The Case for the Cutter

By Vice Admirals Robert C. Parker and Manson K. Brown, U.S. Coast Guard

Due to our broad authorities, interoperability, and ability to bring interagency partners and key stakeholders together, the U.S. Coast Guard is a key player in the overall enterprise that ensures the maritime elements of the QHSR ’s strategic goals and direction are fully realized. As the two Coast Guard operational commanders responsible for translating strategic direction into tactical action across our maritime domain and exclusive economic zone (EEZ), we need the capability provided by the new National Security Cutter (NSC).

Why the National Security Cutter?

Based on our experience, we are already too late. Outdated assets need to be re-capitalized, which cannot be done quickly enough. The Coast Guard must possess the capability to respond to the asymmetric threats that exist beyond the vast EEZs and within the approaches to the maritime borders.

The current U.S. National Security Strategy summarized the world situation this way:

We are now moving beyond traditional distinctions between homeland and national security. National security draws on the strength and resilience of our citizens, communities, and economy. This includes a determination to prevent terrorist attacks against the American people by fully coordinating the actions that we take abroad with the actions and precautions that we take at home. . . . We will continue to develop the capacity to address the threats and hazards that confront us, while redeveloping our infrastructure to secure our people and work cooperatively with other nations.

The Coast Guard also has a duty to support numerous national strategies and policies that execute homeland security; drug interdiction; international partnerships; Department of Defense/Combatant Commander support; standard Coast Guard missions in extreme weather and sea conditions; command, control, and communications during humanitarian aid/disaster relief operations; and effective operations in the increasingly navigable waters in the approaches to and through the Arctic.

These responsibilities are unique to the Coast Guard, as it is the only armed service with the authority to enforce laws and treaties and the skills to adeptly perform these various missions. Specifically, the National Security Cutter addresses the need to operate over vast distances, in extreme weather, to execute ever more complex missions.

The NSC offers a significant enhancement to our current fleet to meet its diverse missions, including considerably more operating capability under isolated and extreme conditions (e.g. significant sea state, lack of at-sea refueling support) and the addition of a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF), which allows considerably more flexibility and national-level interoperability in classified-material handling, discussion, methodology, and analytical enhancement.

The existing Coast Guard assets performing the longer-endurance missions are currently the ten Hamilton -class 378-foot high-endurance cutters, recently reduced from 12 with the recent transfer of the Chase and Hamilton to Nigeria and the Philippines, respectively. These cutters have seen well over 40 years of service. The state-of-the-art NSC is replacing these revered cutters, but not on a one-for-one basis. Furthermore, the current budget environment may dictate that we remove and decommission these venerable cutters faster that we can bring the new NSCs on line. To put the demands placed on one high-endurance cutter in a year into context, consider what the Hamilton accomplished in her final 12 months of service before her decommissioning on 28 March 2011. She was under way and away from homeport for 205 days, steaming over 50,000 nautical miles. During that time, the Hamilton supported Coast Guard–mandated missions within the U.S. EEZ, responded to emergent international incidents such as the devastating earthquake in Haiti, joined with the Department of Defense and international partners in drug-interdiction patrols in the Pacific Ocean off Central and South America, and conducted arduous patrols near the Arctic in support of Arctic Maritime Domain Awareness, thus protecting a $4 billion per-year fishery industry.

Evolving Threats, Greater Capabilities

The NSC makes possible a leap forward from antiquated capabilities to state-of-the-art communications, detection, and security systems along with excellent crew habitability, addressing known shortcomings and capitalizing on more than 40 years of lessons learned. Compared with the Hamilton -class cutters, the NSC has:

• 40 feet of increased overall length, totaling 418 feet

• Better range and endurance with 90-plus day patrol cycles

• Significantly better sea-keeping and ship-helicopter capabilities

• Faster, more fuel-efficient transit speeds.

At a recent congressional hearing regarding the Fiscal Year 2012 budget, Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Robert J. Papp Jr. said, after spending an entire day under way on board the USCGC Waesche (WMSL-751), “It gives us enhanced capabilities to better carry out our mission in a broader range of weather conditions and longer range and speed, and to do it more economically with fewer crew members, better fuel efficiency, and better environmental conditions as well.”

