Swedish Patrol Boat ASW System

Photo: Tapper-class Fast Patrol Boat, displacement of 62 tons, 22 meters (72′) in length (Credits: Swedish Armed Forces)

Naval News reports that the first of six Trapper class fast patrol boats has completed an upgrade that will allow these small vessels to hunt submarines. At 62 tons full load, these vessels are about 2/3s the size of the Coast Guard’s 87 foot Marine Protector class WPBs (91 tons). 

Sweden has a history of suspected or known intrusions by submarines, midget submarines, and/or swimmer delivery vehicles, presumably from the Soviet Union/Russia.

What they seem to have done here is to use technology similar to the Sono-buoys used by airborne ASW units. While surface units do not have the speed of aircraft in getting to the scene, they are potentially more persistent, and because the buoys themselves do not have to fit within ejection tubes, they can be made larger with batteries that provide longer life. 

Photo: Tapper-class enhanced ASW capabilities mainly rely on new sonobuoy integration (Credits: Swedish Armed Forces)

The post makes no mention of weapons or hull mounted sonars. When built in the 1990s, this class, originally of twelve vessels, based on a Swedish Coast Guard vessel design, had a searchlight sonar and small Anti-Submarine mortars that went by the designation RBS-12 or ASW600. The mortar projectiles were relatively small, only 100mm (3.95″) in diameter, weighing 4.2 kilograms (9 pounds 4 oz.), far smaller than the 65 pound (29.5 kilo) Hedgehog or Mousetrap weapons of WWII, but, unlike those systems, they did have a shaped charge. Apparently the weapon was removed at some point, but reportedly the weapon was reintroduced in 2018 on the Koster-class mine countermeasures vessels so it is possible it has been reintroduced here as well. 

Anti-submarine mortar system Elma LLS-920 (SAAB RBS12 ASW600) on the Swedish patrol boat HMS Hugin. Rearview with some mortars unattached. Photo by Dagjoh

While the post seems to emphasize passive detection, the last paragraph suggest there is an active component.

“The Kongsberg Maritime sonar selected for this upgrade is being used for Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), Mine and Obstacle detection and Navigation (emphasis applied–Chuck), and is designed for use in shallow water.”

“Navy of Cameroon plans to purchase two Island-class American patrol boats” –NavyRecognition

The Coast Guard Cutter Naushon (WPB 1311) 110-foot Island-class patrol boat and crew conduct training in Kachemak Bay near Homer, Alaska, Feb. 16, 2018.(Picture source U.S. Defense Visual Information)

NavyRecognition is reporting that two of the 110 foot Island class cutters will be going to Cameroon.

Cameroon is one of several West African nations that share coast lines on the Gulf of Guinea. The area has been a hot spot for piracy and other forms of maritime criminal activity.

“Considerations for a Future Patrol Boat” –USNI

Photo: a Navy MkVI

The April edition of U.S. Naval Institute Proceeding has a short article written by Coast Guard Lieutenants James Martin and Jasper Campbell discussing the recapitalization of the 87 foot WPB fleet and suggesting adaptation of the Navy’s MkVI patrol boat as a replacement.

Any choice of a new class of ships for the Coast Guard must depend on how it will integrate into the legacy fleet. Choices are strongly influenced by the strengths and weaknesses of the other assets available.

Marine Protector class cutter, USCGC Barracuda (WPB-87301), USCG photo

In FY2021 the Coast Guard expects to decommission eight of the 87 foot Marine Protector class without replacement. This change is justified as follows,

 This initiative decommissions eight 87-foot Marine Protector Class CPBs. This initiative is based on the acquisition of the Fast Response Cutter (FRC) and Response Boat – Medium (RB-M), both of which are more capable than the legacy assets that they replace. Decommissioning these assets focuses patrol boat funding on operating and supporting new assets, such as the FRCs, as well as other strategic priorities. Forecasted material condition as assessed by the Coast Guard’s Patrol Boat Product Line will be a factor in identifying the specific cutter hulls to be decommissioned, ensuring that the cutters with the best material condition remain operational.

