is $2.38B. That is only $264.4M per ship. Additionally the Coast Guard contract includes a warranty that requires the builder to fix construction errors while the Navy contracts require the Navy to pay for correction of construction faults.

“Upgrading” the existing LCS designs to fill the frigate mission may exacerbate their existing problem with range. A post from Warisboring.com notes:

“The frigate will also be slower than the standard LCS and have shorter range. (emphasis applied–Chuck) All in all, the frigate version “was the least capable option considered” by the Navy out of several alternatives, the report stated.”

It goes on to note,

“But it was the cheapest and quickest to produce … which is the whole point. The Navy is desperate to get ships under construction as older vessels age out. The sailing branch currently fields 274 deployable warships — well under its goal of 300.”

The root of the problem is the LCS’ lightweight building materials — aluminum—and its size and unorthodox shape. In other words, it simply and physically cannot ever be as survivable as an older FFG 7, or Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate.

The GAO notes:

A minor modified LCS could not be modified to the level of vulnerability resistance of the FFG 7 due to LCS weight and design constraints that would prevent adding more physical structure. For example, Navy task force officials told us that approximately 200 tons of additional weight in steel would need to be accommodated in the LCS seaframe designs if the Navy wanted to upgrade it from commercial build standards to more robust, Navy-like specifications like those used for FFG 7. Task force officials told us that this weight increase would have required a major modification to the LCS design or a new ship design.


When Admiral Greenart wrote his seminal article, “Payloads over Platforms: Charting a New Course,” published in the July 2012 US Naval institute Proceedings, he said, “We need to move from “luxury-car” platforms–with their built-in capabilities–toward dependable “trucks” that can handle a changing payload selection.”

The LCS are not really luxury cars, but they are sports cars–high strung, expensive to maintain, with outstanding capabilities over a limited range of activities but perhaps impractical for many purposes. The greater the payload you attempt to stuff into them, the less appropriate they appear to be.

Certainly not a sports car, the OPC, by contrast, is an “F-150 pickup,” simple, practical, easy to maintain, with a spacious interior, and fast enough for most purposes, and with optional horsepower upgrades possible if you really want it faster. Recently it seems the required payload is being increased to include 16 anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) and either 16 ESSM or an 8 cell Mk41 to provide a degree of AAW protection for ships escorted.


Actually the Offshore Patrol Cutter enjoys several advantages:

Range: The range we see quoted for the OPC, 10,200 nmi is far more than the 3,500 and 4,300 given for the Freedom and Independence classes respectively. The ranges for the LCS classes is quoted for 18 knots while the range for the OPC is for 14 knots so the range difference is not as great as it may first appear, but even at 18 knots it is likely the OPC will have a range of over 6,500 nmi. That means the OPC will not have to break off operations to refuel as frequently as its LCS counterparts.

Endurance: The OPC is designed for 60 days endurance while the LCSs are only designed for 21 days. Again the OPC will not have to break off operations to replenish as frequently as its LCS counterparts.

Operations in higher sea states: The DHS considered the possibility of replacing OPCs with LCSs but noted that while the OPC is designed to operate both its boats and helicopter in seas up to 4 meters, the LCS was expected to operate boats only to 2.1 meters and helicopters to 3.7 meters.

Quiet Operations for ASW: The water jet propulsion chosen for the LCSs work well at high speed but are relatively noisy and less efficient at low speeds. Additionally the OPCs are designed with “Promas rudders” which are claimed to increase maneuverability, speed, and fuel economy while decreasing noise compared to a conventional propeller/rudder interface.


Even before the Requirement Evaluation Team recognized the need for greater air defense capabilities and greater endurance, it was anticipated that the LCS would require major redesign.Quoting a recent Seapower Magazine article “Features Shaping Up for Lockheed Martin’s Frigate Proposal for Navy“,

Patton expects the FF to retain the 118-meter length of the Freedom class, with a steel hull and an aluminum topside. The additional berthing and cooling requirements, along with other hull, mechanical and electrical enhancements, will involve approximately a 40-percent redesign of the ship.(emphasis applied–Chuck)

While I think the OPC could be made a credible warship with relatively few modification, it is likely that the Navy would want to make some changes which I will discuss later.

The OPC has the advantage of having already been designed for a larger crew. Unlike the LCSs, it provides accommodations for 126, very near the expected complement of an FFG.

