The Coast Guard fleet is getting a long overdue stem-to-stern overhaul. Coast Guard cutters, from small to large, conduct a variety of missions, but their basic function can be readily identified by their color. The “white hull” ships conduct patrol operations. The tugs, buoy tenders, and work boats that service aids to navigation (ATON) at sea, along the coast, and in harbors and inland waterways have black hulls. The “red hull” cutters are the polar or Great Lakes icebreakers. From large national security cutters and icebreakers to patrol boats and inland waterways work tenders, the Coast Guard is replacing aging assets with modern ships. It’s about time – some of the legacy fleet served for 50 to 70 years!
The older ships are manpower-intensive and expensive to maintain. The newer ships are technologically superior; have better habitability and support mixed-gender crews; have improved seakeeping, endurance, and range; and are optimized for performing the Coast Guard’s increasingly complex missions.
Fortunately, there are major shipbuilding programs underway to recapitalize the fleets.
“We’re at a pace of shipbuilding we haven’t seen since World War II,” said Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz, speaking at the WEST 2021 conference on June 30, 2021.
The new national security cutters (NSCs), offshore patrol cutters (OPCs), and fast response cutters (FRCS) are multi-mission cutters that are assigned search and rescue (SAR); drug interdiction; migrant interdiction; ports, waterways, and coastal security (PWCS); protection of living marine resources; general law enforcement, and defense readiness operations. While these cutters are not intended to conduct the Coast Guard missions of marine safety, aids to navigation, marine environmental protection, or ice operations, they routinely support those functions. As such, they can be said to support all 11 of the service’s statutory missions.
The new ships have state-of-the-art technology. The NSC gains command, control, computers, communications, cyber, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C5ISR) superiority by using the Sea Commander system, which is fully compliant with the latest Department of Defense (DOD) cyber security requirements and based on the Navy’s Aegis Combat System. Sea Watch is being used by the FRC fleet – and will be used by future OPC and heavy polar ice breakers – as an integrated scalable command and control baseline providing advanced navigation and situational awareness tools.
NATIONAL SECURITY CUTTERS
Legend-class 418-foot, multi-mission national security cutters are named for legendary Coast Guard individuals. The lead ship, USCGC Bertholf (WMSL 750), was commissioned in 2008. They have replaced the 378-foot Hamilton-class high-endurance cutters, and are built by Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Ingalls Shipbuilding (HII/ Ingalls) of Pascagoula, Mississippi. The NSCs are referred to as WMSLs, with “MSL” standing for maritime security cutter, large.
The acquisition program of record (POR) originally called for procuring eight NSCs as replacements for the service’s 12 Hamilton-class cutters (WHEC), but currently there are 11 built or in production. The 378s were classified with the WHEC hull designation, with “W” standing for a Coast Guard ship and “HEC” denoting a high-endurance cutter. The last WHEC, USCGC Munro (WHEC 724), was decommissioned on April 24, 2021, in Kodiak, Alaska. Commissioned in 1971, it served for five decades.
The Coast Guard Acquisition Directorate describes the NSC as “capable of operating in the most demanding open ocean environments, including the hazardous fisheries of the North Pacific and the vast approaches of the Southern Pacific where much of the American narcotics traffic occurs. With robust command, control, communication, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance equipment, stern boat launch and aviation facilities, as well as long-endurance station keeping, the NSCs are afloat operational-level headquarters for complex law enforcement and national security missions involving multiple Coast Guard and partner agency participation.”
The NSC has the ability to launch and recover small boats from astern – to include the long-range interceptor II (LRI II) with its range of 240 nautical miles and speed at 40 knots – as well as aviation support facilities and a flight deck for helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles.
OFFSHORE PATROL CUTTERS
The 210-foot and 270-foot medium-endurance cutters (WMECs) are being replaced by Heritage-class offshore patrol cutters (OPCs) designated as WMSMs, for maritime security cutter, medium. The 360-foot Heritage-class OPCs are one of the service’s highest acquisition priorities. The OPC program of record is 25 cutters, which will eventually comprise more that 70% of the Coast Guard’s offshore presence.
The OPC’s capabilities will be closer to the NSC than the WMECs it will replace, with greater sea-keeping, range, and endurance, as well as a flight deck, hangar, and aviation facilities for MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters and unmanned aircraft.
Three OPCs are under construction at Eastern Shipbuilding Group (ESG) in Panama City, Florida, and long lead-time materials for a fourth are on order. Construction of USCGC Argus (WMSM 915) began in January 2019, followed by USCGC Chase (WMSM 916) in April 2020, and USCGC Ingham (WMSM 917) in April 2021.
While ESG won the competition in 2016 for the detailed design and construction of up to nine ships, devastation from category 5 Hurricane Michael in October 2018 delivered a major setback for ESG, which requested extraordinary contract relief under the authority of Public Law 85-804. Following a determination by the acting secretary of homeland security that extraordinary relief was necessary to maintain the national defense and in the best interest of the government, the Coast Guard moved forward with an adjustment to the OPC detail design and construction contract to cover production of the first four hulls. A new “full and open competition” solicitation to build OPCs 5 through 15 is underway now.
FAST RESPONSE CUTTERS
The 154-foot Sentinel-class fast response cutter (FRC) is replacing the 110-foot Island-class patrol boats (WPBs). The 110s – which are at, or approaching, 30 years of service – are being removed from service as they are replaced by FRCs. The FRCs are designated as WPCs, for patrol cutter, and are replacing the 110s, which are designated WPB for patrol boat.
