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Offshore Patrol Cutter

The Coast Guard's highest acquisition priority

The U.S. Coast Guard’s new offshore patrol cutter (OPC) is urgently needed to replace the aging medium endurance cutters – some of which have more than five decades of service – to perform vital patrol missions.

Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Paul Zukunft has said on numerous occasions that the OPC is the Coast Guard’s top acquisition priority.

That’s a big deal when one considers that the service currently has more than 20 major and non-major acquisition programs to recapitalize the service’s surface, aviation, and command and control capabilities.

“The offshore patrol cutter will be the backbone of Coast Guard offshore presence and the manifestation of our at-sea authorities,” said Zukunft. “It is essential to stopping smugglers at sea, for interdicting undocumented migrants, rescuing mariners, enforcing fisheries laws, responding to disasters, and protecting our ports.”

The new OPC will fill the capability bridge between the 418-foot national security cutter (NSC), which patrols the open ocean in the most demanding maritime environments, and the 154-foot fast response cutter (FRC), which serves closer to shore.

The OPC will replace the two classes of medium endurance cutters, the 1,300-ton, 210-foot Reliant class and the 1,800-ton, 270-foot Famous class. Both are getting old and becoming more expensive to maintain and operate. The Coast Guard has made targeted investments to maintain an acceptable level of reliability and operational availability of these cutters, but they are reaching technological obsolescence. At the same time, the evolving Coast Guard national and international maritime security missions require a more modern and capable fleet.

“These cutters will eventually comprise 70 percent of Coast Guard surface presence in the offshore zone. OPCs will provide the tools to more effectively enforce federal laws, secure our maritime borders by interdicting threats before they arrive on our shores, disrupt TOCs (transnational organized crime networks), and respond to 21st century threats,” stated Assistant Commandant for Acquisition and Chief Acquisition Officer Rear Adm. Michael J. Haycock in written testimony before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.

The new OPC will fill the capability bridge between the 418-foot national security cutter (NSC), which patrols the open ocean in the most demanding maritime environments, and the 154-foot fast response cutter (FRC), which serves closer to shore. The 4,500-ton NSC has a range of 12,000 nautical miles, while the 353-ton FRC has a range of 2,500 nautical miles. Both of these new classes of cutters are now serving in the fleet, and both continue to be built.

The OPC, which has been designated as the Heritage-class maritime security cutter-medium, or WMSM, will be capable of deploying independently or as part of task groups and serving as mobile command and control platforms for surge operations such as hurricane response, mass migration incidents and other events. The cutters will also support Arctic objectives by helping regulate and protect emerging commerce and energy exploration in Alaska. The OPC has been referred to by some as a light frigate.

offshore patrol cutter ribbon cutting

The Coast Guard celebrated the opening of the Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC) Project Resident Office (PRO) at Eastern Shipbuilding Group Inc., in Panama City, Florida, May 3, 2017. On the platform for the ribbon-cutting are, from left: Capt. Thomas Remmers, OPC PRO commanding officer; Capt. Scott Keister, OPC program manager; Rear Adm. Michael Haycock, Coast Guard assistant commandant for acquisition and chief acquisition officer; Brian D’Isernia, Eastern Shipbuilding Group Inc., founder and president; and Cmdr. Theodore Erdman, OPC PRO executive officer. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Mark Barney

The OPCs are desperately needed in the fleet. Because of the age of the ships and their systems, the Coast Guard and the medium endurance cutter (WMEC) crews have struggled to keep medium endurance cutters seaworthy and functional in order to conduct their six- to eight-week patrols. Despite the challenge and growing cost to operate and maintain, the WMECs are still performing their vital missions, and some of them will find new homes when they leave Coast Guard service. Already the Coast Guard Cutter Courageous has been decommissioned and transferred to the government of Sri Lanka where it now serves its navy as SLNS Samudura. The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Durable was decommissioned and transferred to the coast guard of the Colombian navy as ARC Valle del Cauca.

While much bigger, the OPC will be able to operate without a correspondingly larger crew. Currently, the desired crew is estimated to be about 90 to 104 officers and enlisted personnel, not counting detachments, compared with the 75-person crew on the 210s or the 100-person crew on the 270s.

