The national security cutter (NSC) has come of age and is taking the U.S. Coast Guard operations at sea to a whole new level.
The first two NSCs, the Bertholf and the Waesche, have been commissioned and are conducting operational patrols. Both cutters are homeported in Alameda, Calif.
The third of these 418-foot-long and 54-foot-wide flagship vessels, the Stratton, was delivered to the Coast Guard in September and will be commissioned in March 2012.
The fourth NSC, the Hamilton, is under construction and the fifth NSC, the James, is under contract. The Coast Guard plans to acquire eight NSCs.
It’s a reality that couldn’t come quickly enough for the service and one that just a few years ago was just a concept in capability, but unproven in reality.
All that has changed as the first two of these ships have now proven themselves on patrols in real-world operations.
The NSCs have achieved operational capability, a critical milestone for the Coast Guard as it allows the decommissioning of the aging 378-foot Secretary-class high-endurance cutters (WHEC), which entered service in the 1960s and ’70s, to begin.
Two high-endurance cutters have already left service this year (the Hamilton and the Chase) as well as the 67-year-old medium-endurance cutter Acushnet, and according to President Barack Obama’s fiscal year 2012 budget request, one more WHEC will be decommissioned in 2012.
These 12 high-endurance cutters have done great service for the Coast Guard and the nation. But with the oldest of these ships approaching a half-century of service, they are becoming more difficult to repair and costly to operate, resulting in soaring maintenance costs and repair time and yielding diminished operational capability or return on investment.
This shortfall was critically evident in January 2010 when a devastating earthquake struck Haiti. At the time, neither of the two East Coast homeported high-endurance cutters were able to get under way, so the Hamilton was dispatched from San Diego, Calif., to Haiti via the Panama Canal to assist with command and control for the operation.
Each WHEC is budgeted annually for $1.4 million in maintenance dollars, but the average cost to maintain and keep each one operational is about three times more. It’s a bill the Coast Guard doesn’t want and the nation can’t afford to keep paying.
Enter the Newest Cutter in the Fleet
For a service that historically has done more with less, the Legend-class national security cutter is exactly what the Coast Guard needs in the 21st century.
High on capability and efficient to run as well as comfortable to serve on, they’re a dream to operate. Every day those operating the first two cutters in this class, the Bertholf and the Waesche, are finding new, more effective ways to use these vessels while carrying out the Coast Guard’s varied missions.
For example, interdicting drug smugglers is a bread-and-butter mission for the service. It’s also a metric the Coast Guard uses to determine success – like fighter pilots counting downed enemy planes. But for the Coast Guard, it’s the tonnage and street value of the drugs they prevent from making it to market in the United States and the profit taken away from cartels and potential narco-terrorists.
The Bertholf, on its first 92-day operational patrol in the Eastern Pacific in late 2010, disrupted an estimated 12,400 kilograms of cocaine valued at nearly $400 million shortly after being declared fully mission capable – marking the beginning of the NSC’s era in Coast Guard operations and return on investment to the nation.
That success continued in early 2011, as the Bertholf sailed on a 102-day patrol to Alaska and Hawaii, returning to its homeport of Alameda, Calif., in July. It was on the northern portion of the deployment where the ship’s leadership really began to see what this class of ship brings to the table.
“She’s got legs,” said Cmdr. David Ramassini, Bertholf’s executive officer, who has been aboard the ship for a year and a half and seen it blossom into its operational role.
“That sentence sums up the capabilities of these ships – faster and more efficient – translating into an enhanced ability to provide partnership and persistent presence over a greater area of influence.”
Ramassini did his department head tour aboard the high-endurance cutter Midgett and another tour aboard the medium-endurance cutter Harriet Lane, and has witnessed firsthand the capability the NSC brings to the table. “We offer extreme endurance with a crew size not much more than a legacy medium-endurance cutter.”
Providing presence, he said, is not only speed in getting where you’re needed in even substantial sea states, it’s staying power – having sufficient provisions and the fuel to remain on station and effectively conduct Coast Guard operations.
The NSCs can steam more than 12,000 nautical miles without refueling, compared to just 9,000 miles for the Secretary-class vessels. That allows the NSCs to stay at sea longer, providing not only maritime domain awareness, but also layered maritime security response in our approaches and far from our shores.
One key to that ability is dedicated sea water ballast tanks that can be filled as fuel is burned, allowing the ship to ride lower in the water and be more stable in heavier sea states, even as it burns fuel and becomes lighter.
The Secretary-class cutters had similar capability, but it required them to fill the empty fuel tanks with salt water when the cutter reached 60 percent fuel state, something Ramassini said you really prefer not to do from an operational and environmental standpoint.
Ramassini said this, along with the length and tonnage of the cutter, allows them to still make 12 to 15 knots in seas as high as 12 to 14 feet as they recently did while sailing toward Alaska.
