Relieving the bridge watch is a formal process deeply rooted in naval custom. Details vary, but certain steps are always present: Make a round through the ship to determine material condition, capabilities, and any limitations. Review logs from the previous watch to identify significant events. Ensure that orders and guidance to the watch are read and understood. Evaluate the navigation and tactical picture to identify present and future challenges.
The bridge-watch relief process is a fitting model for preparing the oncoming 154-foot Sentinel-class fast-response cutter (FRC) to relieve the offgoing 110-foot Island-class cutter (110) of the wide-ranging, complex duties carried out by the Coast Guard’s patrol-boat fleet.
The Island class has stood a taut watch over three dynamic decades and established a legacy from Alaska and the mid-Pacific to the Persian Gulf. The FRC is a more capable, next-generation platform that will confront even greater challenges and redefine the patrol boat’s role in the Coast Guard fleet.
The first-in-class FRC, the USCGC Bernard C. Webber (WPC-1101), commissioned in April, is currently undergoing operational testing and evaluation. Two more FRCs will be commissioned by the end of the year. Eventually, 58 are planned to replace the 41 110s still in service. Preparations to relieve the watch are under way.
A Round of the Decks: FRC’s Capabilities
A closer inspection of the FRC reveals significant upgrades in size, seakeeping, endurance, capability, and habitability over its legacy predecessor. The FRC is half again as long, with twice the tonnage and fuel capacity of the 110. Top speed is nearly identical between the two platforms (about 30 knots), but the FRC adds formidable operational advantages with its command/control, communications, computers, intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance (C4ISR) upgrades, stern launch-and-recovery system, remote-operated main gun, and over-the-horizon cutter boat. The integrated C4ISR suite on an FRC rivals and in some respects surpasses that found on major cutters, allowing FRCs to fully integrate with the Department of Defense’s and Department of Homeland Security’s tactical voice, data, and networking systems.
The stern launch-and-recovery system on the FRC replaces the cumbersome crane configuration of the 110, making one of the most common patrol-boat evolutions much safer and easier. A remote-operated 25-mm cannon with infrared and target-tracking capability replaces the 110’s crew-served variant, with advantages in personnel safety and weapon effectiveness. Perhaps the most significant capability leap for the FRC is her cutter boat. The 110’s modest “cutter-boat-medium”—limited to line-of-sight operations such as transporting a boarding team to and from a vessel—is upgraded to a radar- and navigation-equipped “short-range prosecutor” designed for high-speed vessel-intercept missions that can range miles from the cutter.
A tour through crew berthing displays important upgrades to crew habitability. The 110’s six-man forward berth (dubbed “the anti-gravity chamber” due to the lively ride) and eight-to-twelve man aft-berthing area have been replaced on the FRC by two-or-four person staterooms positioned low and center—the best riding part of the ship. The configuration changes also improve personal space, provide better access to heads and showers, and accommodate mixed-gender crews much more readily than the 110 does. Sound reduction is another important feature. Veteran 110 sailors accustomed to engine noise reverberating throughout the ship will marvel at the relative aural tranquility achieved by better sound insulation and a noise-dampening engine design on the FRC.
Bigger, better equipped, and more habitable—there is no question that the FRC is capable of taking over the 110’s responsibilities. In fact, the FRC’s advantages over the 110 are so remarkable that her designation as a patrol boat may prove a misnomer. The FRC delivers many of the advantages of a patrol boat (speed, versatility, cost) along with some key capabilities of larger, medium-endurance cutters (C4ISR, over-the-horizon pursuit boat, seakeeping).
A review of recent history places the FRC’s design and predicted future operating environments into context. The first FRCs are entering the fleet at the end of a tumultuous decade defined by mission expansion, conceptual experimentation, triumph, and calamity. Three events that made a particular impact on patrol-boat design and operations include the integration of patrol boats into out-of-hemisphere contingency operations, the unsuccessful 110-to-123 upgrade project, and lessons learned from operating Cyclone-class patrol boats borrowed from the U.S. Navy.
Patrol boats abroad: In 2002, the Coast Guard deployed patrol boats for out-of-hemisphere contingency operations for the first time since the Vietnam War. Designated Patrol Forces Southwest Asia, the combined Coast Guard–Navy patrol-boat squadron based in Bahrain has supported Central Command and the 5th Fleet ever since. A decade of operations in the Persian Gulf has proven the patrol boat’s unique relevance in several missions outlined in the 2007 Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (CS-21) and honed both the Navy’s and Coast Guard’s proficiency in executing those missions. Further integration into global maritime-security operations is a likely future mission area for the patrol-boat fleet that will require giving contingency operations a permanent place at the core-missions table.
