Another Very Different Candidate for “Cutter X”

mrv-80-image-04
Click on photo to enlarge

The Australian Navy has had problems with their Armidale class patrol boats. These little ships, similar to the Coast Guard’s Webber Class WPCs (Fast Response Cutters), have been sent great distances to enforce Alien Migrant Interdiction Operations. They are really are not up to the task, so Australia has been planning a larger class. In addition to the fourteen Armidale patrol vessels, they hope to use the same class to also replace six Huon-class minehunter, two Leeuwin-class survey vessel, and four Paluma-class survey motor launch.

This projected class of 20 larger ships is referred to as the Offshore Combatant Vessel.

No design has been chosen yet as far as I can tell, but Austal is a local firm (with a shipyard in the US as well) that probably has an inside track. Their design referred to as a “Multi-Purpose Vessel,” is a bit unusual, but it might be appropriate to use as a USCG cutter to fill the space between the Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC) and the Webber class WPCs, that I have been referring to as “Cutter X.”

It looks a bit like a scaled down Independence class LCS, not surprising since the Independence class are also made by Austal. It, like the Independence design, is a trimaran hull with lots of clear helicopter operating area and a hangar, as well as a large open area under the flight deck for modular systems, or perhaps in our case transporting migrants. Looks like they could also be very useful for Humanitarian Assistance Disaster Response (HADR) Mission.

Austal 80 meter Multi-Role Vessel

Austal 80 meter Multi-Role Vessel


Click on photo to enlarge

Length overall 80 meters (262.5 feet)
Length (waterline) 78.8 meters
Beam (moulded) 21.1 meters (69.2 feet)
Depth (moulded) 6.7 meters
Hull draft 3.2 meters (10.5 feet)
Mission deck 500m2 (5382 sq.ft.)
Flight Deck area 290m2 (3122 sq.ft.)
Hangar 1 x NH-90 (a 23,370 lb gross weight helicopter) or similar
Complement 35
Crew accommodation 87 berth
Endurance 28 days
Range 4,500nm @ 12 knots
Speed (max) 26 knots
Main engines 3 x MTU 20V 4000 @ 4,300kW at 2,170 rpm Diesel engines
(Same engines used in the Webber class)
Propulsion 3 x fixed pitch propellers
Weapons and Sensors •Standard 25mm stabilized naval gun
(the artist concept actually shows a 57mm)
•4 x .50 cal general purpose machine gun mounts

Austal 80 meter Multi-Purpose Vessel

Austal 80 meter Multi-Purpose Vessel

Click on photo to enlarge

Thanks to JamesWF for reminding me of this design.

Navy Chooses Existing LCS Designs as Basis for Small Surface Combatant

LockheedSSC
Photo: A modified Littoral Combat Ship design based on the Lockheed Martin Freedom-class. US Navy Image. Click on the image to enlarge. Note the USNI post also includes an image of a modified Independence class LCS

USNI is reporting that the existing Littoral Combat Ship designs will be modified to become the new Small Surface Combatant. It is not clear if they mean they will continue to build two designs in parallel, or if they mean they will select only one of the two. Perhaps there will be a competitive bid.

In spite of apparently incorporating all the elements of both the anti-submarine and anti-surface modules plus over-the-horizon Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles, it is reported they will have a lighter displacement than the existing LCSs. Surprisingly they apparently will not include VLS, but will include a multi-function towed array sonar, over the horizon ASCMs, upgraded radars, EW, and Cruise Missile decoy systems, torpedo countermeasures, a Mk38 Mod2 25 mm, and additional armor, in addition to the Mk110 57mm, two Mk46 30mm, Hellfire, MQ-8 UAVs and HM-60 helicopters. Both designs will use SeaRAM.

The question for the Coast Guard now is, how much commonality with this new class can be incorporated into the Offshore Patrol Cutter either as equipment actually installed or as equipment fitted for but not with? The more commonality that can be achieved, the more supportable the ships will be over the long haul.

The world seems to be becoming a more dangerous place, where the US may need every warship it can muster. We cannot afford the luxury of building the OPCs without wartime potential.

Loaning LCS to the Coast Guard

File:USS-Freedom-rear-130222-N-DR144-367.jpg

Photo: 130222-N-DR144-367 The littoral combat ship USS Freedom (LCS 1), Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James R. Evans

This is a rather radical proposal, one that I never thought I would make, but the situation with the Coast Guard’s cutter fleet is almost certain to go from bad to worse as increasing age, budget cuts, and sequestration take effect. It is a long term problem and will take a long term solution.

