Explained: The U.S. Coast Guard's New Offshore Patrol Cutters

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Explained: The U.S. Coast Guard's New Offshore Patrol Cutters

The existing fleet of Medium Endurance Cutters are old and need to be phased out.

The U.S. Coast Guard helps intercept dangerous shipments of illegal drugs and supports the U.S. Navy securing international waterways, thwarting terrorism, crime and piracy. In addition, perhaps most of all, they regularly rescue people on the brink of death. As a service, the U.S. Coast Guard is at times under-recognized despite being increasingly in demand, as threats to the homeland continue to mount due to the growing global reach of major power rivals.

Within the Coast Guard mission scope is a balanced, yet crucial need to patrol both littoral and deep-water areas as part of an integrated operational approach, a task assigned to the services’ medium endurance cutters. However, the current fleet of twenty-nine legacy medium endurance cutters (which used to be thirty-three not too many years ago) have been in service for decades and are reaching obsolescence and are badly in need of replacement.

There is where the Coast Guard’s emerging Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC) enters the equation, a new ship envisioned as a more capable, better networked, larger and far more advanced, high- tech medium endurance cutter than has ever existed.

A U.S. Coast Guard report on the ship had stated that the OPC will provide a capability bridge between the national security cutter which patrols the open ocean in the most demanding maritime environments, to the smaller and the fast response cutters, which serve closer to shore.

The Coast Guard selected Eastern Shipbuilding Group Inc. (ESG) to build the ship, by choosing them to continue into phase 2 of the OPC development, which includes detail design and construction. While smaller than some of the largest shipbuilders, ESG officials say the company is known for building highly complex ships of very high quality, on time and on budget, and has helped design the practical design and technological configuration of the ship. The first cutter in the class of the new fleet, Argus, is slated to set sail at some point in 2022.

“ESG came through with a great price for the government with a ship almost matching the operational capabilities of their largest assets, but offering a significant cost reduction in both construction and over the life of the vessel. One of the things I focused on was I did not want to reduce future capabilities of any acquisitions program, while knowing we had to get the Coast Guard fantastic ships at affordable prices,” said Adm. Robert Papp (RET), former Coast Guard Commandant and current President of the DC offices of ESG.

At 360 feet, the ESG OPC is much larger than the 210-foot and 270-foot medium endurance cutters they are replacing and also engineered with an entirely new sphere of command and control systems, sensor technologies and networking applications. This new dimension of technology is of great significance to Coast Guard planners, who anticipate that new levels of networked, yet disaggregated operations will increasingly be necessary. Northrop Grumman and ESG drew from state of the market technologies to build this ship.

“When you build a Navy ship, you have to focus on power and speed. The Navy has oilers that can refuel ships, whereas most Coast Guard ops are independent of the fleet. You don’t have a supply ship so you must have room on board for fuel, food and supplies, and you need to conserve that fuel,” Papp said.

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.