Just over a year ago, the U.S. Coast Guard’s Fast Response Cutter Program was still a dream in the works. The capabilities of the 154-foot Sentinel-class vessels were promised but untested in the grueling day-to-day operating world of the Coast Guard, and the first crew had just taken charge of their new cutter at the shipyard.
What a difference just one year can make.
As the service moves into 2013, four of the new fast response cutters (FRCs) are now commissioned. The fifth FRC, Margaret Norvell (WPC 1105), was delivered on Mar. 25, 2013.
“The assembly line is working and the ships are coming out,” said Lt. Cmdr. Herb Eggert, commanding officer of the Bernard C. Webber, the first ship of the class. “We’re starting to be operationally focused instead of design focused, which is a good place to be.”
Eggert and the Webber’s crew took charge of their ship in late 2011 and commissioned it in the service’s 7th District in Miami, Fla., April 14, 2012. As they head into 2013, the crew has already made four patrols – one of them a four-week deployment to Sector San Juan, Puerto Rico.
“It’s been quite a year for us,” Eggert said. “Operationally we’re happy now to be a normal Coast Guard patrol boat operating on a normal schedule.”
The rollout plan for the FRC still has the first six assigned to operate from Miami. The second six will be homeported in Key West, Fla., and the third half-dozen will homeport in San Juan, Puerto Rico – all sectors within District 7.
Beyond that, the remainder of the rollout of the 58 FRC fleet has yet to be announced as the service works to replace its 41 remaining 110-foot Island-class patrol cutters still in the Coast Guard’s fleet.
For Eggert and his crew, there’s been no one to ask questions about the ship – they are paving the way for the rest of the ships in the class.
For the crews and their commanders, it’s been a year of discovery of what this new platform can do, as the promise of the FRC has blossomed into reality in front of their eyes.
Eggert has had a front-row seat throughtout the process.
After commanding both 110- and 123-foot patrol boats, he was well qualified to spend a few years at Coast Guard Headquarters assisting with the design and development of the Sentinel-class concept.
But even though Eggert has seen the FRC through from design table paper to real-world patrols, he and all the other FRC commanders and crews are daily discovering why the Sentinel-class cutters give the Coast Guard not only fresh patrol boats, but a significant increase in capability.
“With the FRC, a patrol hour is more focused and more efficient, and we hope more productive than a patrol hour on our legacy units,” Eggert said.
That overall efficiency comes from incremental improvements in cutterboat and command and control capabilities as well as engineering, habitability, and even armament.
“I guess what we found is that while nothing on the ship is necessarily ‘state of the art,’ it’s all ‘state of the market,’ and these small increases across the board have really added up to make it a more effective patrol platform.”
Command and Control
One of the biggest game-changers for the 154-foot FRCs over their 110-foot Island-class predecessors is the robust command and control system, with secure voice and Internet providing and receiving intelligence data from the Coast Guard’s Common Operational Picture at up to the SECRET level of classification.
It’s a capability previously unheard of in this size of vessel, but puts the ship on a footing with ships many times its size.
“This is a huge improvement over the 110, but to be honest, I’m still trying to grasp the full ability of the C4ISR [command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, and reconnaissance] we have on board,” said Lt. Cmdr. Craig Allen, commanding officer of the William R. Flores, the newly commissioned FRC, now on its initial operational patrol.