The Eighth NSC should be funded in FY 2015 and hopefully, we will see this last ship of the class completed by 2019. But the NSCs only replace the 378 foot High Endurance Cutters (and only on an 8 for 12 basis). The Medium Endurance Cutters, some older than any of the 378s, still need replacement and the current plan is very slow to do so.

The first of the Offshore Patrol Cutters (OPCs), destined to replace the existing medium endurance cutters (WMECs), is not expected until 2020, followed by one in 2021, one in 2022, and two per year for the following years until a total of 25 are delivered, presumably in 2033.

The normal life for ships like WMECs is assumed to be 30 years. If we assume no change of plan, the last 210 should be replaced when the 14th OPC is completed. That will, presumably, be in 2028, and the last 210 will be at least 59 years old.

File:USCGC Reliance WMEC 615.jpg

USCG photo, USCGC Reliance (WMEC-615), 210 foot cutter

If we assume that the last 270 is decommissioned when the 25th OPC is delivered, about 2033, then the last 270 will be at least 43 years old at that time.

File:USCGC Harriet Lane (WMEC-903).jpg

USCG photo, USCGC Harriet Lane (WMEC-903), 270 foot cutter

I propose that the Navy start lending the Coast Guard half of their Littoral Combat Ships (LCSs) as they are completed. They would be used as interim replacements for the Coast Guard’s oldest medium endurance cutters, until there are sufficient Offshore Patrol Cutters (OPCs) to replace them all. There is ample precedence both for the Navy transferring ships to the Coast Guard and for Coast Guard manning of Navy ships.

I am not suggesting the Coast Guard keep them, because they are not the ship we want ultimately, but they would be an improvement over the ships we have now.

The LCS Program:

The Navy has already bought or contracted for 24 LCS. Multi-year contracts awarded in FY 2010 fund the building of 20 LCS of two classes, over five years, in addition to the four previously funded, two Freedom class and two Independence class annually. Originally the intention was to build 55, the Navy cut that to 52 and now it looks like DOD may stop the program at 32 ships. The jury is still out on the final number, and congressional support, particularly from the states where they are built has been strong. Even at only 32 that is an additional 28 ships yet to be completed.

Defense Industry Daily has an excellent summary of the LCS program you can access here.

The proposal:

Beginning as soon as possible, perhaps beginning with LCS 5, man half the LCSs with Coast Guard crews and put them under Coast Guard control, while continuing construction of the NSCs and OPCs as planned.

What’s in it for the Coast Guard:

Compared to the existing 210, 270, and 282 foot WMECs, the Coast Guard will be operating newer, larger, more capable ships, with much improved aviation facilities. LCSs are capable of hangaring and supporting both helicopters and UAVs, while the 270 is limited to a single helicopter in a retractable hangar and the 210s have no hangar at all. The LCSs are also much more capable of dealing with large numbers of Alien Immigrants, particularly if holding facilities are provided in the reconfigurable space. They are also much more capable of running down fleeing drug suspects in go-fast boats. The LCS are designed to operate with relatively small crews.  Currently the “core crew” is 50. In all probability, Coast Guards operating concepts would result in a crew similar in size to that of a 210 (75). So the crew costs should not be substantially different from those of the 210s, and might be lower than those of the 270s.

Most importantly, these newer ships will be supportable while this will become increasing difficult as the older cutters age.

What’s in it for the Navy:

The Navy will be able to call on the ship in wartime, but will not have the operating cost associated with running the ships on a daily basis.  The navy will save on manning, fuel, and maintenance. If they are looking for a way to reduce operating costs while preserving wartime capability, this is a viable option.

The  Navy already sees these ships as contributing to the counter narcotics effort. Handing them over to the Coast Guard would result in direct benefit to the drug enforcement effort without the Navy having to divert manpower and other resources.

The Timeline:

The program might work like this:

Vessels delivered to the CG:        Totals under Coast Guard control:     LCSs returned USN
FY                 LCS        OPC                    LCS        OPC
2016                 2                                       2
2017                 2                                       4
2018                 2                                       6
2019                 2                                       8
2020                 2          1                         10             1
2021                 2          1                         12             2
2022                 2          1                         14             3
2023                 2          2                         16             5
2024                 2          2                         18             7
2025                             2                         16             9                                        2
2026                             2                         14           11                                        2
2027                             2                         12           13                                        2
2028                             2                         10           15                                        2
2029                             2                           8           17                                        2
2030                             2                           6           19                                        2
2031                             2                           4            21                                       2
2032                             2                           2            23                                       2
2033                             2                           0            25                                       2

If this program were implemented as described, the last 210 could be replaced seven years earlier than currently planned, in 2021 instead of 2028, so that when replaced it will be “only” 52 years old. The last 270 could be replaced in 2024, instead of 2033, nine years earlier than planned, when the last 270 is 34 years old.

