By Taylor Feuss
As the Coast Guard takes delivery of its fifth national security cutter, some advocates are calling for the program to be extended.
The USCGC James (WMSL-754) is scheduled to be commissioned Aug. 8 in Boston. It is one of eight new cutters. Three more are expected through 2019, and are fully funded. However, the Coast Guard in 2009 and 2011 fleet mix analyses documents called for nine ships.
“I’m all for a ninth national security cutter,” said Brian Slattery, defense and security studies research associate for the Heritage Foundation’s center for foreign and national security policy. “It would be a big win to get a ninth national security cutter in the fleet. [They] have shown progress for the entire Coast Guard and …will play an integral part in the Coast Guard’s day-to-day operations.”
Acquisition of nine NSCs, rather than eight, would reduce risk and fulfill increasing mission requirements, according to the analyses.
At 418 feet, the Legend-class ships are 40 feet longer than the aging Hamilton-class ships they are replacing. Designed with post-9/11 requirements, the new ships have a range of 12,000-miles, 28-knot top speed, can sail for 60 to 90 days and carries a 120-person crew, according to the Coast Guard.
“The ship has a great endurance and a pretty substantial range. They expand the operating envelope,” said Derek Murphy, national security cutter program manager at Huntington Ingalls Industries shipbuilding division. Feedback has been“absolutely stellar” and has “exceeded everybody’s expectations with the capability and quality of what this ship brings to the table,” he added.
Slattery said a ninth national security cutter would be “more prudent,” because it would enable shorter deployments and increase time for maintenance. “The fleet would be healthier as a whole over the long run,” he added.
Without a ninth, maintenance issues could potentially arise as demand on the Coast Guard, which includes counter narcotics missions, is “only increasing.” Especially in places like the Arctic, Latin America, the South Pacific and the Caribbean. “More Coast Guard vessels will be necessary,” Slattery said.
Acquisition “dries up with NSC eight,” Murphy added.
“That would be my greatest concern … shutting down an extremely efficient production line. When you have a hot production line that’s extremely efficient you want to continue that,” Murphy said.
Though the Legend-class fleet has more advanced capabilities than the 12 Hamilton-class ships it is replacing, a discrepancy of four remains, Murphy said.
But, eight NSCs are all that remain on contract under the Coast Guard’s surface fleet program of record, a recapitalization plan which includes the addition of the eight NSCs, 25 offshore patrol cutters and 58 fast response cutters, the Coast Guard stated.
“The [program of record] provides the capabilities needed to execute our missions. While these assets have proven to be highly effective and capable, the Coast Guard has not identified a need for additional NSCs at this time,” said a Coast Guard spokesman Chief Warrant Officer Chad Saylor.
Slattery noted that the program of record has not been changed since its creation in 2008 even though subsequent fleet mix analyses stated that eight ships would be insufficient.
This may be due to the “acceptance of the availability of funds” that the Coast Guard thought they would receive, because the NSC is “relatively expensive,” Slattery said.
“I think … they were hesitant to request a ninth even though a lot of people believe that it’s the more appropriate fleet number for this vessel,” Slattery said.
Adm. Peter Brown, Coast Guard assistant commandant for response policy, said at a recent Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing, that the service is constantly challenged to keep its assets in working condition. The service will soon embark on one of its most expensive acquisition programs, the offshore patrol cutter, which will replace aging 270- and 210-foot cutters.
The Coast Guard will spend some $12.1 billion to acquire the offshore patrol cutters.
Huntington Ingalls shipbuilding plans to deliver the final three Legend-class ships — Munro, Kimball and Midgett — to the Coast Guard by 2019, Murphy said. The ships will join the already operational NSCs Bertholf, Waesche, Stratton and Hamilton, Coast Guard officials said. Photo: The National Security Cutter James sails away from Ingalls Shipbuilding (Huntington Ingalls)