ASCM and ASW  Installation: The OPC could likely support installation of 16 anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs)

Below is a Harpoon installation on a Ticonderoga class cruiser, which has a beam of 55 feet–only one foot greater than that of the Offshore Patrol Cutter. As you can see, moved over to the side, it would not require the entire fantail leaving room on the fantail for ASW equipment. There may also be some room for ASW equipment in the compartment below the fantail.

Below is the Harpoon installation on a 3,600 ton ANZAC class frigate, a smaller ship, which has a beam of 49 ft–five feet less than that of the Offshore Patrol Cutters. A similar installation could be made on the OPC on the O-2 deck between the gun mount and the bridge.

091104-N-3038W-255 GULF OF OMAN (Nov. 4, 2009) The Australian navy frigate HMAS Toowoomba (FFH-156)

ESSM AAW missile installation: The Mk56 launch system provides a relatively light and structurally non-intrusive way to support the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile System. The earlier and 25% heavier Mk48 system was used to provide up to 12 Sea Sparrow vertical launch missile tubes on the 450 ton full load, Danish Flyvefisken class STAN FLEX 300 vessels. The relatively small foot print of the Mk56 VLS system (pdf) can be seen below on a Danish Absalon-class command and support ship (beam 64 feet, ten feet more than the Offshore Patrol Cutter but they provide three twelve launch tube sets for ESSM). Two sets are visible in the foreground, one set of twelve with missile canisters with red tops in place to the right, on the ship’s centerline, and a second set of twelve without canisters to the left. A third set  is off camera to the right. 16 Harpoon launchers are seen in the background. It appears likely the OPC could support two twelve missile sets on the superstructure above the boat davits.

Photo below: Mk48 mod3 VLS for ESSM seen here mounted on the stern of a 450 ton 177 foot Danish StanFlex300 Flyvefisken class patrol boat.  Each tube could contain two, so this small installation could have provided 24 ESSM. The Mk56 launchers replace the Mk48s with an approximate 20% weight savings. (My wife tells me these look like port-a-potties.)


Replace the Mk38 mod2 with SeaRAM: Replacing the 25mm Mk38 mod2 atop the hangar with a SeaRAM would provide a stand alone missile system capable of defending the ship even if all power fails. Hopefully a second SeaRAM could also be provided forward as well.

Without major structural changes I believe the OPC design could be adapted to support

  • an ASW system/multifunction towed array
  • 16 anti-ship cruise missiles (with possible land attack capability depending on the choice of missile)
  • 24 Evolved Sea Sparrow missiles
  • At least one, perhaps two, SeaRAM systems
  • Plus the planned 57mm Mk110


The Navy may want to make additional changes including.

  • A bigger gun
  • More armor
  • Less self noise
  • Better radars
  • More Speed
  • More Missiles

These are all achievable at a cost.

Replace the gun: 

There has already been discussion about the desirability of replacing the 57mm on the LCSs. From the discussion it appears nothing larger would fit on the Independence class and nothing larger than a 76mm could fit on the Freedom class.

I see no reason why, given some strengthening of the structure, OPC based frigates could not be armed with the 5″/62 Mk45 mod4. This would provide much needed Naval Gunfire Support capability and potentially extended range guided projectiles. This is apparently not even an option for the LCS designs. 

The OPC’s 57mm Mk110 occupies some valuable real estate. If it is not replaced by a larger gun, it might be replaced a second SeaRAM system or a Vertical Launch missile system. If replaced by a missile system, it would likely be desirable to provide at least a pair of Mk38 mod3 mounts in place of the planned .50 caliber mounts.

Atlantic Ocean (Jan. 9 2007) – Guided missile destroyer USS Forest Sherman (DDG 98) test fires its five-inch gun on the bow of the ship during training. The Sherman is currently conducting training exercises in the Atlantic Ocean. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Joshua Adam Nuzzo (RELEASED)

Add armor: This is another area where a displacement hull like the OPC’s would not be as adversely effected by additional weight, than the more exotic hull forms of the LCSs.

Less Self Noise: Making less noise is always an advantage in ASW. The less crowded engine rooms of the OPC probably make providing additional isolation easier. In addition upgrading the hybrid propulsion motors to 1,000 HP, as was considered at one time, would allow the ship to make 13 knots on generators alone.

Replace the radar: The OPC, like the LCSs will have a multifunction radar. This could conceivably be replaced by a more capable radar, including perhaps a scaled down version of the SPY-6.

