Wieschhorster describes his ship as a “frigate-like” vessel. “I say that because it is partly designed to fulfill some of those Department of Defense (DOD) support missions. We have the capabilities to support DOD for low intensity conflict, should that need arise. We’re not designed for heavy combat at sea. But we can be very useful in phase zero shaping operations that we can do in advance of any potential conflict. We’re not designed to sit off the coast of California. We’re a global deployer, so we can help DOD in that realm and support national objectives, wherever that may be.”
The NSC is also designed to operate in the harshest conditions. “You need a platform like this to be able to conduct long-range search and rescue and fisheries enforcement. I’m saying ‘long-range’ because when you’re operating in the Bering Sea, you’re a day, day-and-a-half-steaming from anything, and the conditions in the Bering Sea are unforgiving. Routinely, you’re operating in 12 to 15 foot seas, and you’re expected to conduct mission execution in those conditions.”
In bad weather, merchant ships, fishermen and pleasure craft can get into extremis, which can result in a distress call to the Coast Guard. “If ships get into trouble in those conditions, we need to be able to launch aircraft. And this ship can launch and recover aircraft and boats in sea state 5.”
Wieschhorster said it is also important for a ship like the NSC to have range, endurance and technology to be able to conduct operations like law enforcement off South and Central America, thousands of miles from shore. The NSC has the ability to conduct highly classified operations, and can execute missions based on a very sophisticated intelligence network.
Stratton is the first Coast Guard ship to deploy with a small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS). The Boeing Insitu ScanEagle unmanned aircraft carry sensors to help patrol large areas for long-duration flights of 12 hours or more.
While deployed, for example, Stratton got a call to perform a Medevac for a mariner who was in distress on a fishing vessel. “ScanEagle was airborne, and was able to show my helicopter pilots the vessel they were going to be hoisting the patient from. We were able to have the fishing boat move some deck equipment around so we could drop the basket and get the rescue swimmer down to the deck. That gave the aircrew more time on scene so they’re not arriving and then talking to the fishing captain on the radio to move things around while the helo is burning gas. All that stuff can be done in advance. We’re able to do a lot of things with ScanEagle, and it’s really been a force multiplier for us.”
The NSC has a flight deck and hangars to carry two helicopters, like the MH-60 Jayhawk or MH-65 Dolphin, or a helicopter and unmanned aircraft like ScanEagle.
“I would never want to not deploy with it. And that’s for all mission sets,” said Wieschhorster. “We’ve really refined our tactics and procedures. It gives us a real tactical advantage when we’re out there. We can gather all sorts of information on a target without being detected. The drone allows us to stay overtop of suspects and time the interdictions to where it’s tactically advantageous to us, while also reducing a lot of risk for our crews.”
Wieschhorster said these pursuits are going at a fast pace. “They’re not coming up to a vessel that’s stopped. These guys are rolling in at 30 knots, and we’re basically on a collision course with them to get them to stop. So it reduces a lot of risk for us there. It also records everything that these guys are doing. So in case we do get spotted, and they see our boat coming over the horizon, and they start to jettison their contraband, we’ve got them on video. When they roll into court, there’s no defense. These guys are going to jail because we can prove it with video evidence. That’s what gives us a litigation advantage, as well, when the assistant U.S. attorneys prosecute these cases.”
The NSC can also conduct LMR missions far from homeport. Fisheries patrols in the Bering Sea involves looking for foreign ships fishing within the U.S. exclusive economic zone without permission, conducting illegal driftnet fishing, exceeding limits, or taking unauthorized species. U.S. fishing boats can be operating illegally, too.
Although the Bering Sea is a remote and inhospitable area, there’s always a cutter there. “We’re up there all the time for fisheries enforcement and search and rescue, along with every other Coast Guard mission,” said Wieschhorster.
With overfishing, over time those biomasses are going to dwindle, Wieschhorster said. “We’ve seen that on the east coast with the cod fishery in the North Atlantic. There are a number of domestic fisheries laws where types of fisheries are open at certain times, closed at certain times, or there are limits to the amount of tonnage that is brought in for certain types of species. All that is managed by the National Fisheries Service, and we’re the enforcement arm of that. So the better presence that we have out there, the more eyes we can have on those fisheries to protect the resource.”