From patrols in the tropics to icebreaking in polar waters to fixing channel markers in the heart of America, the U.S. Coast Guard has a vital job to do. The cutter with the blazing orange stripe on her hull that arrives at the scene of a crisis signals that everything is under control.
Originally, the term “cutter” referred to the traditional small sailing vessel. Today it refers to a vessel that has a permanently assigned crew and the accommodations for their extended support, and measures 65 feet long or greater. Those under 65 feet are called boats.
Coast Guard cutters are multimission ships. Those cutters used primarily for multimission patrols are white; those primarily engaged in icebreaking are red; and those involved in servicing aids to navigation or maintaining the navigation of harbors or waterways are black.
The Coast Guard is currently building new cutters to replace its aging legacy fleet, including the National Security Cutter (NSC), Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC), Fast Response Cutter (FRC), Polar Security Cutter (PSC), and Waterways Commerce Cutter (WCC).
“Across the board, every one of the new classes of cutters are a significant step-function better than the ones they are replacing,” said Jay Boyd, NSC program manager for Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII), which builds the NSC at Ingalls Shipbuilding, its Pascagoula, Mississippi shipyard. While new cutters are being built as replacements for legacy cutters, the service is also sustaining and lengthening the service lives of cutters through its In-Service Vessel Sustainment (ISVS) program.
NATIONAL SECURITY CUTTER
The largest of the new “white hull” ships are the multimission patrol vessels of the “Legend class” of National Security Cutters (NSCs), replacing the 12 Hamilton-class high endurance cutters (WHECs). The service’s original program of record called for eight NSCs to replace the Hamilton-class cutters, which have been in service since the 1960s. However, in response to recent plus-ups, the program has ordered 11 NSCs to date. All NSCs have been or are planned to be built at HII’s Ingalls Shipbuilding of Pascagoula, Mississippi.
The NSC has made exceptional contributions to the Coast Guard’s missions.
Last year, National Security Cutter Stratton patrolled in the Western Pacific in support of the United Nations Security Council resolution enforcement against illicit ship-to-ship transfers that violate sanctions against the DPRK, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. This year, National Security Cutter Munro participated in the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC), the largest global naval exercise, with nine other nations to foster and sustain cooperative relationships critical to ensuring the safety of sea lanes and the security of the world’s oceans. These deployments conducting maritime defense and security operations with the United States Indo-Pacific Command promote regional security cooperation, maintain and strengthen maritime partnerships, and enhance security.
U.S. Coast Guard crews patrol known drug transit zones to interdict drugs as the smugglers head toward the United States. New cutters, like the NSCs, enable crews to operate in the region longer to stem the flow of narcotics smuggled by cartels. In addition to stopping these drugs from getting to our streets, the information we gather and share with our partners in the intelligence community facilitates deeper understanding of transnational criminal organizations and ultimately helps our unified efforts to dismantle them.
“Since the implementation of our Western Hemisphere Strategy four years ago, the men and women of the Coast Guard have interdicted 2 million pounds of pure cocaine worth $26 billion. This vitally important work is the most effective way to help thwart cartels from trafficking their illicit products,” said Adm. Karl Schultz, U.S. Coast Guard commandant. “These modern cutters allow our nation to advance all of our national interests.”
There are currently eight Legend-class NSCs inservice. The Coast Guard Cutters Bertholf, Waesche, Stratton, and Munro are stationed in Alameda, California; Hamilton and James are in Charleston, South Carolina; and Kimball and Midgett are homeported in Honolulu;Hawaii. The ninth cutter, Stone, was delivered in November 2020 and will be commissioned in February of 2021.
The first three were built under the Deepwater Program Integrated Coast Guard Systems joint venture construct. Starting with NSC 4, the service moved the NSC into its own program of record. That program authorized eight ships, although the funding for all eight was not assured. “NSC 4 was very successful,” said Boyd, “on time and below target cost. We’ve improved on that ever since. We have developed a strong learning curve that is the envy of a lot of shipbuilding programs. Quality has improved, based on our INSURV scores [the Navy’s Board of Inspection and Survey (INSURV) supports the Coast Guard by assessing the material readiness of its new ships], builder’s and acceptance sea trials performance, and outstanding deficiencies.”