Extend the hull–for speed: The speed figure we have for the OPC is a sustained speed of 22.5 knots I presume this means that maximum speed in all but the most adverse conditions is about 24 knots. This is enough for most purposes. It will keep up with Navy Amphibs and is faster than most merchant ships, but most frigates tend to have a speed of about 28 knots. That would likely require doubling the horsepower. This could be done by extending the hull amidships about 10 meters (33 feet) to provide what I believe would be a third main machinery space. A gas turbine might be added and would probably boost speed to 29 knots or more, but instead adding two additional diesel engines of the type currently planned would most likely provide 27-28 knots without the complication of another type of engine.

Use the extended hull–for a missile farm: Additional length, added to increase speed, could provide space for additional vertical launch systems amidships. These could be Mk41 systems or the newer Mk57s like those used on the DDG-1000, which are heavier but safer and require less maintenance.


Because of its conventional hull and greater displacement it is likely anything that can be added to a LCS can also be added to an OPC. The OPC could likely accept even more additional weapons than either of the LCS designs.

The OPC already enjoys several advantages over the LCSs most notably much longer range.

Modifying existing LCS designs will still involve much work and considerable risk. The OPC may require substantial modification as well, but the OPC already has far more accommodation space and range than either LCS design.

Using the OPC as the basis for a new Navy frigate is likely to save at least $200M per ship compared with similar modifications to a LCS design.

Coast Guard’s National Security Role

The Coast Guard leadership has been hitting the Coast Guard’s National Security role pretty hard since the change of administration and the “skinny budget” scare.

Here is the Commandant’s latest pitch to “a roundtable of the Defense Writers Group, a nonprofit association of defense reporters.”

Like other service chiefs he is messaging that a continuing resolution would be a disaster.

“The good news is we are modernizing the fleet, but it’s that annual operating and maintenance account that you have to get very creative,” Zukunft said. “Where we’re seeing the most pain is we defer a lot of our shore maintenance; that backlog continues to grow.”
Zukunft said his greatest concern right now is to have budget certainty and not temporary funding measures; the current continuing resolution that funds the government runs through April 28.
“Maybe we’ll see a short extension of that, but if we don’t have an appropriation in 2017, I will have to shut down operations,” he said, adding that will affect readiness. “This is not the time to sideline any military service, including the Coast Guard, but that’s what a [continuing resolution] would do.”


To say we are in good shape in terms of modernization is at least optimistic, but perhaps the Commandant has some favorable indications from Congress. They do like things that add jobs. Still even if we start getting icebreakers the OPC is long overdue and I suspect that we may see the WMECs start failing at an ever increasing rate since we don’t expect full replacement of the fleet until about 2034. Building two a year is going to take too long.

Innovation in the OPC’s Propulsion System

When I first read this report from MarineLink, what I concentrated on was the generator capacity to be included in the Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC), four 1,000 KW generators. Second time around I noticed reference to “Promas rudders,” and was curious enough to look it up and found it very interesting.

Here is a short pdf from Rolls-Royce explaining the claimed advantages of this system in terms of increased maneuverability, speed, and fuel economy.

They also claim decreased noise. Anything that improves the hydrodynamic efficiency of a ship probably also cuts down on its self noise, so it and the hybrid propulsion probably make the ship potentially a better ASW platform.

To Recap:

The two main diesel engines will be 16V 28/33D diesel engines, each rated at 9,763 bhp

There will have a hybrid propulsion system provided by DRS Power Technology with a pair of electric motors connected to the reduction gears. I assume these will be good for at least the ships’ designated cruise speed of 14 knots.

Since we know that DRS makes a 1500kW (about 2,000 HP) that is made to be connected to the reduction gear, so that seems a likely candidate for the motors to be used on the OPC. A pair would provide about 4,000 HP which should provide at least 14 knots.

My Unfunded Priority List

An earlier post reported a plea by Representative Duncan Hunter, Chair of the Transportation Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, for the Coast Guard to provide an unfunded priority list to include six icebreakers and unmanned Air System.

Thought perhaps I would list my own “unfunded priorities.” These are not in any particular order.


Icebreakers: We have a documented requirement for three heavy and three medium icebreakers, certainly they should be on the list. Additionally they should be designed with the ability to be upgraded to wartime role. Specifically they should have provision for adding defensive systems similar to those on the LPD–a pair of SeaRAM and a pair of gun systems, either Mk46 mounts or Mk38 mod 2/3s. We might want the guns permanently installed on at least on the medium icebreakers for the law enforcement mission. Additionally they should have provision for supporting containerized mission modules like those developed for the LCS and lab/storage space identified that might be converted to magazine space to support armed helicopters.

