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Augment Naval Force Structure By Upgunning The Coast Guard

Alternative Naval Force Structure Topic Week

By Chuck Hill

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.

point-league-market-time
Coast Guard 82 foot patrol boats interdicted coastal traffic off South Vietnam. (USCG Photo)

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 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 a 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, or even 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.

Coast Guard Platforms

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)
  • SRBOC/ 2 x NULKA countermeasures chaff/rapid decoy launcher,
  • AN/SLQ-32 Electronic Warfare System,
  • EADS 3D TRS-16 AN/SPS-75 Air Search Radar,
  • A combat system that uses Aegis Baseline 9 software,
  • 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.

USCG National Security Cutter BERTHOLF (USCG Photo)
USCG National Security Cutter BERTHOLF (USCG Photo)

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.

LRASM_TSL_Concept_Lockheed_Martin
LRASM topside launcher concept. The size and weight are comparable to launchers for Harpoon. (Lockheed Martin photo)

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. 

mk56VLS&HarpoonLaunchersAbsolonClass
The relatively small footprint of the Mk56 VLS system (pdf) can be seen here on a Danish Absalon-class command and support ship (beam 64 feet, by comparison the National Security Cutters’ beam is 54 feet). Two sets are visible in the foreground, one set of twelve with missile canisters with red tops in place to the right, on the ship’s centerline, and a second set of twelve without canisters to the left. The Absalon-class has three twelve-missile sets, with the third set off camera to the right. (Royal Danish Navy)
VLSLauncher_korvet
12 earlier Mk48 mod3 VLS for ESSM seen here mounted on the stern of a 450 ton 177 foot Danish StanFlex300 Flyvefisken-class patrol boat. The Mk56 launchers replace the Mk48s with an approximate 20% weight savings.
Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC)
 

The OPC  program of record provides for 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. Its hangar will accommodate one MH-60 or an MH-65 and an Unmanned Air System (UAS).

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Notional design characteristics and performance of the OPC. (USCG Image)

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.

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. 

page1-1024px-uscg_sentinel_class_cutter_poster-pdf
The first Sentinel-class Fast Response Cutter (FRC), USCGC Bernard C. Webber. (USCG photo)

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.

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.

File:US Navy 090818-N-1325N-003 U. S. Coast Guardsmen man the rails as the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Sea Fox (WPB 87374) is brought to life at Naval Base Kitsap.jpg
Photo: KEYPORT, Wash. (Aug. 18, 2009) U. S. Coast Guardsmen man the rails as the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Sea Fox (WPB 87374), one of four of this class assigned to Force Protection units. (U.S. Navy photo Ray Narimatsu/Released)

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.

Weapons

Cruise Missiles

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 than 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 accelerate faster than Ferraris, 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.

Conclusion

Adding cruise missiles 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 its 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

Why the Coast Guard Needs LRASM in Peacetime

By Chuck Hill

The Coast Guard has a problem. It is not currently equipped to perform one of its missions, and it appears no other agency is prepared to cover the deficiency. The Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) may be a possible solution.

The Mission

One of the Coast Guard’s peacetime missions is Ports, Waterways and Coastal Security (PWCS).

“The PWCS mission entails the protection of the U.S. Maritime Domain and the U.S. Marine Transportation System (MTS)…prevention and disruption of terrorist attacks… Conducting PWCS deters terrorists from using or exploiting the MTS as a means for attacks on U.S. territory, population centers, vessels, critical infrastructure, and key resources.”

The Shortfall

Implicit in this mission is that the service should have the capability to forcibly stop a non-compliant ship, any ship, of any size. If a crew is motivated by simple greed, a .50 caliber machine gun is probably enough to convince them to take their chances in court rather than resist, but if the crew is motivated by a fanatical, or even suicidal belief in a cause, they become much harder to stop.

Terrorist targets are limited only by their imagination. They might include something like the Mumbai attack, an assault on a bridge, an LNG tanker or facility, a nuclear power plant, a passenger ship, an SSBN departing on patrol, or they might use a vessel to bring in a nuclear weapon. 

The Coast Guard is an armed force at all times, but it is certainly not heavily armed. In fact, in terms of stopping a recalcitrant merchant ship, the Coast Guard seems relatively less capable now than they were eighty years ago.

This is because of the rapid growth in the size of merchant ships. Even the largest cutters with their 57 mm and 76 mm guns are far less capable of stopping today’s over 100,000 ton merchant vessels than the cutters of the 1930s, with their 5″ guns were against ships that were typically well under 10,000 tons.

