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.
To address its 11 statutory missions, the service needs reliable, capable and state-of-the-art ships to meet contemporary threats and those of tomorrow. But over the years, the Coast Guard has had to repeatedly extend the service life of many of its cutters. It’s still operating 52-year-old high-endurance cutters and has medium-endurance cutters that are even older. The service’s only heavy icebreaker is 45 years old and the oldest inland tender is more than 70.
Back in 2012, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report said the service’s ability to conduct its missions was impacted by the generally poor physical condition and declining operational capacity of its older high-endurance cutters, medium-endurance cutters and 110-foot patrol craft. That’s why the effort to recapitalize the aging fleet with new cutters with better endurance, capability and efficiency is so important.
The fact that the Coast Guard has done such a good job operating despite an old and in some cases obsolete fleet is a testament to the crews and support teams. But new ships are needed. Fortunately, they are on the way.
The Coast Guard classifies and color-codes its cutters by function and size. The “white hull” ships, ranging from the national security cutter to the smaller fast response cutter, conduct patrol operations. The “black hull” ships are buoy tenders and workboats of different sizes and capabilities to work on the open ocean, along the coasts and in inland waterways and rivers. Finally, “red hulls” are icebreakers. The recapitalization plan covers all three.
White hulls patrol the sea
The largest group of cutters, and the ones most people associate with the Coast Guard, are the white hulls dispatched for search and rescue; drug and migrant interdiction; port, waterway and coastal security; protection of living marine resources; defense readiness operations; and support for other Coast Guard functions such as aids to navigation (ATON) and pollution response. Missions that have been carried out by high- and medium-endurance cutters and patrol boats eventually will all be handled by the national security cutter (NSC), offshore patrol cutter (OPC) and fast response cutter (FRC).
Of the white hulls, the 12 ships of the Hamilton class of 378-foot high-endurance cutters have been the largest and most capable cutters since the first was commissioned in 1967 and the last joined the fleet in 1972. Despite their age, three are still in service with the Coast Guard, and all of the others have been transferred to other navies and coast guards in the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Vietnam.
Like the Hamilton class, the new Bertholf-class national security cutters — or Legend class, named for famous Coast Guard leaders — are multimission ships. They carry the designation WMSL, with the “W” denoting a Coast Guard ship and “MSL” denoting “maritime security cutter, large.” The lead ship, USCGC Bertholf (WMSL 750), is named for Cmdr. Ellsworth Bertholf, who was the fourth commandant of both the Revenue Cutter Service and Coast Guard.
The service’s original program of record called for eight NSCs to replace the 378-foot Hamiltons, with the idea that the newer ships would be more capable — with better sea-keeping, endurance and range — and able to meet the mission with fewer vessels. However, the program has ordered 11 NSCs to date. All NSCs were built or are planned to be built at Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Ingalls Shipbuilding of Pascagoula, Miss. Nine NSCs have been delivered.
The 360-foot Heritage-class offshore patrol cutter, which will replace the aging medium-endurance cutters (WMECs), stands as 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 two converted salvage ships that were transferred from the Navy. The OPC is expected to displace about 4,500 tons and will have a flight deck and facilities for helicopters and unmanned aircraft. It will have much greater sea-keeping, range and endurance than the WMECs.
The first of the 16 210s was commissioned in 1964. Two have since been decommissioned and have transferred to Sri Lanka and Colombia. All 13 270s are still active, with the oldest being commissioned in 1983. The Coast Guard also has a one-of-a-kind medium-endurance cutter, USCGC Alex Haley (WMEC 39), which was originally commissioned for Navy service in 1971 and after significant modifications was activated in the Coast Guard in 1999. It is still active and home-ported at Kodiak, Alaska.
Designed to complement the capabilities of the 418-foot NSCs, the OPCs will be the backbone of the Coast Guard’s strategy to project and maintain an offshore presence. The OPC program of record is set to deliver 25 hulls, which will eventually comprise more than 70 percent of the Coast Guard’s offshore fleet. The first ship, USCGC Argus (WMSM 915), is under construction at Eastern Shipbuilding in Panama City, Fla., where its keel was authenticated in April 2020. The second OPC is under contract and long lead-time items are being procured for the third.
