This past week CIMSEC hosted a topic week on alternative naval force structures. Contributors proposed new fleets with hypothetical warship designs with an eye towards future threats and technological opportunities. Others analyzed historical examples of attempts to overhaul naval force structure, and many authors applied imaginative thinking to see how the U.S. Navy can make the most of its existing fleet. The topic week’s Call for Articles may be read here. We thank our contributors for their excellent submissions.
“Even the best alternative force structure that meets strategic needs, is more affordable than previous capabilities, and outguns the enemy could be subject to obsolescence before most of its units are launched. These case studies in alternative force structure suggest that such efforts are often less than successful in application.”
“The conundrum and implied assumption, with this or similar future force structure analyses, is that the Navy must have at least a vague understanding of an uncertain future. However, there is a better way to build a superior and more capable fleet—by continuing to build manned ships based on current and available capabilities while also fully embracing optionality (aka flexibility and adaptability) in unmanned systems.”
Is the U.S. Navy moving from an era of exceptional “ships of the line” – including LHA’s & LPD’s, FFG’s, CG’s, DDG’s, SSN’s and CVN’s – to one filled with USV’s, UAV’s, LCS’s, CV’s, SSK’s and perhaps something new – Long Range Patrol Vessels (LRPV’s)? But what in the world is an LRPV? The LRPV represents the 21st century version of the WWII APD – High Speed Transports.
“Designing and building new naval platforms takes time we don’t have, and there is still abundant opportunity to make the most of existing force structure. Fortunately for the Navy, histories of previous wars are a good guide for future action.”
“Luckily, the United States has three maritime services—the Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps—with different core competencies covering a broad range of naval missions. Current investments in force structure can be maximized by focusing the maritime services on their preferred missions.”
“The Navy should consider investing high-end warfighting capability in the Coast Guard to augment existing force structure and provide a force multiplier in times of conflict. A more capable Coast Guard will also be better able to defend the nation from asymmetrical threats.”
“2045 is a useful target date, as there will be very few of our Cold War era ships left by then, therefore that fleet will reflect what we are building today and will build in the future. This article proposes several new ship designs and highlights enduring challenges posed by the threat environment.”
“The biggest deficiencies in reformulating the U. S. Navy’s force structure are (1) a failure to take the shrinking defense budget into account which (2) allows every critic or proponent to be like the blind men who formulated their description of an elephant by touching only his trunk, tail, leg, or tusk. To get an appreciation of the size of the problem you have to describe the whole beast, and what is even harder, to get him to change direction by hitting him over the head repeatedly.”
Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Nextwar@cimsec.org.
Featured Image: PHILIPPINE SEA (Oct. 2, 2016) The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) underway in the Philippine Sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Cmdr. Tyrone Pham/ Released)
The biggest deficiencies in reformulating the U. S. Navy’s force structure are (1) a failure to take the shrinking defense budget into account which (2) allows every critic or proponent to be like the blind men who formulated their description of an elephant by touching only his trunk, tail, leg, or tusk. To get an appreciation of the size of the problem you have to describe the whole beast, and what is even harder, to get him to change direction by hitting him over the head repeatedly.
A good thesis to make the point is by LT Juan L. Carrasco, published in 2009. It explores the number of fleet billets in (1) the then current 285 ship fleet (2) the proposed, now defunct, 313 ship Navy, and (3) a new fleet of over 650 vessels designed by nine members of the NPS faculty that included more than 260 smaller coastal warships. Carrasco showed, remarkably enough, the NPS-designed fleet required the fewest afloat billets. Looking at the details reveal why. One major reason was that the then-current Navy’s eleven CVNs took 46% of all fleet billets in 285 ship navy, so when the NPS-designed fleet cut the number of CVNs to six and added more than a dozen small sea-based air platforms, then they were more distributable 100,000 ton carriers. The smaller ones, more like a CVL in size, can operate in littoral waters where a CVN wing is more than is needed for long term littoral operations. Thus, there were enough billets to more widely distribute across the NPS fleet.