The commanding officer of the first NSC, the USCGC Bertholf (WMSL-750), recently reported patrolling in the Bering Sea in 20-foot seas and up to 60 knots of wind (not uncommon and often worse in winter months) and still being within pitch-and-roll parameters to launch and recover the shipboard helicopter. The NSC’s improved sea-keeping, stable flight-deck system, and overall design were instrumental in allowing continued mission effectiveness in severe weather and sea conditions, especially when launching or recovering the embarked helicopter or small boats.

These enhanced capabilities allow for safe and effective mission execution with direct implications at both the tactical and strategic levels. Previously, cutters would be outside of safe operational limits for the launch and recovery of embarked helicopters and boats in these sea states. Embarked helicopters can now perform over-the-horizon patrols, extending the range of onboard sensors and direct-targeted intercepts for successful interdictions and boardings by more capable boats.

The NSC can transit more efficiently and quickly, resulting in more time spent in the high-threat search-and-patrol areas. This increased time on station is enhanced by the ability to remain under way for longer periods of time. The concept of on-scene endurance holds true whether conducting a drug interdiction patrol in the Eastern Pacific or Caribbean, guarding the fishing grounds in the Bering Sea or South Pacific, or preventing the loss of life as immigrants try to make passage on grossly overloaded and often unseaworthy vessels.

National concern about the Arctic has garnered renewed interest over the past few years, as accessibility to the Northern polar routes as well as interest in the potential discovery and exploitation of oil reserves have increased. The Coast Guard is no stranger to operating in harsh environments, whether to protect precious natural resources in Alaskan waters, the Pacific Northwest, and Georges Banks, from the olden days of whaling to present-day oil reserves and fishing; to support defense operations as in resupplying the Distant Early Warning Line during the Cold War and current U.S. sovereign interests in the Arctic; or saving human lives in peril on stormy seas.

However, without ice-strengthened hulls to operate in the cold North, even the NSC is not a year-round Arctic solution. That said, increased traffic in the Arcti c will also mean more varied types of vessels transiting the harsh environs to get there. This translates into increased activity and responsibility for most if not all of our missions in one of the harshest environments on earth.

In carrying out the many policies and strategies to reduce the vast amount of illegal drugs entering the United States, the Coast Guard must have an asset capable of patrolling for extended periods of time in the range used by drug traffickers. This means not waiting at our borders to engage close-in, but rather engaging earlier and “down range” as called for by the National Drug Control Strategy . With the ability to economically transit, loiter, and sprint and a range of 12,000 nautical miles, the NSC is capable of patrolling these distant threat vectors closer to the departure zone rather than on America’s doorstep. The significance of this approach is that cocaine is in its most concentrated and, arguably, its most vulnerable form when it is in the transit zone. This provides a unique opportunity for the Coast Guard (and the NSC) to make a significant impact on the illegal drug trade with each major seizure.

One such area identified by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) is a route that stretches from various locations along the Pacific coast of South America and proceeds to either side of the Galapagos Islands, over 525 nautical miles west of Ecuador, before heading north to Central America, Mexico, and eventually the United States. With the United States ceasing to operate out of the airfield in Manta, Ecuador, the only sustainable Coast Guard asset capable of effectively patrolling the drug-smuggling route south of the Galapagos is the NSC.

By the end of the Bertholf ’s inaugural 90-day patrol working for the Joint Interagency Task Force South in November 2010, her crew interdicted more than 12 tons of cocaine valued at nearly $400 million, detained nine people suspected of engaging in illegal activity, and entered 27 associated smugglers into national databases for interagency reference, while building international partnerships with multiple countries in Central and South America. Traffickers continue to capitalize on routes in the vicinity of the Galapagos and along the Central American littorals, underscoring the necessity of maintaining a capability to patrol in this high-probability threat area in order to have an impact on reaching the ONDCP’s goal of removing 40 percent of all documented cocaine movement through the transit zone by 2015. The Bertholf had this success in part because of the enhanced capability that an NSC brings to bear in this increasingly sophisticated and complex high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse.

