In the comments section of a previous post we got into a small discussion about type designations. The Coast Guard type designation system is supposed to be a straightforward adaptation of the Navy’s designation system that was initiated in 1920 with the expedient of preceding the standard designation with a “W” to indicate Coast Guard.
Initially the designation system was a relatively simple. Ships were uniquely identified by a two letter designator followed by consecutive hull numbers within the category defined by the designator. The first letter was a general classification and the second letter was to define a sub-category (e.g.–PG for patrol gunboat, WPG was the designation of large patrol cutters before the switch to WHEC). If there were no sub-category, the first letter would be repeated (e.g.–DD for destroyer). Since 1920, the system has gotten a bit more complex with additional modifiers added to basic designations, but generally the system has proven useful and has been adopted in a simplified, single letter form by NATO, and many of the world’s navies have followed their example.
Particularly recently, designations of several types, both Coast Guard and Navy, don’t fit the traditional system. Some of these deviations from the system at least have the advantage of a long history, but the newest designations (WMSL and WMSM) are particularly inappropriate and uninformative.
Why should we care?
The designations are shorthand for capabilities and help our friends and allies understand our ships’ capabilities and limitations. Using non-standard designations can lead to confusion and misunderstandings. Using the system correctly will also help our own personnel understand the logic of the US Navy and NATO designations better. These designations are not only used to identify our own forces, they are also frequently used in intelligence reports and discussions of other Navies’ vessels. I’ll make some suggestions, but first let us examine the system in more detail.
The W prefix:
The “W” prefix for Coast Guard is not the only prefix used this way. Currently MSC ships use a “T” prefix, followed by a dash, before the Navy standard designation. In World War II, ships being built in the US for Britain were given a “B” prefix. “E” has also been used as a prefix to denote experimental. At one time “O” was used as a prefix to indicate old. Notably the Army’s ships, which also generally follow the Navy system, do not use a prefix. NOAA does not use the system, their hull numbers are preceded only by an “R” for research or “S” for survey, and the first digit of their three digit hull number identifies a classification based on size and horsepower.
(Perhaps we should consider using a dash between the W and the remainder of the designation because it would be more understandable to those already familiar with the MSC system,)
Vocabulary for the first letter:
As noted, the first letter denotes a general category. They are listed below. Those used by the Coast Guard and their meaning are in bold:
B Battleship (now archaic)
CV Aircraft Carrier
IX Unclassified Miscellaneous (They may have avoided using the letter I alone because it might be mistaken for a one.)
L Landing (amphibious warfare)
M Mine warfare
Y Yard (supporting craft used around a base)
(I suspect, since aircraft carriers were originally part of the scouting force, just as cruisers were, and the two first true fleet carriers (Saratoga and Lexington) were converted battle cruisers, that carriers may have originally been considered just a different sort of cruiser, an aviation cruiser, “V” meaning heavier than air aviation.)
Vocabulary for the NATO designations:
As noted NATO uses a single letter system, similar in most respects to the USN’s first letter. I don’t think they use the “IX” or “Y” designations. The only other difference is the use of “R” for aircraft carriers and other ships primarily designed to operate aircraft including some we would not consider aircraft carriers.
Second and subsequent letter vocabulary:
As currently used in the US Navy system, several additional letters may follow to modify the initial general category. The list below includes both current and now archaic uses. I have tried to put the most frequent usage of the letter first, but in many cases I was unable to make a meaningful distinction. (A list of all current Navy ships with their designators and hull numbers is here. A little research will identify the ship’s purpose from which the meaning of the designator can be inferred, but I have attempted to include all the meanings below.) Apparently at times letters may be paired to convey meaning, there are some examples below (eg AC for Air Cushion). Those letters used by the Coast Guard and their meanings within the system are in bold:
A Auxiliary, Assault, Attack, Armored or Heavy (cruiser) (archaic)
AC Air Cushion
B Big, Boat, Ballistic Missile
C Coastal, Craft, Command, Crane, Cable
D Dock, drone
E Ammunition, escort (archaic)
G As applied to a warship–Guided missile (for surface ships–AAW area defense only eg DDG, does not include self defense missile; for submarines–specialized cruise missile carriers (eg SSGN)).