110225-N-RC734-011 PACIFIC OCEAN (Feb. 25, 2011) Guy Mcallister, from Insitu Group, performs maintenance on the Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) aboard the amphibious dock landing ship USS Comstock (LSD 45). Scan Eagle is a runway independent, long-endurance, UAV system designed to provide multiple surveillance, reconnaissance data, and battlefield damage assessment missions. Comstock is part of the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group, which is underway in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility during a western Pacific deployment. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joseph M. Buliavac/Released)

PACIFIC OCEAN (Feb. 25, 2011) Guy Mcallister, from Insitu Group, performs maintenance on the Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) aboard the amphibious dock landing ship USS Comstock (LSD 45). Scan Eagle is a runway independent, long-endurance, UAV system designed to provide multiple surveillance, reconnaissance data, and battlefield damage assessment missions. Comstock is part of the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group, which is underway in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility during a western Pacific deployment. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joseph M. Buliavac/Released)

Unmanned Air Systems (UAS): We seem to be making progress on deploying UAS for the Bertholf class NSCs which will logically be extended to the Offshore Patrol Cutters. So far we see very little progress on land based UAS. This may be because use of the Navy’s BAMS system is anticipated. At any rate, we will need a land based UAS or access to the information from one to provide Maritime Domain Awareness. We also need to start looking at putting UAS on the Webber class. They should be capable of handling ScanEagle sized UAS.

File:USCGC Bluebell - 2015 Rose Festival Portland, OR.jpg

Photo: The Coast Guard Cutter Bluebell sits moored along the Willamette River waterfront in Portland, Ore., June 4, 2015. The Bluebell, which celebrated its 70th anniversary this year, is one of many ships participating in the 100th year of the Portland Rose Festival. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer David Mosley.)

Recapitalize the Inland Tender Fleet: This is long overdue. The program was supposed to begin in 2009, but so far, no tangible results. It seems to have been hanging fire for way too long.

Expand the Program of Record to the FMA-1 level: The Fleet Mix Study identified additional assets required to meet the Coast Guard’s statutory obligations identifying four asset levels above those planned in the program of record. Lets move at least to first increment.

Alternative Fleet Mix Asset Quantities

————–POR       FMA-1      FMA-2      FMA-3       FMA-4
NSC                8             9                 9                 9                  9
OPC              25           32               43                50               57
FRC              58           63               75                80               91
HC-130         22            32               35                44               44
HC-144A       36            37               38                40               65
H-60              42            80               86                99             106
H-65             102         140             159              188            223
UAS-LB           4            19                21                21              22
UAS-CB        42            15                19               19               19

At the very least, looks like we need to add some medium range search aircraft (C-27J or HC-144).

Increase Endurance of Webber Class Cutters: The Webber class could be more useful if the endurance were extended beyond five days (currently the same as the 87 cutters, which have only one-third the range). We needed to look into changes that would allow an endurance of ten days to two weeks. They already have the fuel for it.



Ship Stopper (Light Weight Homing Torpedo): Develop a system to forcibly stop even the largest merchant ships by disabling their propulsion, that can be mounted on our patrol boats. A torpedo seems the most likely solution. Without such a system, there is a huge hole in our Ports, Waterways, and Coastal Security mission.


Photo: SeaGriffin Launcher

Counter to Small High Speed Craft (Small Guided Weapon): Identify and fit weapons to WPB and larger vessels that are capable of reliably stopping or destroying small fast boats that may be used as fast inshore attack craft and suicide or remote-controlled unmanned explosive motor boats. These weapons must also limit the possibility of collateral damage. Small missiles like SeaGriffin or Hellfire appear likely solutions.

40 mm case telescoped gun (bottom) compared to conventional guns.

40 mm case telescoped gun (bottom) compared to conventional guns.

Improved Gun–Penetration, Range, and Accuracy: The .50 cal. and 25mm guns we have on our WPBs and WPCs have serious limitations in their ability to reach their targets from outside the range of weapons terrorist adversaries might improvise for use against the cutters. They have limited ability to reach the vitals of medium to large merchant vessels, and their accuracy increases the possibility of collateral damage and decreases their probability of success. 30, 35, and 40 mm replacements for the 25 mm in our Mk38 mod2 mounts are readily available.

