The Coast Guard’s Sentinel-class cutter, more commonly referred to as the fast response cutter (FRC), is a 154-foot patrol craft and replacement for the legacy 110-foot Island-class patrol boat. Built by Bollinger Shipyards as part of a $3.7 billion contract, the first FRC—the Bernard C. Webber (WPC-1101)—was delivered to the Coast Guard in 2011 and commissioned in April 2012. As of December 2022, the Coast Guard operates 52 FRCs from bases throughout the United States and abroad, with another 13 hulls on order. Sixty-five FRCs will ultimately replace the 49 Island-class cutters.1
The differences between the two platforms are stark. The FRC offers significant upgrades in size, communications, sensors, weapon systems and crew habitability, and an attached cutter boat. Combined with post-delivery modifications, the FRC design capabilities have yielded successful FRC expeditionary deployments far beyond the cutter’s advertised unrefueled five-day endurance. Operational commanders have deployed FRCs for more than a month at a time, rivaling the capability of legacy medium-endurance cutters (WMECs). However, crew size and logistical concerns do limit the FRC, so prudent risk management must be exercised when assigning it expeditionary duty. Nevertheless, given the success of the FRC program and a still-hot production line, the Navy should consider this platform for a fleet of missile patrol craft.
While only 44 feet longer than Island-class patrol boats, at 350 tons the FRC is twice the tonnage of its predecessor and 20 tons larger than the Navy’s Cyclone-class patrol craft. The high bow and fin-stabilizer system keep the platform steady enough to conduct routine operations, including cutter boat launches, in seas up to six feet. With a top speed of 28–30 knots and range exceeding 2,500 nautical miles (nm) at 12 knots, the FRC balances a respectable top-end speed with tremendous range for a patrol craft.
For weapon systems, most FRCs have a gyro-stabilized Mk 38 Mod 2 25-mm autocannon (some have been upgraded to Mod 3) and four .50-caliber machine guns. The FRCs based in Bahrain are also upfitted with Mk 19 40-mm grenade launchers. The sensor and communication package includes dual Ku-Band internet antennas, satellite communication systems, surface-search radar, forward looking infrared (FLIR) camera, and a modernized, integrated navigation system. However, the most coveted feature is the Mk IV over-the-horizon cutter boat, the Coast Guard’s standard cutter-based platform for surface-pursuit and interdiction missions up to 100 nm away.
In addition to operating locally along the U.S. coasts, Coast Guard commanders are tasking expeditionary deployments with increasing frequency. In 2019, a Los Angeles–based FRC conducted the platform’s first counterdrug deployment to the eastern Pacific, where the crew seized 2,800 pounds of cocaine from drug smugglers.2 The Coast Guard continues to regularly send FRCs more than 2,500 miles to support Joint Interagency Task Force South in the eastern Pacific.
In 2020, the first two of six FRCs sailed from Key West, Florida, to their new homeport in Bahrain and conducted international engagements in Spain, Tunisia, Greece, and Egypt.3 Once all six FRCs arrived in theater, Navy commanders regularly deployed FRCs for up to 40 days in the northern Arabian Sea, resulting in numerous interdictions of weapons, narcotics, and illicit materials bound for malign actors.
In 2021, a North Carolina–based FRC deployed to the Arctic as part of Operation Nanook, a Canadian-led multinational Arctic exercise, and made port calls in Greenland.4 In 2022, an FRC based at Patrol Forces Micronesia in Guam did an expeditionary deployment across the southwest Pacific, including port calls in the Federated States of Micronesia, Papua New Guinea, and Australia.5 These deployments supported combatant commanders, strengthened international partnerships, interdicted illicit materials, protected living marine resources, and deterred U.S. adversaries. They also pushed the FRC platform far beyond its stated endurance, stretched logistics chains in remote areas, and tested the fatigue limits of small crews.
Drawbacks and Risk Mitigation
Extended FRC deployments are not without risk, and operational commanders must manage it prudently when determining patrol location, duration, and frequency. The largest hurdles are crew fatigue, lack of medical resources, weather, and space limitations for provisions and fuel.
With a complement of just 24 personnel (27 for those FRCs based in Bahrain), the FRC has limited manpower for complex missions or extended operations. While it requires fewer watchstanders than larger ships, operations beyond regular watches—such as law enforcement—require the same manpower drawn from a much smaller crew. For example, FRC boarding operations require a six-person boarding team, a three-person boat crew, and two more crew members to launch and recover the boat. This, combined with the three crew members on watch, requires a total of 14 personnel, or nearly two-thirds of the crew. By comparison, the same evolution on board a 210-foot medium-endurance cutter, even accounting for the larger watch section and additional personnel needed for the boat davit, requires only a quarter of the crew. Over the course of a 30-day deployment, these manpower-intensive evolutions compound FRC crew fatigue.
However, these concerns can be mitigated by increasing the standard work-to-rest ratios for all deployed FRCs from one to two rest days for every seven days underway. Considering the FRC lacks the comfort, seakeeping ability, and fitness resources of a larger platform, the crew would benefit from longer port visits while deployed. Also, the Coast Guard should consider sending teams to meet FRCs in foreign ports to augment the watch teams and assist with emergent and routine maintenance, allowing the crew to maximize rest. This was implemented successfully in Manama, Bahrain, and enabled FRCs homeported there to conduct lengthy deployments throughout the Arabian Sea.
