Defense Media Network

Coast Guard is Overhauling White, Red and Black Hull Fleets

The Coast Guard cutter fleet has served with distinction, but it is old and in need of recapitalization. Fortunately, new ships are on the way. The good news is that today there are cutters in the water, being built, or planned to replace the aging “white hull” high endurance and medium endurance cutters and patrol boat fleets; “red hull” icebreakers; and “black hull” buoy and inland waterway tenders.

The legacy multi-mission “white hull” cutters are grouped by size, with high-endurance cutters (WHECs) being the largest, followed by medium endurance cutters (WMECs), and finally patrol boats (WPBs). The older ships are increasingly more expensive to operate and maintain, and they are also no longer optimal for mission sets that have become more complex.

In rebuilding the fleet, the WHECs are being replaced by the National Security Cutter (NSC), which are designated as “maritime security cutter large” or WMSLs. The WMECs are being replaced by the Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC), which carry the “maritime security cutter medium” or WMSM designation. The patrol boats are being replaced with the Fast Response Cutter (FRC).

Missions of NSCs, OPCs, and FRCs

NSCs, OPCs, and FRCs, like the cutters they are intended to replace, are to be multi-mission ships to perform search and rescue (SAR); drug interdiction; migrant interdiction; ports, waterways, and coastal security (PWCS); protection of living marine resources; other/general law enforcement; and defense readiness operations. If needed, they can also support other Coast Guard operations such as aids to navigation (ATON) support or pollution response.

The first NSC, USCGC Bertholf (WMSL 750), was commissioned in August of 2008. At 4,500 tons and 418-feet in length, it is larger and more capable than its predecessor, the 378-foot, Hamilton-class WHEC.

While the original program of record (POR) was to build eight NSCs, the program has been supported by Congress, and funding has been authorized for up to 11. All of the NSCs are built at Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Ingalls Shipbuilding of Pascagoula, Mississippi. The seventh and eighth NSCs, Kimball and Midgett, respectively, were commissioned into service in a joint ceremony at their homeport of Honolulu in 2019. The ninth NSC, Stone, will be christened in a ceremony at Ingalls Shipbuilding in early 2020.

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In his State of the Coast Guard Address, Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Karl Schultz called the NSCs “the flagships of our cutter fleet.”

Compared to legacy cutters, the NSCs benefit from improved sea-keeping, greater endurance and range, and higher sustained transit speeds to get to the operating area faster. The NSC has better facilities for boats and aircraft as well. The stern launch capability can safely launch and recover small boats from astern while underway. The hangar, flight deck and aviation facilities can accommodate the MH-65 helicopters and unmanned aircraft such as ScanEagle.

Schultz said the NSCs have game-changing capabilities, with an unmanned aerial system, airborne use-of-force helicopters, and over-the-horizon boats.

Recent NSC deployments have benefited from the surveillance capabilities of the ScanEagle unmanned aircraft. Schultz said the Coast Guard is procuring the systems so that eventually all of the NSCs will carry ScanEagle.

Newer cutters are needed because threats have evolved. The sophistication of trans-national organized crime, drug smuggling, human trafficking and illegal fishing is much greater today than when the older WHEC and WMEC cutters entered service.

The NSC, OPC and FRC all have greater range and endurance than the cutters they are replacing. The NSCs have improved range and endurance, as their deployments attest. USCGC Bertholf deployed to the Western Pacific in 2019 to enforce U.N. sanctions against North Korea, and operate with the U.S. Seventh Fleet and partner nations. Last year, USCGC Stratton (WMSL 752) deployed for 104 days operating from the Bering Sea to the coast of Colombia in South America, and in 2019 deployed to the Western Pacific.


The Coast Guard’s OPC program of record calls for procuring 25 OPCs as replacements for the service’s 29 medium-endurance cutters. The 360-foot OPCs will be larger and more capable than the WMECs they will replace.

The OPCs are being called the Heritage class, and are named for cutters that played an exceptional role in Coast Guard history. The lead ship will be named USCGC Argus.