File:US Navy 100329-N-1481K-293 USS Independence (LCS 2) arrives at Mole Pier at Naval Air Station Key West.jpg

U.S. Navy photo by Naval Air Crewman 2nd Class Nicholas Kontodiakos, USS Independence (LCS-2) showing her large flight deck

Another Weapon Option, Longbow Hellfire

File:Lockheed Martin Longbow Hellfire.jpg

Photo credit: Wikipedia, Stahlkocher, Lockheed Martin Longbow Hellfire.

The US Navy is looking at weapons to arm the Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) for operations against swarming small craft. These weapons will be relatively small and low cost, so they are potentially applicable to Coast Guard vessels as small WPBs. The first system selected was the Griffin, but while it may be improved, it currently has only a very short range.

Earlier, we talked about one of the contenders, the Brimstone, also called the Sea Spear. Another contender has surfaced, including both a missile and a firecontrol system that is already in the US inventory, the LONGBOW system employing the fire-and-forget LONGBOW HELLFIRE AGM-114L missiles. This missile is similar in size to the Brimstone, and like the Brimstone has a millimeter wave guidance, fire and forget capability.

Unlike the Brimstone, there is no claim of a man-in-the-loop capability, which would appear to be a desirable feature, particularly for the Coast Guard, where the target may be surrounded by innocent vessels that we would want to avoid targeting. On the other hand the vertical launch capability does appear to offer some packaging advantages. Lockheed claims “…Nearly 400 radars and more than 14,000 missiles have been contracted for the U.S. Army and international customers” so it is already an established product line with advantages in economy of scale. These systems are currently mounted on Attack Helicopters, so we can be assured that the weight and space requirements are not too demanding for installation on even relatively small craft.

NavyRecognition reports that the Army, Navy, and Lockheed Martin has demonstrated that these missiles can be vertically launched from a 65 foot Navy boat simulating a section of an LCS. The Navy may also want to fit this, or whatever system is ultimately chosen, to their new patrol boat.

Specifications for the AGM-114L Longbow Hellfire from Wikipedia:

  • Range: 8,000 m (8,749 yd)
  • Guidance: Fire and forget Millimeter wave radar seeker coupled with Inertial guidance, homing capability in adverse weather and the presence of battlefield obscurants
  • Warhead: 9 kg (20 lb) tandem shaped charge high explosive anti-tank (HEAT)
  • Length: 176 cm (69.2 in)
  • Weight: 49 kg (108 lb)

Here is Lockeed Martin’s description:

The LONGBOW system is built by a Joint Venture of Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. U.S. Army testing shows integrated capabilities enhance the Apache lethality fourfold and survivability sevenfold. The mission equipment package is in production for the U.S. and several international customers. The Apache LONGBOW system is a proven force multiplier that has been battle-proven in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. The LONGBOW Weapon System has been in full-rate production since 1996, with First Unit Equipped in 1998. Nearly 400 radars and more than 14,000 missiles have been contracted for the U.S. Army and international customers. For the Apache Block III upgrade, a new Radar Electronics Unit (REU) will replace two line-replaceable units. The REU will provide growth capabilities to the LONGBOW FCR and will reduce maintenance cost.

LONGBOW FCR
The LONGBOW FCR has a very low probability of intercept. It rapidly and automatically searches, detects, locates, classifies, and prioritizes multiple moving and stationary targets on land, water and in the air in all weather and battlefield conditions from standoff ranges. Target coordinates are automatically available to other sensors and weapons for target confirmation, rapid engagement, and reduced fratricide. Target data is digitally available through the data modem for real-time transfer to other platforms and command posts. The self-contained Radar Frequency Interferometer provides rapid and accurate identification and azimuth to enemy air defense units. High system reliability and two-level maintenance maximize operational availability and reduce support costs.

LONGBOW HELLFIRE Missile
The LONGBOW system employs fire-and-forget LONGBOW HELLFIRE AGM-114L missiles that can be launched from defilade, increasing battlefield survivability. The LONGBOW HELLFIRE missile locks on targets before or after launch and has been used in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The M299 Smart Launcher has a fully digital interface to the Apache helicopter and fires all types of HELLFIRE missile.

