Navy Rethinking Ship Designations–Time for the CG to do so too?

Photo: Doesn’t this look like a Patrol Frigate?

The USNI is reporting that, “The modified Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) class will be redesigned as frigates, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced on Thursday at the Surface Navy Association 2015 symposium on Thursday.”

Mabus noted, ““It’s not an ‘L’ class ship,” he said. “When I hear ‘L’ I think amphib, so does everybody else.”

The FF designation for the LCS will be the first of a planned set of nomenclature changes for other ships classes as well that will come in the coming weeks, Mabus said.

Apparently he also intends to address the designations of the Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB), the Mobile Landing Platform (MLP), and the Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV).

I will repost something I quoted in a comment to a previous post regarding an article by Norman Polmar in the US Naval Institute Proceedings “US Navy-LCS, JHSV, MLP…What?”

Quoting his conclusion: “Unquestionably, the LCS, JHSV, and MLP designations must be changed—it is logical and sensible to do so. It can be done with the stroke of a pen by a Secretary of the Navy notice. At the same time, two other ship classes should have their hull numbers changed: The three ships of the Zumwalt (DDG-1000) class and the three submarines of the Seawolf (SSN-21) class should be assigned realistic hull numbers within their respective types, and thus be in accord with the 90-year-old directive that stated ships were to be designated in sequential order within their designation types…“The U.S. Navy’s basic ship-designation system is excellent and deserves to be carried out professionally and logically.”

Perhaps it would be a good time for the Coast Guard to take another look at their designation system too, and bring them back into line with the Navy system. I talked about this earlier, “Ship Type Designations–The Bertholfs are Minesweepers?”

The designations currently chosen for the Bertholf class (WMSL) and the Offshore Patrol Cutter (WMSM) are do not fit within the established and customary designation conventions of either the US Navy or NATO.

I would suggest, W-PFL (CG Patrol Frigate, Large) for the Bertholfs and W-PFM for the Offshore Patrol Cutters or more simply W-PL (CG Patrol, Large) and W-PM (CG Patrol, Medium). We might also apply the new designations to existing WHECs and WMECs as well.

We might also want to take a look at icebreakers and AtoN vessels, but those designations are really less problematic.

“Cutter X” Revisited

Photo: French Patrol Vessel, L’Adroit, DCNS photo

Almost two years ago I made a proposal for an alternative fleet mix. Since then the cutter recapitalization program has moved along. Funding of the eighth and final National Security Cutter is expected in FY2015. 30 Webber class WPCs have been funded and the contract with Bollinger has run its course. The Administration has asked for funding of two more in FY2015. If the Congress does what they have done in the past the Coast Guard may get funding for as many as six.

Like the original post, the purpose here is to offer another possible cutter fleet mix that might be procured at the same cost as the “Program of Record” (POR) that would include approximately the same number of units but provide more large “cruising cutters”, eg, over 1000 tons (49 vs 33), while hopefully replacing the existing WMEC fleet earlier, avoiding the worst of the disastrous drop in the number of major cutters that appears likely in the 2020s, and providing more cutter days while requiring fewer or at least no more personnel than either the legacy fleet or the POR.

The original post was largely in response to a Department of Homeland Security study modeling the effectiveness of alternative fleet mixes, “Options for the Future USCG Cutter Fleet Performance Trade-Offs with Fixed Acquisition Cost,” by Alarik Fritz • Raymond Gelhaus • Kent Nordstromr (.pdf). My hope was to offer a better alternative that might be evaluated by a follow-on study.

What comes through loud and clear, from that study is that:
◾The Coast Guard need some ships with the capability to do boat and helicopter ops in State Five Seas particularly for operations in the Northeast and Alaska.
◾In the Southeast and West, where the primary missions are Drug Enforcement and Migrant Interdiction, we are a long way from a point of diminishing returns, that is, mission performance is directly linked to the number of cutters, effectiveness increasing in almost direct proportion to the number of cutters available.
◾The cutters’ ability to launch boats and helicopters in State Five conditions are much less important in the West and Southeast where most of the cutters are normally deployed.

Meanwhile the Coast Guard’s responsibilities continue to grow.