Those who haven’t thought about all the elements of a 600-ship navy will have a lot of questions about logistics, flying off smaller carriers, new tactics to accompany the new technologies, procedures to deal with warships damaged from missile attacks, and so forth. The Navy must confront its budget crunch while needing to buy more expensive missiles in greater numbers, restoring the SSBN fleet, sustaining the APN dollars to buy ever-more expensive aircraft, supporting Marine expeditionary operations, structuring an offensively capable surface ship fleet, building up—or merely sustaining—our increasingly valuable submarine forces, and maintaining enough CLF ships to take some losses and continue to maintain the fleet forward. This will take a lot more original thinking about the role of unmanned and robotic vehicles of many kinds, more teaming with partner nations, forward bases that support our friends in East Asia and Europe, applications of offensive cyber warfare, achieving more stealthy C2 ways to attack effectively first, all to achieve the end of building a more distributable, combat ready 21st Century U. S. Navy.
Captain Hughes is a designated professor in the Department of Operations Research at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and holds a master of science degree in operations research from the Naval Postgraduate School. On active duty he commanded a minesweeper and a destroyer, directed a large training command, served as deputy director of Systems Analysis (OP-96), and was aide to Under Secretary of the Navy R. James Woolsey. At the Naval Postgraduate School for twenty-six years, he has served in the Chair of Applied Systems Analysis, as the first incumbent of the Chair of Tactical Analysis, and as dean of the Graduate School of Operational and Information Sciences. Captain Hughes is author of Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat (2000), Fleet Tactics: Theory and Practice (1986), and Military Modeling (1984), and he is a coauthor of A Concise Theory of Combat (1997). He served as a member of the Naval War College Press Advisory Board for over twenty-five years, until 2012.
Featured Image: PHILIPPINE SEA (Sept. 23, 2016) The forward-deployed Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG 52) steams in formation with, from left to right, the amphibious transport dock ship USS Green Bay (LPD 20), the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6), the amphibious dock landing ship USS Germantown (LSD 42), USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold (DDG 65), the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville (CG 62), and the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Stethem (DDG 63) during a photo exercise during Valiant Shield 2016. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kevin V. Cunningham/Released)
Rather than the usual discussion of what the U.S. Navy has and how to get Congress to fund more and better ships and systems, this article concentrates on the fleet we ought to be constructing in the decades ahead. 2045 is a useful target date, as there will be very few of our Cold War era ships left by then, therefore that fleet will reflect what we are building today and will build in the future. This article proposes several new ship designs and highlights enduring challenges posed by the threat environment.
A New Transoceanic Frigate Design
The retirement of the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates has left a substantial hole, both in terms of surface ship numbers and ASW capability in the U.S Navy’s warfighting capabilities. An understandable move on our part given recent budget pressures, but this author is convinced that we are going to have to replace the transoceanic escort and ASW capability the class provided the fleet.
Building a class of frigates that are 21st century versions of the Perry class is an obvious alternative for us to consider. I suggest designing a slightly larger version, say 3800 tons, with a fighting ability heavily focused on the ASW mission. Since the Navy is building plenty of littoral capability in the various LCS classes, this new design should be expressly built to operate effectively in the high sea states the North Atlantic and North Pacific are notorious for generating at regular intervals.
Using the larger turbine engine already in use with the LCS in the new design is expensive, both in construction and operating costs, but not so much more that it makes sense to retain two support and maintenance trails in the fleet and shipyards. Yes, the extra speed will be nice, but in reality is not really necessary. But with the larger engine already baked into the Navy’s operating budget it is better to stick with it even if the operating advantages of more speed in deep blue waters are marginal.
Foremost is the wider beam the bigger turbine will force on the designers. Make a virtue of this fact by making the focus of the new frigate design its helicopter deck, hanger, assigned Seahawk, two Fire Scouts, and ten to twelve TFS buoys. This ship class will exist to provide ASW escort to the CSGs, ARGs and transoceanic convoys in the deep blue.
There will be a 5″ gun to put aboard, the basics of AAW self-defense and plenty of VLS capability for ASW, AAW and the developing distributed long-range strike abilities the Navy has decided it requires. Other than that though, this ship exists to screen against or out and out hunt, submarines.
