The reason rumors continue to swirl about the Coast Guard’s future offshore patrol cutter (OPC) – including recent speculation that the entire program was to be axed – may simply be that so little has been decided about what the cutter will actually look like. The offshore patrol cutter is a high-profile program, one of the most expensive and talked-about shipbuilding ventures in Coast Guard history, and people are curious.
In the Coast Guard’s vision of its future fleet, the offshore patrol cutter will replace its medium endurance cutters (MECs) – 13 Famous-class, 270-foot cutters commissioned mostly in the 1980s; 14 of its 210-foot Reliance-class cutters, commissioned in the 1960s; and the legacy cutters Alex Haley and Acushnet. Two of the aged Reliance cutters, as well as the Acushnet, have already been decommissioned, and the Alex Haley is now 43 years old. The Coast Guard’s current plan is to replace these cutters with 25 OPCs. With a price tag estimated at $300 million to $400 million over the life of the program, the offshore patrol cutter has drawn some scrutiny in the current budget climate.
Reports of the program’s demise, however, said Brian Olexy, a program analyst with the Coast Guard’s Acquisition Directorate, are premature. The FY 2012 budget proposal includes $25 million for continued “pre-acquisition design work” for the OPC.
What is the OPC for?
The OPC is envisioned as a littoral surface asset, with capabilities between those of the larger national security cutter (NSC) and the smaller fast response cutter (FRC). As outlined on the Acquisition Directorate’s home page for the OPC, it will be a multi-mission asset with greater capabilities than the existing MECs, including greater range, endurance, and seakeeping; more powerful weapons; larger flight decks; and improved command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) equipment. As conceived, it is also projected to incorporate a number of green technologies that will reduce the fleet’s environmental footprint. As a coastal patrol vessel, it will be capable of sustained small boat and flight operations in support of law enforcement, defense and search & rescue missions.
The Coast Guard’s approach to OPC acquisition has been deliberate, and involved several engagements with the shipbuilding industry in order to explore what is feasible. The Acquisition Directorate has cautioned that the information it releases on any given day reflects a project status that is certain to change based on internal and external circumstances. For now, the plan is to release draft specifications sometime soon – specifications likely to change based on feedback from industry. It is currently projected that production of the first offshore patrol cutter will begin in 2019.
Perhaps in response to public criticism of a ship that hasn’t even been designed yet, the Acquisition Directorate has backed away from listing specific OPC requirements – but recent ones, such as those presented on a November 2011 “Industry Day” (www.uscg.mil/acquisition/opc/pdf/opcindustryday.pdf), are on record. Again, these should be understood as preliminary requirements:
- a range of between 8,500-9,500 nautical miles at 14 knots sustained;
- a crew of 90-104;
- deployment capability of 45 days, to a maximum of 60 days;
- two to 3 smallboat ramps;
- a flight deck and hangar space capable of accommodating an H-65 Dolphin helicopter;
- a medium-caliber forward deck gun, minor-caliber aft gun, .50-caliber remotely operated small arms mount (ROSAM) and crew-served machine guns; and
- electronic warfare capabilities including softkill of anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) and specific emitter identification (SEI) technology.
A Faster, Cheaper Way?
Size specifications have all but disappeared from official Coast Guard references to the OPC, probably because they have proved controversial. Early descriptions of the ship as a 360-foot, 25,000- to 3,000-ton cutter prompted questions about why it was so much larger than the MECs it was replacing.
The short answer is that the Coast Guard doesn’t want the OPC to replicate the MECs – which are, for example, incapable of negotiating rough Arctic seas – it wants ships with greater capability that conform to today’s regulations, mission portfolio, and operational environment.
Greater capability, however, often has proved expensive and time consuming for the Coast Guard’s recapitalization program; production of the NSCs has suffered delays and cost overruns that seem to typify large government acquisitions.
These delays have drawn attention to the offshore patrol cutter program from minders of the nation’s purse strings. After the General Accounting Office cautioned, in July 2009, that troubles with the NSC program threatened the future of the OPC, the Congressional Budget Office floated two alternatives to another full-blown acquisition: either canceling the OPC altogether and simply producing more national security cutters, or basing the offshore patrol cutter design on the already-existing hull of the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship.
So far, the OPC is a separate and distinct program, with a project manager and assigned staff who are moving into the next stage of specification and design. While the fiscal climate may not be as welcoming as it once was, there’s no getting around the fact that the Coast Guard needs to replace MECs that are now more than 40 years old.
In his State of the Coast Guard address, delivered on Feb. 10, 2011, Commandant Adm. Robert Papp Jr., affirmed the service’s commitment to the offshore patrol cutter, while acknowledging the challenges such a project faces in today’s fiscal climate: “We’re currently working with our partners, and industry representatives to develop the OPC’s requirements, and an affordable acquisition strategy,” Papp said. “But make no mistake: Acquiring a capable OPC is critical to our long-term mission effectiveness.”