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Fast Response Cutters Are Game-Changers for Interdiction

The Coast Guard’s new fast response cutters (FRCs) are just that: fast and responsive. The 154-foot FRC is a big improvement over the 110-foot patrol boat (WPB) it is replacing, and not just because it is bigger.

The fast response cutters have the same statutory missions as the 110s, performing multi-day patrols to cover the full U.S. 200-mile exclusive economic zone and beyond. But size does matter. The larger FRC (354 tons compared with 168 for the WPB) carries more fuel for longer patrols and has improved sea-keeping, superior command and control, and a more capable stern-launched cutterboat than the WPB. It’s better armed, too, with four crew-served .50-caliber machine guns and a remotely operated 25 mm chain gun.

The FRC is being built using a design inspired by the Netherlands-based Damen Group Stan 4708 patrol vessel, which is slightly larger than Damen’s 4207 patrol boat currently in service with navies, coast guards, customs services, and border patrols around the world.

“The acquisition program of record is 58 FRCs. To date, 44 are under contract and 23 are in service,” said Brian Olexy, a spokesman for the Coast Guard’s acquisition directorate. “The lead Sentinel-class fast response cutter, USCGC Bernard C. Webber, was delivered in 2012.”

The FRC acquisition is being conducted via a phased acquisition approach. The first phase supported the acquisition of 32 total fast response cutters through periodic option awards for cutter production. The Phase II contract was awarded May 4, 2016, to Bollinger Shipyards of Lockport, Louisiana. It is based upon the design of the Phase I contract, and includes options to complete the program of record. The initial Phase II award included six FRCs (hulls 33-38) and option one of Phase II was awarded in June 2017 for six FRCs (hulls 39-44), bringing the total number of FRCs on contract to 44.

fast response cutter tezanos

The Coast Guard Cutter Joseph Tezanos conducts sea trials off the coast of Key West, Florida, July 19, 2016. U.S. Coast Guard photo by petty officer 3rd class Eric D. Woodall

The initial 18 ships were assigned to District 7 homeports, including Miami and Key West in Florida, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Follow-on cutters have been homeported in Cape May, New Jersey; Ketchikan, Alaska; and Pascagoula, Mississippi. Honolulu, Hawaii, will be the homeport for the 24th FRC, the Coast Guard Cutter Oliver Berry.

According to Olexy, the FRC program is on track with respect to cost, schedule, and performance. Recent FRCs delivered to the Coast Guard require less post-delivery work needed to prepare the vessels for operations than earlier boats.

Instead of pursuing a ground-up design, the Coast Guard selected a “parent craft” design for the Sentinel-class patrol boat to ensure that the operating force receives new patrol boats, capable of performing the required missions, as quickly as possible, Olexy said. The Coast Guard coined the term parent craft to describe the use of an existing ship design that has successfully performed equivalent missions.

The FRCs bring increased operational capacity to the Coast Guard’s patrol boat fleet because they are designed to operate at 2,500 hours per year compared to the 1,800 hours per year of the legacy 110-foot WPBs.

The FRC is being built using a design inspired by the Netherlands-based Damen Group Stan 4708 patrol vessel, which is slightly larger than Damen’s 4207 patrol boat currently in service with navies, coast guards, customs services, and border patrols around the world. The FRC has been through a rigorous test-and-evaluation process by the Department of Defense and has been certified as meeting the requirements.

In order to make a ship that’s larger and more capable without doubling the size of the crew, the aboard crew was reduced and a shoreside support element was created for maintenance and sustainment. “When a cutter returns from deployment or patrol, there’s a team ready to deal with casualties, repairs, and scheduled maintenance,” said Cmdr. Thomas Crane, program manager for the future offshore patrol cutter (OPC).

The fast response cutters bring increased operational capacity to the Coast Guard’s patrol boat fleet because they are designed to operate at 2,500 hours per year compared to the 1,800 hours per year of the legacy 110-foot WPBs. “We try not to exceed those hours, because that’s how we budget for maintenance and fuel costs. The FRC’s availability is meeting expectations, and we are happy with the performance. Our crews are excited to serve aboard the FRC,” said Crane. “We just pushed out the first two PACAREA [Pacific Area] FRCs to Alaska, and we’ll get them to Hawaii later this year.”

smallboat ramp

The Coast Guard Cutter Raymond Evans launches its small boat July 25, 2014. The FRCs’ stern ramps make launch and recovery of smallboats safer and faster. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jon-Paul Rios

The FRC’s over-the-horizon interceptor (OTH-IV) is a bigger boat than the WPB’s 17-foot rigid-hulled inflatable boat (RHIB). And it’s the same boat as used on the medium endurance cutter (WMEC), national security cutter (NSC), and OPC.