Those concerned over such a design’s lack of more substantial AAW and offensive capabilities should understand the same argument used to defend the purchase of the original Perrys. Neither the Navy nor the nation can afford to put all three capabilities in substantial measure aboard this small a ship build. We couldn’t afford it with a fifty-six ship build against the Soviet Union and we cannot afford it with the thirty plus frigates we need to build of this new design in the decades ahead.
Hull Design Opportunity
This author shares in the lack of enthusiasm for the use of aluminum in the hulls of the Independence class. But the potential capabilities of the trimaran portion of that class’s design are intriguing.
Whether made of steel or the still-to-be-proven aluminum, a trimaran hull properly designed could provide substantial improvements in stability for helicopter operations in high sea states.
Traditionally Mediterranean navies, the Italians in particular, turned to trimaran designs for speed to use against heavier gunned opponents. With the U.S. Navy speed is never going to be first on a skippers mind in heavily rolling waters, but safely operating the ships ASW equipment, helicopters, and buoys, frequently will be.
So let’s take the time in the design phase to see what can be designed into the new class by utilizing a wide beamed trimaran design, possibly a few more missile tubes and AAW assets can be squeezed in topside if the extra beam is available forward of the hangar deck, even if merely above the waterline. Finally, the offshore oil industry has had some recent success reducing instability in their workboats by moving the bridge all the way forward to the very front of the ship. The result is a vertical, or nearly vertical brow topside with the amidships area given over to work, or in the Navy’s case, fighting space.
This sized frigate should cost the taxpayers under 400 million dollars, probably well under that figure, making the construction of thirty plus ships over the years ahead an affordable investment for the Navy in both the number of ships and our ASW fighting capabilities.
A Flexible New Cruiser Design
In the decade ahead, the U.S. Navy is facing the need to extend and eventually replace the Ticonderoga class CGs now in service. We should look to a flexible new cruiser design that can be adapted for varying purposes through the mid-21st century.
By using a basic class design incorporating the same propulsion plant installed across various adopted designs we will generate very substantial lifetime cost savings. Additional lifetime savings can be gained by using the same bow and forecastle steel framework across the ship classes. A third, smaller, but still meaningful set of savings can be derived from using the same bridge and AAW working spaces layout. This will provide a great deal of flexibility in what sorts of guns, radars, VLS loadouts, helicopter deck and hangar layout details are selected to serve the purposes of a particular cruiser class.
To meet the substantial electrical power needs of the fleet of the future, energize a single railgun if installed, provide plenty of length and beam for the radars of today and tomorrow, enough space to house computers and operators, adequate AAW warfare capability, something from 15,000 to 20,0000 tons is needed. Since every ton added adds significant construction and maintenance costs this author suggests considering a 17,000 ton modern version of the Baltimore-class cruisers built during WW2. Utilizing a proven sea going design like the Baltimore’s for a proven bow and forecastle design for all of the cruiser classes will provide a cost effective way of providing ships with good sea keeping abilities, with fewer design-from-scratch headaches and lower lifetime costs.
A non-nuclear electric power system such as the permanent magnet motor (PMM) originally planned for the Zumwalt class is another important design parameter that needs to considered and decided upon from the very beginning of the design process. Whatever the power plant settled on, it needs to provide enough electrical power to operate one railgun and associated radars, or the extensive radars, computers and refrigerated working space required by the CGs of tomorrow, or the power needs of a long range ballistic radar if installed. All that generation and conversion equipment needs the space provided by a 17,000 ton sized design.
Bridge, CIC, and Working Spaces
This issue comes to the forefront for the AAW class of cruiser that will replace the Ticonderogas. Computers are wonderful tools, capable of providing multiple ways to enable a fighting sailor. They are also demanding, down right finicky and demanding, pieces of equipment that simply ‘just have to be’ at the right temperature, humidity level, amount of electrical power provided and discharged, and are highly intolerant of any variation in these conditions. Sailors are much easier to provide working space for.
But to be effective, the CGs of the future will also need plenty of thoroughly refrigerated space in the bridge, CIC, electronic equipment spaces, and working space for the sailors operating and maintaining all this wonderful gear. And let us not forget the multiple radars that will be installed, ever growing in size and number, that also require space, power, and cooling inside the hull.
