In Dire Need: Why The Coast Guard Needs the LCS

By James Martin and Jasper Campbell

In the spring of 2021, defense-minded internet message boards and social media were ablaze at headlines that the U.S. Navy would be decommissioning the first hulls of the decade-old Littoral Combat Ship (LCS).1 A chorus of “good riddance” posts and thought pieces followed. Though the Navy maintains it intends to keep using both Independence and Freedom variants of the LCS, it is no secret that the program has been beleaguered with class-wide mechanical issues.2 As many in naval thought circles lament and debate what the Navy will do in the way of near shore combatants in contested waters, a unique opportunity has emerged for the U.S. Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard is currently in the throes of one of the largest asset recapitalizations in its history. 9 of 11 National Security Cutters (NSCs) and 40 of 64 planned Fast Response Cutters (FRCs) are in service, and 25 Offshore Patrol Cutters (OPCs) are planned.3 The service also plans to acquire 6 icebreakers and a fleet of waterways commerce cutters.3 Based on a legacy fleet size circa 2007, this profound growth represents a 20% increase in cutters.4 But is this sufficient, given the global demand signal for the unique combination of soft power, capabilities, authorities, and agreements the Coast Guard brings to the national security table?5 This demand is compounding yearly, with the service continuing their obligations in the Polar Regions and the Middle East, alongside new commitments in the Indo-Pacific, Oceania, and Mediterranean.6

The Coast Guard’s acquisition boom will simply replace its legacy stable of assets; if the service expects to operate successfully as a global representative of U.S. interests, it will need every additional hull it can get. While the fraught LCS program leads many to ponder its future in the Navy, the Coast Guard could inherit a boon in the now 31-hull LCS program and close this gap.

Not as Ridiculous as it Seems!

On its face, the Coast Guard accepting a problematic class of ships from the Navy is foolhardy and irresponsible. After all, why does the Coast Guard need an LCS fleet when the OPC, slated to replace the current medium endurance cutter fleet, is scheduled to come online in 2022? When one peels back the layers, the OPC becomes less of an immediate salve. The first OPC Argus is still very much under construction at the small Florida-based Easter Shipbuilding.7 24 more ships are planned at $441 million a piece, but the contract will likely be rebid at other shipyards with the possibility for growth on the initial cost per vessel.7

With this in mind, it would be rash to assume at the very outset of a 25-hull acquisition program that the next sixteen years of shipbuilding will be executed without a hitch and on schedule. This does not account for further casualties befalling the ancient Reliance and Famous-class cutters, which are nearing 70 and 30 years of age, respectively.8 One need only look back to the NSC acquisition program’s not insignificant cost overruns, delays, and rework to get a feel for how the OPC acquisition program may progress. The risk grows quickly when one considers it would not take much of a production delay or too many debilitating casualties to place the aging medium endurance cutter fleet at a significant deficit.

While the Freedom-class variant of the LCS has faced myriad mechanical issues, one need only look to the history of the nearly 70-year-old Reliance-class cutters for a blueprint of how the Coast Guard could turn the LCS program around to the benefit of the service. In its original conception, the 210-foot Reliance-class was designed with a Combined Diesel and Gas (CODAG) propulsion system.9 Just four years into the program, the Coast Guard scrapped this more complicated system in favor of a simpler, “bullet-proof” diesel power plant.9 Though the cutters have since undergone mid-service life overhauls, similar diesel power plants still drive the cutters today, powering the full spectrum of Coast Guard missions.

Conveniently, the long suffering LCS employs a similar CODAG system.9 It is not far-fetched to conceive that the Coast Guard would be able to reconfigure the complicated and electrically dependent LCS propulsion system for a fraction of the OPC’s cost. When one considers that the Coast Guard’s annual budget hovers around $12 billion and factors in the simultaneous recapitalization of several ship classes at once, taking on the LCS program would save the service precious resources for other priorities. By reconfiguring the ships, the Coast Guard would likely eliminate several of the outstanding complaints of the LCS, including maintenance costs and woefully short endurance.

The simpler power plant configuration would eliminate byzantine electrical problems and reduce maintenance to the size and scope of modern Coast Guard platforms, such as the NSC. Second, by jettisoning the fuel hungry CODAG plant, the LCS would have significantly more endurance to carry out the spectrum of Coast Guard missions. Originally conceived to operate at sprint speeds in world’s maritime flash points, the LCS would still be able to achieve respectable speeds without requiring weekly stops for fuel or the support of an oiler to be successful at its assigned mission.10 Critics would do well to note that the OPC was designed with no turbines and a max speed of 20 knots, because the Coast Guard determined these speeds would not be needed for the OPCs mission set.11 Essentially, an LCS power plant reconfiguration would result in no significant loss of capability relative to intended future medium endurance cutter performance.

Taken in sum, these considerations illuminate that the prospect of the Coast Guard inheriting the 31-hull LCS program is not as fanciful as it might seem at first blush.