Laser Designator: Provide each station, WPB, and WPC with a hand-held laser designator to allow them to designate targets for our DOD partners.


Vessel Wartime Upgrades: Develop plans for a range of options to upgrade Coast Guard assets for an extended conflict against a near peer.


Worried about the Size of the U.S. Navy? Rearm the Coast Guard–The National Interest

Navy photo. MH-60R “Knighthawk” helicopters conducts an airborne low frequency sonar (ALFS) operation during testing and evaluation

Navy photo. MH-60R “Knighthawk” helicopters conducts an airborne low frequency sonar (ALFS) operation during testing and evaluation

The National Interest has a post subtitled, “A new challenge for Trump: redefine the U.S. Coast Guard’s defense roles” you might find interesting.

The author, a Coast Guard Officer and Cutterman, wants to see our larger cutters better armed. He recommends specifically, provision for support of the Navy’s MH-60R

“The U.S. Coast Guard should explore adding the ability to embark, operate with, maintain and rearm these aircraft from both the National Security Cutter and Offshore Patrol Cutter. Only complete solutions that see cutters equipped with ordnance handling facilities, surge berthing for a full-maintenance detachment and sensor integration through data links should be considered.”

and the 5″ Mk45 for the National Security Cutter.

“The addition of a true major caliber-deck gun offers immediate utility, but the system’s real potential will be unlocked if efforts to develop hypervelocity projectiles bear fruit. If so, the National Security Cutter would emerge as a true utility warship capable of providing fires to forces ashore at substantial range and meaningfully contributing to air defense.”

070111-N-4515N-509 Atlantic Ocean (Jan. 9 2007) - Guided missile destroyer USS Forest Sherman (DDG 98) test fires its five-inch gun on the bow of the ship during training. The Sherman is currently conducting training exercises in the Atlantic Ocean. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Joshua Adam Nuzzo (RELEASED)

Atlantic Ocean (Jan. 9 2007) – USS Forest Sherman (DDG 98) test fires its five-inch Mk 45 mod4 gun during training.U.S. Navy photo 070111-N-4515N-509 by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Joshua Adam Nuzzo

He does, however, see the services culture as an impediment.

“The lesson of the twenty-five years following the Hamilton experience is that a challenge to maintaining the U.S. Coast Guard’s warfighting capability lies in managing the service’s perception of its character…

He also notes that previous concepts of the Coast Guards wartime environment may be unrealistic.

“Attempts to define the U.S. Coast Guard’s defense roles following the Cold War have been challenging. Published in 1998, Coast Guard 2020 proclaimed that the “Coast Guard will be prepared to operate in low-threat conflict environments, and to provide specialized functions at all levels of operation.” The notions of low-threat operations and service-unique specialization are obstacles to interoperability. While U.S. Coast Guard buoy tenders and icebreakers absolutely provide specialized capability, the major cutter fleet’s warfighting role was never—nor should it have ever been—unique to the U.S. Coast Guard. Rather, the major cutter fleet provided an active augmentation force trained and equipped to provide service in any theater of war. This should be the target for the fleet’s future employment as the community of nations returns to its more normal mode of great power competition. As for the limitation of a low-threat environment, U.S. Coast Guard cutters have deployed recently to Southeast Asia, the Black Sea, the Arctic and the Arabian Gulf. Saber rattling among great powers and the HSV-2Swift incident demand that we ask: which of these locations will qualify as a low-threat environment on the first day of a global or major regional war?

Generally I agree with the thrust,

“The immediate challenges are acquiring and integrating combat systems and training crews in their employment. These are not trivial tasks and will necessarily consume time and resources. Better to act with dark clouds forming on the horizon, however, than in the midst of the storm.”

It is a two page post. The first page is mostly history lesson on the Coast Guard’s participation in past conflicts, but if he gives the impression the Coast Guard was historically ready for these roles on day 1, that would be a mistake. The Coast Guard entered WWII terribly unprepared. The cutters had no sonar or radar and no depth charge racks. There is nothing new about our current lack of readiness for war, it is not the exception, it is the norm.

Trouble is, we tend to have a binary approach. Either we are at peace and could care less about war-time roles, or we are all in after an attack. We need a more measured approach that responds to changing circumstance.

We really need to do better at preparing for a transition from peace to war. 