Not as easy as 1-2-3: Plans to upgrade the legacy patrol-boat fleet began in the early 2000s as part of the Deepwater recapitalization strategy. The concept called for extending the service life of 110s by upgrading their electronics, reconfiguring the pilothouse, and adding a stern launch-and-recovery system with a more capable cutter boat, increasing the overall ship length to 123 feet. At first the 123 project seemed promising. Operators praised the improved visibility in the pilothouse, better communications and navigation equipment, the stern-launch system, upgraded cutter boat, and crew accommodations. Yet despite positive initial results, endemic structural failures in the decks and hulls resulting from the lengthening process forced the Coast Guard to cancel the project and sideline all eight cutters that received the upgrade.
Next, the Coast Guard’s original design for the FRC, based on a composite-hull concept, was abandoned due to uncertainty of its viability. The 110 fleet had to sustain a higher operational tempo to make up for the loss of eight cutters while the replacement timeline slid back yet further. Eventually the Coast Guard settled on a proven parent-craft design for the FRC and modified it to fit the service’s needs. Many of the successful elements of the 123 project are evident in the final design. The 110 fleet, meanwhile, has operated past its service life while burning the candle at both ends for most of the last decade.
Littoral combatants with a racing stripe: The U.S. Navy’s 179-foot Cyclone class (179), built for littoral-combat missions, provided a chance to evaluate some of the capabilities the Coast Guard hoped to gain in a new patrol-boat class. The Coast Guard operated between three and five 179s from 2005 to 2011. They are a bigger, badder cousin of the 110. Both were built by Bollinger Shipyards based on Vosper-Thornycroft designs. Compared with 110s, 179s are faster, have better endurance and communications capability, and can deploy an over-the-horizon cutter boat using a stern-launch system. The result is a fast cutter with an even faster pursuit boat, a formidable and previously unprecedented combination for the Coast Guard. The 179s excelled as Coast Guard cutters, particularly in drug- and migrant-interdiction operations. They proved a menace to smugglers, interdicting go-fast vessels in the Straits of Florida, the Windward and Mona Passes, the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and the eastern Pacific. Their increased endurance and C4ISR capability allowed them to support Joint Interagency Task Force South operations in the Caribbean and eastern Pacific, missions beyond the normal scope of 110s. Yet despite their operational capabilities, 179s revealed some areas for improvement. They do not support mixed-gender crews, living accommodations are austere, and they are not well configured for towing. FRC designers took notes.
Statutory missions: Of the Coast Guard’s 11 statutory missions, patrol boats are charged with all but two (the exceptions being ice operations and aids to navigation). FRCs will be called on to perform missions ranging from search-and-rescue and environmental protection to drug interdiction and fisheries enforcement. They will operate from inshore in confined waters to several hundred miles out at sea, in freezing Alaskan winters and sweltering Caribbean summers. Performing such a wide variety of operations through nearly all conceivable environments will demand exceptional versatility and resilience.
Strategic Guidance: CS-21 places much greater emphasis on the Coast Guard’s role in global maritime-security missions than ever before. The strategy recognizes that global maritime security requires cooperative engagement with partner nations in addition to blue-water power projection. The need for increased theater-security cooperation, maritime security-force assistance, and maritime infrastructure-protection missions gives patrol boats newfound relevance in mission-tailored force packages. The Naval Operations Concept 2010 (www.navy.mil/maritime/noc/NOC2010.pdf) outline for putting CS-21 into action contains specific guidance for the Coast Guard:
The Coast Guard inventory must maintain sufficient capacity to support geographic combatant commander theater security cooperation plans, expeditionary requirements requested through the Global Force Management process; and overseas contingency operations; in addition to its full suite of statutory domestic missions.
Understanding the patrol boats’ potential role in broader maritime strategy is important for planning how to train, equip, and operate FRCs and their crews.
Coast Guard doctrine and guidance: The Coast Guard, like all military services, operates within the confines of regulations and doctrine. Numerous instructions and manuals define the rules, tactics, techniques, and procedures for how the FRC will operate. However, FRCs will expand existing operational horizons, and in some cases doctrine will take time to catch up to their capabilities. Thus it is also imperative to understand the Coast Guard’s principles of operations: clear objective, effective presence, unity of effort, on-scene initiative, flexibility, managed risk, and restraint. These principles define the unique spirit of Coast Guard operations, guiding decision-making where doctrine cannot.
Anticipating Future Scenarios
Analyzing present and future operational demands, budget constraints, and challenges related to ongoing fleet recapitalization promises an eventful watch ahead for the oncoming patrol-boat fleet. Increased range and capability will tempt operational planners to deploy FRCs farther from their homeports for more advanced missions than was typical of their predecessors. Greater integration into DOD missions, especially in the maritime domain of low-intensity-conflict regions, will require Coast Guard patrol boats to maintain expeditionary readiness and forward-deployed presence.
