Distribute Lethality to the Cutters

By Lieutenant Commander Daniel M. Wiltshire, U.S. Coast Guard

To prepare for this, the United States needs to gain and maintain sea control as a prerequisite to winning a war far from its shores. 1 This will be challenging, however, in the face of potential rivals who are growing increasingly powerful. Russian submarines again range far into the Atlantic. 2 China recently launched its second aircraft carrier and is rapidly expanding its fleet and fortifying the South China Sea. 3 To counter the return of peer competitors, the Navy is taking steps to expand the fleet and make it more deadly by distributing lethality to smaller surface ships in the form of ship-killing missiles. Distributed lethality increases the effectiveness of the U.S. fleet, but it is deficient in one key respect: it does not include Coast Guard cutters.

If It Floats, It Fights

The Navy has implemented a strategy of distributed lethality to counter peer competitors and offset the advantages of modern antiaccess, area-denial weapons. 4 Under this strategy, ship-killing weapons are allocated fleetwide rather than concentrated on a few classes of ships, such as cruisers and destroyers. The logic is simple: more weapons on more ships complicates an adversary’s targeting picture by making it consider each U.S. warship a threat. If any U.S. warship could pack a ship-killing punch, then an adversary would have to worry about every U.S. warship. This enhances defensive capability because ships can disaggregate over hundreds of miles of ocean, making them harder for modern sensors to detect. In addition, offensive capability is bolstered because more ship-killing missiles are brought to the fight, and because having more missile-armed warships allows attacks to be launched from multiple vectors, cued from organic sensors, other ships, or manned or unmanned aircraft. The Navy plans to outfit littoral combat ships (LCSs) with antiship missiles, and it has considered adding antiship missiles to amphibious ships and Military Sealift Command vessels. 5 Thus far, however, distributed lethality has remained largely within the Navy’s lifelines. It is time for that to change.

Not Enough Warships

Despite a plan to increase the Navy to 355 ships by the 2030s, the United States is at risk of being outbuilt by the Chinese, and a diminished post–Cold War naval shipbuilding industry means the shipbuilding timeline cannot be accelerated overnight. 6 Worse, the Navy no longer can count on its “mothball” fleet of surplus vessels to provide a surge force when hostilities commence. The Reserve Fleet has dwindled to near irrelevance, and recent attempts to reactivate decommissioned ships proved prohibitively expensive. 7

The Navy is combating a readiness crisis as peacetime mission demand outstrips resources in part because of too few ships. 8 While the Navy recapitalizes, the Coast Guard cutter fleet could provide significant support in the case of a conflict, and it also has hot production lines building ships with modern combat systems and defensive weapons. The only thing preventing cutters from contributing to distributed lethality is a lack of offensive punch.

Hot Production Lines

The Coast Guard is undertaking a major recapitalization, replacing aging large and medium cutters with national security cutters (NSCs) and offshore patrol cutters (OPCs). These new platforms, of which 36 are planned, offer an opportunity to distribute lethality more broadly during great power conflict. 9

At 418 feet, the NSC is comparable in size to a frigate and intended to replace the Hamilton -class cutters. It features advanced command, control, communications, computers, and information technology (C4IT), intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), and aviation equipment and has high speed and long endurance, a 57-mm gun, and modern countermeasures. The class has proved so successful that Congress has authorized 11 rather than the initial 8.

At 360 feet, the OPC is intended to replace the medium-sized cutters of the Reliance and Famous classes. 10 Designed to conduct law enforcement, drug and migrant interdiction, search and rescue, and defense operations offshore, the OPCs also will be equipped with a naval gun and modern combat systems, though they will have a slower top speed at 22.5 knots. Of the 25 planned OPCs, a contract for the first 9 has been awarded. 11

Of the two cutter classes, NSCs are the more obvious fit for distributed lethality. They are intended for worldwide deployment in support of a variety of missions, including law enforcement and defense operations in demanding, open-ocean environments. 12 Their capabilities have drawn attention as a potential replacement for the Navy’s frigates, and private industry has proposed NSC-based patrol frigates with weapons ranging from antiship missiles to air-defense capabilities. 13 It is easy to see how an NSC armed with antiship cruise missiles (ASCMs) could bolster distributed lethality even while conducting traditional Coast Guard defense operations, such as boarding operations during a blockade or freedom-of-navigation transits in disputed waters. 