The concept of Cutter X was basically to take the equipment and crew of the Webber class and put them in a larger, higher endurance, more seaworthy hull and augment the crew only as necessary to deal with the additional endurance, the availability of two boats and helicopter and/or UAV operations. The original post provided several examples of similar ships, and since then I have posted another example. Basically the result is a relatively simple vessel, only a bit more sophisticated than a 210 but grown about 50% larger with the possibility of a hangar in addition to the flight deck. My presumption would be that these ships would rely more on shore based aircraft rather than an organic air search capability, meaning the tempo of air operations would be lower than for larger cutters. They might operate more frequently with UAVs rather than helicopters. In other words, a ship of about 1,500 tons, about half the size of the OPC, closer in size to a 270 than a 210 (but perhaps longer than the 270, L’Adroit at 1,450 tons full load is over 285 feet long), and about four times bigger than a Webber class WPC. Other characteristics I would expect are a speed of approximately 24 knots, a range of 5,000 miles or more, and an endurance of at least three weeks. Weapons would initially be limited to a single Mk38 mod2 25mm and crew served .50 cal.

Photo: L’Adroit, looking forward from the flight deck toward the superstructure and the hangar.

Basically my assumption was and is that the tradeoffs between ship typed would work something like this:

1 NSC = 2 OPCs = 4 “X” class = 12 FRCs

This equates to approx. prices of: $700M/NSC, $350/OPC, $175M/Cutter X, and $60M/FRC.

It is no longer possible to trade-off NSCs for X class cutters, so the new alternative mix would look like this:

8 NSCs, 15 OPCs, 26 “X” class, and 42 FRCs

This gives us as many vessels as the program of record (91), more “cruising cutters” capable of sustained distant operation (49 vs 33) including 23 ships (8 NSCs and 15 OPCs) that are capable operating boats and aircraft in sea state 5 for Alaska and the Northeast, and 15 OPCs with ice strengthened hulls for operation in the Arctic and potentially the Antarctic.

Like the previous post I’ll compare this possible fleet mix to the Coast Guard Fleet as it existed in 2000/2001 (which was larger than the existing fleet) and the fleet in the Program of Record (POR), on the basis of cutter days available and crewing requirements using both conventional and augmented crewing.


For the analysis below I have used the following as the personnel allowances for the new classes:
◾NSC 122
◾OPC 90 (still to be firmed up)
◾FRC 24 (includes two extra junior officers assigned to gain experience)

While some of the vessels cited in my previous post as comparable to Cutter X are crewed by as few as 30, which I will use as a lower limit, I believe the Coast Guard would use more, if only as an opportunity to provide more at sea experience. At most, the personnel allowance should not be more than that of the 210s. My figures may be out of date, but at least at one point that was a crew of 62. I’ll use this as the upper limit.

Cutter Days AFHP and Crew Requirements:

The 2000/2001 fleet: Theoretically the 2000/2001 fleet could have provided 8,140 cruising cutter days away from homeport (AFHP) (44 cruising cutters x 185 days) and would have required a total personnel allowance of 5,477 (1.49 cutter days/crew member).

The Program of Record: Without augmentation, the program of record would theoretically provide 6,105 cruising cutter days AFHP (33 cruising cutters x 185 days) and require a total personnel allowance of 4,618(1.32 cutter days/crew member).

With Augmentation (increasing their personnel allowance by a third and running the cruising cutters 230 days/year) the program of record would theoretically provide 7,590 cruising cutter days and require a total personnel allowance of 5,693 (1.33 cutter days/crew member).

Proposed Mix: Without augmentation, the proposed mix would theoretically provide 9,065 cruising cutter days AFHP (49 cruising cutters x 185 days) and require a total personnel allowance of between 4,114 (assuming a crew of only 30 for Cutter X, 2.2 cutter days/crew member) and 4,946 (assuming a crew of 62 for Cutter X, 1.83 cutter days/crew member).

With Augmentation (increasing the personnel allowance of the cruising cutters by a third and running them 230 days/year) the proposed mix would theoretically provide 11270 cruising cutter days AFHP (49 cruising cutters x 230 days) and require a total personnel allowance of between 5,150 (assuming a crew of only 30 for Cutter X, 2.19 cutter days/crew member) and 6,259 (assuming a crew of 62 for Cutter X, 1.80 cutter days/crew member).