Therefore, designing a large, as uniform as possible set of working spaces behind the forward gun and before the ventilation stack, helicopter deck, and hangar is strongly recommended as a third set of crucial design criteria.
This author suggests applying the suggestions above in the cruiser classes listed and briefly described in the following sections.
CS – Scout Cruiser
Putting one railgun on a scout cruiser, with plenty of VLS and helicopter space for needed ISR drones, ASW oriented Seahawk, two Fire Scouts, and ten TFS buoys while completely independent of a CSG is a very useful addition to NATO we can make at a far lower cost than any aviation oriented asset. Particularly since there is a very useful mission for the cruiser class to perform, namely Backfire and Bear hunting in the North Atlantic, North Sea, or potentially even the Barents Sea.
CG – AAW Cruiser
The Navy is going to need fifteen plus AAW cruisers as replacements for the Ticonderoga-class as those Cold War veterans wear out. This class design is easily described as simply upsizing the Ticonderoga to 17,000 tons. Give the class the space and power the radars of today and tomorrow demand to be effective, plenty of CIC and electronic room space for the computers and sailors aboard, and as many VLS as practical and this ship class is ready to go.
CBD – Ballistic Missile Defense Cruiser
This author is far from convinced that putting a long range ballistic missile radar to sea is a wise and prudent idea. It almost certainly is not when in close proximity to a CSG, ARG, SSG or transoceanic convoy, at least on a routine basis.
That said, the majority of the worlds seas are, almost by definition, not in close proximity to our primary ocean going assets. There very well may be occasions in the future when the U.S. Navy can provide a cost effective alternative for the president to consider making use of by building three CBD class cruisers.
This cruiser design is obviously dominated by the enormous radar mast mounted amidships. It is unlikely that a non-nuclear power plant will generate enough power for both radar and a railgun, so it will go to sea with our standard 5” weapon, as much of the base bridge, CIC, and electronic working spaces that can be accommodated once the huge ballistic radar requirements are met. It will also include as many VLS tubes that can be squeezed in, and a standard, one Seahawk-sized helicopter deck and hangar.
The reader can easily come up with alternative cruiser class designs of their own, whether improvements on the three suggestions above or for other mission requirements not considered in this article. But having a flexible base cruiser design to hand, available for development or alternation as the world changes around us seems to be an excellent investment in capabilities for the decades ahead.
CVLN, AORH, and CARN
The author has explored a variety of other ship designs in previous articles that form a part of the fleet design described here.
The CVLN (carrier aviation light, nuclear powered) is intended to operate with carrier task forces, providing a home for the many ISR drones, UUVs, UAVs and buoys needed in the increasingly dangerous A2/AD environment and to prosecute ASW.
The AORH(auxiliary oiler replenishment helicopter) is a ship class based on a modified AOR-sized and double hulled design without a full flight deck, approximately 25,000 tons and oil powered. This class is intended to provide very substantial helicopter and VTOL launching and servicing capabilities, for ASW, amphibious, special-ops or other missions and then executing these missions alongside a large variety of allied nation navies; hence the built in patrol boat capabilities as well as at least one UNREP station port and starboard.
The CARN (cruiser gun armor, nuclear powered) will accompany the fleet’s capital ships to provide defensive AAW capabilities with a primary armament of twelve railgun in order to realize favorable cost exchanges.
Strategic Demands of the Threat Environment
For discussion purposes, this author assumes the usual conventional wisdom about the strategic intentions, announced and anticipated fleet construction plans and patrol utilization patterns of the various major Eurasian major powers are mostly true and applicable.
Russia has been consistent in describing her intentions in fleet building and disposition. Given her need to disperse naval assets to four widely separate parts of the world, establish and maintain her strategic ballistic missile force, and meet the need for substantial littoral forces. There is only limited Russian ability to impact U.S. interests far from her shores, certainly nothing like in Soviet days.
The Russians have been quite open in their intent to field enough attack submarines to reestablish a 21st century version of the old Soviet anti-convoy abilities in the North Atlantic. They also are aware of the opportunities that present themselves in disrupting trade and generating geopolitical influence in Northeastern Asian waters as well as the North Pacific; though they are frank that pursuing such a strategy in Pacific waters is some distance down their priority list. Given the many needs the Russian fleet has, having enough assets to operate effectively in the North Pacific may always remain a hope and intent rather than a reality.