“During our Alaska patrol, where seas can get quite rough in the Bering Sea, we were never out of limits for launching and landing aircraft, and that’s significant to our ability to perform our search and rescue missions when it’s all too often a matter of life and death,” he said.
One main ingredient in that formula is a state-of-the-art engineering plant providing greater flexibility and efficiency than its predecessors.
At the top end, the NSCs advertised speed is 28 knots, roughly equivalent to the Hamilton class’ advertised 29 knots.
In practice, he said, the NSC can do a little better – making nearly 30 knots if conditions are right.
Both the NSC and the high-endurance cutters have a hybrid propulsion plant with both diesels and gas turbine turning two shafts and screws, but the similarity ends there.
Unlike the Secretary class, where each shaft has a dedicated diesel and gas turbine engine in line to each shaft and screw, the NSC has a variety of configurations that can be used.
“We have two diesel engines and one gas turbine that can be put into five different configurations,” he said.
“At the low end for loitering, we have harbor mode for slower speeds where one diesel engine drives both shafts; next is our cruise mode – with one diesel engine using higher speed clutches and driving both shafts to propel us 16 to 18 knots.
“We can do about 24 knots on the diesels alone,” Ramassini said. “With the gas turbine alone driving both shafts, it’s a quiet 26 knots and if we have both the diesel and the gas turbine running at the same time, the ship can make up to 30 knots.”
Also in play in the extreme endurance picture is the crew size – but not quite as you may think. At 418 feet long, the NSC is 40 feet longer and 12 feet wider than its 378-foot predecessors and thus can carry more provisions while feeding fewer people.
“Fresh fruits and vegetables are really our biggest “limiting factor” in being able to remain at sea,” he said. “At about 30 days, we’ll be redefining what salad is (three bean salad and fruit cocktail) before we run low on fuel – when you’re constrained by fresh produce and not by how much fuel you have left, that’s a good place to be. Our ability to re-provision at sea by vertical replenishment (VERTREP) and fuel at sea with our Department of Defense and international partners extends our capabilities if necessary.”
The smaller crew size has another benefit for those aboard – “better quality of life,” Ramassini said. NSCs can accommodate berthing for a crew of up to 148.
“Our people live in eight-, six-, four-, or two-person staterooms and each is outfitted with two computers and other quality of life features,” he said.
“Add to that the fact we don’t have any restrictions on water usage and all this adds to the ability to have a persistent presence on station, because our people are doing the mission while enjoying a higher quality of life than the legacy platform ever afforded us – that makes each individual more effective over time – important when you are deployed for over 100 days at a time.”
Modernized for Today’s Missions
The ship also has greater ability to reach out away from its hull with more robust aviation and smallboat capability than the high-endurance cutters.
The NSC can carry and hangar two MH-65 Dolphin helicopters and has a flight deck that’s 80 feet long and 50 feet wide, yielding ship-helo capabilities that are far superior to the legacy Secretary class.
“On the 378s, the hangars are telescoping, meaning we lose flight deck area while housing the helicopter,” he said. “The extra length of the NSC gives us dedicated fixed hangar space and in reality, it triples aviation capability, and the extra real estate is always nice when you are doing helicopter operations from the crews’ and pilots’ perspective.”
This means, he said, that the NSC can carry not only two helicopters, but also more if necessary, serving not only as as a mobile command and control platform, but also as an at sea gas station for Coast Guard, international, interagency, and inter-service helicopters.
The NSC flight deck also allows it to launch and recover unmanned aerial vehicles for both the Department of Defense as well as federal and local law enforcement agencies – a maritime domain awareness and response “game changer” during a crisis such as a 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, he said.
As for boat operations, the ship’s stern ramp gives the cutter the ability to launch and recover quickly in heavier seas and it is also outfitted with one long-range interceptor boat and two cutter boats that can extend the operations on the ocean surface significantly over the horizon from the cutter.
Even with all the improvements in capability inherent in the hull and on deck, Ramassini said it’s the robust command and control combat system that really ties the whole package together.
It’s these leaps ahead in technology that make the ship a very effective part of a large joint operation, such as operating with U.S. Navy and international battle groups as was demonstrated during Exercise Northern Edge 2011 off of Alaska. Here the Bertholf operated with a U.S. Navy destroyer and cruiser while tracking more than 60 aircraft.
But probably more important, Ramassini said, are the ship’s radios and sensors that allow it to just as effectively take on the role of commander of a task unit (the command-and-control hub) for any operation and allow for the “situational awareness” that high-tech gear provides to work just as effectively to operate with navies from smaller countries as well as with state and local law enforcement agencies while near home waters.
The bottom line, Ramassini said, is the NSC has now proven itself in the real world.
“The ability to stay at sea longer and maintain greater operational security by making fewer port calls allows us to operate out of sight from those we’re trying to interdict,” he said. “Every time you make a port call – the word passes where you are and our adversaries then adjust – but if they don’t know where we are, then we have an edge. The NSC is a sound investment in homeland security for America.”
This article was first published in Coast Guard Outlook: 2012 Edition.