Worse yet, the units that would actually be on scene to attempt to stop and board a ship suspected of being under the control of terrorists is unlikely to include any of the larger cutters because they seldom remain near harbor entrance. Rather, they are frequently sent well off shore. 

The Coast Guard simply does not have the capability to deal with a terrorist attack using a medium to large sized merchant ship, and it currently appears that there is no other organization capable of answering this threat in the 30 or more port complexes terrorists might find worthwhile targets.

Our Friends

Navy surface forces, in U.S. waters, are too geographically concentrated. Navy ships tend to be either in homeport, working up in specific geographic areas, deployed, or in transit to deploy. There are no Navy surface warships homeported in the Gulf of Mexico, on the East Coast north of the New Port News/Norfolk complex, in Alaska, or on the West coast between San Diego and Puget Sound with weapons equal to or better than those on cutters. For many ports, the nearest Navy surface vessel is hundreds of miles away.

Air Force, Navy, Marine, and Army Air are not on standby around the U.S. armed with anti-ship weapons. Of the Air Force, only some strategic aircraft are training for the anti-shipping mission. Fighters and attack aircraft do not. The author suspects the U.S. would not get a timely response from the Air Force to a no notice requirement to stop a maritime target. Units that are not trained for an anti-shipping role cannot be easily pressed into that mission.

A Possible Solution

LRASM, with an over 200 nautical mile range and the ability to strike selected locations on a target ship, could possibly provide an answer. If the U.S. fielded LRASM on all nine National Security Cutters (NSC) and 25 Offshore Patrol Cutters (OPC) currently planned, its over 200 mile range could cover virtually all of these ports, and likely have a weapon on target within 20 minutes of launch.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etb_Vzl-9Dk&w=560&h=315]

How It Might Work

The Coast Guard is developing a Maritime Domain Awareness system. Most likely, it will tap into the Navy’s system and over the horizon radars.

When the maritime domain awareness system detects the approach of a suspicious vessel, a small patrol vessel (WPB or WPC) is assigned to intercept it and conduct a boarding to determine the vessel’s nature and intent.

When the patrol vessel is assigned the intercept, a larger cutter that may be at some distance, but within range, would be directed to provide support in the form of a LRASM launch if necessary.

The patrol craft will transmit video, position, course, and speed during its approach which will allow the start of mission planning for an LRASM launch should it become necessary. The results of the patrol craft’s attempt to board will allow determination of hostile intent.

Once a determination of hostile intent has been made, and deadly force authorized, the supporting cutter can launch its weapon. The patrol craft will continually update the supporting cutter before and during the flight of the LRASM. Navy, Joint, and/or Allied procedures would be used to call for a strike, and should also work with other service’s assets if they are available.

LRASM_TSL_Concept_Lockheed_Martin
LRASM topside launcher concept. The size and weight are comparable to launchers for Harpoon. Photo: Lockheed Martin.

Is It Affordable?

It is likely cutters could be equipped to carry eight missiles, but for peacetime purposes, two per ship would almost certainly meet the Coast Guard’s needs. Since some ships will always be in maintenance with ammunition removed, and others may be deployed where carrying the weapons would be counterproductive. The Coast Guard is unlikely to ever require more than about 50 missiles to meet its peacetime needs. A very rough estimate of LRASM unit cost would be something on the order of $2M to $5M each. That means the total cost of the missiles is likely between $100M and $250M. Adding launchers, control systems, and installations to cost would almost certainly be less than $500M. These costs would be spread over several years. This gives only an order of magnitude estimate, but it is several orders of magnitude less than the cost of other systems being deployed to protect the U.S. from attack.

Since the missiles, their launchers, and control systems are Navy type/Navy Owned equipment, the Navy would be responsible for paying for them. The cost of adding another four missiles per year for the Coast Guard to the Navy’s buy for LRASM could be lost in the rounding errors in the Navy budget.

For the Coast Guard, the program would probably require no more than 150 additional billets ashore and afloat. Not insignificant, but doable.

Conclusion

If the LRASM performs as advertised, its combination of range, warhead, and intelligent targeting may allow the Coast Guard’s small, but widely distributed force to effectively cover virtually the entire U.S. coast. 

 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: USCG National Security Cutter BERTHOLF. Photo: U.S. Department of Homeland Security. 

“A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority”–A Coastie’s View

By Chuck Hill

Recently the new Chief of Naval Operations issued a document “Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority” that outlines how, hopefully, the US Navy can maintain a maritime superiority our foes will recognize and avoid confronting.