Overall fleet performance degradation will be minimized since FRCs outperform previous patrol boats and RB-Ms are more capable than previous boats. Finally, the decommissionings will focus on areas where the combination of FRCs and RB-Ms provides sufficient capability to remove the operational need for an 87-foot CPB

What they really seem to be saying is that RB-M, unlike the boats they replaced, are able to do some of the missions the WPBs were intended to do. On the other hand the 110 foot Island class WPBs were already more capable than the 87 footers so its not like the 87 footers were doing missions the 110s could not. The real difference here may be that, because we now have more larger patrol craft, both Webber and Island class than we did previously, we don’t need as many Marine Protector Class.

Nevertheless it does appear that the Coast Guard sees a need for some WPBs. The USNI article refers to a 2018 statement by the Commandant that, “Recurring Depot Availability Program (RDAP) is anticipated to extend the service life of the 87s well into 2030.”

The capability gaps between the Marine Protector class and the smaller boats below them in size, now RB-ms, has shrunk, while the gap between them and the larger Patrol craft, soon to be all FRCs, has grown. This suggests that any replacement should be, if anything, more capable than the Marine Protector class, not less. While faster and more heavily armed, than the 87 foot WPBs, it appears that the MkVI is less capable in terms of characteristics the Coast Guard values. They have less endurance, appear less seaworthy, and as currently configured, the only boats they can launch are flat bottomed rubber raiding craft.

It appears, any WPB replacement’s capabilities should move closer to those of the FRC rather than the RB-M. Still I see their role as much different from that of the Webber class. The Webbers would be used primarily on regularly scheduled patrols while the WPB replace would be the true “Fast Response Cutters,” on standby for developing emergencies. 

I offered a description of my concept of a WPB replacement earlier, including concepts of operation and manning, explaining why it should be larger, faster, and better armed. There was additional discussion about the concept here. My suggestion was that it should be one and a half to twice as large as the 87 foot WPBs and about half the size of the 353 ton Webber class…136 to 182 tons full load, or roughly 100′ (30.5 meter) to 130′ (39.6 meter) in length, not too much different from the Island class cutter, 110 feet (33.5 meter) loa and 168 tons. 

I also saw it being uniquely equipped to fill a current gap in our Port, Waterways, and Coastal Security mission, that of being able to defend our critical ports, by being able to forcibly stop any vessel, regardless of its size, speed, or maneuverability.

Such a ship would also be both of interest for Foreign Military Sales and as a reserve element for potential combat roles.

“Coast Guard Cutter Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress, Updated April 15, 2020” –CRS

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) has again updated their “Coast Guard Cutter Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress.” The last updated edition of this analysis, that I reported on here, was dated 28 Jan. 2020. The FY2021 PC&I request includes funding for OPC#3 and long lead time material for #4, plus small amounts for the NSC and FRC program. Not addressed here is the second Polar Security Cutter for which funding is also requested, addressed in a separate CRS report. There is a good breakdown of the entire request for vessels here.

As noted earlier, eight Marine Protector class, 87 foot WPBs are to be decommissioned without replacement. 

Congress has routinely added Webber class Fast Response Cutters to previous budgets. I have to believe the Congress will fund four additional FRCs, if not in FY2021 then in 2022, so that we can ccomplete the program of record and replace all six Island class WPBs of PATFORSWA. A 12th NSC seems much less likely, but not impossible. The summary for the 15 April edition is quoted below. 

Summary

The Coast Guard’s program of record (POR) calls for procuring 8 National Security Cutters (NSCs), 25 Offshore Patrol Cutters (OPCs), and 58 Fast Response Cutters (FRCs) as replacements for 90 aging Coast Guard high-endurance cutters, medium-endurance cutters, and patrol craft. The Coast Guard’s proposed FY2021 budget requests a total of $597 million in procurement funding for the NSC, OPC, and FRC programs. It also proposes a rescission of $70 million in FY2020 procurement funding that Congress provided for the NSC program.