G As applied to others–it seems a catch-all being applied to icebreakers (AGB), Oceanographic Research ships (TAGS), cargo submarines (AGSS), and many others; gun (archaic)
H Helicopter, Hunter, Hospital
I Intelligence (eg AGI) Infantry (archaic), Interceptor (archaic)
K Cargo, ASW (Killer–archaic)
L Large, Light (eg FFL), Leader (archaic), Lighthouse (archaic as AGL for light house tender)
M Medium, Missile (cruise), Monitor (archaic) Midget (archaic), Mechanized (archaic)
MS Minesweeper (eg DMS, Destroyer Minesweeper)
O Oiler, Ocean
OR Oceanographic Research (eg AGOR)
OS Ocean Surveillance
P Transport (people?)
R River(ine), Rubber, RO-RO, Replenishment, Repair, Rescue, Research, Refrigerated (archaic?) , Radar (archaic), Rocket (archaic)
RC Cable, Repair
RS Submarine, Rescue
S Sweeper, Support, Strike, Special, Seaplane (archaic)
T Training, Tug, Target, Tank (eg LST), torpedo (archaic)
V Heavier than Air Aviation, Vehicle (eg LSV)
W Wing in ground effect
Z Lighter than Air Aviation (archaic)
Current Coast Guard type designations:
Lets take a look at the Coast Guard’s ship designations. I think this list is exhaustive. The ship types with an asterisk already fit nicely in the system.
WHEC High Endurance Cutter
WIX Barque Eagle*
WLB Buoy Tender, Large
WLBB USCGC Mackinaw, Domestic Icebreaker
WLI Buoy Tender, Inland
WLIC Buoy Tender, Inland Construction
WLM Buoy Tender, Medium
WLR Buoy Tender, River
WMEC Medium Endurance Cutter
WMSL Maritime Security, Large
WMSM Maritime Security, Medium
WPB Patrol Boat*
WPC Patrol Coastal or Craft*
WTGB Icebreaking tug
WYTB Yard Tug large*
WYTL Yard Tug Light*
The ones that do not already fit the system are in three groups, The buoy tenders (including Mackinaw), the large patrol ships, and the icebreaking tugs.
What is wrong with WMSL and WMSM?
If you are familiar with the standard Navy system, when you see the designations WMSL and WMSM it tells you these ships are Coast Guard Mine Sweepers, Large and Medium (perhaps once). I presume these designations were chosen as an acronym that would hopefully help sell DHS on the idea of the ships, but these programs already have acronyms (NSC and OPC) and few outside the Coast Guard know what their designators are. When you designate these as “maritime security” assets are you saying others cutters are not? This would be particularly inaccurate, in that the smaller patrol craft are much more likely to be involved in maritime security missions than the larger ships which are more likely to be either cold iron or far from the populations centers if there is a sudden need for maritime security. (And isn’t maritime redundant? We are talking about the ships here.) We could have designated them WNSCs and WOPCs, and it would at least have had the advantage of not using a misleading “M” designator. Of course that would have had us calling them “winces” and “woops.”
It is true the Navy does have some ships that don’t conform to the norms of the designations system. They are:
DSRV Deep submergence Rescue Vessel
JHSV Joint High Speed Vessel
LCS Littoral Combat Ship
The DSRV is very small. Both JHSV (Joint High Speed Vessel) and LCS (Littoral Combat Ship) are recent programs and acronyms for their respective programs, although the JHSV program is no longer joint, at least it does not use a misleading first letter. The LCS is the real outlier here, since LCS suggest Landing Craft, Support or Special. (In fact there was a growth industry among bloggers suggesting what, usually uncomplimentary, words LCS should stand for.)
“P” is the almost universally accepted designator for patrol ships. That is what these ships do. Why not simply designate the NSCs WPL and the OPCs WPM? (Incidentally the Japanese Coast Guard already use the designators PL and PM, but they would call both these ships PLH–Patrol, Large, Helicopter. Their PMs are all under 1,000 tons full load.) It may not be worth doing but the remaining WHECs and WMECs might also use these designations.
The policy should be that Coast Guard designations will fit within the Navy’s system in so far as possible, and in the rare case where the Coast Guard is acquiring ships that don’t fit the systems, we should seek to amend the system.
The buoy tenders, and icebreaking tugs could have their designations changed to comply simply by inserting an “A” between the “W” and the rest of their current designation, but these ships all have a long history and they are unlikely to work with the Navy or allies so it probably is not worth changes existing designations now, but their replacements probably should get a more standardized designator, either beginning WA (CG auxiliary) or the Coast Guard could use one of the letters not included in the current Navy and NATO first letter vocabulary as the first letter following the W to uniquely identify the general type. “N” is available for aids to “Navigation.” We could use “I” or “IB” for icebreaker or perhaps “Z” might denote “below zero.” “T” is available for tug, but tug designations have always begun “AT.”
In any case, WMSM and WMSL really should be changed.