The keel is being laid for the 10th NSC next year as the company also begins ordering the long-lead-time materials for the 11th ship under contract.
According to Boyd, a “white hull” NSC out in the Western Pacific brings a lot of capability without ruffling feathers.
“Our Coast Guard capabilities are closer to what smaller nations, particularly the island nations, are looking for,” Boyd said. “A big Navy surface combatant may be less relevant to what they need to maintain their own sovereignty. When we show the flag and call at some of the countries, they’re happy to see a white Coast Guard cutter show up. The cross-training they will get is more pertinent to their own missions.”
OFFSHORE PATROL CUTTER
The 360-foot Heritage-class Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC) will replace the aging medium endurance cutters (WMECs) and is one of the service’s highest acquisition priorities. The Coast Guard currently operates the 210-foot Reliance-class and 270-foot Famous-class WMECs (as well as a converted salvage ship that was transferred from the U.S. Navy).
Designed to complement the capabilities of the 4,500- ton, 418-foot NSC, the 25-ship class of OPCs will be the backbone of the Coast Guard’s strategy to project and maintain offshore presence. The OPC is expected to be about 360 feet long, and will have a flight deck, hangar, and aviation facilities for helicopters and unmanned aircraft. It will have much better seakeeping, range, and endurance than the WMECs.
The OPC program of record is set to deliver 25 hulls, which eventually will comprise more than 70 percent of the Coast Guard’s offshore presence.
Eastern Shipbuilding Group (ESG) won the competition to do the detailed design and construction of up to the first nine ships; however, the yard received heavy damage from Hurricane Michael in October 2018, disrupting production. The yard requested, and the Department of Homeland Security granted, “limited extraordinary relief” to recover from that event. The Coast Guard awarded eight industry design studies in March 2020 to inform potential strategies and approaches for the follow-on detail design and construction (DD&C) of the remaining OPCs. Those studies are still underway.
The first ship, USCGC Argus (WMSM 915), is under construction at ESG in Panama City, Florida, where her keel was “authenticated” on April 28, 2020. Initial steel was cut for the second OPC, USCGC Chase (WMSM 916), at about the same time. The company has also begun procuring material for the third OPC, USCGC Ingham (WMSM 917). ESG’s current contract calls for the production of up to four vessels.
FAST RESPONSE CUTTER
The 154-foot Sentinel-class Fast Response Cutter (FRC) is a key component of the Coast Guard’s offshore fleet that is capable of deploying independently to conduct missions that include port, waterways, and coastal security; fishery patrols; search and rescue; and national defense.
The initial FRCs were assigned to District 7 homeports of Miami and Key West in Florida, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, where they immediately became successful in conducting patrol missions. The Coast Guard established dedicated maintenance and support teams at each of these ports 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, with the latest cutters going to Guam and Bahrain.
The Coast Guard selected Bollinger Shipyard’s offering, which was based on the existing Damen Stan Patrol 4708 “parent-craft” design, for the Sentinel-class cutters to ensure that the operating force was able to receive new vessels capable of performing the required missions as quickly as possible. They are being built at the Bollinger Shipyards facility in Lockport, Louisiana.
“From a design perspective, the FRC is being used for the broadest spectrum of missions possible. It needs to be as capable as a 210, and able to accommodate a mixed-gender crew, but fitted into a much smaller platform,” said Ben Bordelon, president and CEO of Bollinger Shipyards.
In October, the U.S. Coast Guard took delivery of the USCGC Charles Moulthrope, the first of six FRCs to be homeported in Manama, Bahrain, that will replace the aging 110-foot Island-class patrol boats built by Bollinger Shipyards 30 years ago.
In September, the U.S. Coast Guard notified Bollinger of their plans to continue the Sentinel-class FRC program, allowing Bollinger to build four more FRCs– bringing the total number of funded FRCs to 60. “All four FRCs will be built at our Lockport facility, and are scheduled for delivery to the Coast Guard in 2022 and 2023,” said Bordelon. “We’re currently working with Congress to ensure FY 21 provides appropriations to build FRCs 61-64.”
