Written by Cmdr. Rick Wester.
Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp provided a current update on the status of Coast Guard cutter recapitalization efforts at the 25th Annual Surface Navy Association Symposium in Arlington, Va., on Jan. 17.
Addressing a crowd, including both Coast Guard cuttermen and Navy surface warfare officers, the Commandant described how maritime countries have shown an increasing emphasis on a “maritime governance” approach using law enforcement authorities in contrast to the traditional Mahanian “control of the sea” approach to ensure safety, security and prosperity.
“We have the tradition of working very closely with the Navy, but we have different jobs to do and we both need to do them to the best of our ability,” said the Commandant. “We have the best Navy in the world and I’m confident we have the best Coast Guard, and we need the best Coast Guard for these day-to-day maritime governance operations.”
An important aspect of maritime governance is the Coast Guard’s layered security strategy with a goal of addressing threats as far away from our shores as possible.
“Right now we are in the process of replacing our cutters in all three layers,” the Commandant said. “Many of these ships are over 40 years old, way past the time to be retired, and we need to be about the business of replacing them.”
Fast response cutters are replacing the aging 110-foot patrol boats as a primary asset in the U.S. territorial sea, the first layer. Further offshore in the second layer – the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone – offshore patrol cutters will in the coming years begin to replace the less capable medium endurance cutters. On the high seas – the third layer – high endurance cutters, some of which are so old they saw action in the Vietnam War, are being replaced by much more advanced and capable national security cutters.
In today’s interconnected world, the Commandant explained, the “entrances to our ports” can be on the other side of the globe in Singapore and other countries that ship directly to the United States. As a result, it is more important than ever to have large, sturdy, technologically-advanced ships like the national security cutter to withstand high seas operations in the Pacific Ocean, Bering Sea, North Atlantic and even the Arctic to enforce all applicable laws and treaties.
Due to melting sea ice, maritime activity is increasing off the North Slope of Alaska. Areas of maritime activity in U.S. waters typically have a Coast Guard presence for prevention and response operations, but that area lacks support infrastructure. This past summer, Bertholf, the first national security cutter, filled that gap.
“Our nearest Coast Guard airstation in Kodiak is 1000 miles away. For logistics, the nearest big port is Dutch Harbor which is 1200 miles away,” said the Commandant. “So what we did this past summer was station Bertholf up there to serve as a ‘transportable Coast Guard sector’ because quite frankly it has better command and control capabilities than any shore station in the Coast Guard.”
The Coast Guard recapitalization plan includes eight 418-foot national security cutters to replace 12 378-ft. high endurance cutters. So far, three are serving in the fleet, the fourth, Hamilton, and fifth, James, are being built and a contract has been awarded for long lead time materials for the sixth.
The national security cutter program has also received interest from Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey. “One of the things we always talk about as service chiefs is [that] we need to provide the nation as many options as possible,” the Chairman said. “And getting to know what the Coast Guard can bring to the issue of national security has interested me greatly.”
For fast response cutters, 18 of a planned 58 are funded so far. Three are in service, another was recently delivered and will be commissioned next month, nine are in production and five are in preproduction. The request for proposal period for the offshore patrol cutter preliminary and contract design closes out Jan. 23.
“Whether building ships for the most powerful Navy or the most competent Coast Guard in the world, the ships need to be worthy of having the name ‘United States of America’ associated with them,” the Commandant said.
The Commandant also updated the audience on the status of the heavy polar icebreaking fleet. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star, the most powerful conventionally-powered icebreaker in the world, is being reactivated. The Coast Guard has requested funding to begin the initial design stages for a replacement heavy icebreaker.
“The admiral answered a lot of questions that have been on our members’ minds recently,” said Capt. Matt Gimple a member of the Coast Guard Cuttermen Association. “This is also a rare opportunity to network with our Navy counterparts who share many of the same concerns.”