I don’t necessarily think removing the ASW systems from the 378s following the collapse of the Soviet threat was a mistake. It was a rational response to rapidly changing circumstance. Since then, we have had a quarter century without a substantial ASW threat, and the 378s are now on their way out. We probably should have removed the CIWS too, unfortunately it did mean we lost all the Coast Guard’s accumulated expertise in ASW. Hopefully we can rebuild it with the Navy’s help if needed.

But circumstances have changed again.

To me, a major conflict now appears more likely in the next ten to twenty years than at any time since I entered the Academy in 1965. We have a true peer challenger, with a chip on its shoulder and a belief in its inherent right to rule, in China. If that was not enough, Russia is rearming and acting increasingly obnoxious. Iran and North Korea may be annoying, but they are really not in the same league, at least in terms of a naval threat. Dealing with them would not stress our Navy, so would not really require Coast Guard assistance. China is the real threat, and if Russia sides with them, things could get dicey. Even without the Russians, the Chinese are building credible surface combattants at least as fast as the US. They already have a local superiority in the Western Pacific. We have to spread our fleet out, while they can concentrate their forces. To concentrate our forces in the Western Pacific, the US will be fighting at arm’s length with long vulnerable supply lines.

I don’t necessarily think war with China inevitable, but we need to recognize the possibility and plan for it.

Theoretically the process should start with an agreement between the Navy and the Coast Guard about what the Coast Guard, particularly its vessels and aircraft, will do in a general war. I see few indications that is happening. Certainly the OPC Concept of Operations did not include anything beyond a simple contingency operation.

I may be wrong about this, since I am way out of the loop, but if the service had an established general war mission focus to prepare for, it should be generally known. It should be reflected in our procurements. Perhaps the Navy thinks it would be presumptuous of them to assign the Coast Guard missions, and the Coast Guard does not want to push itself into Navy planning, but this is too important for delicate feelings to get in the way. Right now the Coast Guard is probably proportionately larger compared to the Navy than at any time in the last 100 years. When I entered the service, the Navy was 22 times larger than the Coast Guard in terms of personnel. Now it is only eight times larger. A combat ready Coast Guard may be the difference between victory and defeat.


The Coast Guard has potentially important roles to fill in any general conflict. If the Navy cannot envision these roles, perhaps the Coast Guard should think for itself. Plans should include our aircraft as well as our vessels, but I will stick to the vessels for now.

What we need is not an overall strategy to defeat China, but a well developed range of options for employment and a good idea of what upgrades would be required.

In a major war, I see a major shortfall in open ocean escorts. Thirty years ago, when the threat was the Soviet Navy and the problem was projecting American power across the shorter distances of the Atlantic, the US had 36 cruisers, 69 destroyers, and 115 frigates (plus 12 WHEC 378s). Now they have 22 cruisers, 63 destroyers, and 8 LCS.

Then we had the advantage, that the Soviet Fleet was split into four parts and their egress to our supply lines was limited by the presence of powerful European Allied navies that restricted their access to our supply lines.

In a Pacific War with China, the distances are much greater, our allies fewer, and, with the exception of Japan and S. Korea, much weaker. Our Navy’s fleet, currently 274 ships, with ambitions of 355, is scattered across three oceans while China’s fleet, likely soon to be 500 ships, is geographically concentrated.

If we needed over a hundred frigates to cross the Atlantic, we probably need at least that many to push across the Pacific. As it is, the Navy cannot meet their current peacetime commitments, and replenishment ships cross the oceans unescorted and unarmed.

The Navy seems to have belatedly recognized this with moves toward a new frigate to be based on one of the LCS designs, but even if they complete all 52 small surface combattants currently planned, less than half will be completed as frigates, and if based on the LCS designs, they will have limited range, survivability, and crew size. The Independence class LCS will likely be permanently employed as mine countermeasures (MCM) vessels (There were 22 of those in 1987). The Freedom class will likely be employed in enforcing a blockade (perhaps with help from Webber class WPCs). Even with some backfitting of LCS  25-32, that leaves at most 28 frigates in the current plan. 35 ASW equipped cutters could make a huge difference.

The Cutters:

Cutters should be designed with wartime roles in mind, even if they will not be initially fully equipped with combat systems.

In the Bertholf class and Offshore Patrol Cutters, we will have most of the elements of modern warships. To not be prepared to add the few systems necessary to make them effective warships, if the nation were engaged in combat, would be criminal. If we do not already have plans to upgrade the Bertholf class National Security Cutters and the Offshore Patrol Cutters to give them significantly improved ASW, AAW, and ASuW capability we should start those plans.