The FRCs – designated as WPCs – are much more capable than the boats they are replacing, with improved C4ISR capability and interoperability; stern launch and recovery (up through sea state 4) for a 40-knot Over-the-Horizon, 7-meter cutter boat instead of the WPB’s 17-foot RHIB boat; a remote-operated, fully stabilized MK.38 Mod 2 25mm main gun; improved seakeeping; and enhanced crew habitability. In fact, the FRCs are able to do missions previously assigned to larger cutters.
Deputy Commandant for Operations Vice Adm. Daniel Able told a congressional committee that the U.S. Coast Guard is demonstrating its enduring commitment to the region by homeporting three of the newest FRCs in Guam over the next three years. “Recently, FRCs and a U.S. Coast Guard buoy tender conducted port visits to the Pacific Islands and discussed partner nation capacity building opportunities in an effort to strengthen operational partnerships. We anticipate these cutters will significantly increase U.S. Coast Guard operational presence throughout the region, and protect our EEZ [exclusive economic zone] from threats of IUU [illegal, unreported, and unregulated] fishing and transnational crime.”
According to the Coast Guard’s 2020 “Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing Strategic Outlook,” IUU fishing is a collection of dishonest fishing practices, both on the high seas and in areas within national jurisdiction. Whether the activity is in contravention of existing laws and regulations; improperly reported or misreported; conducted by vessels without nationality and/or conducted in areas where the flag state is not a party to international agreements or in areas where fishery management measures do not exist, IUU fishing is a pervasive security threat to U.S. national interests, and has replaced piracy as the leading global maritime security threat.
“Bottom line: In the maritime domain, presence equals influence,” said Schultz.
Monitoring commercial fishing fleets for IUU activities requires presence, and the new NSC and FRC (as well as the future OPC) have the range, endurance, seakeeping, and mission capability to make a huge difference.
The long-awaited replacement for the Coast Guard’s heavy polar icebreakers is moving forward. The Polar Security Cutter (PSC) is a program to acquire three new multimission icebreakers to replace the two aging heavy polar icebreakers, followed by the acquisition of up to three new medium polar icebreakers. The first PSC is now fully funded and the second PSC has received initial funding. The Coast Guard estimates the total procurement costs of the three PSCs will be about $2.6 billion.
The Coast Guard and Navy established an Integrated Program Office for the PSC program, which awarded a $745.9 million fixed-price, incentive-firm contract for the DD&C of the first PSC to a team led by VT Halter Marine of Pascagoula, Mississippi, a shipyard owned by Singapore Technologies (ST) Engineering. The first PSC is expected to begin construction next year and be delivered in 2024 (there are financial incentives for delivering ahead of schedule).
The new heavy icebreaker can’t come soon enough. The Coast Guard’s polar icebreaking fleet consists of one heavy polar icebreaker, USCGC Polar Star (WAGB 10), and one medium polar icebreaker, USCGC Healy (WAGB20). Polar Star’s sister ship, USCGC Polar Sea (WAGB11), has been laid up since she suffered a major engine casualty in June 2010. Polar Sea has been out of service since then, serving as a source of spare parts to keep Polar Star running. The two Polar-class icebreakers can break ice up to 6 feet (72 inches) thick at a continuous speed of 3 knots, and were commissioned in 1976 and 1978. They are now far older than their 30-year expected service lives.
Polar Star has been a single-mission ship, used almost exclusively to support the annual resupply mission to the National Science Foundation base at McMurdo Sound in Antarctica. But the Coast Guard needs ships that can do more. That’s why the new heavy icebreaker is called the Polar Security Cutter, to signify its multimission capability. At 460 feet in length and 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).
The Coast Guard will provide a service life extension for Polar Star under the In-Service Vessel Sustainment program (see below) that will take place progressively over a five-year period, with her being available for 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 is a research ship that is also a medium icebreaker. Healy is designed to break 4.5 feet of ice continuously at 3 knots, or ice 10 feet (3.0 m) thick when backing and ramming.