NSCs are the Coast Guard’s largest and most capable general-purpose cutters; they are replacing the Coast Guard’s 12 Hamilton-class high-endurance cutters. NSCs have an estimated average procurement cost of about $670 million per ship. Although the Coast Guard’s POR calls for procuring 8 NSCs to replace the 12 Hamilton-class cutters, Congress through FY2020 has fully funded 11 NSCs, including the 10th and 11th in FY2018. In FY2020, Congress provided $100.5 million for procurement of long lead time materials (LLTM) for a 12th NSC, so as to preserve the option of procuring a 12th NSC while the Coast Guard evaluates its future needs. The funding can be used for procuring LLTM for a 12th NSC if the Coast Guard determines it is needed. The Coast Guard’s proposed FY2021 budget requests $31 million in procurement funding for activities within the NSC program; this request does not include further funding for a 12th NSC. The Coast Guard’s proposed FY2021 budget also proposes a rescission of $70 million of the $100.5 million that Congress provided for a 12th NSC, with the intent of reprogramming that funding to the Coast Guard’s Polar Security Cutter (PSC) program. Eight NSCs have entered service; the seventh and eighth were commissioned into service on August 24, 2019. The 9th through 11th are under construction; the 9th is scheduled for delivery in 2020.

OPCs are to be less expensive and in some respects less capable than NSCs; they are intended to replace the Coast Guard’s 29 aged medium-endurance cutters. Coast Guard officials describe the OPC and PSC programs as the service’s highest acquisition priorities. OPCs have an estimated average procurement cost of about $411 million per ship. The first OPC was funded in FY2018. The Coast Guard’s proposed FY2021 budget requests $546 million in procurement funding for the third OPC, LLTM for the fourth, and other program costs. On October 11, 2019, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), of which the Coast Guard is a part, announced that DHS had granted extraordinary contractual relief to Eastern Shipbuilding Group (ESG) of Panama City, FL, the builder of the first four OPCs, under P.L. 85-804 as amended (50 U.S.C. 1431-1435), a law that authorizes certain federal agencies to provide certain types of extraordinary relief to contractors who are encountering difficulties in the performance of federal contracts or subcontracts relating to national defense. ESG reportedly submitted a request for extraordinary relief on June 30, 2019, after ESG’s shipbuilding facilities were damaged by Hurricane Michael, which passed through the Florida panhandle on October 10, 2018. The Coast Guard intends to hold a competition for a contract to build OPCs 5 through 15.

FRCs are considerably smaller and less expensive than OPCs; they are intended to replace the Coast Guard’s 49 aging Island-class patrol boats. FRCs have an estimated average procurement cost of about $65 million per boat. A total of 60 have been funded through FY2020, including four in FY2020. Four of the 60 are to be used by the Coast Guard in the Persian Gulf and are not counted against the Coast Guard’s 58-ship POR for the program, which relates to domestic operations. Excluding these four FRCs, 56 FRCs for domestic operations have been funded through FY2020. The 36th FRC was commissioned into service on January 10, 2020. The Coast Guard’s proposed FY2021 budget requests $20 million in procurement funding for the FRC program; this request does not include funding for any additional FRCs.

“GeoSpectrum Launches Low Frequency Active VDS Deployable by USVs”

Geospectrum’s new, compact version of the Towed Reelable Active Passive Sonar (TRAPS) suitable for Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs)

NavyNews reports that Canadian Company GeoSpectrum has developed a version of their “Towed Reelable Active Passive Sonar” (TRAPS) that is scaled to fit vessels as small as 12 meter Unmanned Surface Vessels (USV).

We talked earlier about an earlier version of this system. If it fits on a 12 meter (39’4″) USV, then it should certainly be able to fit on anything WPB or larger. If we should ever have to go to war, this might be a capability we would want to protect our harbor approaches from submarines. We would probably also want to add an ASW torpedo launching capability.

It might be worth doing some experimentation to see how it works, and if desirable, draw up plans for adding this or a similar system for mobilization. First of course we should take a look at the results of Canada’s tests.

Might also be desirable to have something like this for the Webber class cutters going to PATFORSWA, since the Iranians have a large number of small conventionally powered submarines.

Maybe it could help us find semi-submersibles smuggling drugs as well. 

Coast Guard Budget in “A Budget for America’s Future, Fiscal Year 2021” and a small, unpleasant surprise

White House, South Side. Photo by MattWade from Wikipedia

Looking for information on the 2021 budget I came across “A Budget for America’s Future, Fiscal Year 2021” issued from the White House by the GAO. It covers the entire Federal budget. It is a 138 pages. It mentions the Coast Guard only three times. (No, I did not read the entire document, used the “control F” function to find them.) I have reproduced those parts below. The third was a bit of a surprise.

