Crisis in the Cutter Fleet

By Captain Douglas M. Fears, U.S. Coast Guard

While Navy and Coast Guard missions differ, they complement one another by providing the sea power necessary to satisfy the United States’ diverse national-security interests. The Navy’s mission is to maintain, train, and equip combat-ready naval forces capable of winning wars, deterring aggression, and maintaining freedom of the seas. The Coast Guard’s is to protect the maritime economy and the environment, defend our maritime borders, and save those in peril. The dual nature of the Coast Guard’s authorities makes the Service capable of acting solely with its military and law-enforcement authorities (or a combination of the two), depending on the circumstances. The fungible nature of moving from one set of authorities to another, on scene, is an invaluable force multiplier.

A Fleet in Decline?

The Coast Guard, established in 1790, is the oldest continuous seagoing service in the United States. Its high- and medium-endurance cutters—the backbone of the fleet—are old. The technology and systems on board, compared with current technologies, is analogous to the difference between a 1965 Ford Mustang and its 2011 descendant. In fact, the service is sending many of its captains to sea in ships that are older than the captains themselves. The fleet will soon be inadequate to meet current U.S. strategic maritime requirements and is deteriorating faster than replacements can be put in service.

Obviously, the nation needs new Coast Guard cutters. The timely acquisition of replacements, while proceeding, is threatened by the current fiscal crisis brought on by the national debt. Indeed, too often cutter replacement falls prey to budget-based decision-making when ship costs are evaluated in the context of a single fiscal year. What’s missing is a strategic understanding of the classes and number of cutters in those classes, and also a grasp of the balance of high-end Coast Guard cutters and low-end Navy ships required to satisfy U.S. Fleet requirements.

More than 95 per cent of the volume of overseas trade enters or leaves the United States by ship, contributing approximately $649 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product and 13 million jobs. Given the increase in asymmetric threats and dependence on the sea for commerce, transportation, natural-resource extraction, and recreation, the need for maritime safety and security is acute.

Near shore, small boats and patrol vessels can be employed using the “firehouse model.” Under this concept, boats remain at the dock while crews rest and await the intelligence cue, distress call, or report of a violation. Interspersed with several hours of patrolling each day, the firehouse model is a practical and efficient paradigm that allows precise, 24-hour response to threats.

Hundreds or thousands of nautical miles seaward, however, the model simply does not work. The “long-range maritime patrol model” has no land equivalent. Larger flight-deck-equipped ships and cutters have the endurance (sea keeping, command and control, fuel and provision capacity, and crew depth) to remain at sea for weeks or months. They also have the mobility to sprint to a specific area as needed. This persistent patrolling and surge capability facilitates responsive operations at the edges of our strategic depth, permits engaging threats far from land, and contributes significantly to maritime domain awareness.

Managing Multiple Missions

It is in America’s interest for the Coast Guard to conduct operations throughout its 11 statutory mission areas while simultaneously being able to respond to two natural or man-made disasters. The daily patrolling demands continue year-round. Emergent contingency operations—for example, a catastrophic earthquake in Haiti, a western Pacific tsunami, and a major environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico—have cascading effects on all mission areas. Responding to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, deterring maritime migration in that region, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster simultaneously would have severely challenged the cutter fleet’s mission performance. This underscores the importance of maintaining multiple ship classes in adequate numbers to sustain a layered defense.

An effective seaborne presence can deploy large boarding teams for days or weeks to search vessels for contraband. Maintaining a comparable airborne maritime rapid reaction capability at sea is impractical, since the necessary forces would require an enormous investment in fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft for the tactical vertical insertion of boarding teams. Also, it is impossible to maintain airborne presence for such teams for days or weeks. The presence of ships with boarding teams will always be more practical. In addition, effective presence can deliver boarding teams with the right legal authorities, jurisdiction, and proficiency to achieve the desired results. Finally, effective presence has the mobile command-and-control capability to support vigorous real-time communications, on-scene integration of operational intelligence, detection and monitoring of targets of interest, and coordination of operations with a variety of maritime, air, and land-based assets.

Ultimately, the Coast Guard cutter’s “main battery,” or delivery of operational impact, is the boarding team. It seeks arrest and seizure of the target and contraband where the disposition of the case leads to prosecution in a U.S. courtroom. This requires sustained presence that is not simply “on station,” but calls for evaluating intelligence and seeking targets of interest on high-threat vectors.