During the 2020 summer Arctic season, Healy suffered an electrical fire in one of her main propulsion motors while transiting from her homeport of Seattle to the Arctic to conduct her science mission. The ship had to turn around and come home for inspection and repairs.
The Coast Guard also has a red hull on the Great Lakes; the multimission USCGC Mackinaw (WLBB 30), commissioned in 2006 and homeported at Cheboygan, Michigan. The 240-foot heavy icebreaker is the largest Coast Guard vessel on the Great Lakes and can break ice up to 32 inches thick at a continuous speed of 3 knots.
The nine 140-foot Bay-class icebreaking tugboats (WTGBs) may have black hulls, but they can move through freshwater ice up to 20 inches (51 cm) thick and break ice up to 3 feet (0.91 m) thick by ramming. They can also ram pressure ridges of up to eight feet in thickness, which can relieve ice dams that can cause flooding upstream. The ships were built between 1977 and 1987 and are assigned to the northeast and Great Lakes regions of the country.
The Coast Guard’s 11 black-hulled 65-foot small harbor tugs also break ice, up to 18 inches (0.46 m) thick underway and 21 inches (0.53 m) thick by backing and ramming. The tugs also carry out aids to navigation duties, as well as law enforcement and search and rescue.
BLACK HULLS DO THE HEAVY LIFTING
One of the Coast Guard’s most important, if unheralded, missions is maintaining the system of aids to navigation (ATON) to permit safe and efficient movement of vessels and prevent collisions, allisions, and groundings at sea, along the coast, and along the nation’s intracoastal and inland waterways, performed by the service’s black hull fleet.
Every member of the Coast Guard understands hard work, but the real heavy lifting is accomplished by the “black hull” fleet of buoy tenders and construction cutters.
The black hull fleet includes 16 Juniper-class, 225- foot seagoing buoy tenders used to maintain aids to navigation and also assist with law enforcement and search and rescue. The first entered service in 1996 and the 16th joined the fleet in 2005. Two of them are stationed on the Great Lakes. There are 14 coastal buoy tenders of the Keeper class used to maintain coastal aids to navigation. They entered service between 1996 and 2000, and one of them is based on the Great lakes.
The inland and river construction tenders are the oldest cutters in the Coast Guard inventory, with an average age of 55 years, and the oldest being more than 75 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 (20-49 meters) in length, and along with their respective work barges can reach up to 190 feet (58 meters). Together, these vessels and their associated work barges place and maintain buoys, conduct tower construction, pile driving and extraction, and generally support maintenance of the 28,200 navigation aids along America’s 12,000-mile Marine Transportation System (MTS) of rivers, canals, and intracoastal waterways.
The inland tenders will be replaced under the Coast Guard’s Waterways Commerce Cutter (WCC) program, which is under an “accelerated program schedule” to reach initial operational capability by 2025 and full operational capability by 2030.
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. The Coast Guard released a draft RFP July 29, 2020, for DD&C of the river buoy and inland construction tenders.
LEGACY CUTTERS CONTINUE TO SERVE, AT HOME AND ABROAD
With new ocean-going cutters joining the Coast Guard fleet, some of the ships being replaced will continue to serve elsewhere around the world. The new 418-foot NSC is taking the place of the long-serving 378-foot Hamilton-class high endurance cutters, which served for five decades. Only one of the 12 Hamilton-class cutters is still in service with the Coast Guard: USCGC Douglas Munro (WHEC 724) at Kodiak, Alaska. USCGC John Midgett (WHEC 726) passed into “in-commission special” status and is awaiting decommissioning and transfer to a friendly navy. The other 10 have been (or will be) transferred and now serve in the Philippine navy, Nigerian navy, Bangladeshi navy, Vietnamese coast guard, and Sri Lankan navy. All 13 vessels of the Famous class and 14 of the 16 Reliance-class vessels are still in active U.S. service. The other two Reliance-class cutters now serve the Sri Lankan navy and Colombian coast guard.
