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The Coast Guard’s Aging Inland Construction Tenders

Elderly vessels of the "black hull fleet" continue to perform their missions

 

Founded as the Revenue Marine in 1790, the U.S. Coast Guard is the nation’s oldest continuous seagoing service, responsible for 11 congressionally mandated missions, and the 12th largest naval force in the world. Although part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), it often is called upon to report to the Department of Defense – or directly to the president – and has fought in every U.S. war, from the Revolution to Southwest Asia.

Every day, the Coast Guard protects and defends more than 100,000 miles of U.S. coastline and inland waterways and enforces U.S. law in the world’s largest exclusive economic zone – 3.4 million square miles stretching from north of the Arctic Circle to south of the Equator and encompassing nine time zones, from Guam to Puerto Rico.

Their average age of 52 years in service is nearly twice their planned operational life. Known as the “black hull fleet,” these cutters range in size from 75 to 160 feet in three classes (WLIC, WLR, WLI) and nine variants, representing different years of acquisition.

It also has some of the oldest vessels of any U.S. uniformed service, especially its fleet of 35 inland construction tenders, the oldest commissioned in 1944, the youngest in 1989. Their average age of 52 years in service is nearly twice their planned operational life. Known as the “black hull fleet,” these cutters range in size from 75 to 160 feet in three classes (WLIC, WLR, WLI) and nine variants, representing different years of acquisition.

Their primary missions are to build and service shore structures, such as piers and buoy trestles, and to maintain buoys and aids to navigation (ATON). As part of the multi-mission Coast Guard, however, they also may be used for law enforcement (drug interdiction, fisheries regulations, etc.), environmental and humanitarian response, search and rescue (SAR) operations, and homeland security.

Sledge

The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Sledge, a 75-foot river buoy tender based out of Baltimore, Maryland, finishes a day of aids to navigation (ATON) work on the Delaware River near Philadelphia, April 19, 2017. Sledge is one of eight WLRs stationed around the United States that perform essential ATON tasks to help keep mariners safe and keep the flow of commerce moving without interruption. USCG photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Daniel Scott

“They don’t do a lot of drug interdiction, but in many areas, they are the only federal presence for miles, maybe the only government presence at any level. So, in multi-mission mode, they may not be chasing drug cartel fast boats, but typically operate on one week at sea and two weeks in port, during which they load and unload all the batteries, buoys, construction materials, etc., they carry and retrieve,” according to Mike Emerson, director of Marine Transportation Systems.

The rest of the world has similar requirements with respect to inland waterway maintenance, although the U.S. vessels doing that work are the oldest.

“Europe manages their waterways in a similar fashion to us, compared to Africa and some others, as does Canada. The vessels are similar, but what we do differs in that we are very multi-mission and our folks rotate through the ATON mission from other backgrounds. We do a lot of training and our vessels are crew centric, living aboard for a week, working from dawn to dusk, so the berthing is bigger, range is greater, carrying capacity is greater,” he said.

“The numbers also are comparable. Some of our vessels may be responsible for 700 ATON per vessel and may be the only asset for miles. Canada and Europe probably have more assets clustered in specific areas near locks and dams, where ours are more evenly distributed.”

“Because there are nine variants, it’s not a classic sustainment. We just re-engineered some of the WLRs, but otherwise it’s been ‘just-in-time’ maintenance. That’s not uncommon for the Coast Guard, which has a history of hand-me-down vessels from the Navy since World War II, all different classes and so independently managed, based on availability and other engineering indicators,” Emerson explained.

The Coast Guard black hull fleet’s ATON and waterway infrastructure support operations are critical to the annual movement of $8.7 billion worth of goods and commodities through the 12,000-mile inland waterways component of the nation’s Marine Transportation System (MTS).

“These are the ‘cop-on-the-beat’ vessels. They are fundamental to waterway safety. It’s not a sexy mission, but they basically are responsible for how we manage the waterways so they can support commerce, involving multiple classes of U.S. and foreign vessels, across a full range of sizes,” said Emerson, a retired Coast Guard captain.