Watchstanding on board FRCs is highly demanding, with just two bridge watchstanders—an officer of the deck and a quartermaster of the watch—fulfilling the responsibilities of five on board a similarly equipped 210-foot medium-endurance cutter, which also has a helmsman, lookout, and combat-information-center watch. Additional evolutions beyond routine steaming, such as transits through congested waterways, require more watchstanders to maintain situational awareness. Task saturation and a loss of situational awareness among watchstanders may have been a factor in several recent FRC mishaps, including a fatal collision with a small fishing vessel off Puerto Rico in 2021.6
The Coast Guard must require commanding officers to set a minimum number of qualified watchstanders for deployments to ensure a sustainable work/rest cycle. In addition, every available rack should be filled, with preference given to temporarily assigned personnel with watchstanding qualifications or mission-essential force packages, such as medical personnel or translators.
Because FRCs are designed to store just five days of food, logistics are challenging for FRC deployments, especially when they include open-water transits that exceed five days, and crews must innovate to double or even triple food-storage capacity. Outdoor freezers placed on deck add additional food storage, but these units tend to suffer short service lives in the harsh maritime environments. Fuel is also a concern, because missions requiring high speed for an extended duration, such as a long-range intercept of a target or a search-and-rescue case, require unscheduled refueling post-mission. To succeed, FRC deployments require established, reliable logistics chains to refuel and reprovision with minimal notice. In addition, FRC crews must be trained and ready to perform these tasks from a variety of platforms, such as other cutters and U.S. Naval Service ships.
The Navy Should Be Interested
The Navy has no plans to replace the Cyclone-class patrol craft, which failed at its original mission to operate with SEAL teams, but ultimately found its niche as a hedge against small Iranian attack craft in the Arabian Gulf.7 Coast Guard FRCs are now covering that role, and the Navy is prioritizing other acquisition programs. However, the Navy could still adopt the FRC design and hot production line. Navy FRCs could be outfitted as a missile patrol craft to enhance distributed lethality and maximize deterrence.
For example, the FRC’s Mk IV over-the-horizon cutter boat weighs 8,700 pounds and is stored in a notch near the stern.8 While this boat is highly capable for a variety of Coast Guard missions, it would not play a role for the Navy in conflict. Instead, a Navy FRC could mount a Naval Strike Missile box launcher with four tubes (8,600 pounds) at the stern, making it a formidable surface combatant.9 In addition, the deck forward of the pilothouse has considerable space for launching and recovering unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), enabling aerial surveillance and targeting. In fact, a Coast Guard FRC launched and recovered an Aerovel Flexrotor UAV while operating with the U.S. Navy’s Task Force 59 in Bahrain.10
A fleet of missile-equipped Navy FRCs based in the western Pacific could deploy in a similar manner as the Guam-based Coast Guard FRCs using established logistics chains. In addition, ports in Okinawa and eventually the Philippines could support FRC deployments. These small and relatively cheap vessels can traverse waterways as shallow as four meters and blend with local traffic, such as fishing fleets and coastal freighters, making them tough to detect. Looking ahead even further, a Navy FRC could serve as an unmanned platform with a small fleet of them operating in the littorals under the tactical control of a littoral combat ship or Constellation-class frigate. The space and weight savings from removing hotel services for crew habitability would translate to additional reserve buoyancy for added weapons or surveillance equipment.
More important, this vision could be realized quickly, with the current production line delivering four new FRCs per year to the Coast Guard at $65 million each. At that rate, the Navy could field 20 FRCs in just five years for the price of one Constellation-class frigate, which is projected to cost $1.3 billion per hull.11
The fast response cutter is outperforming initial expectations and meeting demand for a global Coast Guard presence. The service should continue to refine logistics chains and implement innovative solutions that mitigate crew fatigue to improve the effectiveness of FRC deployments. The platform’s reliability, proven performance, and hot production line also make it an outstanding option for the next Navy missile patrol craft. The Navy’s distributed maritime operations concept requires such innovative and affordable solutions.
1. U.S. Coast Guard Acquisitions Directorate, “Fast Response Cutter.”
2. “Coast Guard Cutter Robert Ward Returns from First Eastern Pacific Patrol with 2,800 Pounds of Cocaine,” Homeland Security Today, 29 August 2019.
3. Matthew Riggs, “USCGC Charles Moulthrope and Robert Ward Transit Suez Canal,” Navy.mil, 9 May 2021.
4. U.S. Coast Guard, “Coast Guard Completes Operation Nanook in Arctic,” Workboat.com, 19 August 2021.
5. CWO Sara Muir, USCG, “USCGC Oliver Henry (WPC-1140) Concludes Operation Blue Pacific Expeditionary Patrol,” Pacom.mil, 19 September 2022.
6. Heather Mongilio, “Fisherman Dead after Collision with Coast Guard Cutter Near Puerto Rico,” USNI News, 9 August 2022.
7. Peter Ong, “The U.S. Navy Will Not Replace the Patrol Coastals with a New Boat of Similar Size,” Naval News, 30 January 2021.
8. U.S. Coast Guard Acquisitions Directorate, “Coast Guard Awards Four Contracts Supporting OTH V Cutter Boat Program,” 3 June 2021.
10. Aerovel, “Task Force 50 Launches Aerial Drone from Coast Guard Ship in Middle East,” aerovel.com.
11. Alison Bath, “Navy’s Return to Frigates Begins with Construction Start of $1.3 Billion Constellation,” Stars and Stripes, 1 September 2022.