During the Coast Guard’s November 2018 virtual town hall, the Commandant, Admiral Karl Schultz, fielded a question regarding the recapitalization of the Marine Protector-class patrol boat fleet, colloquially known as “87s.” The Commandant stated there were no plans to recapitalize the fleet, as the Recurring Depot Availability Program (RDAP) is anticipated to extend the service life of the 87s well into 2030. While RDAP will extend the service life of the fleet, a way forward must be decided. The Coast Guard must assess the 87’s role as a leadership development platform for the organization’s most promising junior officers and senior enlisted members, and consider replacing it with a highly capable Navy platform of similar size and with similar missions—Mark VIs.
The Leadership Gap
The pages of Proceedings are rife with articles by naval officers extolling the virtues of early command and lamenting its scarcity. In the Marine Protector-class cutter, the Coast Guard boasts a singular leadership opportunity: These cutters primarily are billeted for O-2 commanding officers (COs) and E-9 or E-8 boatswain mates. Often seen as the pinnacle of a boatswain mate’s career, many of the officers in charge (OICs) represent the Coast Guard’s best leaders and often outshine their officer peers by many metrics.
Service structural frameworks aside, there is something to be said for the Coast Guard O-6 COs (national security cutters, medium and heavy ice breakers), who, nearly without exception, have held command at least twice before reaching that level, some as many as three or four times. It is true similar opportunities exist elsewhere in the Coast Guard, such as the Sentinel- and Island-class patrol boats, which boast O-3 COs and O-2 executive officers in some of the most dynamic and dangerous areas in which the Coast Guard operates. So, what could the harm be in eliminating 87s—a platform that data suggest may be superfluous? The greatest loss will take place in the senior enlisted ranks, where some of the most capable and talented boatswain’s mates will find themselves with no place to go. While the Coast Guard is taking steps to soften this blow, such as with billet restructuring on board the Sentinel-class cutters to accommodate chief warrant officer commanding officers and E-8 executive petty officers, the service will need to get creative in the coming years to absorb this structural loss if the decision is made to not recapitalize the Marine Protector-class fleet.
A Nimble Solution
If Coast Guard leaders are willing to overlook a minor reduction in size, a ready analogue for the 87s might be found in the Navy’s Mark VI patrol boat. The Mark VI is built for riverine and littoral service and bears a striking resemblance to the Marine Protector class. A four-foot draft ensures access to any body of water that an 87 might sail and provides capability where the Sentinel class might not. The Mark VI’s complement of ten crew members mirrors that of the Marine Protector class and similarly possesses a range of 600+ nautical miles, as compared with the Marine Protector’s 900-nautical mile range. Its maximum speed of 35 knots vastly outstrips the Marine Protector’s 25 knot speed, which opens up additional capability for engaging in high-speed vessel pursuits and enhances potential response times for search-and-rescue cases in the absence of shore-based assets. Compared with the Marine Protector class, its C4SI suit is significantly enhanced, and would improve the ability to coordinate operations with the Coast Guard’s newest cutter platforms; with its similarly advanced and extensive weapons systems, it can accomplish the range of port, waterway, and coastal security and defense readiness Coast Guard missions currently assigned to the Marine Protector class.
While the Mark VI maintains overnight berthing for its crew, it may not possess the facilities required for the operations for the Marine Protector’s standard patrol length of three to five days. That said, its large main cabin is designed to support modular equipment and diverse mission packages and likely can be adjusted to match that of the Marine Protector class. For instance, the main cabin could be used to house additional rack space or as a staging area for boardings. Undoubtedly, the Mark VI is a highly capable platform with a capabilities that, in many cases, make it an improvement from the Marine Protector class.
As the Mark VI is still in its initial acquisition phase and thus represents one of the Navy’s newest and most ‘shiny’ assets, it is unlikely that any of these capable platforms will be available for testing in the immediate future. However, as operational requirements allow over the next few years, one or two of these vessels could be temporarily recommissioned in similar fashion to the Cyclone and put through the paces as Coast Guard cutters.
Whether the Coast Guard decides to recapitalize the Marine Protector-class fleet with a ready analogue or adjust course drastically to accommodate a “super small boat” option that has made its rounds on popular blogs, it is a question that needs to be studied closely. If a new cutter class is the answer, the Navy’s Mark VI aligns with the goals of the cutter class and should be considered. If analysis yields that the Sentinel class can absorb the duties and responsibilities of the Marine Protector class, then the Coast Guard would do well to consider the leadership vacuum that will accompany such a decision.