Offshore Patrol Cutters (OPC), the Other LCS

This is another post I prepared for Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) as part of “Corvette Week.”

The US Coast Guard is currently in the first part or a two part program to select a design for a planned class of 25 ships referred to as Offshore Patrol Cutters (OPC) also called the Maritime Security Cutter, Medium (WMSM). In many respects these might be thought of a third class of Littoral Combat Ships. They have different characteristics and different strengths and weaknesses, but there is considerable overlap in there characteristics. Like the LCS they will be small, shallow draft, helicopter equipped warships with the 57mm Mk110 gun. It seems likely the OPC will be 2,500 to 3,500 tons, similar in size to the Freedom and Independence class LCS.

The existing LCS classes emphasize adaptability, are faster and have more spacious aviation facilities. The cutters will emphasize seakeeping and will:

  • have greater range (minimum 7,500 miles @14 knots) and endurance using all diesel propulsion. Typical operations as outlined in the Concept of Operations (CONOPS) were 14 days between refueling, 21 days between replenishment, and 45-60 day patrols.
  • be ice-strengthened,
  • have ballistic protection over critical areas,
  • have a larger crew, and
  • be able to operate their boats and aircraft in higher sea states (through sea state 5).

The acquisition process:

A two step Acquisition process is being used. First, up to three contractors will be selected to develop their concepts into fully detailed contract proposals. This selection is expected by the end of the second quarter of FY2014. These three will then compete for a contract which will include all documentation, construction of the first OPC (expected delivery in FY2020) and options for up to ten follow-on ships.

Eight yards have submitted bids:

  • Bollinger Shipyards, Lockport, La.
  • Eastern Shipbuilding, Panama City, Fla.
  • General Dynamics Bath Iron Works, Bath, Maine
  • General Dynamics Nassco, San Diego
  • Huntington Ingalls Industries, Pascagoula, Miss.
  • Marinette Marine, Marinette, Wis.
  • Vigor Shipyards, Seattle; and
  • VT Halter Marine, Pascagoula, Miss.

There has been international interest in the project. VT Halter has partnered with French Defense Contractor DCNS. Vigor is allied with Ulstein, Bollinger is working with Dutch Ship builder Damen. It appears Eastern may have teamed with STX (supposition on my part, based only on their concept‘s similarity to the New Zealand Navy’s Protector Class OPV.

VT Halter Marine, Inc. (VT Halter Marine), a subsidiary of VT Systems, Inc. (VT Systems), today announced its partnership agreement with DCNS to submit a proposal to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for the design and construction of the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC). VT Halter Marine will be the prime contractor and DCNS will be its exclusive subcontractor for the OPC platform design.

An early DCNS concept

The funding schedule is expected to look like this:

  • FY 2016 Detail Design
  • FY 2017 OPC #1 Construction
  • FY 2018 OPC #2
  • FY 2019 OPC #3
  • FY 2020 OPC #4 and #5
  • FY 2021 OPC #6 and #7
  • FY 2022 OPC #8 and #9
  • FY 2023 OPC #10 and #11

There was also a statement of intent to hold the maximum price of units four through nine to $310M each.

Specifications:

The ships are to be built to modified American Bureau of Shipping Naval Ship Rules excluding explosive or underwater shock hardening.

They are expected to operate in cold climates. They will be equipped “to operate in areas of broken plate, pancake, and sea ice ranging from 10 to 30 inches thick.”  There is also a required capability to operate an ice capable small boat and to have automated topside de-icers.

“The WMSM will provide increased protection for (sic.) small caliber weapons and shrapnel fragmentation around the bridge, CIC, and magazine spaces.”

It will tow up to 10,000 tons.

The ships are expected to be able to do Fueling at Sea (FAS), Replenishment at Sea (RAS), Vertical (Helicopter) Replenishment or VERTREP, and to refuel smaller vessels (apparently reflecting an expectation of sustained operations with smaller patrol vessels (WPCs or WPBs) at locations remote from their bases).