At some point perhaps we should prototype an installation of these capabilities on at least one NSC and one OPC. Then we need to wring them out by deploying with the Navy and getting feedback on their performance, and periodically update plans for mobilizing their war-time potential.

The People: 

Just as we have marine inspection, fisheries, and drug enforcement specialist, the Coast Guard needs a cadre of officers in the Office of Counter Terrorism and Defense Operations Policy (CG-ODO) who have a deep understanding of the needs of modern naval warfare, who will advocate for naval capabilities consistent with both wartime missions and the Ports, Waterways, and Coastal Security (PWCS) mission. Likely this means revival or strengthening of officer exchange programs, Tactical Action Officer training, and War College education.

Perhaps the longest lead time item in mobilizing the Coast Guard for war would be the senior enlisted we would need for rating not currently found in the peacetime Coast Guard. It might be possible for the Navy to identify some reservist to augment the crews of Coast Guard cutters upon mobilization, but even a small cadre within the Coast Guard, founded on prototyping systems on at least a couple of cutters would provide valuable continuity and advice in defining required capabilities.

Bottom Line–When we get in trouble, we cannot make it up as we go along. Sweat now, saves blood later.

Thanks to Lyle for bringing this to my attention.

How Does the Program of Record Compare to Historic Fleets

 The U.S. Coast Guard cutter USCGC Morgenthau (WHEC-722) heads out to sea from its home port in Alameda, California (USA), passing under the Golden Gate Bridge.

The U.S. Coast Guard cutter USCGC Morgenthau (WHEC-722) heads out to sea from its home port in Alameda, California (USA), passing under the Golden Gate Bridge.

A question from a reader prompted me to look at how the “Program of Record” (POR) compares with Coast Guard patrol fleets of the past.

The program of record is
8 NSCs
25 OPCs
58 FRCs

91 vessels total

1990: Looking back at the “Combat Fleets of the World 1990/1991” the Fleet was:
12 WHEC 378′
32 WMECs (16×210′, 10×270′ (three building), Storis, 3×213′, 3×205′)
34 WPB 110′ (plus 15 building)
3 WSES 110′ surface effects ships
4 WPB 95′
85 vessels total
(There were also five Aerostat Radar Balloon tenders.)
2000: “The Combat Fleets of the World 2000-2001” showed
12 WHEC 378′
32 WMEC (13×270′, 16×210′, Alex Haley, Storis, Acushnet)
49 WPB 110′
93 vessels total.
2013: “The Combat Fleets of the World, 16th Edition,” copyright 2013 listed:
3 NSCs
8 WHEC 378′
28 WMEC (13×270′, 14×210′, Alex Haley)
4 FRCs
41 WPB 110′
84 vessels total
Comparing the Program of Record (plus NSC #9) to the fleet of 2000: You can look at it this way,
  • 9 NSCs and 3 OPCs is more than adequate replacement for the 12 WHEC 378s
  • 49 of the FRCs is more than adequate replacement for 49 WPB 110s (and we have only had 41 anyway since the WPB 123 screw up)
  • That leaves 22 OPCs and 9 FRCs to cover for the 32 WMECs.
I think we would all be pretty happy, if we had the Program of Record fleet in place right now. It really would be a substantial improvement, but while the NSCs and the FRCs are well on the way, the first of the long-delayed OPCs will not be delivered until 2021, and, if everything goes according to plan, the last probably not before 2034, at which time even the newest 270 will be 44 years old. A lot can happen between now and then.
The 2000 fleet was, I believe, the benchmark against which the program of record was measured in the Fleet Mix Study. By 2013 we were already down nine vessels. By my estimate, by the time the last 210 is replaced it will probably be 60 years old. That is expecting a lot. Can we possibly expect that none of these ships will become unserviceable before they are replaced? Building no more than two OPCs a year is really too slow. Once the first ship is built, tested, and approved for full rate production, we should accelerate construction to the maximum. That can’t happen until at least FY2022, probably FY 2023.
By the end of FY2022 we should have already funded 7 ships. The remaining 18 would take nine years, if we buy them at the currently projected schedule. Instead we could fund the entire remaining program from FY2023-2027 by doing a single Multi-Year Procurement of 18 ships. If Eastern alone could not do it, Marinette, which like the designer VARD, is also a Fincantieri company, would probably be more than willing to build an additional couple a year, particularly if the Navy stops building Freedom class LCS/frigates.
We could have the program complete by FY2030, four years early.
Thanks to Peter for initiating this line of thought. 