The Coast Guard’s potential to deliver these capabilities is reflected in its acquisition requirements for numbers of National Security Cutters (NSC), offshore patrol cutters (OPC), and fast-response cutters (FRC), which were designed as parts of a system to provide operational performance across the service’s statutory mission areas. The different classes of cutters, in the right numbers, would satisfy the requirement for layered maritime border security.

The 418-foot NSC is a flight-deck-equipped cutter with 60 to 90 days’ endurance, a 12,000 nautical-mile range, and extensive command-and-control capabilities. With a crew of 115 and the berthing capacity of 148, the NSC is capable of multi-week at-sea boardings thousands of miles from land and the capacity to interdict, hold, and transport hundreds of illegal migrants or conduct mass rescue operations at sea. The Coast Guard intends to build eight of these ships. The OPC is still being designed, but will be a flight-deck-equipped cutter more capable than the FRC but less than the NSC. To operate in the littorals, a 154-foot FRC has five days of endurance with a crew of 24. The Coast Guard plans to build 58 of them. The FRC is designed for near-coastal operations where logistics and provisioning are readily available. This non-flight-deck cutter will be capable of short-notice sorties based on cued intelligence and brief patrols on high-threat vectors with limited command-and-control capability. It will be able to manage at-sea boardings of small ships or rapid interdiction of small groups of illegal migrants.

This layered border-security approach would protect sovereign interests in the U.S. exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and on the high seas through the consistent enforcement of U.S. laws and treaties and the maintenance of compliance regimes. These are the nation’s security, commercial, and economic requirements. We would be foolish to assume that America’s strategic interests at sea will go unchallenged in coming decades. Drug and fisheries law enforcement, alien migrant interdiction, counter-proliferation, and search and rescue have vast areas of responsibility in which these cutters—the NSC, OPC, and FRC—will routinely be deployed.

The “Tyranny of Distance” on the High Seas

Illegal Fishing. Enforcement of U.S. laws and treaties in the U.S. EEZ is an immense task, since the zone comprises more than 3.4 million square miles, approximately the size of the continental United States itself. Much of it is remotely located throughout the central and western Pacific Ocean. Considering the size of the area, having one high-endurance cutter present in the western or central Pacific portion of the U.S. EEZ is akin to having a single police car available to patrol the United States west of the Mississippi River. The U.S. fishing industry, worth approximately $185 billion annually, sustains 1.3 million American jobs. The estimated influence of illegal fishing worldwide is between $10 billion and $23.5 billion and rising. While the economic impact of increased foreign fishing vessel incursions is noteworthy, any persistent foreign fishing-vessel incursions into the EEZ of any country will have significant economic influence, whether or not they are detected. Our ability to conduct at-sea fisheries enforcement throughout our EEZ, which is handled solely by the Coast Guard, is vitally important to sustaining this economic resource and U.S. fishing-industry jobs.

Counterdrug Operations. In addition to these challenges, the drug-transit zone between North and South America is a patrol area of approximately 6 million square miles. A chart overlay of the continental U.S. could be superimposed on the eastern Pacific portion of the drug-transit zone where two or three Navy frigates or Coast Guard NSCs are used as surface interdiction assets. For simplicity’s sake, consider that these ships have an approximate top speed of 30 knots and that the patrol area from one side to the other is 3,000 nautical miles. It would take 100 hours for a ship to cross that area at top speed in a reasonably calm sea state, with significant fuel use (the Littoral Combat Ship [LCS] would exhaust its fuel at a sprint speed of 40 knots between 1,000 and 1,500 nautical miles), significantly limiting endurance for loitering, interdiction, or rescue operations. There are occasions when a multi-week boarding at sea is required because of the complexity of target-vessel space accountability and executing operations pursuant to our 44 maritime law-enforcement bilateral agreements. There are also surface interdiction ships from allied nations such as the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France, and Canada, which embark U.S. Coast Guard law-enforcement detachments (LEDETs), but those currently account for approximately one-tenth of the maritime interdiction capability in the transit zone. The United States does not control their operational availability.