While most Coast Guard counter-narcotics interdictions are cued by intelligence, the age, and availability of WMECs limit the services ability to respond to those intelligence cued events. Newer platforms such as the NSC and OPC will make a major difference in successfully fight against TOC networks, especially in the transit zones.

Although the design is not fully locked in, the notional design of the new OPC will be 360-feet in length and displace about 3,500 tons. Therefore, the OPC will be larger, slightly faster, have better sea-keeping characteristics, and be equipped with modern systems and equipment, which will be more supportable and reliable than the WMECs. While much bigger, the OPC will be able to operate without a correspondingly larger crew. Currently, the desired crew is estimated to be about 90 to 104 officers and enlisted personnel, not counting detachments, compared with the 75-person crew on the 210s or the 100-person crew on the 270s.

Because crew fatigue is an issue for long operations in heavy weather and launching and recovering boats, the difference in crew size is based on the quantity and frequency of boat and air operations. The OPC has 126 berths, so it can handle detachments such as the aviation detachment for the MH-60T Jayhawk or H-65 Dolphin helicopters, or ScanEagle® unmanned aircraft.

OPC illustration

Provisional design illustration of the OPC. U.S. Coast Guard

The OPC will have the ability to exchange voice, data, and video with other Coast Guard and Navy ships and aircraft as well as other U.S. government agencies, NATO, international partners, and commercial and private vessels and aircraft. And because the OPC will have a lot of “Navy-type/Navy-owned” equipment, the OPC will be interoperable with the Navy and well supported.

For the acquisition itself, the Coast Guard used a two-phased design-build strategy to acquire the OPC. This approach established stable requirements and design early in the acquisition to help mitigate cost and schedule risks. The Coast Guard awarded contracts to three vendors in February 2014 for phase 1, the preliminary and contract design. After evaluating an extensive range of contract deliverables submitted by the preliminary and contract design phase contractors, the service selected Eastern Shipbuilding Group, Inc., (ESG) to continue to phase II, which includes detail design and options for construction of up to nine OPCs. This approach further promotes affordability by allowing the Coast Guard to review how nine cutters would be priced in a competitive environment before selecting a single contractor.

There will be 25 OPCs to replace the smaller and less capable but more numerous WMEC 210s and WMEC 270s. Performance of the 25 OPCs was carefully modeled and predicted using the complex Coast Guard Maritime Operational Effectiveness Simulation operations analysis model.

Phase II is valued at $110.29 million, and has a potential value of $2.38 billion if all options are exercised. The production contract option has not yet been awarded.

The Coast Guard exercised an option to procure long lead-time materials for the first OPC on Sept. 7, 2016. The total value of the option is $41.68 million. This covers the initial order of components and materials necessary to support the cutter’s construction including propeller and steering components, marine diesel engines, the ship integrated control system, switchboards and generators. The order supports delivery of the first OPC in fiscal year 2021.

According to Denise Bechtol, OPC deputy program manager, the Coast Guard learned a lot from the NSC and FRC contracts, and incorporated those lessons learned into designing the OPC contract.

There will be 25 OPCs to replace the smaller and less capable but more numerous WMEC 210s and WMEC 270s. Performance of the 25 OPCs was carefully modeled and predicted using the complex Coast Guard Maritime Operational Effectiveness Simulation operations analysis model.

Because the service retains its cutters in service for many years, the OPC is being designed to have the ability to adapt and embrace new technology as it becomes available.

“Our biggest challenge has been the contract selection and award. Now that’s behind us, and we’re working on the project itself,” said Bechtol. “We’re running at full speed.”

ESG has never built a ship for the Coast Guard or the Navy. But Brendan D’Isernia, ESG’s OPC deputy project manager, said the company has constructed many large and complex ships. “This is not new ground for us in terms of complexity or the skill required to build these ships.”

The company that got its start building long-line fishing boats and scallopers is now building large freezer trawlers, 433-foot articulated tug and barge dredge units and multi-purpose supply vessels with 250-ton capacity cranes, dynamic positioning, and helicopter decks.

The Heritage-class OPCs will carry the names of cutters that have distinguished themselves in Coast Guard history. The first 11 ships will be named Argus (WMSM 915); Chase (WMSM 916); Ingham (WMSM 917); Rush (WMSM 918); Pickering (WMSM 919); Icarus (WMSM 920); Active (WMSM 921); Diligence (WMSM 922); Alert (WMSM 923); Vigilant (WMSM 924); Reliance (WMSM 925).