As always with Russia, from the days of Ivan IV or Peter the Great onward, there is an enormous difference between Moscow’s perceived military needs and her ability to fund them. This will remain true far into the 21st century, regardless of how much or little change Putin manages to introduce as a response to sanctions and the fall in the price of oil.
That said, Russian naval ambitions and intentions have been clearly stated and certainly include creating and maintaining a substantial nuclear powered attack submarine force to be deployed in the North Pacific, North Atlantic, and Arctic as needed. In addition, Moscow clearly intends to continue fielding enough A2/AD protected assets in the Eastern Mediterranean.
China has been consistently and thoughtfully expanding the PLANs capabilities and mission choices for years now. This expansion has been quite focused, foremost on improving China’s home defense situation. The PLAN has also established abilities to protect and pursue her interests in and around the two island chains. Finally, China has developed modest naval expeditionary capability for ongoing use in the Indian Ocean.
To date there does not seem to be any interest in creating additional substantial capabilities in order to operate far from home waters, much less on the global scale like the U.S. Navy.
Unlike Russia, China does have the financial capability to expand the PLAN if desired, both today and in the decades to come. This capability, if exercised to construct substantial additional surface and attack submarine assets that could be targeted far out into the Central Pacific, beyond the Second Island Chain, would be the single greatest change in world conditions requiring a revision of the fleet building plan presented here.
Ships, and mission requirements, are flexible and can easily be targeted in different areas, and the waters from Taiwan/Okinawa to Guam to Hawaii are an obvious alternative for PLAN planners to study for opportunities. This author is not especially concerned about China’s current fleet in this regard, but if future PLAN submarine building includes plentiful nuclear attack submarines beyond current needs and tasking then the U.S. needs to seriously reassess how it will get fuel and munitions delivered to Guam or Okinawa.
The interlinked issues that Taiwan and China’s substantial A2/AD capabilities raise can be largely mitigated by adding the suggested CVLN and CARN assets on an ongoing basis to the CSG operating in the Western Pacific. A significant amount of deterrence can be obtained by making the necessary additional investment in these two new ship classes and the associated equipment and doctrine adjustments.
Other challenges presented by China’s increasing presence and differing intentions in the region should be manageable, at least from the Navy’s point of view, by appropriate deployment of the AORH, LCS, and other smaller ship classes that need to be built.
Persian Gulf/Indian Ocean
The many complicated rivalries that rend this part of the world show no sign of dissipating, meaning that the U.S. Navy will need to operate substantial assets on an ongoing basis in the area for decades to come.
The increasingly difficult challenges presented by the rise of Al Qaeda, Daesh, and Iran’s threats to close the Strait of Hormuz suggest the need for routine deployment of a task force. operating independently of the CSG, centered on a AORH, one to two LCS, a LSD, and whatever associated or Allied assets are locally present at any given time for years to come.
The renewed challenge to NATO that is being made by Russia should be met with a different set of assets than were deployed during the Cold War. Modern day challenges in A2/AD capabilities, a more substantive Eastern Mediterranean presence, resumed Backfire and Bear patrols, and the intent to resume routine attack submarine patrols in the North Atlantic require a different set of fleet assets now and in the future.
Much of these changes will have to come ashore in various locations across Europe. As always the substantial littoral assets needed should be provided by our allies in NATO.
We do have unique abilities to provide, particularly the Aegis system whether at sea or installed ashore, and the new railgun. Establishing a routine task force centered on the suggested scout cruiser (CS) class and a handful of U.S. or other NATO nation frigates in the North Atlantic or North Sea as Backfire and Bear hunters would be powerful way to reinforce NATO, and at a far lower cost than deploying already very busy CVN assets.
Convincing the German Navy to build and operate two or three ships similar in design as an AORH in Baltic waters or around the North Cape of Norway would also substantially improve NATO’s ability to deal with the challenge Russia presents.