  1. In addition, the Budget includes $1.6 billion to continue the important work of modernizing the U.S. Coast Guard vessels and aircraft that patrol the Nation’s coastal borders. (page 6 or 10 of 138 in the pdf)
  2.  In addition, the Budget includes $1.6 billion to continue to modernize U.S. Coast Guard vessels and aircraft that patrol and provide life-saving rescue missions across the Nation’s coastal borders.  The Budget includes funding for a second polar icebreaker to ensure America is at the forefront of safeguarding uninterrupted, year round commercial activity, trade, and supply routes and confirming America’s leadership role in the Arctic and Antarctic. (page 56 or 60 of 138 in the pdf)
  3. Focuses on Sound Budgeting.  The Budget proposes to shift $215 million in Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding for the U.S. Coast Guard into the Department’s base budget.  This furthers the Administration’s goal of ensuring that the OCO request funds only temporary overseas warfighting operations and does not fund enduring operations “off budget.” (page 58 or 62 of 138 in the pdf)

The third entry caught my eye. I can only think of one significant “Overseas Contingency Operation,” PATFORSWA, which is funded by DOD. It sounds like DHS wants to terminate PATFORSWA. This might explain why the last two Webber class FRCs, which would have presumably gone to PATFORSWA, were not included in the FY2021 budget. 

Depending on your degree of cynicism, other possibilities are that DHS wants to increase the total budget that they control, or that they want make CG budget look bigger when it was really money we were getting already.

The on line edition of Seapower, the Navy League magazine’s, report on the budget included something that surprised me.

The 2021 budget also proposes $35.5 million to manage retirements of old assets, including the decommissioning of two Secretary-class high-endurance cutters, two Island-class patrol boats and eight Marine Protector-class patrol boats. (emphasis applied-Chuck)

Looks like we are starting to decommission the 87 foot WPBs without a replacement in sight. For at least the last five years, I have been saying we were going to need a replacement for these in the near future, here, here, here, but I was still surprised because I have seen nothing about a replacement.

New Thai Patrol Craft

Graphical rendering of the new patrol craft for the Royal Thai Navy (Image from Marsun)

MarineLog reports that the Thai Navy has chosen MAN 16V175D-MM, IMO Tier II engines, each rated at 2,960 kWm at 1,900 rpm, to power a new class of two Patrol Craft. With two engines for each vessel that is just under 8,000 HP.

This new class is only the latest in a string of patrol craft, indigenously built by Marsun. This class appear to be closely related to the T995 and T996 patrol gun boats. if so it should have a speed of about 27 knots.

It appears to be equipped with a small RHIB, but the boat handling equipment does not appear as convenient as a dedicated davit or stern ramp.

Recently, the Thais seem to have been providing more powerful weapons for their patrol vessels than do most other countries. They recently equipped an Offshore Patrol Vessel with Harpoon Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles in addition to a 76mm gun. The choice of gun for this class appears to be a departure from the weapons that equipped previous patrol craft. The caliber, 30mm, is the same, but the rate of fire and the origin of the weapon are different.

The gun appears to be a Russian 30mm AK-306 barrel rotary cannon, a lighter version of the ubiquitous AK630. Maximum rate of fire is 1,000 rounds per minute. It should be quite effective as a short range anti-surface weapon.

AK-306 rotary cannon, Zbroya ta Bezpeka military fair, Kyiv 2017, Photo from VoidWanderer via Wikipedia Commons

 

“French Customs order OCEA FPB 100 MKII patrol boats” –Naval News

A CGI of the OCEA FPB 100 MKII patrol boat ordered by the French Customs (Credit : OCEA) Note UAV landing area aft port side. 

Naval News reports that French Customs has ordered a pair of new patrol boats in the WPB class. They have some interesting features.

These are slightly smaller than the Island class cutters at 32 meters or 105 feet. They are all Aluminum. This newest version includes a night vision device and a larger, faster, 7 meter 35 knot RHIB deployed, like on other OCEA designs, by davit . But most remarkably they are expected to host a rotary wing UAV. 

“Operation Kurukuru: USCGC Washington supports “noble cause” through teamwork” –D14 PAO

Below is a news release, quoted in full. A few points to note.