“This next generation surface capability, beginning with the Argus, is already under construction. The OPC program of record is set to deliver 25 hulls and that fleet will eventually comprise over 70 percent of our offshore presence,” said Schultz in his 2019 “State of the Coast Guard Address” at Sector Los Angeles-Long Beach in March.

Schultz said the first two OPCs will be homeported in San Pedro, California, followed by the next two at Kodiak, Alaska. He also said the new OPCs “will be exponentially more capable and accommodating to our mixed gender crews.”

“Looking forward, the performance capabilities and expected capacity of our future Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC) fleet will provide the tools to more effectively enforce federal laws, secure our maritime borders, disrupt TCOs, and respond to 21st century threats,” said Schultz during congressional testimony in April 2019. “In concert with the extended range and capability of the NSC and the enhanced coastal patrol capability of the Fast Response Cutter (FRC), our planned program of record for 25 OPCs will be the backbone of the Coast Guard’s strategy to project and maintain offshore presence.”

The OPC detail design and construction (DD&C) contract was awarded to Eastern Shipbuilding Group (ESG) of Panama City, Florida, on Sept. 15, 2016, which covered the detail design and production of up to nine OPCs. However, ESG and the Panama City region suffered significant storm damage from the devastating category 5 Hurricane Michael in October of 2018. As a result, the contract was adjusted to support continued production of Argus and provide options for ESG to build up to three more OPCs.

The Coast Guard announced on Oct. 11 that the service is looking at conducting a follow-on competition for the remaining OPC program of record, and asked for comments from industry.

“The RFI is one of several industry engagement activities the program will do to gain fresh insight into the current state of the shipbuilding industrial base and inform the Coast Guard’s way forward on follow-on production of OPCs,” said Brian Olexy, a Coast Guard Acquisition Directorate spokesman.

The newly commissioned Coast Guard Fast Response Cutter Angela McShan (WPC-1135) underway near Miami, Florida, Sept. 20, 2019.

The newly commissioned Coast Guard Fast Response Cutter Angela McShan (WPC-1135) underway near Miami, Florida, Sept. 20, 2019.

Fast Response Cutter

The Coast Guard’s FRC program has been moving along smartly. In addition to the qualitative improvement over the 110-foot Island class patrol boats (WPB), the new 154-foot FRCs have been joining the fleet in numbers.

The Sentinel (WPC) class patrol boats are named for enlisted leaders, trailblazers, and heroes of the Coast Guard and its predecessor services of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, U.S. Life-Saving Service, and U.S. Lighthouse Service.

The Coast Guard is replacing the 49 Island-class 110-foot patrol boats serving in U.S. waters with 58 FRCs, and Island-class cutters are being taken out of service as new FRCs are commissioned. There are currently six Island-class patrol boats based in Bahrain as part of Patrol Forces Southwest Asia (PATFORSWA), and the goal is to replace them with FRCs as well.

The FRCs carry a stern-launched 26-foot Over-the-Horizon Interceptor (OTH IV) instead of the WPB’s 17-foot RHIB (ridged hull inflatable boat). The OTH IV is also used on the WMEC, NSC and OPC, and has better endurance and seakeeping, as well as improved radar and communications, compared to the RHIB, which had to be within the line of sight of the 110.

The FRC has the same statutory missions as the 110s – to conduct multi-day patrols throughout the nation’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and beyond. But the similarity ends there. The FRC is 40 percent longer and twice as heavy, with greater endurance for longer patrols, and is more heavily armed so as to be more persuasive when called upon.

The lead ship in the Sentinel-class, USCGC Bernard C. Webber, was delivered in 2012. “The Coast Guard is on track to take delivery of five FRCs, cutters 38 through 42, in 2020, in line with our acquisition schedule and strategy,” said Olexy. There are 56 FRCs under contract as of November 2019.

The first FRCs were assigned to District 7 homeports of Miami and Key West in Florida, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. The idea was that each of those ports would have dedicated support teams to sustain and maintain the ships with the required expertise, experience and economies of scale. A cutter returning from a patrol would find a knowledgeable team waiting for them to deal with casualties, repairs, and scheduled maintenance. Since then, FRCs have been assigned at various homeports from the continental U.S. to Alaska and Hawaii.

