Written by Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft.
Twenty miles east of the Dominican Republic, the Coast Guard Cutter Charles Sexton rescued 117 people from a dangerously overcrowded makeshift craft. Hours later, the Coast Guard Cutter Stratton interdicted $14 million worth of cocaine and apprehended three suspected smugglers. In two days, on two coasts, two assets proved the multi-mission might of the U.S. Coast Guard as crews saved lives, secured our border and severed cash flows to a transnational criminal enterprise.
The Charles Sexton, a 154-foot fast response cutter, and the Stratton, a 418-foot national security cutter, are part of the Coast Guard’s persistent presence, patrolling and protecting more than 95,000 miles of coastline and 4.5 million square miles of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone – home to our Nation’s precious resources, including our oil, natural gas, fish and mineral reserves. The vastness of this area, paired with our array of missions, requires a network of Coast Guard surface and air assets on shore and at sea to preserve America’s security and prosperity.
Missing from this network – the necessary link between the national security cutter’s open ocean endurance and the fast response cutter’s littoral presence – is the offshore patrol cutter. The offshore patrol cutter will promote governance and provide capability on our oceans – the gateway for U.S. economic growth, opportunity and prosperity. It is here, beyond 50 nautical miles from U.S. shores, where national interests in the U.S. maritime domain require the Coast Guard’s unique blend of authorities. And, it is the offshore patrol cutter that will protect our sovereign interests, enforce laws, save lives, protect fisheries, secure offshore energy resources and provide command and control for major response and contingency operations.
Currently, the 1960s-era 210-foot and the 1980s-era 270-foot medium endurance cutters are the link between the Coast Guard’s national security cutters and fast response cutters. However, this link is under untenable strain, characterized by decreasing readiness and skyrocketing maintenance costs. In the last two years, four of these aging ships had to be pulled out of service for emergency repairs, straining our ability to support and maintain other ships and aircraft, impacting crew safety and quality of life and diminishing the Coast Guard’s ability to project U.S. authorities and respond to crisis in the maritime domain. This past weekend, I went aboard our newest medium endurance cutter, Coast Guard Cutter Mohawk in Key West, Florida. Mohawk was commissioned in 1991 and will continue to serve our Nation until it is replaced with the next generation of offshore patrol cutters close to five decades after she began her service.
I carried these thoughts with me as I set foot aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Robert Yered, one of our newest fast response cutters. Leaping forward nearly half a century from our oldest ships, the Robert Yered’s modern, high-tech systems are fully interoperable with our partners in the interagency and international community as it executes missions across our littorals. This nimble fast response cutter is not, however, without its limitations. It cannot launch and recover aircraft – a necessary capability in the Coast Guard’s operational network of assets – and has limited range and endurance relative to our major cutters. The Coast Guard must have flight deck capable ships with robust command and control capabilities exactly where we need them, from the farthest reaches of the transit zone off of Central America to our northernmost borders off of Alaska. The offshore patrol cutter is designed to fill this need.
Our aging platforms do not suffer from neglect. Coast Guard men and women consistently demonstrate exceptional commitment and innovation to sustain a medium endurance cutter fleet that has served admirably for more than five decades. In fact, our first medium endurance cutter went to sea the very same year the first Mustang rolled off Ford’s assembly lines. Unlike antique cars, however, which are often restored at great expense and used for the occasional fair weather Sunday drive, the increasingly expensive ships of America’s Coast Guard are painstakingly maintained and regularly put to work in the harshest maritime conditions.
Indeed, not having reliable use of these aged medium endurance cutters, the linchpin of our operational network, puts us at a disadvantage at a time when we are needed most. Given the complex threats facing the Nation today, we simply do not have the luxury of storing them in the garage.
The U.S. Coast Guard has a proud history spanning nearly 225 years. We have won federal acquisition awards, maintained clean financial audits and earned a reputation for responsible stewardship. We cannot afford to dull our operational edge and jeopardize our Service to Nation any longer. The Nation deserves better, and the offshore patrol cutter is the answer.