Well, the USCG decided to fish rather than cut bait
After an evolutionary process that has been dragging on since for 15 years, the U.S. Coast Guard has awarded a $110 million (which could turn into an estimated $10.5 billion if all options are used) contract to build a new generation of frigate-sized offshore patrol cutters. It will be the largest shipbuilding program the branch has ever embarked on with as many as 25 hulls built.
The hunt began as part of the Integrated Deepwater System Program back in 2001 which led to early talks with five companies, then it was whittled down to three with Mississippi naval builders VT Halter Marine and Ingalls Shipbuilding excluded in 2014 (as was the design’s stern launching ramp).
The three remaining were: Eastern Shipbuilding Group in Panama City, Florida; Bollinger Shipyards in Louisiana and Bath Iron Works in Maine. Bath is a heavy hitter, building the $4 billion Zumwalt and her follow-ons as well as DDG51 class destroyers. Bollinger is a Coast Guard darling, creating their 110-foot Island, 87-foot Marine Protector, and 154-foot Sentinel classes of patrol boats and patrol cutters.
But both Bollinger and BIW were left smoking this week as the award for the first nine OPCs went to Eastern Shipbuilding Group, Inc. of Panama City, FL (who teamed with Canada’s STX/VARD Marine–part of Italy’s frigate making Fincantieri concern– Northrop Grumman, Quantic Engineering, and MAN on the design).
What have ESG built before? As for military ships, they are in a Design Study and Analysis for the Landing Craft, Utility (LCU) 1700 by the United States Navy, but that’s about it. They are commercial ship experienced, however, with some 150 vessels up to 433-feet built in recent years ranging from tugs to dredgers to trawlers and school ships.
The design is the VARD 7 100m but tweaked.
Eastern Shipbuilding Group’s notional design is 360 feet long, with a beam of 54 feet and a draft of 17 feet. The OPCs will have a range of 10,200 nautical miles (at 14 knots) on a set of MTU diesels and endurance for 60-day patrol cycles. The OPC will conduct missions including law enforcement, drug and migrant interdiction search and rescue, and other homeland security and defense operations. Each OPC will feature a flight deck and hangar capable of carrying a MH60 sized bird and advanced command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance equipment. The ship will embark 3 OTH boats and be capable of 22knots when wide open.
No word on manning of these ships, but similar designed craft in use in Ireland and New Zealand are being run with 30-5o man crews (with extra berths for aircrew and transients), which is a huge reduction from the current 75 person complement on the Coast Guard’s 210’s and 100-man crews on the 270s.
The VARD 7 090 design was recently selected by the Irish Naval Service to replace their older LE Roisin and LE Niamh ships. The Royal New Zealand Navy uses a VARD 85m design as their Protector-class offshore patrol vessel and the Mauritian Coast Guard has used a similar vessel for the past 20 years, so the OPC has some legit OPV lineage.
Shrinking numbers 40…28…25..?
The OPC will replace the branch’s Medium Endurance Cutters (WMECs). Back in the 1988 the Coast Guard had 40 WMECs to include two classes purpose built as cutters: 13 newish 270-foot Bear-class and 16 1960s-era 210-foot Reliance-class; as well as a number of WWII vintage ships converted to the task to include the 230-foot Storis, 3 213-foot Diver-class rescue and salvage ships (Yocona, Acushnet, Escape), 4 205-foot Cherokee/Navajo-class auxiliary tugs (Ute, Lipan, Chilula, Cherokee, Tamaroa) and 3 “white hulled” 180 foot buoy tenders (see this week’s Warship Wednesday).
The newest cutter in the fleet, USCGC Mohawk (WMEC-913), was commissioned in 1991, making her 27-years young and not getting any younger.
Since Mohawk‘s commissioning, these 40 hulls were trimmed to 28 as the WWII vessels and a couple of the 210s were retired (USCGC Courageous struck in 2001 after 33 years service and was transferred to to Sri Lanka where she currently serves as P-621 SLNS Samudura. USCGC Durable transferred to Colombia in 2003 as Valle del Cauca. Both were removed from service due to the “increasing age of the deepwater fleet after 30 years of service, and due to mounting, costly maintenance requirements”).
During this period only one ship was added and kept, the 28-year-old surplus Edenton-class salvage and rescue ship USS Edenton (ATS-1) transferred as USCGC Alex Haley (WMEC-39) to replace the Storis in Alaska.
Now, the atrophy will continue as a maximum of 25 (expect that to be trimmed to 20 over the years) OPCs will replace the 28 WMECs. On the bright side, the OPC is larger, and the artist conception image from Eastern shows a 57mm Mk110 forward, a 25mm Mk96/38 aft, and six M2 mounts as well as a SRBOC and a AN/SLQ-32(v) EW suite– which is far more armament that the current cutters they are replacing save for the 270s. If you ask me, they should add a couple Harpoon cans amidships, some Mk.32 ASW tubes on deck and swap out the 25mm for a Sea Ram, but hey…
With the figure of $2.38 billion for the first nine cutters, this amortizes out to $264 million a pop, or about half the price of the similarly sized and armed Navy LCS vessels. While these ships are very slow when compared to LCS, they are a few knots faster than the 16-19 knot max speed WMECs currently in service.
“The Offshore Patrol Cutter acquisition is the Coast Guard’s highest investment priority, and we are proud to announce this important milestone,” said Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Paul Zukunft in a statement. “The Offshore Patrol Cutter will replace our aging medium endurance cutters and provide the majority of offshore presence by the Coast Guard’s cutter fleet. Whether combating transnational organized criminal networks off Central America or patrolling in the increasingly accessible Arctic, the Offshore Patrol Cutter will ensure our Nation’s maritime security and economic interests are preserved for decades to come.”
The first OPC is expected to be delivered in fiscal year 2021 at which point the oldest WMEC in the fleet, USCGC Reliance (WMEC-615), will be 57. Assuming two hulls will be ordered per year, and a three-year build out, the last of newest of the current WMECs, Mohawk, could be replaced around 2034, when she will be hitting age 43.
Or, in Coast Guard parlance, just getting broken in.