  • the huge area involved
  • Pacific Islanders need help to make this work
  • involvement of Australia
  • enforcement seems to be having an effect
  • Coast Guard is making a long term commitment

There is also information about the FRCs scheduled to go to Guam.

united states coast guard

News Release

U.S. Coast Guard 14th District Hawaii and the Pacific
Contact: 14th District Public Affairs
Office: (808) 535-3230
After Hours: (808) 265-7748
14th District online newsroom

Operation Kurukuru: USCGC Washington supports “noble cause” through teamwork

Operation Kurukuru Operation Kurukuru USCGC Washington

Editors’ Note: Click on images to download high resolution version.

Scattered clouds stretched across the sky, meeting the vivid blue Palauan waters on the horizon. The maritime law enforcement boarding team completes their final preparations on the fantail of the USCGC Washington (WPB 1331) as the small boat detail lowers the cutter’s ridged inflatable boat (RIB) into the water. Petty Officer 1st Class Ralph Pastore, Washington’s boarding officer, finalizes the details with the RIB’s coxswain, Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Reo and Seaman Duke Joseph of the Palauan Division of Maritime Law Enforcement. Their target is a long-line fishing vessel making way about a half-mile off the cutter’s port bow.

Washington’s crew was patrolling Palau’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as part of the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) Operation Kurukuru, a coordinated maritime surveillance operation. The operation’s goal is to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Success depends on the ability of partners, like Palau and the United States, to work together.

“This is my second time coming down here and working with a Palauan shiprider,” said Pastore. “Last time I was able to get a good idea of how they work both on land and out here on the ocean so it makes the job easier”

The operation, targeting the multi-million-dollar IUU fishing, was conducted from Oct. 7 to 18, across 8.2 million square miles. To put in perspective, that covers an area the size of Russia, India, and Egypt combined. Assets and crews from multiple counties were involved including the Washington, an HC-130 Hercules airplane and crew from Hawaii temporarily based out of Tonga, and an intelligence specialist working out of the Regional Fisheries Surveillance Center at the FFA headquarters in Honiara, Solomon Islands, where the joint operation was coordinated.

The 12-day operation saw around 132 sea days of active patrolling and 540 flight hours of maritime air surveillance. There were 131 total boardings both at sea and dockside, with only four violations found and no unknown vessels detected.

“The fact there were no unknown fishing vessels found with such thorough air surveillance converge and only four infringements imposed with such a high level of boardings is evidence that current regulations and law enforcement practices are working well with the four FFA operations leading the effort,” said the FFA Surveillance Operations Officer, Cmdr, Robert Lewis, seconded from the Royal Australian navy.

But what do those boardings look like? At sea, the team launches from the Washington and makes its way through the water to the fishing vessel. Upon boarding, the team’s interpreter speaks with the crew to ensure no human rights violations exist while Joesph talks to the master of the ship.

“I was looking for licenses, the fish log and also on deck we are looking for signs of catching sharks, shark fins, any parts of sharks, turtles and steel wires for fishing,” said Joseph after the boarding. “You’re not supposed to use steel wire for fishing.”

Kurukuru is a Japanese term meaning round and round. Fish are migratory animals and they annually travel throughout the Pacific providing an important renewable resource for Pacific Island Countries and Territories (PICTs). As with anything of value, there will always be actors who wish to cut corners and skirt laws. IUU undermines efforts to conserve and manage fish stocks, presenting a dire threat to many PICT’s efforts to protect these vital resources for generations to come.

“I think for us Palauans, our nation is small, and we don’t have enough people and manpower to protect our waters,” said Joseph. “The waters are very big, so with the help of the United States and working together we can protect the waters for the Palauan people for the future.”

Bilateral shiprider agreements are a key tool for the Coast Guard 14th District. The United States maintains 11 of these agreements with Pacific Forum countries. By embarking ship riders, Coast Guard crews are able to support allies in the region and work toward expanded security addressing regional challenges to peace, prosperity, and social inclusion. These agreements also provide a framework to build valuable relationships between Coast Guard and PICT counterparts.

‘We were able to establish a nice camaraderie, especially with the Palauan national living with our crew,” said Pastore. “A shiprider is always a plus to have for us because we are able to sit down and ask questions Coast Guard law enforcement normally won’t be able to.”