The FRC is being built at Bollinger Shipyards in Lockport, Louisiana, and is based on the Damen Stan Patrol 4708 “parent-craft” design. The first, USCGC Bernard C. Webber (WPC 1101), was commissioned in 2012. Sixty-four are planned, with 44 already in service as of June 2021.
Compared to the WPBs, the FRCs have improved C4ISR capability and interoperability; stern launch and recovery (up through sea state 4) for a 40-knot Over-the-Horizon 26-foot cutterboat instead of the WPB’s 17-foot RHIB boat; a remote operated, fully stabilized MK 38 Mod 2 25-mm main gun; improved sea-keeping; and enhanced crew habitability. The FRC can deploy independently to conduct maritime security; fishery patrols; search and rescue; and national defense missions. FRCs have been assigned to homeports from the continental United States to Alaska and Hawaii, with the latest cutters going to Guam and Bahrain.
Ice-breaking is another mission that challenges the Coast Guard. The service’s two Polar-class heavy icebreakers are the most powerful in the world, but are old and unreliable. USCGC Polar Star (WAGB 10) is the sole operational heavy icebreaker, while sister ship USCGC Polar Sea (WAGB 11) is currently out of service. Entering service between 1976 and 1978, they have served far beyond their expected 30-year service lives. The Coast Guard has a third ocean-going icebreaker, the 22-year-old medium icebreaker USCGC Healy (WAGB 20), which is used primarily to support polar research. The much-needed replacement of the WAGBs with the polar security cutter (PSC) is underway. VT Halter Marine, Inc., is under contract to design and build up to three multi-mission PSCs to recapitalize the service’s heavy icebreaking capability.
At 460 feet in length and with a full load displacement of about 33,000 long tons, the PSC will be substantially larger than Polar Star (399 feet, 13,000 tons) or Healy (420 feet, 16,000 tons).
A service life extension for Polar Star will take place progressively over a five-year period, with her being available for major maintenance between her annual missions to McMurdo Sound during the Antarctic summer. The Coast Guard plans to keep Polar Star operational until the delivery of at least the second PSC.
Commissioned in 1999, Healy is larger than the Polar class, but less powerful, and is primarily a research ship that is also a medium icebreaker. During the 2020 summer Arctic season, Healy suffered an electrical fire in one of its main propulsion motors, requiring major repairs.
“Our new polar security cutters will ensure year-round access to uphold United States’ sovereignty, represent national interests, and vigorously compete for advantage in the remote polar regions,” said Schultz during his “State of the Coast Guard” address in March.
WATERWAYS COMMERCE CUTTERS
The “black hull” fleet of buoy tenders and construction cutters carries out the difficult but unheralded jobs of maintaining the system of ATON at sea, along the coast, and throughout the nation’s intracoastal and inland waterways.
The inland and river construction tenders are in dire need of replacement. They represent the oldest cutters in the Coast Guard inventory, with an average age of 56 years, and the oldest being more than 76 years old.
There are three classes – inland buoy tenders (WLI); river buoy tenders (WLR); and inland construction tenders (WLIC) – in various versions from 65 to 160 feet in length, and along with their respective work barges can reach up to 190 feet. Together these vessels and their associated work barges place and maintain buoys; construct towers; drive and extract pilings; and generally support maintenance of more than 28,000 navigation aids along America’s 12,000-mile Marine Transportation System (MTS) of rivers, canals, and intracoastal waterways.
The Coast Guard has embarked on an “accelerated program schedule” to replace those 35 inland tenders with 16 river buoy tenders, 11 inland construction tenders, and three inland buoy tenders as part of the new waterways commerce cutter (WCC) program. The program is currently in source selection, with plans to reach an initial operational capability by 2025 and full operational capability by 2030.
There are also seagoing and coastal buoy tenders, as well as icebreaking tugs. The 16 Juniper-class, 225-foot seagoing buoy tenders are used to maintain ATON and also assist with ice breaking, law enforcement, and search and rescue. They entered service between 1996 and 2004, with two of them being stationed on the Great Lakes. There are 14 Keeper-class 175-foot coastal buoy tenders that entered service between 1996 and 2000 and are stationed around the U.S. coastline.
The nine 140-foot Bay-class icebreaking tugboats (WTGBs) have year-round duties in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions of the country. The ships, built between 1977 and 1987, recently completed their In-Service Vessel Sustainment Program, which provided significant engineering and habitability upgrades and improvements to systems, extending their service life by another 15 years.
MORE THAN 100 NEW SHIPS
“The acquisition of 11 national security cutters, 25 offshore patrol cutters, three heavy ice breakers, and 64 fast response cutters provides our nation with over 100 highly capable ships that model the rules-based order,” said Schultz. “While the Department of Defense is rightly focused on hard power lethality, the U.S. Coast Guard provides soft power, multi-mission flexibility, trusted access, and non-kinetic options to advance U.S. interests, preserve U.S. security and prosperity, and address wide-ranging threats and challenges. We bring a range of maritime capabilities to bear across what I like to refer to as the ‘cooperation-competition-lethality continuum.’ While we train and operate across the entire continuum, it is in the ‘cooperate and compete’ areas where we thrive and best demonstrate our value to the nation in support of the Tri-Service Maritime Strategy – ‘Advantage at Sea’ – which the chief of naval operations, the commandant of the Marine Corps, and I jointly released in December. The future of our naval services is joint. We are truly more effective when we work together!”