Ever Expanding A2/AD Threat
Threats posed elsewhere, which will almost always be less powerful than what China has built, will have to be met with a mixture of the new anti-drone, anti-missile weapon systems under discussion, the assistance of shore based assets or wide dispersal when operating in deep blue waters. All of our new assets should be built with the ability to flexibly add or subtract as needed new weapon systems as they are developed over the decades to come.
The following fleet should be able to handle these challenges and threats well into the middle of the 21st century.
Proposed 2045 Fleet
SSN (Virginia-class extended)
SSN (Los Angeles class Flights I, II, 688i)
SSN (Los Angeles class Flight III)
CVLN (carrier aviation light, nuclear powered)
AORH (auxiliary oiler replenishment helicopter)
AORH (ice strengthened)
CS (scout cruiser)
CBD (ballistic missile cruiser)
CG (Ticonderoga replacements)
DDG (Zumwalt class)
FF (new transoceanic frigate)
FF (ice strengthened)
FP (new LCS frigate)
FM (Freedom class)
FM (Independence class)
EPF (formerly JHSV)
LSD (replacement LSD design – 12k tons)
ESD (formerly MLP)
ESB (formerly AFSB)
At just over 340 ships this suggested fleet plan provides the U.S. Navy with an adequate number of vessels, while simultaneously adding needed new high-end surface ship designs and providing the numbers of smaller ships the nation needs now and will need into the future. As always, the time to start planning ahead is now.
Jan Musil is a Vietnam era Navy veteran, disenchanted ex-corporate middle manager, and long time entrepreneur currently working as an author of science fiction novels. He is also a long-standing student of navies in general, post-1930 ship construction thinking, design hopes versus actual results, and fleet composition debates of the twentieth century.
Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (July 22, 2016) – The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) conducts a vertical replenishment with the Military Sealift Command fast combat support ship USNS Rainier (T-AOE 7) during Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2016. (U.S. Navy photo by MC2 Ryan J. Batchelder/Released)
The Navy has been talking a lot about distributed lethality lately, and “if it floats, it fights.” There is even talk of mounting cruise missiles on Military Sealift Command (MSC) ships, even though it might compromise their primary mission. But so far there has been little or no discussion of extending this initiative to include the Coast Guard. The Navy should consider investing high-end warfighting capability in the Coast Guard to augment existing force structure and provide a force multiplier in times of conflict. A more capable Coast Guard will also be better able to defend the nation from asymmetrical threats.
Why Include the Coast Guard?
A future conflict may not be limited to a single adversary. We may be fighting another world war, against a coalition, perhaps both China and Russia, with possible side shows in Africa, the Near East, South Asia, and/or Latin America. If so, we are going to need numbers. The Navy has quality, but it does not have numbers.Count all the Navy CGs, DDGs, LCSs, PCs and PBs and other patrol boats and it totals a little over a hundred. The Coast Guard currently has over 40 patrol ships over 1,000 tons and over 110 patrol craft. The current modernization program of record will provide at least 33 large cutters, and 58 patrol craft of 353 tons, in addition to 73 patrol boats of 91 tons currently in the fleet, a total of 164 units. Very few of our allies have a fleet of similar size.
Coast Guard vessels routinely operate with U.S. Navy vessels. The ships have common equipment and their crews share common training. The U.S. Navy has no closer ally. Because of their extremely long range, cutters can operate for extended periods in remote theaters where there are few or even no underway replenishment assets. The Coast Guard also operates in places the USN does not. For example, how often do Navy surface ships go into the Arctic? The Coast Guard operates there routinely. Virtually all the U.S. vessels operating with the Fourth Fleet are Coast Guard. There are also no U.S. Navy surface warships home based north of the Chesapeake Bay in the Atlantic, none between San Diego and Puget Sound in the Pacific, and none in the Gulf of Mexico with the exception of mine warfare ships.
In the initial phase of a conflict, there will be need to round-up all the adversaries’ merchant ships and keep them from doing mischief. Otherwise they might lay mines, scout for or resupply submarines, put agents ashore, oreven launch cruise missiles from containers. This is not the kind of work we want DDGs doing. It is exactly the type of work appropriate for Coast Guard cutters. Coast Guard ships enjoy a relatively low profile. Unlike a Carrier Strike Group or Navy SAG, they are less likely to be tracked by an adversary.