A First-Response Focal Point

The NSC has command-and-control capabilities former cutters did not, but they are needed when responding to critical incidents and providing for a protected homeland. A secure communications suite allows for classified communications, providing government leadership with the timely information necessary for decision-makers in a crisis. The on-board Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) is integral to sharing real-time tactical and classified information-sharing with our operational partners. This is especially true when considering overseas contingency operations and how sensitive information and tasking must be transmitted, only possible via the SCIF. For example, with the anticipated drilling for oil in the near future within Cuban waters only 60 miles from U.S. soil, the NSC can assist with protecting American interests by providing a persistent presence or potential command-and-control node for a catastrophic release of oil that would impact U.S. shores far more broadly than even the 2010 Macondo 252 Deepwater Horizon oil-well spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Enforcing safety zones and patrolling off the coast of Haiti, the NSC also would provide a visual deterrent as well as a stable, persistent platform for command-and-control.

Throughout the Pacific Ocean, from American Samoa to the Bering Sea, a significant number of U.S. EEZs and National Marine Sanctuaries require monitoring and enforcement. The vast distances involved in ensuring our national sovereignty in these remote locations require the long range and endurance of the NSC. Another concern throughout the Pacific is the enforcement of the High Seas Drift Net Convention laws (the nets are the so-called “curtains of death”) by detecting and interdicting vessels engaged in fisheries that are illegal, unreported, or unregulated. This supports U.S. Department of Commerce efforts to prohibit commercial ventures of such vessels, which undermine the U.S. economy.

Designed for Partnership Interoperability

Among the primary elements of the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review are key mission priorities coupled with specific goals for each of those missions that link the document with the new National Security Strategy . The strategy provides the Department of Homeland Security with one of the critical foundational documents for evaluating requirements and capabilities. As noted in the strategy:

To succeed, we must balance and integrate all elements of American power and update our national security capacity for the 21st century. . . . Our intelligence and homeland security efforts must be integrated with our national security policies, and those of our allies and partners. And our ability to synchronize our actions while communicating effectively with foreign publics must be enhanced to sustain global support.

In a maritime environment, this is accomplished in close cooperation with the U.S. Navy through forward deployments and close interoperability. A measure of overseas interaction occurs during the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) and Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises. The CARAT patrol is a joint Coast Guard/Navy training mission conducted annually in six Southeast Asian countries. CARAT patrols also engage in goodwill missions that participate in community-building projects affecting hundreds of citizens in countries such as Indonesia. RIMPAC is the world’s largest multinational maritime exercise, conducted biennially and serving to promote stability throughout the region and enhance interoperability among participating nations.

Because of our global reputation for upholding commonly held goals of maritime safety, security, and stewardship, the Coast Guard can often operate with more access more effectively in foreign arenas than our gray-hull sister service. As previously stated, many of the world’s navies are similar to the Coast Guard, and their acceptance of our cutters is based on mutual respect, our humanitarian mission, and commonality. It also is more cost-effective to proactively establish these important international relationships to promote self-governance than to send a larger fleet later because of government instability or civil unrest. This projection of U.S. goodwill cannot be quantified, but it is a subtle way of building trust while improving foreign nations’ fisheries enforcement, boarding tactics, and search-and-rescue techniques, thus enhancing the rule of law.

The ability to operate far offshore helps protect our nation’s economic borders and enhances maritime-domain awareness. The NSC is also part of a strategic layered defense. Without the NSC to enforce these boundaries far from U.S. shores, our ports and waterways are increasingly at risk. The cutters’ overseas capabilities play a large role in projecting U.S. presence to other continents while operating in DOD combatant commanders’ areas of responsibility. As an example, Coast Guard support to U.S. Africa Command facilitates other nations’ efforts to enforce their own fisheries regulations. Rather than teaching a person to fish, the Coast Guard is able to teach a nation to protect its fisheries, preventing instability such as that seen in the waters off Somalia.

High-Seas Reach, High-End Needs

The QHSR provides a foundation for the Coast Guard to develop key requirements. It also provides a concise list of “threats and hazards” coupled with “global challenges and trends.” A significant requirement is deployment of a long-range-capable platform, which is poised to operate successfully with the Department of Defense and multinational partners.