The FRC is built upon a “parent-craft” design, based on the Stan 4708 patrol vessel by Damen Group of the Netherlands.

The FRC’s range and endurance have opened up new operational opportunities.

In 2019, Honolulu-based Fast Response Cutter USCGC Joseph Gerczak (WPC 1126), accompanied by ocean going buoy tender USCGC Walnut (WLB 205) conducted a successful deployment to Samoa and the U.S. territory of American Samoa, where they conducted operations to counter illegal fishing and strengthen relations with allies and partner nations.

The Joseph Gerczak crew conducted joint boardings in the U.S. EEZ around American Samoa with U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration enforcement officers and the American Samoa Marine Police. Later, the Joseph Gerczak joined up with Walnut in Apia, Samoa to participate in community relations events on behalf of the U.S. Embassy. The Joseph Gerczak also assisted local responders with search and rescue efforts.

FRCs feature advanced systems as well as over-the-horizon response boat deployment capability and improved habitability for the crew.

The ships can accommodate a crew of 24, can reach speeds of 28 knots with a range of 2,500 nautical miles, and patrol up to five days.

The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star backs and rams through dense ice off the Antarctic coast, Jan. 15, 2017. The Polar Star and its crew work to establish a resupply channel through Antarctic ice to enable ships to reach the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station every year. Polar Star is the nation’s only heavy icebreaker, and is 43 years old.

The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star backs and rams through dense ice off the Antarctic coast, Jan. 15, 2017. The Polar Star and its crew work to establish a resupply channel through Antarctic ice to enable ships to reach the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station every year. Polar Star is the nation’s only heavy icebreaker, and is 43 years old.

Polar Security Cutter

Coast Guard icebreakers constitute the “red hull” fleet. Currently the Coast Guard operates the heavy icebreaker USCGC Polar Star (WAGB 10), and medium icebreaker USCGC Healy (WAGB 20).

Schultz has stated that along with the Offshore Patrol Cutter, the Polar Security Cutter (PSC) is the service’s top acquisition priority. “PSCs will provide the nation with assured surface access to the polar regions for decades to come.”

Speaking at the American Society of Naval Engineers’ Arctic Day symposium, Vice Commandant Adm. Charles Ray said the Coast Guard needs at least three heavy icebreakers to provide the ability to operate anywhere, anytime.

The PSC program is aimed at recapitalizing the nation’s polar icebreaking fleet with at least three new heavy polar icebreakers. The Coast Guard-Navy Integrated Program Office (IPO) for the PSC program awarded a $745.9 million fixed-price, incentive-firm contract for the detail, design and construction of the first PSC to VT Halter Marine of Pascagoula, Mississippi, on April 23, 2019. Construction of the first PSC is scheduled to begin in 2021 and be delivered in 2024, with incentives for achieving an earlier delivery date.

“The IPO structure combines a wide range of acquisition and operational expertise in one office, enabling the Coast Guard to conduct an accelerated acquisition of a complex vessel, the PSC, in a prudent manner,” said Capt. Tim Connors, the PSC acquisition program manager.

In July 2019, the IPO was recognized by the Department of Homeland Security as the Major Acquisition Program of the Year. The program received the award in recognition of its programmatic excellence and success in fiscal year 2018 in applying resources and innovative processes to deliver the planned capabilities on an accelerated schedule while reducing the estimated cost of the lead vessel by $300 million. Also, in September 2019, the PSC project resident office (PRO), staffed by Coast Guard and Navy personnel, moved from its temporary location at Coast Guard headquarters to its permanent facilities at VT Halter Marine in Pascagoula, Mississippi.

In addition to the ocean-going icebreakers, the Coast Guard also has a red hull on the Great Lakes, the USCGC Mackinaw (WLBB 30), commissioned in 2006.

Waterways Commerce Cutter (WCC)

The Coast Guard’s “black hull” fleet of inland tenders is also in desperate need of replacement.