Initially, the OPC is a less obvious fit. Slightly smaller and slower than most major Navy combatants, it lacks the speed to keep up with a strike group. However, the OPC is fast enough to operate as an escort or in the littorals, and an ASCM-armed OPC would add significant capability as part of an expeditionary strike group or as a convoy escort. 

Feasibility of ASCM Weapon Systems

Space and weight constraints always are a consideration when adding a weapon system to a ship. Cutters the size of the NSC and OPC could be retrofitted (or built) with substantial internal weapon systems, given adequate resources and time. Extensive internal modifications, however, are expensive and time consuming, particularly on new hulls far from a midlife refit. Fortunately, the Navy is adopting the Kongsberg Naval Strike Missile (NSM), a new ASCM that likely would fit on NSCs (and perhaps even OPCs) with little internal modification. 

The NSM can be launched from deck-mounted launchers and will provide advanced capabilities such as fire-and-forget target recognition, aggressive terminal maneuvers, and a range of up to 100 nautical miles. 14 The NSM has been launched successfully from the USS Coronado (LCS-4), which, at 3,200 tons, is smaller than the 4,500-ton NSC. In addition, the larger and heavier Harpoon missile was fired successfully from both the Freedom -class LCS (3,400 tons) and the 378-foot, 3,400 ton, Hamilton -class cutter that preceded the NSC. Moreover, the NSC was designed with space and weight reserves to accommodate future weapon systems. 

Most Coast Guard weapon systems, like this Mark 75 gun fired by the USCGC Mohawk (WMEC-913), are owned and paid for by the Navy. It is reasonable to expect the same would hold for ASCMs. (U.S. Coast Guard/Victoria Bonk)

Given these considerations, it should be possible to mount the NSM on the deck of the NSC. Whether a deck-mounted NSM would fit on the OPC is less certain, in part because the OPC remains in development. The OPC will be smaller than the LCS and may not have the deck space to accommodate box launchers. However, foreign navies have fit the NSM on  smaller warships, so such an addition may be feasible. 15 Armed with a missile such as the NSM, Coast Guard cutters would pose a threat to any adversary within 100 miles. 

Funding, Maintenance, and Training

The addition of new weapon systems to cutters would affect Coast Guard funding, maintenance, and training; however, the impact could be slight if current models for purchasing and maintaining major weapons on board cutters were followed. Most Coast Guard weapon systems, from 57-mm guns to NULKA decoy launchers, are “Navy-Type, Navy-Owned,” meaning they are paid for with Navy funds. This system logically would extend to a new ASCM. 

In addition, Coast Guard members train in Navy schoolhouses, use the Navy supply chain, and onload munitions from naval weapons stations to support those systems. Coast Guard officers receive pipeline training in relevant portions of the Navy’s tactical warfare curriculum before reporting to command billets. The Coast Guard also incorporates weapons training into its training cycle just as the Navy does, and Navy and Coast Guard afloat training groups/organizations already are collocated to ensure standardization. Consequently, while new weapon systems would require new types of training and maintenance, any change likely would be one of degree rather than an onerous new burden. 

Well-Armed Cutters are Nothing New

Heavily armed cutters may seem like a departure from the Coast Guard’s role as a lifesaving service. However, the Coast Guard has consistently joined great power conflicts, capturing enemy ships in the Quasi-War with France in 1798; battling British warships yardarm-to-yardarm in 1812; fighting its way into Manila Bay with Commodore George Dewey in 1898; escorting convoys during both World Wars; and bombarding shore installations in Vietnam. 