That includes enforcing compliance for navigation for waterways, channel markings, speed, no-wake zones, special-use areas for environmental protection, etc. They also ensure the navigation aids are working properly and replace buoys that have been damaged or sunk.

“It’s a different blend [of crew] from other Coast Guard vessels, which typically have operational support specialists, gunners mates, etc., depending on their primary missions. Ours reflect our ATON, cargo-loading and construction missions,” he said. “Commercial tugs typically have a crew of six; ours have 12 to 14, including engineers, machinery technicians, some general purpose, non-rated new enlisted crewmen, damage control, electricians’ mates, and bosuns’ mates.”

Anvil repairs

The Coast Guard Yard in Baltimore, Maryland, lifts the Coast Guard Cutter Anvil (WLIC 75301) out of the water Oct. 5, 2015 to begin a pier side repair availability on the 75-foot inland construction tender and its 85-foot barge. The 17-week planned maintenance project on the 53-year-old vessel began in July. Homeported in Charleston, South Carolina, Anvil maintains a variety of aids to navigation and services shore structures along the mid-Atlantic coast. Photo by Charles Wilson, Yard

The construction tenders pour concrete, repair docks and jetties damaged by storms or monster tides, clear channels, open new ranges, update those altered by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) changes to waterway infrastructure, etc. The river tenders work 30,000 navigation aids, a major year-round effort because waterway contours change continuously and the channels need to be precisely marked so commerce can continue.

In addition, they do SAR, as needed, help vessels needing gas or a tow, and carry their own pilings and put up ranges and lights as needed, on demand. Their on-the-fly missions include response and recovery, environmental protection, damage assessment, determining the need for infrastructure, and as command and control platforms for special events.

They also are on standby during hurricane season. For example, after Hurricane Matthew in 2016, inland cutters opened the harbor at the Port of Charleston within 24 hours, working with USACE and others to sound the channel. They were brought down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico after Hurricane Katrina, providing platforms for some of the survey work and general utility.

There is an ongoing sustainment program to keep the inland cutters operational, but the real problem is not the technology on board, but the age of the hulls.

“We got $1 million this year to reduce the large number of variants down to about three. So within the broad base of support we have in the heartland, especially the 22 homeport states, there should be broad support on both sides of the aisle. These are not off-the-shelf configurations, but are fairly simple designs. We hope to get delivery of the first replacement assets in the 2020s, three designs that do the job,” Emerson said.

“Because there are nine variants, it’s not a classic sustainment. We just re-engineered some of the WLRs, but otherwise it’s been ‘just-in-time’ maintenance. That’s not uncommon for the Coast Guard, which has a history of hand-me-down vessels from the Navy since World War II, all different classes and so independently managed, based on availability and other engineering indicators,” Emerson explained. “We have upgraded some of the on board systems, such as cranes, but here we’re talking about aging hulls.

“Picking up a 1944 work vessel that has been rode hard, I’m reluctant to even consider what would be required to keep it in service. We’re talking about just the basics of getting underway, staying afloat, and propelling themselves. In addition, the missions have changed, with more women in the Coast Guard and more calls to surge these boats outside their normal range to be used as response assets. So, we’re looking at how they will be used, with a lot of multi-mission response-and-recovery capability going into the replacement design.”

Some changes already are challenging the current fleet, especially those dating back to the 1940s.

Elderberry

The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Elderberry prepares to set seasonal buoys along the Mendenhall Bar, Juneau, Alaska. USCG photo by PA3 Christopher Grisafe

“We didn’t have the need for ATON we have now, the speeds of the inland waterway vessels have increased, one tug pushing 15 articulated barges, etc. We typically replace one-third of the buoys each year that are run over, sunk, washed off station, etc.,” he said. “Repairing nav [navigation] aids and replacing lights is a daily business now, where back in the lighthouse days nighttime river traffic really wasn’t done, there were far fewer recreational boats, dinner cruises, etc. Not to mention responses to recreational boaters who don’t understand the dynamics of river tugs and such.