We Have Done it Before

Repurposing a highly capable Navy platform for the Coast Guard mission set is not a new idea. In March of 2000, a Coast Guard crew painted the trademark racing stripe on a 179-foot Navy Cyclone-class patrol ship, originally the USS Cyclone, and renamed it the USCGC Cyclone (WPC 1). Cyclone served as a Coast Guard cutter for four years, during which its capabilities in performing Coast Guard missions were thoroughly tested. Clearly, the assessment was a positive one, as four more Navy Cyclone-class platforms were commissioned as Coast Guard cutters in 2004, enjoying up to seven years of service. While not particularly enduring by Coast Guard standards, the Cyclone-class’ tenure with the Coast Guard is generally perceived positively; the platform’s speed and maneuverability are frequently cited as advantages.12

Beyond immediate use, it is clear that the Cyclone’s stint with the Coast Guard served a broader impact. Compared side by side, the Cyclone and later commissioned Sentinel-class (FRCs) possess a remarkable number of shared characteristics — similar tonnage, dimensions, crew compliment, and endurance — all indications that operators saw value in the platform (short of the precision-guided munitions and grenade launchers). It is likely a number of characteristics and associated requirements, gleaned from Coast Guardsmen’s experience on the Cyclone-class eventually made their way into the FRC’s final specifications. Beyond just decreasing the gap between demands on the service and available assets to satisfy it, the LCS would prove an extremely fruitful testbed for informing future acquisitions.

Pathway to Success

While fiscal practicality is a fine reason for the Coast Guard to consider taking on the fraught LCS program, there are positive practical considerations for implementing the transition as well. Despite headlines lamenting its shortcomings, the LCS has enjoyed success in the U.S. Southern Command area of responsibility conducting one of the mainstays of the Coast Guard mission-set: Counter Narcotics enforcement.13 Additionally, provided the aforementioned mechanical issues could be addressed, a 31-strong LCS fleet would be available for relatively immediate transition, allowing the Coast Guard to scale operations more rapidly than if constrained by the OPC’s projected acquisition cycle.

As the Coast Guard has proved its utility in the global arena, its mission set has grown to be viewed as a potent combination of diplomatic soft power and military hard power. Combined with hyper-competent mariners and unique law enforcement capabilities, the Coast Guard has never been in greater demand. It is ideally suited to perform the largely constabulary and diplomatic missions required in the Polar regions, Middle East, Indo-Pacific, Central and South America, Africa’s Western and Eastern coasts, and Mediterranean. This paradigm shift will unburden the U.S. Navy to focus on the high-end warfighting.

With the specter of strategic competition looming over the world’s maritime flashpoints, a Coast Guard manned and reconfigured LCS fleet may be the proverbial “easy button” to meeting the unprecedented demands on the service without waiting 10-15 years for the realization of a fully-fledged OPC program. In a dynamic global environment where the Coast Guard has ever new commitments on the horizon, taking a chance on an asset like the LCS represents a prudent exercise in strategic risk management. After all, beggars can’t be choosers, and in today’s security environment, neither can the Coast Guard.

Lieutenant James Martin is a Coast Guard Cutterman who has served aboard three Coast Guard cutters, including as commanding officer of the USCGC Ibis (WPB-87338). He holds a bachelor’s degree with honors in naval architecture and marine engineering from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

Lieutenant Jasper Campbell served on active duty for six years in the afloat and C5I communities. He is currently on a sabbatical, launching a technology startup, and hopes to return to sea in 2023 upon resuming active duty. He holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.


2. Russell, J. A. (2020). Twenty-First Century Innovation Pathways for the U.S. Navy in the Age of Competition. Naval War College Review, Summer 2020(73), number 3.

Featured Image: December 2019 – The littoral combat ship USS St. Louis (LCS 19) during acceptance trials. (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

6 thoughts on “In Dire Need: Why The Coast Guard Needs the LCS”

  1. – Freedom gets 14-15 knots on diesels and unless you put tanks where the MT30s are it doesn’t have enough gas to go anywhere even on just diesels, and sure doesn’t have enough gas for the air assets to boot. Indy’s could get 20 on the diesels. If you go diesel you don’t need the water jets or the hull form.
    – No stabilization system and you won’t be able to launch boats as easily in higher sea states.
    – No haul down system that actually sticks the helo to the deck.
    – Undermanned and can’t meet even its own lesser endurance standard.
    – Annual operating cost may get better but won’t be great.
    -Takes our combined fleet longer to figure out how to build good ships again. You are giving the Navy a chance to build more garbage and taking the chance for the Coast Guard to build better ships.

    OPC is designed for 22.5 sustained, still faster than an LCS on diesel. If that needs improved do a minor hull stretch and drop in the 20 valve engines. You can also double up the electric motors. Give about 24.5 knots sustained.

    I’d rather have the Navy hand the Coast Guard an ask of what gear they need and let the Coast Guard work with industry to design the platform.

    1. Hey Andy! I really appreciate the feedback! I think your last bullet regarding delaying a return to acquiring and building superior hulls is a really excellent point. Accepting mediocrity certainly tends to bear more mediocrity, to be sure.