The FRC’s stern ramp can more safely launch and recover the OTH-IV in greater sea conditions with fewer people.

It’s called “over-the-horizon” because it has an electronics package that can communicate with the FRC 30-plus miles away. The 110 must be within sight of its RHIB to communicate. The OTH-IV has radar, imaging systems, Automatic Identification System (AIS), and high-frequency (HF) radio communications. “It’s a huge capability improvement over the 110,” said Crane.

Crane said this is a game-changer for interdiction, because the FRC can deploy its OTH-IV covertly to maintain an element of surprise.

“The FRC is our coastal patrol boat. We employ them for patrols with an average endurance of about five days,” said Capt. Jason Ryan, chief of enforcement for Coast Guard District 7 in Miami. “We can’t be everywhere at once, but we can be where we want to be when we need to be.”

The first FRCs were assigned to District 7, because that’s where they were most urgently needed. “Because of the D7 [District 7] operational requirement, they probably run their boats the hardest,” Crane said.

“The FRC is our coastal patrol boat. We employ them for patrols with an average endurance of about five days,” said Capt. Jason Ryan, chief of enforcement for Coast Guard District 7 in Miami. “We can’t be everywhere at once, but we can be where we want to be when we need to be.”

“The FRC has high-tech C4ISR [command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] capabilities, and connectivity with joint and interagency command and control,” said Ryan.

“It is well suited to communicate with and conduct operations with our DHS [Department of Homeland Security] partners, such as Customs and Border Protection and Border Patrol, as well as our state and local partners with a significant presence on the water, like Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Miami-Dade Police, and Broward County sheriffs.”

fast response cutter drug interdiction

Coast Guardsmen and federal law enforcement authorities offload approximately 3,157 pounds of cocaine and transferred custody of four suspected smugglers at Coast Guard Sector San Juan Oct. 7, 2016, following the interdiction of a drug smuggling go-fast vessel in the Caribbean Sea Oct. 3, 2016. The seized contraband was estimated to have a wholesale value of $36 million. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Ricardo Castrodad

District 7 was able to develop the expertise and experience for the new patrol boats. “We were able to build out three large FRC homeports with the maintenance augmentation teams and the ability to support the boats,” said Crane.

Now the boats are seeing service in other areas of operations, like Alaska. “There’s still some learning to be done, because the missions are a little different, as is the environment – namely it’s colder,” Crane said.

Crane said the FRC has a better ability to maintain speed in increased seaway, and its low-profile design, with its bridge amidships, allows for a better ride. “For the size of the boat, she handles very well at a higher speed of advance,” he said.

Twin fixed-pitch propellers powered by two 20-cylinder MTU marine diesel engines enable the FRC to achieve speeds of more than 28 knots.

“These assets have a much longer range and a better ability to endure heavy sea states. This allows the cutter to transit hundreds of miles offshore to respond to and rescue vessels in distress. The FRC’s ability to remain underway for long periods of time at far distances offshore has also made them an ideal platform to enforce living marine resource laws by conducting boardings of commercial fishing vessels while they are engaged in fishing.”

The propulsion system is controlled from the bridge, where the engineering status can be monitored without any personnel on watch in the engineering spaces. “We can start and stop systems, transfer fuel and water, and monitor everything remotely. But all that technology comes with a maintenance tail. The size of the shoreside maintenance team is based on the number of FRCs in that homeport,” said Crane. “That’s why we cluster our new assets together.”

The improved capability and operational capacity have already delivered immediate benefits and increased presence for the Coast Guard. Compared to older patrol boats, the FRCs bring faster response times, longer endurance – both for crew fatigue and fuel – greater communications, and a greater seakeeping capability that will allow the FRCs to conduct more missions in adverse weather conditions.