If we fight China in ten to twenty years, the conflict will likely open with China enjoying local superiority in the Western Pacific and perhaps in the Pacific in general. If we fight both China and Russia it may be too close to call.
The National Security Cutter (NSC)
This class of at least nine and possibly ten, 418 foot long, CODAG powered, 28 knot ships, at 4,500 tons full load, are slightly larger than Perry-class frigates. Additionally they have a 12,000 nautical mile cruising range. As built they are already equipped with:
Navy certified helicopter facilities and hangar space to support two H-60 helicopters,
A 57 mm Mk110 gun,
SPQ-9B Fire Control Radar
Phalanx 20mm Close in Weapon System (CIWS)
2 SRBOC/ 2 x NULKA countermeasures chaff/rapid decoy launcher,
A Sensitive Compartmented Intelligence Facility (SCIF)
In short, they are already equipped with virtually everything needed for a missile armed combatant except the specific missile related equipment. They are in many respects superior to the Littoral Combat Ships. Adding Cooperative Engagement Capability might even allow a Mk41 equipped cutter to effectively launch Standard missiles targeted by a third party.
The ships were designed to accept 12 Mk56 VLS which launch only the Evolved Sea Sparrow missiles (ESSM). Additionally, the builder, Huntington Ingalls, has shown versions of the class equipped with eight Mk41 VLS (located between the gun and superstructure) plus eight Harpoon, and Mk32 torpedo tubes (located on the stern). Adding missiles to the existing hulls should not be too difficult.
The Mk41 VLS are more flexible in that they can accommodate cruise missiles, rocket boosted antisubmarine torpedoes (ASROC), Standard missiles, or Evolved Sea Sparrow missiles (ESSM). Using the Mk41 VLS would allow a mix of cruise missiles and ESSM with four ESSMs replacing each cruise missile, for example eight cells could contain four cruise missiles and 16 ESSM, since ESSM can be “quad packed” by placing four missiles in each cell. Development of an active homing ESSM is expected to obviate the need for illuminating radars that are required for the semi-active homing missiles. Still, simpler deck mounted launchers might actually offer some advantages, in addition to their lower installation cost, at least in peacetime.
Cutters often visit ports where the population is sensitive to a history of U.S. interference in their internal affairs. In some cases, Coast Guard cutters are welcome, while U.S. Navy ships are not. For this reason, we might want to make it easy for even a casual observer to know that the cutter is not armed with powerful offensive weapons. Deck mounted launchers can provide this assurance, in that it is immediately obvious if missile canisters are, or are not, mounted. The pictures below show potential VLS to be considered.
The Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC)
The OPC program of record for provides 25 of these ships. A contract has been awarded to Eastern Shipbuilding Group for detail design and construction of the first ship, with options for eight more. The notional design is 360 feet long, with a beam of 54 feet and a draft of 17 feet. The OPCs will have a sustained speed of 22.5 knots, a range of 10,200 nautical miles (at 14 knots), and an endurance of 60-days. It’s hangar will accommodate one MH-60 or an MH-65 and an Unmanned Air System (UAS).
It will have a space for a SCIF but it is not expected to be initially installed. As built, it will have a Mk38 stabilized 25 mm gun in lieu of the Phalanx carried by the NSC. Otherwise, the Offshore Patrol Cutter will be equipped similarly to the National Security Cutter. It will likely have the same Lockheed Martin COMBATSS-21 combat management system as the LCS derived frigates. It is likely they could be fitted with cruise missiles and possibly Mk56 VLS for ESSM as well. Additionally these ships will be ice strengthened, allowing the possibility of taking surface launched cruise missiles into the Arctic
The Fast Response Cutter (FRC)
The FRC program of record is to build 58 of these 158 foot, 28 knot, 365 ton vessels. 19 have been delivered and they are being built at a rate of four to six per year. All 58 are now either built, building, contracted, or optioned. They are essentially the same displacement as the Cyclone class PCs albeit a little slower, but with better seakeeping and a longer range. Even these small ships have a range of 2,950 nm. They are armed with Mk 38 mod2 25 mm guns and four .50 caliber M2 machine guns.