After Vietnam, Hamilton -class cutters were upgraded with advanced sonar, torpedoes, and antisubmarine countermeasures, as well as with the Harpoon ASCM, to counter the Soviet Navy. 16 Likewise, the Famous-class cutters, constructed in the 1980s, were built with room to install state-of-the-art defensive weapons and ASW systems should war with the Soviet Union break out. 17 In fact, much like today’s distributed lethality concept, the Hamilton - and Famous-class cutters were part of a deliberate strategy that envisioned using a well-armed Coast Guard–Navy fleet to combat the Soviet threat from the U.S. coastline all the way to the Russian shoreline. 18

The downsizing following the Cold War and the new demands of the war on terror meant the Coast Guard—like the Navy—refocused on missions other than surface warfare. That prudent shift in resources maximized the Coast Guard’s relevance in the fiscally constrained, unipolar, post–Cold War world. However, that unipolar world is quickly falling astern as new competitors race to supplant U.S. naval dominance. It is time to arm the cutters accordingly.

Not meant for ‘high-intensity’ conflict

Some will argue that cutters are not optimized for high-intensity combat. While it is true that the NSC and OPC were not designed for high-intensity combat, the distinction between high and low intensity becomes meaningless during a great power conflict. It is a distinction predicated on the luxury of being able to choose when, where, and with whom to fight and which ships are deployed to do the fighting. Great power conflict at sea affords no such luxury and typically entails a whole-of-fleet approach. 

History is rife with examples of surface combatants not optimized for high-intensity warfare and nonetheless engaging in it; from former revenue cutters-turned-sub-chasers in World War I, to motor-torpedo boats engaging cruisers at Surigao Straight, to the destroyer escorts of Taffy-3 engaging Japanese capital ships at Leyte Gulf. To say cutters are not optimal for high-intensity combat and therefore will never fight high-intensity wars is like saying a garden hose is not optimal for fighting a fire—it is an accurate statement, but it becomes less convincing when a mass conflagration demands every available hose. 

Not a Replacement Navy

Making cutters more lethal would boost the national fleet during great power conflict, but increased cutter lethality would not—and should not—provide a solution to the Navy’s peacetime readiness challenges. The Coast Guard is not a mini Navy. Rather, it is a unique service that conducts a wide range of statutory missions at home and abroad, in times of war and peace. 

About the size of a Navy frigate, a national security cutter armed with antiship cruise missiles could bolster distributed lethality. An armed offshore patrol cutter (inset), though smaller, could contribute as a convoy escort or in the littorals.

What’s more, like the Navy, the Coast Guard lacks sufficient ships to meet the demands of its assigned missions. The Congressional Research Service reports that, even after every planned NSC and OPC is built, the Coast Guard will have just 61 percent of the cutters needed to accomplish its statutory missions. 19 Missile-armed cutters could be expected to support routine defense operations in the same way currently configured cutters do today, and to surge in response to a great power conflict. However, they should not be called on to replace Navy assets during peacetime operations. 

No Delays, No Half-Measures

It may be fiscally tempting to wait until a great power conflict begins to add weapons to the cutters, but such a delay is dangerous. The Navy lacks adequate hulls to meet peacetime tasking, and the lack of a mothball fleet, when combined with diminished shipbuilding capacity, means the United States cannot reactivate or build its way out of a warship deficit once a conflict begins. Moreover, for distributed lethality to be effective, cutter crews need time to train and learn the tactics required to employ new anti-ship missiles effectively. Ultimately, you go to war with the fleet you have. 

Succumbing to the temptation to put light, short-range missiles on major cutters would not achieve distributed lethality and also must be avoided. The Navy has increased the lethality of small combatants, such as the Cyclone -class patrol craft, against small fast-attack craft by arming them with short-range Griffin missiles. 20 The Griffin would be easier and cheaper to fit on the NSC and OPC than a larger ASCM and technically would make cutters more lethal, but only against small craft at short ranges. Tailoring the armament of mid-sized combatants to fight small craft was a feature of the post–Cold War period that has seen its day, as the Navy tacitly acknowledged when it opted to fit LCS with NSM in addition to short-range Hellfire missiles. Light, short-range missiles will neither deter nor defeat a great power. 