Like the Hamilton class, the Famous-class and Reliance-class medium endurance cutters will be retired as the OPCs enter service.
USCGC Alex Haley (WMEC 39) was originally commissioned in naval service in 1971 as a towing, rescue and salvage ship, and was later transferred to the Coast Guard and modified to serve as a medium endurance cutter. The only ship of its class, Alex Haley is still active and is homeported at Kodiak, Alaska.
IN-SERVICE VESSEL SUSTAINMENT PROGRAM
The ISVS program is part of the Coast Guard’s longterm recapitalization and sustainment strategy for the in-service fleet of cutters. ISVS is the strategic class-by-class evaluation of its vessels to determine what major maintenance and replacement of outdated systems with similar ones are needed to reach or extend their service lives. Strategic major maintenance and recapitalization can improve reliability of vessels, better manage maintenance costs, and make more time available for the ships to do their missions. If necessary, additional work can be completed to allow vessels to operate efficiently past their notional end of service life until replacements arrive and enter the fleet.
Ken King is the ISVS program manager within the acquisition directorate in Coast Guard headquarters.
“The projects we’re doing are long term. When we start one, there’s a couple year ramp-up until we actually start the shipyard availabilities to do either a Service Life Extension Program [SLEP] or Major Maintenance Availability [MMA],” said King. “Right now, we have six active projects.”
The ISVS program began in 2012, with the 140-foot SLEP program for the Coast Guard’s fleet of nine icebreaking tugs (WTGBs) that serve in the Northeast and Great Lakes as its ‘lead’ project. That effort just wrapped up as the ninth and final WTGB left the shipyard to return to its homeport.
King said the big difference between an MMA and a SLEP is whether or not you gain service life. “For the MMAs, we don’t have a gain in service life, where for a Service Life Extension Program, the naval engineers say ‘we gain X number of years of service life.’”
“MMAs were originally mid-life maintenance availabilities – so for a ship with a 30-year service life, theoretically at year 15, we would bring the ship into the shipyard to do an MMA. But the Coast Guard can’t always plan to bring the ship in at the midpoint to do an MMA. So that’s why we changed it to Major Maintenance Availability. We didn’t bring the first 225-foot seagoing buoy tender in for an MMA until the 20-year point. But the goal of the MMA is, in simple terms, is to perform the identified worklist and replace those problematic systems that will enable the ship to serve until its end of service life – 30 years, generally – in an economical and reliable manner.”
For both MMAs and SLEPs, the Coast Guard isn’t adding any new capability, just fixing or replacing existing systems. “We’re keeping the existing ship operational in a reliable and cost-effective manner to reach its end of service life. However, as we approach the end of service life, the Coast Guard may decide to keep the ship longer, so that would most likely initiate a SLEP.”
The majority of the SLEPs and MMAs are done at the Coast Guard Yard at Curtis Bay in Baltimore.
In the past, the yard has built new boats and cutters for the Coast Guard, including the first five 210-foot medium endurance cutters and four of the service’s 160- foot construction tenders. Currently, the yard is solely engaged in sustainment work.
King has a unit of 25 people stationed at the ISVS Project Resident Office (PRO) at Curtis Bay to coordinate all the work at the yard. “I’ve sent all nine 140-foot icebreaking tugs, am in the process of sending the sixteen 225-foot seagoing buoy tenders, and in the summer of 2021, we will begin the eight 270-foot Medium Endurance Cutters. They’re also doing some overhaul of the Navy yard patrol craft [YPs] from the Naval Academy. They periodically do some work for the Corps of Engineers and NOAA. But they’re my ISVS shipyard of choice: We speak the same language, we ‘wear the same uniform,’ so to speak. The Coast Guard Yard really excels at the repeatable ISVS work.”
Besides the aforementioned programs being conducted at the Coast Guard Yard, King said a future 175-foot coastal buoy tender MMA is under consideration. King also said a SLEP of the Coast Guard’s only heavy icebreaker, USCGC Polar Star, and an MMA of USCGC Healy, the Coast Guard’s medium icebreaker, are planned.