The decline of major cutter assets because of ongoing fleet recapitalization efforts will compel Coast Guard leadership to lean on its new fleet of upgraded patrol boats to shoulder some of the missions typically assigned to larger cutters. Finally, patrol boats will play an unprecedented role in shaping the future of the service as they assume responsibility for developing first-tour junior officers. Testing new ways to improve mission execution will influence FRC operations for the forseeable future. Likely examples follow.
Patrolling the Spanish Main: The counter-drug mission near the littorals of South and Central America is desperately in need of more surface assets. At present, the primary force consists of major Coast Guard cutters and U.S. Navy surface combatants, with both predicted to decline in numbers and availability in the next few years. Without a new strategy or more platforms to replace them, detection and interdiction rates will plummet. FRCs are much better suited for operating in the Latin American littorals than their predecessors, and the forward front of the war on drugs will be an early proving ground for their capabilities. Preparing for the mission will require lengthening existing lines of communication to support prolonged forward deployment.
Interdiction tactics: Equipping patrol boats with an over-the-horizon cutter boat (CB-OTH) opens up a wealth of tactical options to be developed and refined. 110s rely on the speed of the cutter or proximity to shore-based interceptors to catch high-speed vessels. Medium-endurance cutters can deploy a CB-OTH to chase go-fast vessels, but the cutters often lack the speed necessary to cover their pursuit team. FRCs bring the best of both platforms. The FRC’s speed is an important advantage in pursuits because the cutter can stay close to the chase, providing cover and a much more intimidating presence than the CB-OTH alone.
The importance of such coverage was highlighted in a September 2010 incident wherein a pursuit team, operating out of sight from its 270-foot medium-endurance cutter off the coast of Nicaragua, was fired on by fleeing smugglers. No one was injured, but the value of close cutter support in future scenarios is clearly evident. FRC crews and operational planners can study the lessons learned from operating the 179s to gain insight as to how best to exploit FRC endgame potential.
Managing information flow: “Sentinel” derives from a Latin term meaning “to feel or sense.” Fittingly, the Sentinel class is equipped with sophisticated C4ISR capability that will provide extraordinary sensory capability and domain awareness. They can process blue-force tracking, monitor multiple communications channels and merge them into a common net, send and receive real-time high-definition video, and integrate with classified data networks. Information is a potent force-multiplier, but only in proportion to the user’s ability to process it. With a small crew size and no combat-information center to separate the navigation and tactical information, FRCs will have to master efficient methods to manage the increased flow of, and demand for, information.
Integration into global maritime-security missions: Anticipating an increased demand for patrol boats in global maritime-security commitments, the Coast Guard must explore ways to improve its readiness to forward-deploy patrol boats if called upon. Out-of-hemisphere maritime-security missions demand a high level of proficiency in specific skill sets—cultural awareness, standing rules of engagement, and joint operations—beyond the scope of domestic patrol-boat missions.
At present, there is a great deal of unrealized potential for coordinating training resources with the U.S. Navy. Navy and Coast Guard patrol boats work side-by-side in the Persian Gulf, yet the services have not aligned their stateside pre-deployment training programs. Closer coordination, consistent with the Commandant’s direction to strengthen partnerships, will improve both services’ capabilities and preparedness.
First-tour officer-development platforms: In addition to expanded operational employment, patrol boats will play an unprecedented role in providing the first-tour-afloat experience for the next generation of Coast Guard officers. Once the exclusive domain of the major-cutter fleet, the Coast Guard added ensign billets to patrol boats in 2011 to create more afloat opportunities for first-tour officers. Adapting the vessels to their new role as junior officer–101 training platforms is a demanding and critically important new challenge for the patrol-boat command cadre. The U.S. Navy faces a similar challenge in adding ensign billets to the littoral combat ship. Again, potential exists for the services to align efforts toward their common goals.
Salute to the Island Class
The Island class has served as an iconic mainstay of the Coast Guard’s cutter fleet for decades, and these venerable guardians will continue to perform heroic feats for several more years while the FRCs take their stations. The 110s did more than anyone could have predicted when they were delivered, nearly doubling their expected service life while maintaining a blistering operational tempo. They served on the front line of the war against terrorism and were among the first responders to the migrant exoduses of 1993 and 1994, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. The FRC inherits a proud legacy.
With great admiration and respect for their predecessors, a final step yet remains for the Sentinel class: a sharp salute followed by, “I stand ready to relieve you.”