How does this requirement from the National Security Strategy become a tactical reality within the homeland-security operating environment? Our ability to intercept potential threats before they come within effective range of our 361 ports or any aspect of our maritime transportation system is critical. The NSC’s capabilities can meet this operational requirement. In describing “Mission 2: Securing and Managing Our Borders,” the QHSR notes:

We are responsible for secure, well-managed borders that not only protect the United States against threats from abroad, but also expedite the safe flow of lawful travel and commerce. Achieving this outcome rests on three interrelated goals: effectively securing U.S. air, land, and sea borders; safeguarding lawful trade and travel; and disrupting and dismantling transnational criminal and terrorist organizations. To strengthen efforts to achieve these goals, the Department will:

• Expand joint operations and intelligence capabilities, including enhanced domain awareness

• Enhance the security of the global trade and travel systems responsible for the secure movement of people and goods, including enhanced container and maritime security . . .

• Strengthen and expand DHS-related security assistance internationally . . . in consultation and coordination with the Departments of State and Defense.

This is usually accomplished in concert with the Navy and combatant commands as part of a whole-of-government approach—taking the fullest advantage of the U.S. government’s skills, authorities, and logistical capacities and capabilities.

Our service has a long history of performing maritime missions in the best interests of the country, our citizens, and our natural resources. Ultimately, the Coast Guard protects U.S. interests at home, within our territorial seas and EEZs, and abroad on the high seas where we can most effectively counter threats using our broad authorities and skills. Our missions are as diverse and difficult as the environs in which our Coast Guardsmen are expected to serve. In order to meet our statutory obligations, our members must be equipped with the best possible resources to function in these harsh environments.

The Coast Guard and the United States cannot afford to delay the replacement of the 40-plus-year-old high-endurance cutters. Likewise, when reducing from 12 to 8 the number of cutters capable of working in extreme conditions, all 8 NSCs must be delivered and handled more effectively, efficiently, and safely than their predecessors ever were. At any given time, we collectively have Bering Sea search-and-rescue operations, DOD missions in the Persian Gulf and off the Horn of Africa, Caribbean and Eastern Pacific counterdrug operations, and patrols protecting our distant EEZs in the Pacific.

From an operational commander’s perspective, we need a minimum of eight NSCs to fill these key high-end needs. The high-endurance cutters they will replace are having a difficult time achieving mission success due to reliability issues. Those cutters were built with an expected service life of 25 years, but are now well over 40 years old. Consider that the then-operational “378” was one of the early concept designs that influenced the U.S. Navy’s guided-missile frigate (FFG). The FFGs, commissioned starting in 1977, are quickly being decommissioned. The Coast Guard is still running the 378s that were commissioned starting in 1965.

There is no question that Coast Guard recapitalization is long overdue. The real issue is in understanding the true return on investment of the highly capable NSC and that full funding of the NSC program is a strategic imperative for the nation. We predict that the NSCs will serve well for many years as a vital instrument of U.S national security.

Vice Admiral Parker is the Commander of Coast Guard Atlantic Area and Commander Defense Force East.

Vice Admiral Brown is the Commander of Coast Guard Pacific Area and Commander Defense Force West.

Responding to WMD in the Maritime Domain

The National Security Cutter is the first cutter class in Coast Guard history that provides a Collective Protection System (CPS), designed to provide filtered air to designated zones and protect crew members from chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) contamination by maintaining zone pressure slightly above atmospheric pressure within protected crew spaces. Additionally, the cutter has dedicated storage for CBRN protection suits inside the CPS and can survive and operate in a chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear-contaminated environment for more than 24 hours.

Further, the NSC has the ability to continuously wash down all external surfaces and an installed crew-decontamination station. Finally, the cutter has equipment that enables the crew to physically decontaminate mission specific equipment and exterior advanced radiation detection, classification, and identification capabilities, and can operate continuously and independently in a low-threat environment.


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Maritime Security Dialogue

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You are cordially invited to: U.S. Coast Guard Update A discussion with: Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, USCG25th Commandant of the U.S...

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