Operation Kurukuru is one of Washington’s last operational patrols before being decommissioned in December. A number of the cutter’s crew will transfer to the three new Fast Response Cutters (FRC) scheduled to replace the cutter and its sister ships, Kiska (WPB 1336) and the already decommissioned Assateague (WPB 1337). FRCs are some of the Coast Guard’s newest platforms and are equipped with the latest technologies. The first FRC arriving in Guam will be the Coast Guard Cutter Myrtle Hazard (WPC 1339).

“Having experience in the area of responsibility will be beneficial,” said Lt. j.g. Victor Broskey, the Washington’s executive officer. “There’s quite a few crewmembers slated to be on the commissioning crew who served in Guam before, so I think the Coast Guard has set us up pretty well for the first crew.”

This retention of crewmembers in the area means the lessons learned from joint evolutions such as the one conducted between the Washington’s boarding team and Joseph will carry over to the new FRCs, ensuring the goodwill developed by the crew of the Washington will remain relevant.

With the information Joseph gathered from the boarding, Palauan authorities will be able to inspect the long-line fishing vessel when it pulls back into port. Thus ensuring the master is following the Palauan law by matching his records and his fish hold, contributing to the overall success of the efforts between the United States and its partners in the region to combat IUU.

As is usually the case in the Pacific, a successful operation depends on the teamwork between partners. The crew of the Washington strives to cultivate these critical relationships and lay additional groundwork for future joint activities. The cutter’s motto is “our cause is noble,” and throughout the ongoing efforts, the crew lives up to this saying, ensuring success in the region long after this cutter is replaced by new ships bearing the famous racing stripe and serving Pacific communities.

-USCG-

Offshore Patrol Cutter Program Alternatives

Offshore Patrol Cutter port quarter

Note: I have had to revise some of my conclusions about when benchmarks would be achieved. The text below has been changed to reflect the correction. 

I have been talking about the OPC for over nine years, and it is frustrating to see what appeared to be real progress toward impressive new ships come apart, but with the Offshore Patrol Cutter program in flux, perhaps it would be worthwhile to look at where we are, where do we want to go, and what the current restraints and limitations are. Maybe there is a better way.

As currently envisioned the last OPCs are not expected to be funded until FY2034 nor delivered until 2037. A lot can happen between now and then.

Where are we?

The current thinking is to provide contract relief for Eastern and allow them to build the first four ships. Meanwhile the Coast Guard will recompete a contract for OPC #5 with options for #6-15.

But even this is uncertain. Congress has 60 days from the announcement (11 Oct. 2019 to 10 Dec.?) to consider the proposed contract relief. If I interpret correctly, unless they take action to deny relief, construction will go ahead. That suggest that denial of contract relief is unlikely, but by no means, are we sure it will happen.

It seems likely we will get four OPCs from Eastern, but even that is uncertain. Really we have no assurance we will get any OPCs at all.

What do we need? What are the constraints?:

We should have begun replacing the WMECs we have now, 25 years ago, so the need is urgent. We can also be pretty sure we need more large cutters (those of over 1000 tons full load) than are currently planned.

Realistically we cannot expect great increases in either PC&I (Procurement, Construction, and Improvement) or operating budget. That means, hopefully, the Coast Guard will get around the $2B/year PC&I successive Commandants have been saying we will need, but probably little or no more, and further, that we should not expect significant personnel increases.

The current plan will provide fewer large cutters than we have now. Eleven NSCs are replacing twelve WHECs and 25 OPCs are expected to replace 29 WMECs. That is 36 to replace 41. In fact if you look back a little further the Coast Guard had even more large ships. Editions of Combat Fleets of the World for the years indicated show that in 1990/91 we had 50 and in 2000/2001 there were 44. The Fleet Mix Study conducted more than a decade ago indicated we actually need an even larger fleet. 

The need to rapidly replace the existing WMECs and ultimately expand the fleet, within the constraints of budget and manpower are in direct conflict, particularly when the cutters have become bigger and more expensive and their crews size has, with few exceptions increased.

Replace the WMECs we have ASAP:

The WMECs we have need to be replaced as soon as possible. If the recompete goes as expected, the fourteenth OPC will not replace the last 210 until fourth quarter FY2032. That 210 will be over 63 years old. The last 270 decommissioned will be at least 48 years old. We can only expect that these vessels will have increasingly frequent major machinery casualties. The high number of major casualties that were experienced when the Coast Guard responded to the earthquake in Haiti is only a taste of what we can expect in the future.