      And we generally agree with you that the LCS isn’t an *ideal* platform for the USCG, but are trying to put across the notion that so long as the sea services remain underfunded, we need to be extremely pragmatic about decommissioning full classes of ships when useful life may still be squeezed out of them.

      Again, thanks for the feedback!

  2. In the early 80’s the idea of using the FFG-7 class ships as Coast Guard cutters was tossed around. They were not very popular with the navy till we deployed them. Then the navy loved them because they turned out to be very robust.
    I wish i had the article to forward to you.

  3. Which part of “United States COAST Guard” is so hard to understand? The “United” part? surely not the “States” or ‘Coast” Those are clearly defined. As for “Guard”, that does seem to pertain clearly to the “Coast” of those “States” the may or may not seem very united right now. No way are “global” responsibilities associated with guarding the coast of the United States Western Hemispheric, maybe Not global. Not at all.

    And no Diego Garcia, American Samoa and and Okinawa are not “States”. If those places need some protection, we have a Navy to provide it.

    The USCG needs to take on the loser LCS hulls and tasking just slightly less than they need to be enforcing UN mandates anywhere. Suggesting that the LCS (both classes) should continue to be fobbed off on the US taxpayers is beyond crazy, it is recommending stinking corruptocrat theft.

    Build some cost-effective ice breakers and revenue cutters. Tell the Coasties that pregnant sailors don’t get to re enlist, and the rest are eligible to patrol as needed, not as convenient for said CG sailors.

    The Navy can handle minesweeping ASW and any forced boardings of enemy combat ships needed.

  4. The LCS is a is not a good fit for the USN or USCG. As has been pointed out in prior posts they do not have the weapons, range, seakeeping or flexibility for any useful mission. The LCS was a fatally falawed idea that resulted in a strong candidate for the most useless warship (boat) built by any Navy. They have cost the Navy and in turn US tax payers a lot of money for no return. Mothballing them still cost money and makes no sense for warships that have no purpose. The best thing to do is to sell both types to anyone that wants them at bargain basement prices. At least this will allow the USN to recover some of the funds it put into LCS plus private industry can make money providing parts and service. The LCS might even find a useful role with the Scandinavian Navys as a coast defense ship.

  5. Fellow Coastie here. I know I’m a year late to this thread but…

    I remember hearing this idea kicked around in 2016 while I was aboard a 210 in the Pacific Northwest. At the time I cringed at the thought of adopting the Navy’s boondoggle. However, after serving aboard a 50 year old ship that might see 80 years before she retires I could see the Coast Guard making something out of the Freedom Class LCS. Our engineering officer and I talked at length about what it would take to make a 210 a “Hundred Year” cutter. I think some of those ideas are applicable here.

    – Strip out ALL, and I mean ALL of the Navy hardware that the Coast Guard doesn’t already have in inventory. The Navy will throw an entire shop with an attendant LTJG at a problem the Coast Guard typically hands off to a hungover E5 with an E4 and two non-rates too young to drink. We just don’t have the human capital to do things the Navy way. The fewer (more importantly simpler) product lines we have to support the better.

    – Repower the ships with modular diesel electric drive systems. I know chasing sparky can be harder to diagnose than a bad con-rod or fouled top side lube pump on an Alco, but it is way easier to do an electric motor swap or to dismantle a genset for upgrades when you don’t have to cut out sections of the hull. Fire gets easier to control too if generators are in their own isolated spaces like on the NSCs instead of massive main spaces like on the 210s, 270s, and 378s.

    – Install bolt patches and chain hoist ceiling rails that can transition watertight doors to ease the upgrade and engineering maintenance process. Again, to avoid cutting away hull sections in dry dock and facilitate moving heavy equipment around. Look up the time lapse video of CGC Edisto double engine replacement. Having gone through two 210 dry dock periods, I think it’s amazing to watch.

    – Focus on endurance and comfort where the crew is concerned. You can have all the fuel you want, but if you haven’t got room for dry stores or refer/freezer space you’re making port calls twice as often. The black and grey water tanks on our 210 was way too small too, come to think of it. I spoke with a guy who did a tour on a cyclone class boat and his two complaints were lack of food stores and the insane heat from the engines. The HVAC on our 210 was adequate but the OPCEN was an oven on eastpac patrols; not good for servers.

    – Reduce the number of redundant systems/services supported by differing product lines. For example; ships service air, steering pneumatics, diesel air start, and Damage Control SCBA air packs all operate at different air pressures. Aboard our cutter they all had their own compressors. WHY? If we’re going to have four compressors onboard a ship that small why not go with the highest pressure one and step down the pressure as needed for the other systems? One product line, quadruple redundancy.

    – For the love of God and all that is Holy, install a brig of some description. If not a brig at least a dedicated means of handling detainees or combatant AMIO persons. Detainee watch is a misery and a half and it only gets worse with helo ops.

    – Lastly, find a practical place for a single point davit to pick heavy things out of the water, off of small boats, and to handle supplies/bales in port. It came in handy more often than not aboard the cutter, it just wasn’t in a convenient spot.

    Apologies for the rant.

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