Prepared to go in harm’s way

The prospect of great power conflict once again looms. Though the time and nature of that conflict is not clear, one thing is certain: when the next war breaks out, Coast Guard cutters will go into harm’s way as they have done in nearly every major conflict since 1790, not only because every ship will be needed, but because doing so is part of the Coast Guard’s history and culture. Procurement and training decisions made today will dictate whether the Coast Guard enters that conflict with the weapons needed to best help deter or defeat a peer competitor. Failing to put antiship cruise missiles on the 36 cutters of the NSC and OPC classes, cutters that will serve for the next 50-plus years, is an omission that the Navy, the Coast Guard, and the nation can ill-afford.

1. Commander, Naval Surface Forces, “ Surface Force Strategy: Return to Sea Control ,” 5.

2. Jonathan Marcus, “ US Navy Resurrects Second Fleet in Atlantic to Counter Russia ,” BBC News , 5 May 2018; Sam LaGrone, “ Carrier USS Harry S. Truman Operating in the Atlantic as Russian Submarine Activity Is on the Rise ,” USNI News , 29 June 2018.

3. Amanda Macias, “C hina Quietly Installed Defensive Missile Systems on Strategic Spratly Islands in Hotly Contested South China Sea ,” CNBC.com, 2 May 2018.

4. Commander, Naval Surface Forces, “Surface Force Strategy,” 19.

5. Sam LaGrone, “ Raytheon Awarded LCS Over-the-Horizon Anti-Surface Weapon Contract; Deal Could Be Worth $848M ,” USNI News , 31 May 2018; Kyle Mizokami, “ The U.S. Navy Wants to Put Missiles on Everything ,” Popular Mechanics , 26 October 2016.

6. Ron O’Rourke, “ Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans: Background and Issues for Congress ,” Congressional Research Service, 31 July 2018, 1, 9.

7. David B. Larter, “ Don’t Reactivate the Old Frigates, Internal U.S. Navy Memo Recommends ,” Defense News , 12 November 2017.

8. Thomas Donnelly, “ The Status of U.S. Navy Readiness: Too Small, Too Old, and Too Tired ,” Strategika 47 (16 January 2018).

9. Ronald O’Rourke, “ Coast Guard Cutter Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress ,” Congressional Research Service, 3 August 2018, 1.

10. O’Rourke, “Coast Guard Cutter Procurement,” 1.

11. O’Rourke, “Coast Guard Cutter Procurement,” 11.

12. U.S. Coast Guard Acquisition Directorate, National Security Cutter fact sheet.

13. “ Ingalls Shipbuilding Highlighting Patrol Frigate Derivative of National Security Cutter at DIMDEX ,” news release, Huntington Ingalls Industries.

14. David B. Larter, “ It’s Official: The US Navy Has a New Ship Killer Missile ,” Defense News , 1 June 2018.

15. Raytheon, “ An Artful Dodger: Evasive, Sea-Skimming Missile Gives Navies an Edge ,” 1 June 2018.

16. CDR Andrew L. Gerfin Jr., USCG, “ United States Coast Guard Antisubmarine Warfare (ASW) in the Maritime Defense Zone (MDZ): A Strategic Approach ,” Air War College Air University, March 1989, 22.

17. Gerfin, “United States Coast Guard Antisubmarine Warfare (ASW),” 28.

18. Gerfin, “United States Coast Guard Antisubmarine Warfare (ASW).

19. O’Rourke, “Coast Guard Cutter Procurement,” 13.

20. U.S. Navy, MK 60 Griffin Missile System (GMS) fact sheet.

Lieutenant Commander Wiltshire is studying for his juris doctor at American University Washington College of Law. Previously, he has served as commanding officer of the USCGC Adak (WPB-1333) and as navigator and noncompliant boarding officer on the guided-missile cruiser USS Princeton (CG-59), where he earned the Navy surface warfare officer pin. Ashore, he has taught navigation at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, serving as an officer of the deck on the USCG Barque Eagle (WIX-327). He holds a bachelor’s in history from Tulane University and a master’s in national security and strategic studies from the Naval War College.



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