The U.S. Coast Guard Shipyard at Curtis Bay in Baltimore, Maryland, has designed, built, maintained and renovated Coast Guard, Navy, Army, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), state and local government, and foreign military vessels and systems for more than 120 years. It is one of five federal shipyards, the only one under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and is the largest industrial complex within DHS. For all these many things, to the men and women of the Coast Guard – past and present – it is simply “the Yard.”
More than just a shipyard, the Yard has a storied past. It was the original home to the Coast Guard Academy, and has been a recruit training center, technical training center, home to the Coast Guard’s Research and Development Center, and a homeport for cutter crews.
Today the 113-acre Yard installation is home to more than 2,000 full-time employees, 131 structures of varying size and capacities, and 95 buildings that enclose more than 943,000 square feet of space. Tenant commands and activities include the Surface Forces Logistics Center (SFLC), Sector Maryland – National Capital Region, Asset Project Office Cutter Transition Division, Station Curtis Bay, Aids to Navigation Team Curtis Bay, Project Resident Office (PRO) Baltimore, Command Control, and Communications Engineering Center (C3CEN) Electronic Repair Facility, Electronics Support Detachment Baltimore, Coast Guard Office of Civilian Human Resources – Northeast, Coast Guard Office of Civil Rights Detachment, Coast Guard Investigative Services Baltimore, Base National Capitol Region Detachment, and the cutters USCGC James Rankin (WLM 555), USCGC Chock (WYTL 65602), and USCGC Sledge (WLIC 75303).
The Yard is home to the largest Inventory Control Point (warehousing operation) in DHS, which serves the entire Coast Guard surface fleet, as well as the Coast Guard’s only U.S. Navy-certified heavy weapons overhaul facility.
Because cutters and other government agency vessels come for renovation, including those being transferred under foreign military sale, the Yard provides housing; medical and emergency services; human resources; morale, welfare, and recreation support; and other base activities to approximately 1,000 visiting cutter crew members, other government agency crews, and foreign military crews per year.
According to the “Ten Year Strategy of the United States Coast Guard” document, “Nearly every Coast Guard cutter that has put to sea over the past century has been built, renovated and/or maintained by the Yard, and nearly all of the Coast Guard’s cutter crews have benefitted in some way by the incredible work done by members of the Yard family.”
While the number of shipyards in the United States that can repair Coast Guard vessels has declined since the end of World War II, the present demand for maintenance repair and modernization of the service’s surface fleet is growing. With this renewed importance, the Yard has never been more relevant than it is today.
But the Yard is also at a pivot point. Once a construction yard, more recently the Yard has concentrated on maintaining and upgrading the legacy fleet, and must update its facilities and capabilities to service the new generation of cutters.
The strategy states that the Yard must continue to evolve its workforce recruiting, training, and professional development programs to sustain its competitive advantage: a highly experienced and stable workforce. It also acknowledges the need to update the Yard’s aging infrastructure.
The Yard began as a base for the Revenue Cutter Service, one of the predecessors to the Coast Guard, and grew during World War I and Prohibition. During the Prohibition-era, the Yard built, repaired, and overhauled many of the boats and cutters that were used to catch “rum-runners” along the Atlantic Coast. World War II was another busy time for the Yard, working around the clock with three shifts every day of the year. While it continued to build new cutters and boats, after the war the Yard began its transition to vessel renovation, maintenance, and repairs.
U.S. shipyards are usually construction or repair shipyards. The Yard, however, is neither. Approximately 85 percent of Coast Guard vessel shipyard maintenance occurs in commercial shipyards around the country. The Yard’s competitive advantage is its highly specialized, stable, and professional workforce, coupled with its unique integration of engineering design and waterfront production to specialize in back-fit ship design, service life extensions, and systems engineering.
“Although the Yard is highly capable of repairs, and historically performed new ship construction, over the past several decades the Yard carved out a valuable niche as a vessel renovation specialist,” according to the “Ten Year Strategy.”
These include projects such as midlife availabilities, service life extension projects on aging cutters and other vessels, and repeatable repair availabilities, including Recurring Depot Availability Programs (RDAP).
New cutters are entering the fleet, with the new classes being generally larger and more complex than the ships they are replacing. With that comes a paradigm shift as smaller yards that formerly repaired Coast Guard vessels will see that work going to a smaller number of bigger shipyards.
In the “U.S. Coast Guard Yard Curtis Bay 2019-2029 Yard Facilities Master Plan,“ the service acknowledges that the newer cutters will require work to be accomplished in larger shipyards that specialize in larger, more complex vessel repair instead of the maintenance traditionally performed in small shipyards that have lower overhead costs and tighter profit margins. “One challenge with this trend is that the Coast Guard will likely begin to compete directly with the Navy for shipyard capacity within the decade. Furthermore, the cost of doing work in shipyards that specialize in military vessel and larger ship repair tend to be higher than those that specialize in repair of small commercial vessels.”
This puts the Coast Guard in the situation of being forced to use yards in a less competitive segment of the ship repair industry. “These trends will make it increasingly important to sustain organic Coast Guard shipyard capacity to avoid shipyard ‘bottlenecks,’” the Master Plan reads. This trend should prompt the USCG to make smart infrastructure investments in the Yard to ensure it has capability to drydock and service the new cutter fleet, including offshore patrol cutters and national security cutters.
“Until recently, the Yard provided the Coast Guard with the organic capacity to service every vessel in its fleet with the exception of the polar icebreakers. With the acquisition of the national security cutter and the projected acquisition of the offshore patrol cutter, the Coast Guard is losing that organic capacity,” the Master Plan states.
For example, the new 360-foot offshore patrol cutters (OPC) that are now under construction are intended to replace the 210-foot and 270-foot medium-endurance cutters (WMECs). Commercial yards that have worked on the WMECs may not have the facilities to dry-dock OPCs.
Furthermore, the Yard faces a rapid and widespread failure of critical infrastructure. Using criteria from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the overall infrastructure grade for the Yard is a D+, and it is projected the grade will accelerate its decline without additional resources. Nearly all of the Yard’s waterfront and utility infrastructure was built within a four-year period during World War II, and it urgently needs repair and upgrading in order to meet infrastructure needs to service a modernized surface fleet, and improve the Yard’s environmental posture.
The “Ten Year Strategy” stated that the steady decline of the U.S. shipyard industry has now begun to adversely affect the Coast Guard’s ability to maintain its fleet and support operations. “As a result of this phenomenon, coupled with growing demand for Coast Guard presence across the globe, and increasing complexity and breadth of the Coast Guard’s surface fleet, the Yard has never been more relevant to the operational Coast Guard as it is today. To remain relevant, therefore, the Yard must continue to adapt to changes in Coast Guard operational focus, fill gaps left unfilled by commercial industry, and prepare now for the future.”
“The members who work at the Yard and Surface Forces Logistics Center [SFLC] Inventory Control Point have sustained the fleet throughout the COVID-19 period and have demonstrated outstanding resiliency and commitment. SFLC is responsible for all engineering, logistics, maintenance, and related support for all cutters and boats in the service,” said Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Karl Schultz during a visit to the Yard. “These men and women keep the Coast Guard running strong.”