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If you look for anything specifically regarding the Coast Guard here, you will not find it (other than the cutter in the formation on the cover). The Coast Guard is not mentioned even once, but it does talk about some things that are Coast Guard related. Perhaps the Coast Guard should not feel bad about this. It only mentions the Marine Corps once.

Three Forces that are Changing the Environment

  • The first global force is the traffic on the oceans, seas, and waterways, including the sea floor – the classic maritime system.
  • A second increasingly influential force is the rise of the global information system – the information that rides on the servers, undersea cables, satellites, and wireless networks that increasingly envelop and connect the globe.
  • The third interrelated force is the increasing rate of technological creation and adoption.

Obviously the Coast Guard facilitates and regulates marine traffic, and is tapped into the global information system. In wartime, these contacts will become essential since they will form the basis for naval control of shipping. He also talks about new trade routes opening in the Arctic. These will only be reliable if we have new icebreakers. He also talks about illegal trafficking.

“This maritime traffic also includes mass and uncontrolled migration and illicit shipment of material and people.”

A Document That Explicitly Recognizes the Competition

“For the first time in 25 years, the United States is facing a return to great power competition. Russia and China both have advanced their military capabilities to act as global powers. Their goals are backed by a growing arsenal of high-end warfighting capabilities, many of which are focused specifically on our vulnerabilities and are increasingly designed from the ground up to leverage the maritime, technological and information systems. They continue to develop and field information-enabled weapons, both kinetic and non-kinetic, with increasing range, precision and destructive capacity. Both China and Russia are also engaging in coercion and competition below the traditional thresholds of high-end conflict, but nonetheless exploit the weakness of accepted norms in space, cyber and the electromagnetic spectrum. The Russian Navy is operating with a frequency and in areas not seen for almost two decades, and the Chinese PLA(N) is extending its reach around the world.

“…Coupled with a continued dedication to furthering its nuclear weapons and missile programs, North Korea’s provocative actions continue to threaten security in North Asia and beyond.

“…while the recent international agreement with Iran is intended to curb its nuclear ambitions, Tehran’s advanced missiles, proxy forces and other conventional capabilities continue to pose threats to which the Navy must remain prepared to respond.

“…international terrorist groups have proven their resilience and adaptability and now pose a long-term threat to stability and security around the world.”

Recognizing Budgetary Limitations

“There is also a fourth ‘force’ that shapes our security environment. Barring an unforeseen change, even as we face new challenges and an increasing pace, the Defense and Navy budgets likely will continue to be under pressure. We will not be able to “buy” our way out of the challenges that we face. The budget environment will force tough choices but must also inspire new thinking.”

Throughout there is an emphasis on understanding history and the strategic concepts of the past. There is also a recognition of the need to work with partners.

“EXPAND AND STRENGTHEN OUR NETWORK OF PARTNERS: Deepen operational relationships with other services, agencies, industry, allies and partners – who operate with the Navy to support our shared interests.”

Other than the Marine Corps, the US Navy has no closer partner than the US Coast Guard. And while only about one eighth the size of the US Navy, in terms of personnel, the US Coast Guard is larger than Britain’s Royal Navy or the French Navy. The partnership has been a long and successful one, but I would like to see the Navy be a better partner to the Coast Guard. This is how the Navy can help the Coast Guard help the Navy. 

What I Want to See

If we have a “run out of money, now we have to think” situation, one thing we can do is to try to get the maximum return from the relatively small investment needed to make the Coast Guard an effective naval reserve force.

Webber Class WPC, USCGC Margaret Norvell
Webber Class WPC, USCGC Margaret Norvell

We need explicit support from the Navy at every level, particularly within Congress and the Administration, for Coast Guard recapitalization. While the Navy’s fleet averages approximately 14 years old. The Coast Guard’s major cutters average over 40. The proposed new ships, are more capable than those they replace. They are better able to work cooperatively with the Navy. The nine unit 4,500 ton “National Security Cutter” program is nearing completion with funds for the ninth ship in the FY2016 budget. The 58 unit, 154 foot, 353 ton Webber Class  program is well underway with 32 completed, building, or funded. But the Coast Guard is about to start its largest acquisition in history, 25 LCS sized Offshore Patrol Cutters. Unfortunately, it appears that while the first ship will be funded in FY2018 the last will not be completed until at least 2035. This program really needs to be accelerated. 

We need an explicit statement from the Navy that they expect the Coast Guard to defend ports against unconventional threats, so that they can keep more forces forward deployed. This is in fact the current reality. The Sea Frontiers are long gone. Navy vessels no longer patrol the US coast. The surface Navy is concentrated in only a handful of ports. No Navy surface combatants are homeported on the East Coast north of the Chesapeake Bay. If a vessel suspected of being under the control of terrorists approaches the US coast the nearest Navy surface vessel may be hundreds of miles away.  