I did not have access to the latest specifications, but have deduced some details of the proposed equipment from the Allowance Equipage List included in the Draft RFP. All the systems below are referenced. (In a few cases there may be duplicate listing if different nomenclature is used for the same system.) The outfit, in most respects, repeats or even improves on that of the National Security Cutter:

Communications:

  • Military SAT com
  • Tactical Data Link System
  • IFF
  • SBU (presumably “Sensitive but Unclassified”) Network
  • SIPRNET (Classified Network)
  • NIPRNET (Unclassified Network)
  • Entertainment System

Sensors:

  • TSR-3D RARAD System, a multimode surface and air surveillance and target acquisition radar
  • Electro-Optic/Infrared Sensor system
  • RADIAC

Weapons:

  • Mk 48 mod 1 Gun Weapon System (pdf), which includes the Mk 110 57mm gun, AN/SPQ-9B  Surface search and Fire Control Radar, Electro-Optical sensor system Mk 20 mod 0, the Mk 160 GCS Mod 12, and Mk 12 Gun Computer System
  • Mk 15 mod 21-25 CIWS (Phalanx) (apparently equipped for but not with)
  • Mk 38 mod 2 25 mm
  • Gun Weapon System SSAM (remotely controlled stabilized .50 cal)
  • Four crew served .50 mounts including Mk 16 and Mk 93 mod 0 or mod 4 mounts
  • Mk 46 optical sight

Electronic Warfare:

  • Mk 53 Decoy launcher
  • AN/SLQ-32 (v)2

Navigation:

  • Encrypted GPS
  • Electronic Chart Display and Information System

Intelligence:

  • Ships Signals Exploitation Space
  • Special Purpose Intel System

Aviation:

  • Hangar for helicopter up to and including Navy and Coast Guard H-60s (There may have been some backtracking on the requirement for a helicopter larger than the HH-65)
  • Facilities for the support of unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS)
  • TACAN
  • Visual Landing Aids

Coast Guard HH-65 Dolphins

Unresolved

Having watched this program develop over a number of years, it is remarkable that the specifications have moved from specific to general as the need to minimize cost has resulted in softening of the requirements. As with many contracts, threshold and objective characteristics were defined, but if there are incentives for going beyond threshold requirements, they have not been made public. For this reason there seems little reason to expect the capabilities to exceed the threshold requirement which include a speed of 22 knots (objective 25).

The aviation support requirements also seem to have gone soft and may result in the ability to support only smaller helicopters and UAVs

Potential Naval Roles

Weapons–A minimal projected fit has been identified, but the Commandant has stated that the ships will have space and weight reservation for additional weapons, but I have not been privy to the extent of this reservation. It may be limited to replacing the Mk38mod2 with a Phalanx, but there is reason to hope the ships have greater potential.

The ships do have an unusual specification. For the Alien Migrant Interdiction Operations, they are required to be able to feed and provide basic shelter for up to 500 migrants for 48 hours, all while keeping them on the main deck or above.  This actually constitutes a substantial weight/moment reserve for other missions. If we assumed 150 pounds for each person, that would equate to 37.5 tons.

Modules–While there was apparently no stated requirement to host mission modules or containers in the specifications, some of the foreign designed potential contenders may already include provision for taking containers. For instance, the Damen designed OPV 2600 (ton) has provision for five 20 foot containers. Others may use containers as part of their plan to meet the 500 Alien Migrant holding requirement.

Vigor Offshore Patrol Craft 01

Vigor concept with its Ulstein X-bow. It was reported to have a length of 328 feet, a beam of 54 feet, a draft of 16.5 feet, and a max speed of 22knots. It included a reconfigurable boat hangar.

Manning:

The Coast Guard’s latest Manpower Estimate for the Offshore Patrol Cutters (OPCs), completed 18 March 2011, was 104 (15 officers, 9 CPOs, 80 E-6 and below) plus an aviation detachment (five personnel) and Ship’s Signals Exploitation Space (SSES) detachment (seven personnel) for a total of 116. Accommodations are planned for at least 120 (threshold requirement) and hopefully as many as 126 (“objective”). The manning assumes four section underway watches.

Unlike the two current LCS classes, the OPCs are expected to train junior personnel: “The Coast Guard depends on cutters to expose our junior personnel, officers and enlisted, to our wide mission set. With this real world experience derived from a first tour operational assignment, these sailors populate critical billets such as law enforcement detachments, independent duty corpsmen, and XOs on patrol boats.”

These ships, like the LCS are expected to have multiple crews, with four crews for a group of three ships, allowing them to operate up to 225-230 days away from home port per year. (I personally don’t like the concept as proposed)

Survivability: The preliminary manning documents assumes that two full Repair Lockers (27 crew members in each locker) plus a Rapid Response Team (RRT) will be constituted for General Emergency Situations, but only one full Repair Locker and the RRT will be available at General Quarters. Two engine rooms will provide a degree of propulsion redundancy.

LCS Council:

The CNO saw the need for high level coordination of the introduction of the LCS to insure that they made the most of their potential. Since established they have added oversight of the Joint High Speed Vessels.