According to the Coast Guard’s “Maritime Commerce Strategic Outlook,” the service has a vital role in ensuring the safe, secure and efficient operation of America’s 12,000-mile Marine Transportation System (MTS) of rivers, canals, and intracoastal waterways, and has three main lines of effort: “facilitating lawful trade and travel on secure waterways; modernizing aids to navigation and mariner information systems; and transforming workforce capacity and partnerships …”

That mission is supported by the 35-ship inland tender fleet and its associated barges, which is responsible for maintaining approximately 28,200 navigation aids throughout the inland waterways, and consists of three classes – inland buoy tenders (WLI); river buoy tenders (WLR); and inland construction tenders (WLIC) – in nine different subclasses from 65 to 160 feet in length, and when they are attached with their respective work barges can reach up to 190 feet. They maintain the “aids to navigation” (ATON) system that helps prevent accidents such as collisions, allisions, and groundings. They support the mission between the larger seagoing and coastal buoy tenders and the Coast Guard sector aids to navigation teams and their small boats located throughout country.

The current fleet is located in 22 states, spanning a wide range of weather conditions in strong river and tidal currents, and must operate in areas affected by ice, debris, and shoaling. They conduct their missions along the Columbia and Snake Rivers; the Atlantic and Gulf Intracoastal Waterways; the Atchafalaya, Arkansas, Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Ouachita, Red, and White Rivers, as well as in Alaska and Michigan.

The inland fleet comprises three basic types. The WLRs service short-range ATON on the western rivers; they set, relocate and recover buoys to mark the navigable channel in the rivers as the water level changes and also establish and maintain fixed aids, lights, and day beacons in their area of responsibility. The WLICs primarily maintain the Intracoastal Waterway marking system along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts as well as major shipping channels in harbors such Houston, New Orleans, Mobile, Charleston, and Miami, where they construct and maintain steel or wood single- and multi-pile structures and navigational ranges. The small WLIs work the Snake and Columbia Rivers; up in the Wrangell Narrows of Alaska; at Sault Ste. Marie in the Great Lakes; in areas prone to shoaling along the North Carolina coast; and in shallower areas that larger buoy tenders can’t access.

As important as these ships are, they are old – with an average age of 55 years – and urgently need to be replaced. The job isn’t getting easier. Traffic has increased; commercial tug and barge units have gotten bigger, and more traffic is being conducted at night, so those lighted navigational aids are even more important.

The Coast Guard’s answer is the WCC Program, which will provide new vessels capable of buoy tending, pile driving and extraction, tower construction, and generally supporting maintenance of waterways ATON.

Crew members aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Elderberry, a 65-foot inland buoy tender homeported in Petersburg, Alaska, prepare buoys to be set in the Gastineau Channel.

Crew members aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Elderberry, a 65-foot inland buoy tender homeported in Petersburg, Alaska, prepare buoys to be set in the Gastineau Channel.

The Coast Guard’s Acquisition Directorate is currently examining alternative solutions that will address both obsolescence and modern commercial technology available to meet the inland maritime mission capability requirement. Based on market research, design analysis and trade studies, the WCC program plans to acquire three ship variants, one per mission set. All WCCs will be monohull vessels (self-propelled ships) instead of tug and barge configurations. The new river buoy and inland construction tender configurations will be identical except for their hull lengths, working deck layouts, and deck equipment, including cranes. The program will acquire new inland buoy tenders simultaneously under a different contract.

The program released draft specifications for the river buoy and inland construction tenders in October 2019 and top-level requirements for the inland buoy tenders in November 2019.

While the specifications and total number of cutters to acquire have yet to be finalized, Aileen Sedmak, WCC program manager, said, “We do have an idea of what that capability needs to have, such as better connectivity over the entire area of responsibility; having mixed-gender crews; modern technology and habitability standards; and adequate speed and maneuverability to operate in strong currents, getting in and out of difficult-to-reach areas.”

Sedmak said the WCC Program is working under an “accelerated program schedule” to reach initial operational capability by 2025 and full operational capability by 2030.

This article originally appears in the following edition of Coast Guard Outlook.


Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is a senior-level communications professional with more than...