We need the Navy to supply the weapons the Coast Guard need to defend ports against unconventional attack using vessels of any size, with a probability approaching 100%. These should include small missile systems like Hellfire or Griffin to stop small, fast, highly maneuverable threats and we need a ship stopper, probably a light weight anti-ship torpedoes that target propellers to stop larger threats. We need these systems on not just the largest cutters, in fact they are needed more by the the smaller cutters that are far more likely to be in a position to make a difference. These include the Webber class and perhaps even the smaller WPBs.

We need to reactivate the Coast Guard’s ASW program and ensure that all the new large cutters (National Security Cutters and Offshore Patrol Cutters) have an ASW capability, if not installed on all of the cutters, at least planned, prototyped, tested, and practiced on a few ships (particularly in the Pacific). The National Security Cutters and the Offshore Patrol Cutters are (or will be) capable of supporting MH-60R ASW helicopters. Adding a towed array like CAPTAS-4 (the basis for the LCS ASW module) or CAPTAS-2 would give them a useful ASW capability that could be used to escort ARGs, fleet train, or high value cargo shipments. Towed arrays might even help catch semi-submersible drug runners in peacetime. 

One of three contending designs for the Offshore Patrol Cutter
One of three contending designs for the planned 25 Offshore Patrol Cutters.

The Coast Guard is the low end of America’s Naval high-low mix. It is a source of  numbers when numbers are needed. The Coast Guard has more assets for low end functions like blockade than the Navy. The Navy has about 105 cruisers, destroyers, LCS, PCs, and is not expected to have more than 125 similar assets for the forseeable future. The Coast Guard has about 165 patrol cutters  including 75 patrol boats 87 feet long, about 50 patrol craft 110 to 154 feet in length (58 Webber class WPCs are planned), and about 40 ships 210 foot or larger that can be called on, just as they were during the Vietnam War, when the Coast Guard operated as many as 33 vessels off the coast in support of Operation MarketTime, in spite of the fact that the Navy had almost three times as many surface warships as they do now. The current program of record will provide 34 new generation cutters including nine 4500 ton National Security Cutters and 25 Offshore Patrol Cutters that should be at least 2500 tons.

The Coast Guard provides peacetime maritime security, but is currently under-armed even for this mission. A small investment could make it far more useful in wartime.

(Note here is another post on this looking at the “design” from a Navy point of view.)

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 normally writes for his blog, Chuck Hill’s CG blog.  

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Saudi Navy Expansion Program

By Chuck Hill

The Royal Saudi Navy is planning to replace virtually all of its Eastern Fleet. The expected price tag has been variously reported as between $11.25 and $20B. One of Saudi Arabia’s two fleets, the Eastern Fleet is based in the Persian Gulf and faces off squarely against Iran’s Navy and Revolutionary Guard Corp. The Western Fleet is based in the Red Sea and includes seven French built frigates.

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The existing Eastern fleet, all American built, includes four 75 meter (246 foot), 1,038 ton corvettes and nine 58 meter (190 feet), 495 ton guided missile boats. All are nearing the end of their useful lives, having entered service in the early ’80s.

It appears Saudi Arabia is again looking to the US to build this new fleet, reportedly buying  four up-rated Lockheed Martin Freedom Class Littoral Combat Ships.  While these ships have been much in the news, they are only part of a much larger program.

In February Defense News reported that Saudi Arabia had sent a letter of request to the US Navy that outlined the entire program.  It specified:

  • Four 3,500-ton “frigate-like warships” capable of anti-air warfare, armed with an eight-to-16-cell vertical launch system (VLS) capable of launching Standard SM-2 missiles; fitted with an “Aegis or like” combat system using “SPY-1F or similar” radars; able to operate Sikorsky MH-60R helicopters; with a speed of 35 knots.
  • Six 2,500-ton warships with combat systems compatible with the frigates, able to operate MH-60R helos.
  • 20 to 24 fast patrol vessels about 40 to 45 meters long, powered by twin diesels.
  • 10 “maritime helicopters” with characteristics identical to the MH-60R.
  • Three maritime patrol aircraft for coastal surveillance.
  • 30 to 50 UAVs, some for maritime use, some to be shore-based.

This shopping list sounds remarkably specific. This suggest that they already have a good idea what they expect to buy.

