Coast Guard's New Offshore Patrol Cutters: High-Tech and Networked

Coast Guard's New Offshore Patrol Cutters: High-Tech and Networked

They will be able to operate drones and share communications and data with other warships.

The Coast Guard’s plan to deploy a new, massive 360-foot long Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC) reflects the service’s intention to pursue a wider strategic envelope and strengthen its ability to network with other platforms, assets and command centers.

A Coast Guard essay on the OPC fleet mission objectives writes that “the OPCs will provide the majority of offshore presence for the Coast Guard’s cutter fleet, bridging the capabilities of the 418-foot national security cutters, which patrol the open ocean, and the 154-foot fast response cutters, which serve closer to shore.”

The OPC will execute these missions with drones, an onboard helicopter, and high-speed over-the-horizon capable small boats. “Our goal is to give Combat Systems Certification for complete interoperability and data sharing with the Navy. Each OPC will be capable of deploying independently or as part of task groups and serving as a mobile command and control platform for surge operations such as hurricane response, mass migration incidents, and other events. “The cutters will also support Arctic objectives by helping regulate and protect emerging commerce and energy exploration in Alaska,” according to the Coast Guard paper.

It is with this expanding mission focus that the ship was built with a new generation hull design for greater endurance and fuel efficiency and breakthrough levels of sensors, networking, and command and control systems. Modern threat environments require more dispersed, yet interoperable mission tasks, a dual-pronged tactical approach well suited to the Coast Guard mission objectives which often include a need for ships to operate by themselves for sustained periods of time while pursuing missions.

This is part of why the tactical rationale for the ship’s mission scope includes the greater use of drones and advanced networking to align the Coast Guard mission more fully with Navy and Marine Corps objectives. Interestingly, this may in part be why the OPC’s technological configuration is designed to improve interoperability and its broadening mission scope aligns with a just-released Coast Guard, Navy and Marine Corps maritime warfare strategy document called “Advantage at Sea - Prevailing with Integrated All Domain Naval Power.”

It is not by accident that the Coast Guard is fundamental to this multi-service strategy as there is a growing need for the Coast Guard to safeguard homeland shores, protect vital passageways and support expanding U.S. Navy and Marine Corps missions. These mission objectives further explain the importance of a collaborative ship development effort pursued by the Eastern Shipbuilding Group-Northrop Grumman team which has for several years sought to leverage the necessary technical systems to accomplish the intended mission.

“The Coast Guard’s mission profile makes it the preferred maritime security partner for many nations vulnerable to coercion. Integrating its unique authorities—law enforcement, fisheries protection, marine safety, and maritime security—with Navy and Marine Corps capabilities expands the options we provide to joint force commanders for cooperation and competition,” the Advantage at Sea strategy essay notes.

Northrop Grumman and ESG’s focus on a new generation of technology is specifically intended to support this strategy. For example, improved networking and surveillance systems and an advanced hull design can help facilitate more dispersed operations and greater strengthen interoperability with Navy and Marine Corps missions. Better networked and technically capable ships are part of how the Coast Guard can build roughly twenty-six new OPCs to perform, improve and expand upon the legacy thirty-three-ship strong medium endurance cutter fleet.

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Image: Reuters.