Opinion: Don’t Short The Coast Guard’s New Cutter

March 18, 2013 3:30 AM - Updated: March 18, 2013 8:41 AM
Coast Guard rendering of the planned Offshore Patrol Cutter. The service plans to announce the final three designs later this year. US Coast Guard Photo
Coast Guard rendering of the planned Offshore Patrol Cutter. The service plans to announce the final three designs later this year. US Coast Guard Photo

The U.S. Coast Guard has in place ambitious programs to revitalize the U.S. cutter force to meet the daunting requirements of the 21st century. Three cutter classes are under way as of this month.

First, the Legend-class high-endurance national security cutters (NSCs) have been designed to meet the most demanding of operational needs in vast, far-offshore areas such as the western Pacific and extreme environments such as the Bering Sea in winter. The program calls for eight NSCs: three are in the fleet; two are under construction at Huntington Ingalls Industries/Ingalls Shipbuilding; and the sixth is awaiting fiscal year 2013 funding to begin construction. The two final NSCs are not yet funded. According to an October 2012 issue brief by Ronald O’Rourke of the Congressional Research Service, the average procurement cost (then-year dollars) for all eight NSCs is approximately $684 million each.

Second, 25 medium-endurance offshore patrol cutters (OPCs) will complement the NSCs and replace the 13 Bear-class medium-endurance cutters (WMECs) that entered service in the 1980s and the 16 Reliance-class WMECs that joined the fleet in the 1960s. Looking to the future, “The OPCs will be the ‘workhorses’ of the Coast Guard for the next 40 years,” Commandant Adm. Robert Papp explained in mid-January 2013, “and they are critical to our long-term mission effectiveness.” O’Rourke’s total-program estimate is about $484 million per ship after all 25 have been delivered.

Third, as many as 58 small Sentinel-class fast response cutters (FRCs) will be acquired to carry out coastal and near-shore patrol and response tasks. Considerably smaller and less capable than the OPCs, the FRCs replace 41 Island-class 110-foot patrol boats––the low end of the CG’s “high-low” cutter mix. O’Rourke estimates the cost at $73 million per boat. Bollinger Shipyards is building the first 30 coastal FRCs, with the CG planning to hold a competition in 2015 for the remaining 28 boats.

All looks good for the Coast Guard, except that government-wide “sequestration” promises draconian budget cuts for several years. With the increasing use of “affordability” as something of an OPC key performance parameter, the potential is growing for ill-conceived decisions to be forced on the Coast Guard, from which there may be no easy way back.

In short, the OPC can’t be just your “grandfather’s WMEC” on steroids. It needs to be a complex, multimission cutter that can meet daunting operational requirements––unless, that is, the CG’s “middle-child” cutter is short-sheeted to meet near-term fiscal “bogeys.” If so, it would be a waste of taxpayer money at a time when doing more—affordably—is clearly in order.

The OPC program might be frustrated by a “middle child” syndrome––overlooked, nestled as it is between the mature NSC and the ramping-up FRC programs, with long-term operational performance needs scrubbed and re-scrubbed to meet near-term fiscal constraints. As Adm. Papp said in congressional testimony in March 2012:

We re-scrubbed the requirements. We have battled ourselves within the Coast Guard to make sure we’re asking for just exactly what we need, nothing more nothing less. And I have said three things to my staff as we go forward—affordable, affordable, affordable.

This ultimately could be a challenge, as the OPC is not simply a replacement for the geriatric and mission-constrained WMECs; it’s the service’s high-capability maritime security cutter-medium that will serve well into the 2050s, if not beyond. Complementing the national security cutter-large, the OPC will carry out operations in offshore environments that require a multimission cutter that is fully interoperable with Coast Guard and other Department of Homeland Security assets as well as Department of Defense forces. It must feature increased range and endurance, greater weapons capabilities, a larger flight deck and space for up to 500 alien migrants, and enhanced C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) equipment. It must also be capable of all-weather aircraft and small-boat operations––something that the obsolescent WMECs cannot do.