What about the loss of FRCs? The proposal would trim 16 FRC from the POR. They are projected to operate up to 2500 hours per day. If we assumed that all 2500 hours were devoted to offshore cruising for the 16 additional units, that would add 1667 days AFHP to the POR for a total of 7,772 days AFHP for the un-augmented fleet (1.68 cutter days/crew member) and 9,257 days AFHP for the augmented POR (1.63 cutter days/crew member)(disregarding the 42 additional FRC that are included in both the POR and my proposed fleet mix).

In summary Cutter Days Available:
◾————————————–————–Un-Augmented———Augmented by 1/3
◾2000/20001 (cruising cutters only)—————–8,140———————N/A
◾POR (cruising cutters only)—————————6,105——————-7,590
◾POR (w/1,667 additional FRC day AFHP)——-7,772——————–9,257
◾Proposed Mix w/Cutter X (cruising cutters only)9,065—————–11,270

It looks like this alternative provides an improvement of at least 16.6% over the program of record, possibly as much as 48.5% depending on how you view the FRCs as a patrol asset. It appears that the un-augmented version gives virtually the same number of ship days away from homeport (within 2% assuming both we count the additional WPCs as cruising cutters and that the augmented ships provide 230 days AFHP. If they provide only 225 days AFHP even this small advantage goes away) as that of the augmented version of the program of record while requiring 13 to 28% fewer crewmembers (several hundred to over 1,000). And without the possibly problematic requirement for augmentation.

Is it doable? What is the timing? How would it effect with other programs?

The eight NSC should be essentially fully funded by the end of FY 2015. Thirty FRC are already funded. Funding twelve more to bring the total to the proposed 42 by the end of FY2017 would only require funding four per year, and might be done in only two years if Congress continues funding six a year, meaning funding for construction of X class cutters could begin in FY2018.

I think the funding could look something like this

————-OPC—X class
FY 2017—–1
FY 2018—–1——–1
FY 2019—–1——–1
FY 2020—–1——–1
FY 2022—–1——–2
FY 2023—–1——–3
FY 2024—–1——–3
FY 2025—–1——–3
FY 2026—–1——–3
FY 2027—–1——–3
FY 2028—–1——–3
FY 2029—–1——–3
FY 2030—–2——–0
FY 2031—–1——–0

The proposed mix funds 33 new generation large cutters by FY 2026, four years before the POM. The cutter X program would be fully funded in FY2029. Through FY2030, when the Program of Record is expected to be completed, it will have funded 48 new generation large cutters compared to the 33 new cutters of the Program of Record. In FY 2031 the proposal will add a 49th cutter. Since the X class cutters are nearer the size of existing cutters, they might also reduce the expense of modifying the shore establishment to support a larger number of OPCs. Additionally eliminating the requirement for augmentation will minimize new construction ashore to support the augmentation crews.

Other Considerations:

The proposed fleet mix has a pyramidal structure that may work well as a training ground for COs, e.g., assuming O-3s command the 42 Webber class (I know currently we have been using O-4s), O-4s command the 26 X class, O-5s command the 15 OPCs, and O-6s command the 8 NSCs.

Politically it is probably better for the Coast Guard to have two concurrent shipbuilding programs (OPC & X class) rather than just one, since that will normally lead to budgetary support from two Congressional delegations.

Ship Type Designations–The Bertholfs are Minesweepers?

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:

A Auxiliary
B Battleship (now archaic)
C Cruiser
CV Aircraft Carrier
D Destroyer
F Frigate
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
P Patrol
S Submarine
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
CM Countermeasures
D  Dock, drone
E  Ammunition, escort (archaic)
F  Frigate
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)).
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
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)
Medium, Missile (cruise), Monitor (archaic) Midget (archaic), Mechanized (archaic)
MH  Minehunter
MS  Minesweeper (eg DMS, Destroyer Minesweeper)
N  Nuclear
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
Sweeper, Support, Strike, Special, Seaplane (archaic)
T  Training, Tug, Target, Tank (eg LST), torpedo (archaic)
U  Utility
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.

WAGB  Icebreaker*
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.