I see a need for the Coast Guard to also have a seat the Council to

  • share experiences with multiple crewing and other lessons learned
  • maximize the wartime potential of the Offshore Patrol Cutters by exploiting commonality with the LCS
  • ease coordination of Navy’s LCS and JHSVs partnership station, drug interdiction, and constabulary efforts which often involving Coast Guard detachments.

LCS 2.0, or a Missed opportunity?:

I keep hearing that many, including former undersecretary Bob Work, may not be entirely happy with the characteristics of the existing LCS designs, but that because they are the design we have, we should continue to build them. I have hoped that the Offshore Patrol Cutters would offer a possible alternative for an LCS 2.0. It may be that cost considerations and program choices will make them unsuitable, but at the very least, the eight design proposals and the three fully developed contract proposals should make interesting reading for those who would like to consider alternatives to the existing designs.

In addition, these ships, or designs developed from them, may offer a cheaper alternative basis upon which to offer our allies interested in American built corvettes or OPVs.

If I had my druthers:

If I had my druthers these ships would be designed, but not necessarily equipped, from the start, for wartime roles including ASW and NSFS.

Background: “What might Coast Guard cutters do in wartime.”

What Might Coast Guard Cutters do in Wartime? Part 1, Navy Shortfalls

Many of the new generation cutters may be around for another 50 years so it is likely they will see some conflict as previous generations have. What might cutters be doing if we go to war? What sort of environments? What possible missions? What capabilities do they have? And what might we want to be added?

We need to start with the question, what limitations does the Navy have that might prompt them to call on the Coast Guard? Why would the US Navy, by far the most powerful in the world, need help from the Coast Guard? Let’s look at their missions and the forces available.

Navy Missions

The mission of the Navy is to maintain, train and equip combat-ready Naval forces capable of winning wars, deterring aggression and maintaining freedom of the seas.

Included in that might be:

Protecting the US and its allies from attack from the sea in any of a number of forms, overt or covert, by air, surface, sub-surface, or missiles (both cruise and ballistic).

Projecting power against hostile forces, by a similar diverse range of options.

Protecting US and friendly nations’ use of the oceans and the air above them for purposes including (but not limited to) both military and economic exploitation.

Denying that use to hostile powers.

Those objectives entail a huge range of subsidiary tasks. New missions, like defending population centers against ballistic missile attacks, have been added, but centuries old historic missions still must also be addressed.

Forces

The Navy currently has approximately 285 vessels, but not all these are combatant ships. The exact composition changes frequently but they have roughly:

  • 2 Fleet command ships
  • 11 aircraft carriers (there is talk that this may go down to 9. In the not to distant past 15 was the norm)
  • 28 Amphipbious assault ships (LHA/LHD/LPD/LSD)
  • 83 Guided missile Cruisers and Destroyers
  • 26 Frigates (soon to be decommissioned)
  • 2 Littoral Combat ships (LCS) (55 ships planned, expected to replace remaining frigates, the 14 mine countermeasures ships, and the 11 Cyclone class patrol craft)
  • 57 SSN and SSGN submarines armed with torpedoes and tactical missiles
  • 14 SSBN Strategic Defense Ballistic Missile submarines
  • 14 Mine Counter Measures Ships (MCM) (soon to be decommissioned)
  • 11 Cyclone Class Patrol Craft
  • 37 Underway replenishment ships

This is the fewest ships in the US Navy in almost a hundred years. Additionally in view of current budget limitations the size of the fleet is likely to shrink further. Nine cruisers and three LSDs are expected to be decommissioned including some as young as 20 years old, and since the “super committee” has failed to act, the entire LCS program may be in jeopardy, and the fleet may be reduce to approximately 230 ships.

Even if its budget is not cut, if it only remains static, the fact that ship prices are going up faster than inflation, and the Navy is choosing to concentrate more and more technology in fewer and fewer ships means the number of ships will likely continue to fall.

Shortfalls

Most of these ships are individually superbly capable, but the US Navy has some known weakness.

  • Inshore
  • Mine Counter Measures (MCM)
  • Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW)
  • Naval Surface Fire Support (NSFS)
  • Sea Control
  • Base Security

INSHORE: The Navy has very few shallow draft patrol craft of a type useful for boarding and  inspecting coastwise traffic. This is why the Coast Guard has been in Iraq, and why 82s were sent to Vietnam. Fortunately recent requirements have been small because the Iraqi coast line is short. Almost anywhere else, controlling coastal traffic will be much more difficult.

