Removing the missile launcher and replacing it with a five-inch/54-caliber Mark 45 gun would provide the Coast Guard with an effective weapon for peacetime operations. If mobilized into Navy service, the vessels still could provide direct gunfire support to Marine Corps and Army units ashore.
Coast Guard cutters have a history of providing gunfire support to troops operating near the coast. Using these ships for shore bombardment instead of the Navy's large, high-value Spruance (DD-963)-, Arleigh Burke (DDG-51)-, and Ticonderoga (CG-47)-class ships, which are armed with the same fiveinch/54-caliber mount, makes sense. In addition, the Navy plans to increase the range of ordnance the Mark 45 can fire as well as extend its inland reach.
The gun mount-without lower ammunition hoist-weighs 49,000 pounds and requires an 88-inch diameter deck opening. In contrast, the Mark 13 Harpoon/Standard missile launcher weighs more than 134,000 pounds and has an on deck footprint of more than 200 inches in diameter.
The FFG-7s have been fitted with temporary 25-mm gun mounts installed amidships during deployments. Installing these lightweight weapons on the modified Oliver Hazard Perrys would give Coast Guard crews an alternative to the potential overkill of five-inch shells during peacetime operations. The Coast Guard could merely transfer the Mark 38 25-mm guns fitted on the Hamiltons to the modified FFG-7s.
Deleting the OTO Melara 76-mm gun from the FFG-7s when they are transferred to the Coast Guard would help compensate for the additional above-deck weight of the five-inch/54 and eliminate the OTO Melara mount's unique support requirements. Otherwise, as the FFG-7s are retired from Navy service, the Coast Guard will be left to maintain alone the logistics infrastructure for the OTO Melaras on its Hamilton and Bear cutters.
Neither the Hamiltons nor the Bears have sonars or torpedo tubes; the FFG7s are fitted with SQS-56 or SQS-53B sonars and two sets of Mark 32 triple torpedo tubes. These systems could be retained to give the Coast Guard antisubmarine warfare capability it lacks. On the other hand, deleting these systems would further cut crew size and reduce the supporting infrastructure burden.
Retiring the Hamilton-class cutters would have the added advantage of eliminating the unique training and logistics chain needed to support their Pratt & Whitney FT4A-6 gas turbines and Fairbanks-Morse 38TD8 diesel engines. The General Electric-built LM 2500 power plants on the FFG-7s are used extensively in the Navy and by more than ten other foreign navies.
The 3,050-ton Hamiltons and 4,100ton Oliver Hazard Perrys have comparable crew complements-179 and 187, respectively-without embarked helicopter aircrews and support personnel. Removing the Standard guided missile system and three-inch/62 mount should reduce the FFG-7s' manning requirements at least to the level of the Hamiltons. Removing the SOR-19 passive towed arrays on the FFG-7s would further cut requirements.
In addition, the smart ship initiative is likely to pay more dividends to former purpose-designed Navy vessels than to Coast Guard cutters now in operation.
All of the ships have certified landing decks and aviation support facilities, although the FFG-7s have a two-bay hangar compared to the Coast Guard vessels' single-helicopter facility. The additional enclosed space on the frigates could be converted into workshops or small boat storage and maintenance.
The Hamiltons do have several advantages over the FFG-7s. Their diesel engines give them a range of 14,000 miles at 11 knots, and they also have two shafts compared to the single shaft on the FFG-7s.
The additional capabilities of the frigates and lower logistics support costs could in the long term cover the necessary upfront modification investments. In an era of tight budgets, it makes sense to consider these readily available and capable surplus ships instead of acquiring a new-build cutter class.
The Coast Guard should consider acquiring the newer surplus FFG-7s and converting them for use as high-endurance cutters before the Navy sells, leases, or gives them away to foreign navies.