“We are working on a suite of ATON, such as virtual buoys that are depicted graphically, integrated with GPS, with signals from automated carrier signals, enabling almost autonomous navigation. We are pushing virtual ATON integrated into the bridge management systems of both Coast Guard and other vessels. On the Ohio River, for example, we’ve been demonstrating AIS [Automatic Identification System] capabilities for the past year-and-a-half, with a physical buoy with a beacon that is recognized by some of the prototype moving maps.”

Emerson believes recently approved new funding indicates Congress and DHS recognize the problem and are beginning to address it.

“We’re probably looking at 2030 to have the last of the current fleet retired. The question of the hour is whether we need a one-for-one replacement or some other formula,” Emerson said.

“We got $1 million this year to reduce the large number of variants down to about three. So within the broad base of support we have in the heartland, especially the 22 homeport states, there should be broad support on both sides of the aisle. These are not off-the-shelf configurations, but are fairly simple designs. We hope to get delivery of the first replacement assets in the 2020s, three designs that do the job,” Emerson said.

“This recapitalization effort is based on our analysis that some of the existing hulls – up to 70 years old – are beyond their lifespan and don’t warrant upgrades so much as replacement. We want to get replacement assets designed for mixed-gender crews, better habitability – including air conditioning, heat, and insulation – higher availability. Right now, the maintenance and failure rates make their availability about 20 percent below what is acceptable.”

The replacement effort will be a vast change from the original acquisition of the black hull fleet, which began with transferred vessels the Navy no longer needed, then grew in purchases of one or two at a time to deal with changing waterways and related infrastructure. As wharfs became major inland waterway ports and USACE made major alterations to rivers, the Coast Guard acquired what it could afford and was available to meet its needs.

But those needs have continued to increase, even as the fleet becomes more outdated. With the green light to replace them, the Coast Guard is looking at newly designed vessels specifically built to deal with current and future requirements.

New inland construction tender design

Cadet Jennifer Haley and Cadet Samuel Park discuss the beginning stages of the design process of their naval architecture project at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, Oct. 13, 2016. Haley and Park are part of a capstone project to redesign the outdated Coast Guard fleet of inland waterway cutters. USCG photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nicole Barger

“We started with the requirements, then went to the Marine Design Center in Philadelphia, the Army Corps folks who design their custom tugs and barges, and asked for a suite of designs to choose from. Based on the requirements, they gave us about a dozen, which we narrowed down to three that would allow for a couple of customized barges and cover all requirements – icy, fast-flowing, shallow waters, draft limits, bridges – there are 80 on the upper and lower Mississippi alone,” Emerson said.

“Our next step is to go back to them with some edits. We reduced the requirement for on board fuel and endurance to a more realistic scenario so we could have a shallower draft. We typically push one barge with some construction materials, so we don’t need the horsepower to push more and larger barges.”

Whatever changes technology may bring to America’s inland waterways, Emerson sees not only a continuing need for the inland fleet, but a growing one.

He expects the acquisition process to take about 10 years, although it could be longer as the inland cutters are worked into the replacement schedule for other vessels across the Coast Guard, including icebreakers. No priorities have yet been established on which vessels will be replaced first, although the Coast Guard Cutter Smilax – the oldest – is expected to top the list.

“We’re probably looking at 2030 to have the last of the current fleet retired. The question of the hour is whether we need a one-for-one replacement or some other formula,” Emerson said. “Some people want to do away with the physical constellation of ATON. New technologies are augmenting these aids and certainly enhance their value, but if you lose GPS or power, even if the physical ATONs are replaced as the primary source, they certainly won’t go away for the next few decades.”

Whatever changes technology may bring to America’s inland waterways, Emerson sees not only a continuing need for the inland fleet, but a growing one.

“I fully expect the continued increase in multi-mission demands on these assets. Based on their locations, I suspect they will retain their primary ATON missions, but also will be used more by governors for western river floods, for response to droughts, support for special events, port security, timely construction projects,” he predicted.

“The size of the vessels and amount of inland traffic are increasing in every realm – commercial fishing, recreation, tourism, etc. That means a lot more complex use of waterways, but the waterways aren’t getting any bigger. In addition, a lot of the things being rolled out are vulnerable to cyberattacks, so the future will demand more support for these waterway cutters.”

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...


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