MCM: Despite the fact that since WWII, mines have done more damage to US Navy ships than any other weapon, the US Navy’s MCM capability is modest and generally regarded as both more poorly equipped and less professional than their European counterparts. The LCS program has been expected to address this, but the mine countermeasures systems planned for the LCS are still a long way from maturity. Still the concept of add-on, portable, modular systems is appealing.

ASW: Anti-submarine Warfare capabilities were allowed to decline after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This was understandable under the circumstances, but now the ASW problem is reemerging. Historically ASW has been a “numbers” problem as well as a quality problem. Certainly the US Navy has the quality, but they no longer have large numbers. Not only is the number of escort vessels down dramatically including the impending total disappearance of specialized ASW escorts, carriers no longer have fixed wing ASW aircraft, and Maritime patrol aircraft numbers are way down. Reserve fleets have disappeared and additionally, allied fleets have also declined even more precipitously.

NSFS: Since the decommissioning of the Iowa Class battleships, there has been concern that there has not been enough Naval Surface Fire Support (NSFS) assets. This concern went as far as resulting in a Congressional mandate (Section 1011 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1996 (Public Law 104-106; 110 Stat. 421)). There have been several attempts to address this need including putting NLOS missiles on the LCS ships and a plan to build 32 “Land Attack” Zumwalt Class Destroyers with advanced gun systems. The NLOS missile has been canceled and the Zumwalt class has been truncated at only three ships. In a benign environment close air support can fill this void, but if there is an active air defense or air superiority is contested, NSFS may be essential.

SEA CONTROL: Julian Corbett was the disciple of Sea Control and as he would say, Battle force ships make sea control possible, but cannot be exercised by “battleships” alone. There is the question of simple numbers.  At the end of WWII the Navy had 6,768 ships, including 1,600 ships of over 1,000 tons, and those ships were complimented by similarly large numbers of allied vessels. The number of ships in the Navy has been steadily declining and it appears they may decline even more. Numerically this is the smallest US Navy since World War I, almost 100 years. Salt water covers approximately 69% of the earth’s surface or about 352,103,700 km²–roughly 100 million square nautical miles (rounding down a bit). That is roughly 352,113  sq. miles/ship. If we look at only cruisers, destroyers, and the projected LCS force (less than 140 ships) then that is about 715,000 square miles per ship. Spread evenly across the ocean they would be more than 800 miles apart, but of course ships are not spread evenly across the ocean and they are not all underway all the time, and they have missions other than sea control. Our attempts to control the flow of Narcotics by sea and attempts to prevent piracy off Africa demonstrate how truly hard Sea Control can be. The US and its close allies no longer control the majority of merchant and fishing fleets. Potential enemies control substantial numbers of ships that could damage the US and its allies in a number of ways including landing agents, smuggling weapons, laying mines, or directly attacking assets. Russian attempts to market the “Club-K” cruise missile as a containerized system that can weaponize any vessel with space for a standard 40 foot container highlights the potential dangers of failure to control enemy shipping.

BASE SECURITY: Once the US Navy was present in virtually every American port and there were a host of small ships that provided security for these bases. Navy resources are increasingly concentrated and the flotillas of small craft are gone. The Chinese vision of how to counter the US includes attacks on vulnerable rear area and logistical support. In Adm. Liu’s vision. “In applying tactics to ‘active defense’ operations, we would act on the guiding principle that we advance if the enemy advances. That is, if the enemy attacked our coastal areas, we would attack the enemy’s rear.”…Liu recounts addressing a June 1984 forum. He was gratified that the navy had embraced “a unified guiding ideology for its combat operations. It had made clear the combat principle of ‘active defense, offshore battles’ and the combat forms of ‘positional warfare for firm coastal defense, mobile sea warfare, and sabotage guerrilla sea warfare.’”

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When you start with only 120 to 140 surface combatants, after assigning ships to escort eleven carriers and ten Amphibious ready groups, assigning ships for Ballistic Missile Defense, and factoring in maintenance requirements, there simply is very little left for other missions.

Shipbuilding, Dealing with Reality

The Coast Guard’s fleet of large cutters  is facing a budgetary “perfect storm,” and if it is to survive without a major reduction in numbers, a change in procurement strategy is required.

The NSCs cost as much as an entire year’s AC&I budget for vessels. An analysis of the Coast Guard’s FY 2012 budget request for vessels and the funding history of the National Security Cutters (NSC), funding only about one half the cost of an NSC each year, and with three more NSCs still to be funded, suggest it is unlikely the Coast Guard will see the first Offshore Patrol Cutter in 2019 as has been planned. In fact there is reason to believe the Coast Guard will not be allowed to proceed with the OPC program as currently envisioned.