Rethinking the New Cutter Programs

Preparing to write this, I reread some older material from the Acquisition Directorate and was surprised to find that my long held assumption that the Coast Guard would be building OPCs at a rate of three a year (since that was the rate we had built the 210s they are replacing) is not the case. The plan as expressed in the CG9 Newsletter for Oct/Nov 09 by Captain Brian Perkins was to build only two ships a year.

Plus, the same newsletter notes, the OPC program is linked to the NSC program in that it will not be started until after the last NSC is contracted.

As we have discussed the progress on the National Security Cutter Program has been slow. In the nine years since the ships were ordered, only two ships have been delivered and a third is building. Instead of seeing one new ship a year as might have been expected, there was an almost two year gap between the Bertholf and the Waesche, another almost two year gap between the Waesche and the Stratton, and it looks like an almost three year gap between Stratton and the forth NSC, Hamilton. Assuming that Hamilton is awarded this year (FY 2011) and one a year after that, the eighth and last NSC won’t be awarded until FY 2015 and we probably won’t see it in service until 2019. The first OPC(s) will not be funded until FY2016. The last 210 replacement will be funded in 2023 with deliver not likely until at least 2026 at which time the last 210 will be 57 years old. When the last 270 is replaced, in 2031 it will be 41 years old.

This is a plan for disaster.  That our fleet is already in trouble was demonstrated by the difficulties we encountered during the Haiti earthquake relief. How are these same ships going to perform in 10, 15, or 20 years.

There has got to be a better way.

First it surely isn’t necessary to take four years to make a decision on the OPC design. Its been discussed and mulled over for years. Might it not be possible to truncate the NSC program at six ships, fund the first OPCs in FY2014 and build them at the rate of three or four a year? And rather than multicrew the NSCs, increase the OPC program by six to provide one for one replacements for the 378s for a total of 6 NSCs and 31 OPCs. That still leaves us four ships short of where we are now, but a lot closer than the eight ships short currently planned.

Because the OPCs are considerably smaller than the NSC and made in greater quantity, they are potentially much cheaper while providing nearly all the capability of an NSC or 378. We are typically spending around $600M per NSC. I’ve heard that the Acquisitions Directorate expects to keep the costs for the OPC around $200M/ship. The ship I think they should build would be a bit more, because it would have added value for national defense, but building three or even four instead of one NSC is not a huge increase in the total Coast Guard budget and will save money in the long run.

The OPCs will have a smaller crew than the NSCs and a much smaller crew than the 378s.  The crew may even be smaller than that on the 270s. They are also likely to be much cheaper to maintain than the legacy ships. The sooner we get them in the fleet, the more we will save in manning and maintenance.

If we truncate the NSC program at 6 and begin the OPC program in FY 2014, funding three ships a year, we will have the 33 new ships currently planned by 2025, six years ahead of the current plan, and the entire program, including four additional ships, will be finished by early 2027.

If instead, in 2014 we began funding four ships a year, we would have our 33 new ships finished early in 2024, seven years ahead of the current plan and the the entire program would be completed in early 2025. Still a long way away, but better than the current plan. If we did that, the last 210 to be replace will only be 51 years old.

Is the Fleet Shrinking?

Is the Fleet Shrinking?

I got curious and did a small survey of the fleet size using resources I had at hand (that’s why I used 1982 instead of the more logical 1980). So here is a comparison of the  fleet composition in 1982, 1990, 2000, and 2010 with some notes about the future. To make the information more meaningful, I have grouped the ships in categories by displacement and provided subtotals of all the ships in that category or larger. There is a more specific evaluation of patrol vessels near the bottom.  My sources are at the foot.

(note: loa is length over all.  tons (fl) is full load displacement)

Type         Class               loa    tons (fl)      1982    1990    2000    2010

WAGB     Healy              420    16,000          –           –             1           1
WAGB     Polar               399    12,087           2          2            2           2
WAGB     Glacier            310      8,449           1           –            –            –
=> 8,000 tons                                                  3         2           3           3
WAGB     Wind               269      6,515            2          –             –            –
WAGB     Mackinaw      290      5,252             1          1            1            –
WMSL     Bertholf          418      4,306              –          –            –            2
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