More Cutters: 

The Fleet Mix Study of 2009 showed we needed 66 large cutters to fully accomplish all the Coast Guard’s statutory missions. A 2011 revision reduced the total to 58.

That number was perhaps artificially low because it assumed the “Crew Rotation Concept” would be applied to all National Security Cutters and Offshore Patrol Cutters, allowing an unrealistically high 225 days away from home. We have, to some extent, seen Webber class step up to perform some of these missions, but the need for more large ships is still apparent.

Unfortunately we have not updated the Fleet mix study based on more recent experience with the NSC and FRC. We really need to do that so that we can make more informed decisions and present a better case to Congress.

PC&I Budget

The FY2019 Procurement, Construction, and Improvements (PC&I) budget was $2,248.26M, of that less than $1.6M went to ship construction and improvement. It is unlikely we will see significantly larger budgets devoted to ship construction, and this includes funding for Polar Security Cutter, in service sustainment, and in the out years WPB replacement, and possibly new buoy tenders. We don’t unfortunately have any comprehensive long term shipbuilding plan that looks beyond five years.

Operating Budget/Crew Costs

Personnel costs are particularly important in overall lifecycle cost calculations. These come out of the operating budget which has actually shrunk in real terms.

The fleet that is being replaced (12 WHECs, 29 WMECs, and 44 WPBs) and the projected fleet, as currently planned (11 NSCs, 25 OPCs, and 64 FRCs) have almost the same total crew count, but it is doing so with the five fewer large cutters. The more numerous Webber class cutters have a larger crew than the 110 foot WPBs, 24 vice 16. Ultimately I expect 64 FRC to replace the 44 WPB110s for an increase of 832 billets. The OPCs will apparently have a crew of about 100, about  the same as that of the 270s, but about 25 more than are currently assigned to 210 foot WMECs. Replacing 14 of 210s with OPCs will add about 350 billets. Only the National Security Cutters have smaller crews than the ships they have replaced. My Combat Fleets of the World shows the crew of the NSCs to be 122 and that of the 378s to be 177, eleven NSCs compared to twelve WHEC378s would be decrease of 782 billets.

By my count the Legacy fleet of 85 vessels (12 WMECs when the NSCs started building, 28 WMECs when the OPCs started building, and 44 WPBs when the FRCs started building) required 5,349 billets. (The nominal fleet the program of record supposedly replaced included 29 WMECs and 49 WPBs, would have included another 179 billets or 5,528.) The currently planned fleet of 100 vessels (11 NSCs, 25 OPCs, and 64 FRCs) requires 5,378 billets. 

If we are to increase the number of larger cutters while leaving the total number of billets little changed, we would need to trade off some of the OPCs for more numerous vessels with smaller crews.

The Alternatives: 

The first question is, is the OPC, as currently designed, the vessel we still want?

While I don’t think it will happen, in view of the increasing likelihood of a great power conflict, the wisest thing that could happen, is that we replace the OPCs with what ever design the Navy chooses for the new FFG. That would take a massive infusion of cash and manpower, not going to happen.

If we reopen the competition to include other designs built to the same requirements we not only complicate logistics and training in the future, we also probably delay the decision process another year. Looks like the Coast Guard is trying to avoid that. They have a design they like, and once production is underway, it will certainly be cheaper than the NSCs.

Do we want a ship built to different requirements, maybe something like my proposed Cutter X? The Coast Guard came up with the requirements for the OPC, so I have to assume that for at least some missions, we need ships that meet those requirements. (I understand that the first two OPCs will go to Kodiak.) On the other hand, several years ago, Congress asked the Coast Guard if there weren’t missions or geographic areas that did not require ability to conduct helicopter and boat operations in such severe conditions?  That question was apparently never answered, as far as I know, but we know for a fact that less capable ships have been performing these missions for decades. We see it in the way the fleet was distributed. Most 378s went to the Pacific where long distances and ALPAT demanded great range and seakeeping. 210s generally went to the West Coast and SE and Gulf coasts where the weather tended to be more benign. 270s tended to based further North in the Atlantic since they were more seaworthy than the 210, if not as capable as the 378s.