Four 3,500-ton “frigate-like warships”

Plans have firmed up for the four frigates. While they will not have the Aegis like radars they will have a, “…16-cell (Mk41) VLS installation able to launch Evolved Sea Sparrow missiles, and will carry Harpoon Block II surface-to-surface missiles in dedicated launchers, and anti-air Rolling Airframe Missiles in a SeaRAM close-in weapon system. The MMSC will also mount a 76mm gun… a Lockheed Martin COMBATSS-21 combat management system, which shares some commonality with the much larger Aegis combat system, and feature the Cassidian TRS-4D C-band radar.”

Six 2,500-ton warships with combat systems compatible with the frigates, able to operate MH-60R helos.

The design for the six smaller ships hasn’t been discussed openly, so this is a bit of speculation, but at least I think we can expect something like this. The video below, from Swiftship, recently appeared without much explanation.  The similarity in design to the Freedom class is striking and it claims to be a proven hull form. If Marinette Marine is too busy to build these smaller ships in addition to the LCS and the Saudi Frigates, having Swiftships build them might be a way have having them delivered relatively quickly and it looks like it might fit the description. Note there is no mention of an ASW capability for these ships (other than the ability to embark an MH-60R). This parallels the current fleet structure where only the four largest vessels have an ASW capability and the next largest class vessels do not.

Swiftships has a record of selling vessels through “Foreign Military Sales” and the vessel in the video shares a number of systems in common with the projected Saudi frigates including a 76mm gun, RAM missiles, MH-60s, and possibly Harpoon (they show only a generic representation of an ASCM).

20 to 24 fast patrol vessels about 40 to 45 meters long, powered by twin diesels.

A likely choice for the patrol boat is this one, eight of which were sold to Pakistan. Reportedly these 43 meter, 143 foot vessels can make 34 knots and operate a ScanEagle UAS.

Westport143
Westport Yachts photo

Another possibility is this 43.5 meter vessel that was provided to Lebanon under FMS.

RiverHawk-LCSC-42

Both of these PCs have the capability to stern launch an RHIB.

10 “maritime helicopters” with characteristics identical to the MH-60R.

A request for ten MH-60Rs was submitted earlier and has been approved by the State Department.

Included in the buy of the helicopters are, “one-thousand (1,000) AN/SSQ-36/53/62 Sonobuoys; thirty-eight (38) AGM-114R Hellfire II missiles; five (5) AGM-114 M36-E9 Captive Air Training missiles; four (4) AGM-114Q Hellfire Training Missiles; three-hundred eighty (380) Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System rockets; twelve (12) M-240D crew served weapons; and twelve (12) GAU-21 crew served weapons.”

I note that the 380 Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System (APKWS) semi-active laser homing 70mm rockets is exactly the number to fill twenty 19 round launchers. These weapons are probably an ideal counter to the much vaunted Iranian “swarm.”

Three maritime patrol aircraft for coastal surveillance:

These are almost certainly P-8s.

30 to 50 UAVs, some for maritime use, some to be shore-based:

While there is no indication which system is favored.  This sounds like too many systems for Firescout.

ScanEagle or one of Insitu’s slightly larger systems seems more likely, and if the Swiftships Offshore Patrol Vessel video is any indication, it includes a ScanEagle launch and recovery.

Conclusion:

This will be a major upgrade to the Saudi fleet that should allow them to maintain an advantage relative to the Iranian Fleet.

  • The ships and patrol boats will be three to five times larger than those they replace and far more survivable.
  • Fleet air defense systems which have been limited to 76mm guns and Phalanx CIWS will get a basic local area defense in the form of Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile, which will be backed up by rolling airframe missiles.
  • ASW  capability will take a quantum leap with the addition of the three Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA), the ten MH-60R.
  • The Eastern fleet was relatively well equipped to target larger surface targets with a total of 68 Harpoon launch tubes on the existing ships, but they were less well equipped to deal with numerous Iranian small craft.  MH-60Rs  armed with Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System guided rockets should provide an effective counter to Iran’s swarm strategy.
  • MPA and Unmanned systems will enhance ISR capability.
  • The larger patrol craft should significantly improve maritime security.
  • According to my “Combat Fleets of the World,” the Saudi Navy has a Marine Corp of 3,000, but their only Amphibious Warfare ships are four LCUs and two LCMs. The addition of at least 30 ships with RHIBs, assuming the patrol craft have this capability, should allow the Saudi Navy to consider at least small scale raids and other forms of maritime Special Ops. If the six 2500 ton ships are configured like the ship in Swiftships video, with four RHIBs, it would seem particularly appropriate for this role.  The addition of ten helicopter decks where there were none before also opens up options for these types of operations.

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 normally writes for his blog, Chuck Hill’s CG blog.  

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