Babcock is the design agent for detail design, and VARD is the design agent for preliminary and contract design (Phase I) and is still involved as a subcontractor to Babcock. VARD has experience working with Babcock to develop the offshore patrol vessels for the Irish Navy.

The design isn’t finalized, so specifications and appearance could change. But that isn’t likely. “We’re a year into detailed design and the notional design and specifications haven’t changed significantly in three years,” said Rick Cunningham, ESG’s OPC program manager.

The Coast Guard established an on-site presence (Project Resident Office, or PRO) at the shipbuilder’s facility in Panama City, Florida. The PRO is staffed by Coast Guard personnel who work alongside the shipyard team during production to ensure effective communication and program management. The PRO monitors budget, schedule, and contract performance. The PRO stand-up was commemorated with a ceremony at the shipyard on May 3, 2017. The service’s other major cutter acquisition programs also have Coast Guard PROs at their shipyards. The OPC PRO team will grow when the ships enter full production.

There will also be inspectors on site from the American Bureau of Shipping, to ensure the ships is being properly built to “Naval Vessel Rules.”

Lead ship construction will begin in 2018, with delivery scheduled for 2021. The program completed the first initial critical design review, a critical juncture in preparing the proposed OPC design for production, with the contractor in July 2017.

ESG’s OPC design is based on a lot of Coast Guard experience and expertise. “We brought on former cuttermen for what we called our Cutter Advisory Board. We had captains, admirals, master chiefs, aviators, and people with a lot of knowledge about what the ships and crews will have to do, and how to provide the best possible ship for them to do their jobs,” Cunningham said. “We have to do this right, because these ships will be around for 40 years.”

In an effort to improve the human systems integration, a mockup of the bridge and the operations center have been created at Panama City to ensure the spaces are designed so people can move about and effectively do their jobs.

According to Lt. Zach Dietz, who works on the OPC program at Coast Guard Headquarters, the new ships represent a huge upgrade over the legacy WMECs. He thinks the OPC will be popular with cuttermen. “Having seen the ship being designed, I believe it will be a ship people will want to serve on.”

While some critics point to ESG’s lack of Coast Guard or Navy experience, former Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Bob Papp, now retired and working for ESG, said that the company has been competing in the commercial market for 40 years, and knows how to manage affordability.

“This is going to be the best cutter the Coast Guard ever had,” Papp said.

“The new ships will be faster, more stable, and more connected,” said retired Coast Guard Capt. Brian Perkins, who was part of the team that began the process of replacing the WMECs back in 1998, and who became a member of ESG’s Cutter Advisory Board. “I wish their captains the very best of success. I am jealous. I wish I was young enough to command one.”

In the meantime, the operators can’t get the OPC into the fleet soon enough. “Our border security mission isn’t conducted at the border. It’s conducted hundreds and even thousands of miles away to stop threats from getting near the U.S. The OPC has the range and capability for those missions. The Heritage-class OPC will be a vital backbone to our fight against transnational organized crime networks,” said Capt. Jason Ryan, chief of enforcement for Coast Guard District 7 in Miami, Florida.

The OPC is designed for both a manned helicopter and unmanned aircraft system (UAS). “The helo is limited in the amount of time the crew can fly. The UAS can remain aloft longer and require less crew resources allowing us to use our manned aircraft when we want to stop actual threats,” said Ryan. “We don’t want to use the helicopter for search and reconnaissance. We want to use it as part of our end-game capability.

“OPCs will be a tremendous capability when we get them,” said Ryan. “They’ll be the workhorse of our fleet.”

The Heritage-class OPCs will carry the names of cutters that have distinguished themselves in Coast Guard history. The first 11 ships will be named Argus (WMSM 915); Chase (WMSM 916); Ingham (WMSM 917); Rush (WMSM 918); Pickering (WMSM 919); Icarus (WMSM 920); Active (WMSM 921); Diligence (WMSM 922); Alert (WMSM 923); Vigilant (WMSM 924); Reliance (WMSM 925).

This story originally appeared in the 2017-2018 edition of Coast Guard Outlook.

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