We have a mixed fleet of WMECs, perhaps their replacements should be a mixed fleet as well, allowing the more robust OPCs to be used where those characteristics are most likely to be needed, while we also build more smaller, cheaper ship to provide the numbers we need. As before, I will refer to this class, slotted between the OPCs and the Webber class WPCs as Cutter X.

Considering Cutter X, to be significantly cheaper than the OPCs and have a significantly smaller crew, we probably should look to designs that are half the size of the OPC or smaller. That does not mean these ships will be small. In fact they could be larger than any of the existing WMECs, and more than twice the size of the 210s. The 327 foot Treasury class WHECs would qualify in terms of size. Average procurement cost for the OPCs, before the need for contract relief surfaced was $421M per ship. Cutter X should cost less than $250M. Actually it should be possible to build them for less than $200M.

I have pointed to a number of designs that might be considered, but to offer a concrete example, consider the Fassmer OPV-80 design used by the German Police Coast Guard, and the Navies of Chile, Colombia, and Honduras.  It can operate and hangar a medium sized helicopter, has two boats on davits and a third larger boat on a stern ramp, and can be armed with a medium caliber gun up to 76mm. The German versions are getting Bofors 57mm guns like those used by the Coast Guard. There is space for two containers under the flight deck. Its crew is 40 or less.

Some of this class have been ice strengthened.

Chilean OPV84, Cabo Odger

A possible program: 

I will offer what I believe to be a possible alternative to the current plan with the objective of replacing the aging fleet as rapidly as possible, ultimately increasing the number of larger patrol ships in the fleet and keeping the budget and manpower similar to what we have been experiencing.

In looking at an alternative program there a number of milestones that might be considered.

  • When would we replace all the 210s? At this point we should have at least 26 new generation large cutters (replacing 12 WHECs and 14 WMEC210s). This is currently planned to occur in 2032.
  • When would we get to 36 new generation large cutters currently planned? Now FY2037.
  • What kind of fleet will we have at the end of FY2037? Current plan 11 NSCs and 25 OPCs.

The proposal is in three parts:

  • Proceed with the OPC program as currently envisioned funding one OPC per year through FY2025. In FY2026 and 2027, fund one, rather than two, and halt the program at ten ship with the last delivered in 2030.
  • Continue to fund one NSC a year through FY2023, this will give us 15 NSCs, with the last delivered in 2026.
  • Start a program for Cutter X in FY2021. Fund construction for the first ship in FY2024, then two ships in FY2025 to 2027, then three ships a year in FY 2028 to 2034 (the last year for the current plan). This will provide a total of 28 ships with the last delivered FY2037.

This breaks down to:

  • FY2020 to FY2023 we would fund one NSC and one OPC,
  • FY2024 we fund one OPC and the first Cutter X.
  • FY2025 to FY2027 we build one OPC and two Cutter X (which should cost the same as two OPCs).
  • From FY2028 through 2034 we fund three Cutter X per year (which should cost less than two OPCs).

This is how the benchmarks break down:

  • When would we replace all the 210s? At this point we should have at least 26 new generation large cutters (replacing 12 WHECs and 14 WMEC210s). This is currently planned to occur in 2032. In 2028, 15 NSCs, 8 OPCs, three Cutter X (plus 13 WMEC270)
  • When would we get to 36 new generation large cutters currently planned? Now FY2037. In 2032, by the end of the year, 38 ships, 15 NSCs, 10 OPCs, 13 cutter X. 
  • What kind of fleet will we have at the end of FY2037? Current plan 11 NSCs and 25 OPCs. At the end of FY 2037, 53 ships, 15 NSCs, 10 OPCs, 28 cutter X. 

At the end of FY2037 we will have effectively replaced the 12 WHEC and the 13 WMEC270s with 25 more capable NSCs and OPCs. The 14 WMEC210 and Alex Haley will have been replace by Cutter X and 13 additional large cutters added to the fleet, 17 more than the current plan.

Even if we did not fund NSCs 13-15, it would only take one additional year to replace the 210s and to reach 36 new generation ships. and we would still have 50 ships at the end of FY2037.

We really need to do a new Fleet Mix Study and we need to follow it up with a long term shipbuilding plan, something Congress has been asking for for years.