USCGC Citrus (WMEC-300), USCG photo


USCGC Storis WMEC-38)

USCGC Acushnet

USCGC Acushnet (WMEC-167), USCG photo


Intelligence Upgrade for the OPC?

Allen Balough, a lead engineer for the C4ISR program (right), tests the new interior communications system with a Coast Guard Cutter Spencer crewmember after installation of leaky coax cable. The installation took place in Boston July 18-21. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The Coast Guard has been enjoying the benefits of better intelligence available to (and from) the National Security Cutters (NSC).

The Acquisitions directorate (CG-9) recently issued a press release that suggests they hope to get more of the same from the Offshore Patrol Cutters (OPC).

Acquisition Update: Acquisition Directorate Looks To Continue Operational Successes With OPC C4ISR Design

Jan. 13, 2017

The Coast Guard shattered its record for drug interdictions in fiscal year 2016 due in large part to the enhanced capabilities of the national security cutters and their advanced command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems. The Acquisition Directorate’s C4ISR Program is working to bring similar success to the offshore patrol cutters.

The Coast Guard seized more than 400,000 pounds of cocaine in fiscal year 2016, worth around $5.6 billion, and much of that is thanks to the advanced intelligence-gathering capability of the NSC class.

“Since the post-9/11 reorganization of the intelligence community, the Coast Guard has a much greater responsibility for intelligence gathering,” said Wayne Jacobs, intelligence system acquisition manager. “Instead of simply acting on intelligence reports, NSC crews have an improved ability to gather information themselves and share it with the intelligence community.”

Part of the NSC’s success is thanks to its ability to access the most up-to-date intelligence reports from shore-based intelligence networks in addition to its own intelligence data collection systems. “Before the NSC, a cutter would use intelligence which could be eight to 12 hours old to find smugglers,” he said. “The NSC gives the Coast Guard the capability to guide their patrols with real-time intelligence to better locate drug traffickers.”

Once on patrol, the NSC’s advanced sensors and surveillance equipment help its crews identify, locate and interdict smugglers. For example, NSC crews can use infrared sensors to better locate smugglers at night.

However, perhaps the most important feature of the NSC is interoperability. “The Link 11 system is the best part,” Jacobs said. “It allows ships and aircraft in a group to share their tactical data so the NSC crew can better see the command and control picture around the cutter.” Link 11 allows tactical information sharing with other U.S. military branches and with allied militaries.

An advanced communications suite makes coordinating operations easier for NSC crews, improving interoperability further. The NSC uses both line-of-sight and satellite radios to provide voice communications, chat rooms and data transfers to better coordinate with partners.

Jacobs says that the NSC has led to a notable increase in the Coast Guard’s interdiction of semisubmersibles – vessels that operate partially underwater to avoid detection. “It’s a technique that we’ve seen more in recent years, and they’re very hard to find in the water,” he explained. “We’ve caught a lot of semisubmersibles thanks to operations guided by better intelligence data from these systems.”

Recognizing the success of the intelligence-gathering systems on the NSC, the C4ISR Program is working to bring similar systems to the OPC. “The OPC systems will provide similar capabilities to what the Coast Guard uses and needs on the NSC,” Jacobs said.

The OPC will feature the Link 11 system and similar intelligence-sharing equipment to the NSC. The C4ISR Program is also hoping to include a data collection system that will integrate and analyze information from the cutter’s sensors to provide the crew with better situational awareness. An advanced, Navy-provided electronic warfare system and gun system will also be included to help the cutter perform defense readiness missions. The Navy is also providing the latest multimode air search radar.

“Because they operate closer to shore, the OPCs are more focused on Coast Guard-specific missions like drug interdiction,” Jacobs explained. “We’re designing intelligence systems with that in mind.”

I am not sure what this means. The only likely change I see, to what was already planned for the OPC, is that perhaps the Ships Signals Exploitation Space (formerly referred to as a SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility)) for which space was to be provided but with no immediate plans to equip and man it, will in fact be fully furnished. That would be a step in the right direction.

This might also be an attempt to head off any attempt to dumb down the OPC.

It might also be a “thank you and more, please” to the Navy for the “Navy Type/Navy Owned” equipment they have been providing.

It might be all three, but it is formal recognition that thermal imaging, Link 11, secure satellite radio, high level intel access, and sophisticated radars make our ships more effective.