There are rumblings that some parties want to kill the Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC) program all together, and many of those who understand the need to replace old ships question why all of our replacements are notably larger than the ships they replace.

  • 378s, 3,050 tons, full load (fl) to be replaced by NSCs, 4,375 tons
  • 210s, 1050 tons (fl) to be replaced by OPCs, 2,500 to 3,000 tons
  • 110s, 165 tons (fl) to be replaced by RFCs, 353 tons

We haven’t generated the “Fleet Mix Study” that might justify these larger and more capable ships. Saying we need larger ships to provide better living conditions for the crew won’t cut it and frankly it does a disservice to our crews who have shown a willingness to accept spartan condition on shipboard, particularly since now most, if not all, will have a place to live ashore as well.

If we want to actually arrest and reverse the aging of the large cutter fleet and have a more capable fleet in the long run, we have to do something different, and we have to do it soon.

Additionally it appears that we may have funded enough NSCs and the Coast Guard needs a different kind of cutter to address the emerging new ways drugs are being smuggled.

Conceptual Rendering of the OPC

Disclaimer by Acquisition Directorate (CG-9): (This) conceptual rendering (is) for artistic display purposes only and do not convey any particular design, Coast Guard design preferences, or other requirements for the OPC.

This is an alternative plan.

  • Stop NSC production at five or at most six ships and put them all in the Pacific.
  • Forget the Crew Rotation Concept (CRC), at least for now.
  • Kick start the OPC program by building the first six or seven as lower cost, smaller replacements for the remaining 378s and give them the sensors needed to find drug running semi-submersibles and true submersibles.
  • To provide “value added,” work with the Navy to make sure they have credible wartime mission capabilities.

NSCs go north, OPCs go south. NSCs will specialize in ALPAT while OPCs will specialize in drug interdiction, with at least some of them being made capable of interdicting true submersibles.

Normally it takes three ships to keep one on station, suggesting six NSCs to keep two on ALPAT at all times, but mixing in an occasional OPC during the summer months, 5 should be enough.

The OPC, at 2,500 tons or more, is a hard sell as a replacement for 1,000 ton 210s, but as a replacement for the 3,000 ton 378s, at what should be close to half the price of an NSC, the Coast Guard is clearly being a team player. This gets the program started and, in quantity, the price should start coming down substantially. After the first six or seven are built as 378s replacements, and they prove their worth, they may not be as hard to sell as MEC replacements as the economy improves.

Earlier posts (here and here) addressed multiple crewing of National Security Cutters and, following the numbers, demonstrated why, even if it works as planned, the current plan could only provide the equivalent of 10 conventionally manned cutters, not 12, and the total operating costs are likely to be higher compared to conventionally manned ships providing the same number of ship-days.

The only example I know of, where multiple crewing of complex ships works is the Fleet Ballistic Missile submarine program and there, the incentives to make it work are huge. Total numbers of submarines are limited by treaty so there is a desire to get maximum use out of an artificially limited supply and the capital cost per crew member is probably an order of magnitude greater than it is for Coast Guard Cutters. The Navy with all their experience does not attempt to multi-crew it’s attack submarines even though this is a closely allied program, again with a far higher ratio of capital cost to crew cost. If we want to try this concept, try it on the Fast Response Cutters first, where it is more likely to work, but kill it as a planning consideration for large ship procurement. Consider it just another hoax perpetrated on the Coast Guard by Integrated Deepwater Systems.

Since we started planning the new fleet of large cutter, our needs have changed. Drug smugglers have begun to change their tactics, using semi-submersibles and even true submersibles (here, here, here, and here). A ship equipped with a towed array and an embarked Navy MH-60R ASW helicopter detachment would substantial improve our chances of intercepting these.

Having a credible wartime capability can also help convince members of congress these ships are a worthwhile investment. Once we have given the ship a towed array and the ability to operate Navy ASW helos, at almost no costs we can add the ability to operate them in a war time role by insuring we have spaces appropriate for storing their weapons and other equipment, spaces that can be used for other purposes until required.  It also should not be difficult, working with the Navy, to insure they can accept at least some of the LCS Mission Modules.

A 2,500 ton OPC, as currently planned, is in many respects an excellent replacement for a 378 and it will have lower operating costs. More importantly, if the OPC program survives and goes on to replace the 210s and 270s, we will have a far more capable fleet overall.

We need to start this change with the FY2013 budget.