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.
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.