The Navy has been a reliable partner in the counterdrug and other discrete missions with their frigates (FFGs) and embarked Coast Guard LEDETs; however, its current plan is to decommission all the FFGs by 2019. It is unclear at this point whether the Navy’s intent will be to source the drug interdiction mission with the LCS, given that there are so few of them, they do not have great endurance for independent steaming operations, and the Navy has yet to go on budget for LCS mission modules. Even with sustained Navy surface commitment to the counterdrug mission, the full recapitalization of eight NSCs is imperative to meet the President’s counterdrug performance targets set forth in the National Drug Control Strategy .

Most U.S. law-enforcement interdictions at sea lead to prosecutions that are leveraged by U.S. investigators to produce a “cycle of success” that converts interdictions into prosecutions and prosecutions into human intelligence—which leads to future interdictions. Continued success can only be achieved through persistent operational presence. Similarly, these patrols will make possible interdictions within the Proliferation Security Initiative framework and other mission responsibilities.

Illegal Migrants. Alien migrant interdiction operations are also ongoing. Once interdicted, migrants must be gathered on the weather decks of a cutter, so sizable deck area is important to manage large numbers. After cursory security and medical checks, migrants will be fed and sheltered until they can be repatriated. On a small scale, FRCs and OPCs will be effective in this mission, for example, off the coasts of Cuba and Haiti.

During the Cuban mass migrations of 1980 and 1994 and the Haiti mass migration of 1994, tens of thousands of migrants took to the sea and had to be interdicted, facilitated on deck, and transported to a port for repatriation. The larger cutters were loaded with hundreds of migrants at a time. To appreciate the magnitude of these operations, 124,000 Cuban migrants were estimated to have departed Cuba by sea between April and September 1980. That averages more than 800 per day to interdict, care for, and repatriate. It would take the full capacity of NSC, OPC, and FRC deck space in addition to U.S. Navy warships to manage another seaborne mass migration. Once there is an indication that a migration spike is imminent, these larger cutters and maritime patrol aircraft would patrol the coasts of Haiti and Cuba to provide a visible deterrent.

Search and Rescue

The U.S. search-and-rescue regions cover approximately two-thirds of the northern Pacific Ocean, one-third of the North Atlantic Ocean, and one-half of the Gulf of Mexico. These areas represent approximately 28 million square nautical miles, some of which overlap with other areas of responsibility. But successful operations can be hampered by limited reprovisioning and refueling waypoints to provide needed logistics support for maritime operations, which again underscores the need for high-endurance cutters.

In these operations, sailors recognize the “tyranny of distance” and the simple “time, speed, and distance” calculation that is a central consideration for all operations at sea. The time it takes to respond—to a foreign fishing vessel incursion in the central Pacific U.S. EEZ, a counter-proliferation interdiction in the western Pacific, a mass-rescue operation on a stricken vessel in the Gulf of Alaska, a drug interdiction case west of the Galapagos Islands or on a transatlantic route to Africa or Europe—is a significant factor in successful operations, which is why a persistent patrolling presence is necessary.

The Coast Guard is also distinctively positioned to augment combatant commanders’ theater-security cooperation (TSC) plans and regional maritime engagement in conjunction with State Department objectives, allowing for allied-nation naval operations and development of partner-nation maritime-interdiction capabilities. As a branch of the U.S. armed forces, the Coast Guard is also required by law to maintain a state of readiness to function in the Navy during time of war. The peacetime manifestation is through bi- and multilateral naval engagement, often directly supporting TSC. Most international navies, particularly those of developing countries, engage in traditional U.S. Coast Guard mission areas, so the NSC and OPC are a particularly good fit for TSC.

Maintaining a fully capable U.S. Fleet is not a single fiscal-year investment; rather, it is the strategic basis from which the United States can achieve its national objectives. We should continue to invest solely in the short-term headlines that illustrate tactical border successes. But we must also invest in the long-term, systemic, strategic successes in the nation’s national-security interest.

Fully recapitalizing these major cutters will enable the Coast Guard to engage threats that can be denied and risks that can be managed at sea. It will provide a security framework that can guarantee maritime homeland security. The 1999 Coast Guard roles-and-missions report, A Coast Guard for the Twenty First Century , concluded that if a Coast Guard did not exist, one would have to be invented. It seems most prudent not to embark on a course that leads to having to resurrect one of the most useful U.S. maritime tools—the Coast Guard cutter Fleet.

Captain Fears is the U.S. Coast Guard’s chief of law enforcement. He has more than a decade of sea service in seven ships around the world, and he served as commanding officer in two of them. He is also the chairman of the U.S. Naval Institute Editorial Board.


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