Lt. Graham Sherman, the Coast Guard 5th District cutter manager, said the FRC has provided the Fifth District with an offshore search and rescue asset that is much more capable than legacy patrol boats. “These assets have a much longer range and a better ability to endure heavy sea states. This allows the cutter to transit hundreds of miles offshore to respond to and rescue vessels in distress. The FRC’s ability to remain underway for long periods of time at far distances offshore has also made them an ideal platform to enforce living marine resource laws by conducting boardings of commercial fishing vessels while they are engaged in fishing,” Sherman said. “The ability to provide this overt, offshore presence deters fisherman from conducting nefarious activities on the fishing grounds.”

fast response cutter bailey barco

The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Bailey Barco (WPC 1122), a fast response cutter, patrols the waters near Unalaska, Alaska, while providing a security escort for the USS Kentucky, an Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine, August 24, 2017. The Bailey Barco, homeported in Ketchikan, Alaska, was the first Coast Guard fast response cutter to transit the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Meredith Manning

According to Lt. Jason McCarthey, commanding officer of the Cape May, New Jersey-based Coast Guard Cutter Rollin Fritch, the FRC’s advanced technology and smooth ride on the ocean has made the FRC a highly desirable platform for crewmembers to serve aboard. “Thanks to the cutter’s superior maneuverability and the available 11,000-plus horsepower, the FRC can respond to almost anything at 28 knots in moderate sea conditions. The FRC’s state-of-the-art fin-stabilizer system allows the cutter to maneuver at full speed comfortably due to the fins’ ability to react quickly to the sea state.”

The FRCs can also launch their smallboat in a higher sea state than 87s and 110s, making them more adaptable to the operating environment, McCarthey said.

“It’s a leap ahead in habitability. Not just in the staterooms, which are designed for mixed-gender crews, but also in the ergonomic design of the bridge layout and the automation. It’s much easier on the watchstanders.”

The FRC operationally complements the offshore capabilities of the NSCs and the extended range and endurance of the future OPCs. The FRC’s systems include an advanced communications suite that greatly improves interoperability with the NSC, the OPC when fielded, and Coast Guard aircraft. A radio system called KITE (Keyswitch Integrated Terminal Equipment) allows the crew to manage multiple radio channels simultaneously, allowing them to better coordinate with the rest of the fleet. A secure satellite internet system provides chat rooms and file-sharing to facilitate communications with partner assets, and allows the crew to quickly access intelligence to make informed decisions.

The arrival of the first two FRCs in District 17 in Alaska – the Coast Guard cutters John McCormick and Bailey Barco – have been welcome. Maritime commerce is vital to Alaska’s economy. Alaska produces 57 percent of the total fish landed in the United States each year. In addition, mining, oil, tourism, passenger ferries, and cargo industries all rely on a robust marine transportation system. Alaska is a challenging area due to the extreme environmental conditions, remoteness, and the limited response capabilities to protect an extremely large area. There are international borders and exclusive economic zones with Russia and Canada that require enforcement. The increased activity in the Arctic has further heightened the demand for governance in the region.

“We have two FRCs so far, both stationed in Ketchikan, and we expect to get six,” according to Capt. Steve White, chief of enforcement for the Coast Guard’s 17th District. “We have a maintenance support team at Ketchikan, but the challenge is figuring out how to serve such a vast AOR [area of responsibility]. We’re going to have six FRCs and we are still working on the best force laydown and homeport configuration.”

Already the new cutters have performed five patrols. The FRCs assisted with six search and rescue cases and one pollution case in their first three months of deployment, assisting eight persons in distress in southeast Alaska.

“We had to push one of our FRCs from Ketchikan all the way across the Gulf of Alaska to Dutch Harbor to address a shortfall with our aging 110s. That’s 1,200 miles. Having those kinds of legs is a tremendous advantage,” White said.

According to White, the living conditions are better, which is important for the longer missions. “It’s a leap ahead in habitability. Not just in the staterooms, which are designed for mixed-gender crews, but also in the ergonomic design of the bridge layout and the automation. It’s much easier on the watchstanders.

“We like to maintain a contact rate with our different fishing fleets. We’ve been taxed in our ability to do that until the FRCs arrived,” said White. “They’ve been a game-changer.”

 

 

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