The less-costly 25 OPCs will thus complement the higher-end capabilities of the six—or, if the Coast Guard is lucky, eight—NSCs. Look at it this way: In the OPCs the nation gets a modern, multimission cutter with about 75 percent of the capabilities of an NSC at 70 percent of the cost.

In September 2012, the Coast Guard issued a request for proposals for the first phase of a two-phase approach: Phase 1 includes awards to as many as three bidders for preliminary and contract design, for which proposals were submitted by eight shipyards in January 2013. The second phase will be a down-select to a single shipbuilder in 2016 for detail design and construction. As Defense News correspondent Chris Cavas reported in October 2012 , a variety of U.S. and European shipyards are interested in the program, ranging from “repair yards that have never built a complex warship or large cutter” to “tried-and-true shipbuilders like Huntington Ingalls and Bath Iron Works.”

Given the reality that the first OPC will not be delivered until 2020 at the earliest, the 25-ship OPC fleet program will not be completed until the mid-2030s, and the last OPC will be decommissioned in the mid-2060s, it’s important that the risks to success be addressed.

Most important, the OPCs will need to be designed, engineered and built to carry out a broad spectrum of missions and tasks in offshore areas––anticipating and responding to traditional and nontraditional threats and challenges on and from the sea during each OPC’s 30-year service life. Thus, the ability to accommodate several generations of technologies, systems and equipment to carry out missions and tasks only dimly perceived in 2013 must be designed-in from the start. Modular and open-architecture designs can help respond to future requirements quickly and cost-effectively, but those are complex propositions.

The OPC’s multi-mission responsibilities will require extended transits and sustained on-scene presence far offshore, as well as operations in closer regions, and the program has been structured to meet several key performance parameters: 

  • Minimum operational range of 8,500 nautical miles at a sustained speed of 14 knots
  • Operational sustainment of 185 to 230 days away from home ports each year, with a core crew of about 120 plus detachment personnel
  • Top speed threshold of 22 knots and objective of 25 knots
  • Patrol endurance of 45 to 60 days, with 14 days between refueling
  • Enhanced seakeeping to support boat and aircraft operations in sea state 5 (wave heights of 12 feet)

Those and other OPC requirements are complex and drive similarly complex characteristics and capabilities, which won’t come cheap. “How do you provide persistent sovereign presence in the offshore waters?” Adm. Papp asked at a Washington, D.C. think-tank conference in March 2012. “You can’t do it with patrol boats. It takes ships, and ships are expensive.”

Furthermore, through its unique set of law enforcement and military capabilities, the OPC will be a key element of the National Fleet, bridging the gap between the Coast Guard’s law enforcement/homeland security missions and the Navy’s military/defense missions. Although it’s not envisioned that the OPC will deploy with Navy aircraft carrier groups, the cutter’s concept of operations does indicate that it could deploy with amphibious ready groups and support regional combatant commanders in low- to medium-threat environments. To do so, the OPC must be fitted with advanced, secure C4ISR systems to operate seamlessly in highly complex netted environments and have hard- and soft-kill weapons to defeat a broad spectrum of threats.

And, as much as performance risk needs to be taken into account, so must industrial-base capabilities-risk also be addressed. For example, experience and capabilities to design, engineer, build and deliver “war-ready” ships are the sine qua non for program and operational success. Rear Adm. Wayne E. Meyer, the so-called father of the Navy’s Aegis cruisers and destroyers, used to say, “There’s nothing more complex than trying to design and build a warship . . . nothing!” The broad success of the Aegis program is due in no small part to an industrial base that had the skills and experience to deliver design, engineering, and production excellence.

So it must be for the OPC program. The Coast Guard/industry team must ensure the ability to deal with complexity in systems design, engineering and integration; planning and production schedules; logistics and supply chains; quality assurance; and testing. In this regard, the OPC is much closer to the NSC than the FRC in design and operational complexity “drivers,” and this might well shift the decision from “repair yards that have never built a complex warship or large cutter” to a “tried-and-true shipbuilder.”

Scott C. Truver

Dr. Truver is director of Gryphon Technologies’ TeamBlue National Security Programs group and is the co-author of the U.S. Naval Institute Press book, Weapons that Wait: Mine Warfare in the U.S. Navy (1991 edition).

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