They are already better equipped than the Coast Guard 82 foot patrol boats that were used for interdiction of covert coastal traffic during the Vietnam war. If they were to be used to enforce a blockade against larger vessels, they would need weapons that could forcibly stop medium to large vessels.
The Marine Protector Class
There are 73 of these 87 foot, 91 ton, 26 knot patrol boats. Four were funded by the Navy and provide force protection services for Submarines transiting on the surface in and out of King Bay, GA and Bangor, WA.
If use of these vessels for force protection were to be expanded to a more hostile environment, they would likely need more than the two .50 caliber M2 machine guns currently carried. The four currently assigned to force protection units are currently equipped with an additional stabilized remote weapon station.
The U.S. Navy currently has or is considering four different surface launched cruise missiles: Harpoon, Naval Strike Missile (NSM), Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), and Tomahawk. Of these, LRASM appears most promising for Coast Guard use. Tomahawk is the largest of the four and both Harpoon and NSM would be workable, but they do not have the range of LRASM. The intelligence and range claimed for the LRASM not only makes it deadlier in wartime, it also means only a couple of these missiles on each of the Coast Guard’s largest cutters would allow the Coast Guard’s small, but widely distributed force to rapidly and effectively respond to asymmetric threats over virtually the entire U.S. coast as well as compliment the U.S. Navy’s efforts to complicate the calculus of a near-peer adversary abroad
Small Precision Guided Weapons
It is not unlikely that Fast Response Cutters will replace the six 110 foot patrol boats currently based in Bahrain. If cutters are to be placed in an area where they face a swarming threat they will need the same types of weapons carried or planned for Navy combatants to address this threat. These might include the Sea Griffin used on Navy’s Cyclone-class PCs or Longbow Hellfires planned for the LCS.
Additionally, a small number of these missiles on Coast Guard patrol craft would enhance their ability to deal with small, fast, highly maneuverable threats along the U.S. coast and elsewhere
Light Weight Anti-Surface Torpedoes
If Coast Guard units, particularly smaller ones, were required to forcibly stop potentially hostile merchant ships for the purposes of a blockade, quarantine, embargo, etc. they would need something more that the guns currently installed.
The U.S. does not currently have a light weight anti-surface torpedo capable of targeting a ship’s propellers, but with Elon Musk building a battery factory that will double the worlds current capacity and cars that out accelerate Farraris, building a modern electric small anti-surface torpedo should be easy and relatively inexpensive.
Assuming they have the same attributes of ASW torpedoes, at about 500 pounds these weapons take up relatively little space. Such a torpedo would also allow small Coast Guard units to remain relevant against a variety of threats.
Adding cruise missile to the Coast Guard National Security Cutters and Offshore Patrol Cutters would increase the number of cruise missile-equipped U.S .surface ships by about 40 percent.
Coast Guard Patrol craft (WPCs) and patrol boats (WPBs) significantly outnumber their Navy counterparts. They could significantly increase the capability to deal with interdiction of covert coastal traffic, act as a force multiplier in conventional conflict, and allow larger USN ships to focus on high-end threats provided they are properly equipped to deal with the threats. More effective, longer ranged, and particularly more precise weapons could also improve the Coast Guard’s ability to do it Homeland security mission.
Thanks to OS2 Michael A. Milburn for starting the conversation that lead to this article.
Chuck retired from the Coast Guard after 22 years service. Assignments included four ships, Rescue Coordination Center New Orleans, CG HQ, Fleet Training Group San Diego, Naval War College, and Maritime Defense Zone Pacific/Pacific Area Ops/Readiness/Plans. Along the way he became the first Coast Guard officer to complete the Tactical Action Officer (TAO) course and also completed the Naval Control of Shipping course. He has had a life-long interest in naval ships and history. Chuck writes for his blog, Chuck Hill’s CG blog.
Featured Image: Photo: The U.S. Coast Guard high endurance cutter USCGC Mellon (WHEC-717) launching a RGM-84 Harpoon missile during tests off Oxnard, California (USA), in January 1990. by PAC Ken Freeze, USCG