The Coast Guard’s large fleet of smaller patrol boats (WPBs) includes 87-foot and Island-class 110-foot cutters, with the 110s now being replaced by the 154-foot fast response cutter (FRC). The Sentinel-class FRCs — designated as WPCs — are much more capable than the boats they are replacing, with improved C4ISR capability (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance); stern launch and recovery (up through sea state 4) for a 26-foot cutter boat instead of the WPB’s 17-foot RHIB; improved sea-keeping, and enhanced crew habitability.
The FRCs are being constructed by Bollinger Shipyards of Lockport, La., and are based on the “parent craft” design of the Damen Stan 4708 patrol vessel. The plan is to build 58 FRCs, as well as procure FRCs to replace the six 110s currently serving with Patrol Forces Southwest Asia in Bahrain. The Coast Guard accepted delivery of the 42nd FRC in December.
Black hulls maintain ATON
One of the Coast Guard’s most important and unheralded missions is to maintain the ATON system that allows the safe and efficient movement of vessels and prevents collisions, allisions and groundings at sea and along the nation’s intracoastal and inland waterways. This duty is performed by the service’s black hulls.
The 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 ATON. They entered service between 1996 and 2000, with one of them based on the Great Lakes.
The inland and river construction tenders are the oldest cutters in the Coast Guard inventory. The average age is 55 years; the oldest is more than 75. There are three classes — inland buoy tenders (WLIs), river buoy tenders (WLRs) and inland construction tenders (WLICs) — in various versions from 65 to 160 feet, which along with their respective work barges can reach up to 190 feet. Together these tenders and their work barges place buoys; handle tower construction, pile driving and extraction; and support maintenance of the 28,200 ATON along America’s 12,000-mile Marine Transportation System (MTS).
The inland tenders will be replaced under the Coast Guard’s Waterways Commerce Cutter (WCC) program, which is on an accelerated 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 request for proposals in July for detailed design and construction of the river buoy and inland construction tenders.
Red hulls break ice
Like much of its legacy fleet, the Coast Guard’s red hulls are old. Of the two heavy icebreakers — USCGC Polar Star (WAGB 10) and sister ship USCGC Polar Sea (WAGB 11), commissioned in 1976 and 1977, respectively — only the first is operational. The medium icebreaker USCGC Healy (WAGB 20), commissioned in 1999, is larger than the Polar class but is less powerful, and it is used primarily as an icebreaking research vessel. The oceangoing icebreakers are based in Seattle; the Great Lakes icebreaker USCGC Mackinaw (WLBB 30) is based in Cheboygan, Mich.
Growing interest in the polar regions demands presence. Coast Guard officials have said the service needs at least three heavy icebreakers to provide the ability to operate anywhere at any time. Polar Star is used almost exclusively to support the annual resupply mission to the National Science Foundation base at McMurdo Sound in Antarctica, but the Coast Guard has long lobbied for ships that can do more. The result is the polar security cutter (PSC) program to deliver a multimission vessel with world-class icebreaking capability.
The Navy and Coast Guard established a joint integrated program office to procure the PSC. Halter Marine of Pascagoula, Miss., was awarded the contract to design and build the first ship in the class, with options for two more. The first PSC is scheduled for delivery in 2024, with the second notionally in 2025 and third notionally in 2027 if the options are executed. At 460 feet in length and with 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).
“In order to conduct the full range of Coast Guard missions, Coast Guard icebreakers must be fully interoperable with interagency and international stakeholders, including the Department of Defense, to carry out national defense operations,” Adm. Charles Ray told a House subcommittee in May 2019. “Thus, the new PSC will include sufficient space, weight and power to conduct the full complement of multimission activities that support our nation’s current and future needs in the Arctic.” •
Retired Navy Capt. Edward Lundquist is a communications professional with 38 years of experience in military, private association and corporate service. During his 24-year naval career, Lundquist qualified as a surface warfare officer and later served as a public affairs officer. He retired from active duty in 2000.