Office of Naval Engineering,
Systems Management Branch
Pine Bluff, Arkansas; Dubuque, Iowa; and Sewickley, Pennsylvania, likely aren’t the first places that come to mind when you think of the U.S. Coast Guard, but look close enough and you’ll find a little piece of the service in each of these cities. From homeports in over 30 cities throughout the interior of the United States, as well as on the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf Coasts, a venerable fleet of vessels reliably provide vital support to the maritime commerce industry. Operating hundreds, even thousands of miles from the nearest ocean, these cutters quietly ensure the safe passage of hundreds of millions of tons of cargo and keep the interior of the United States “Open for Business.”
The Coast Guard’s Inland Fleet is made up of 35 vessels across nine cutter classes. This patchwork collection of cutters is split into three major groupings: Inland Buoy Tenders (WLIs) that services floating Aids to Navigation (AtoN) in inland and coastal waterways; Inland Construction Tenders (WLICs) that constructs and services fixed AtoN in inland and coastal waterways; and River Buoy Tenders (WLRs) that positions and services floating and fixed AtoN on navigable rivers throughout the country. The cutters come in a variety of shapes and sizes; they range in length from 65 to 160 feet, and some push barges with additional equipment for recovering, storing, repairing, construction, and deploying AtoN. One characteristic that ties them together is their age; the Inland Fleet is the Coast Guard’s oldest, and almost all of these vessels are operating well past their designed 30-year service life. The average age of the fleet is 52 years old, and some vessels are considerably older than that. The 73-year-old Coast Guard Cutter Smilax (WLIC 315) is considered the current “Queen of the Fleet” – an honor given to the oldest commissioned cutter and denoted by gold hull numbers in place of the standard white.
Because of these vessels’ age, they present unique problems in terms of maintenance and sustainability. Aside from increased wear and tear on older assets, the Coast Guard has experienced issues with limited maneuverability, power capacity, and obsolete equipment. In order to keep these cutters operational, the Coast Guard’s Surface Forces Logistics Center (SFLC) Icebreaker, Buoy, Construction Tender (IBCT) Project Line provides around-the-clock maintenance, engineering and logistics support. Every year, millions of dollars of planned and unplanned maintenance and repair work is scheduled and executed at marine repair facilities throughout the country, and military and contracted technical experts spend thousands of hours troubleshooting and assisting shipboard crews with equipment repairs. Additionally, between 2007 and 2016, the Coast Guard undertook a major project known as the Inland River Tenders’ Emergency Subsystem Sustainment (IRESS) to address some of the most serious engineering shortcomings of three classes of Inland Fleet cutters. The IRESS project recapitalized numerous equipment systems, including the Power Train (main diesel engines, reduction gears, shafts, propellers, rudders, steering gear, grid coolers, and engine room ventilation), Engine Room Fire Suppression System, electrical plant, and auxiliary/mission equipment. The completion of this project allows the Coast Guard to operate and maintain these vessels more safely and within budget levels, but it is not a permanent solution.
The Coast Guard is currently in the early stages of an Inland River and Construction Tender Recapitalization program to correct deficiencies through the procurement of a fleet of new, more capable, inland river cutters. These new vessels will allow the Coast Guard to continue to meet its organizational mandate of maintaining aids to navigation system throughout the nation’s inland waters and river systems for the foreseeable future, and will ensure the continued economic growth of the country.
The Coast Guard’s Inland Fleet provides a vital service to the United States through its work in maintaining fixed and floating aids to navigation along coastlines and riverbanks throughout the country. Hundreds of Coast Guard members tirelessly battle with outdated equipment and substandard accommodations to ensure the mission is completed. As the Coast Guard continues to modernize its assets, replacing the Inland Fleet is a necessity to ensure the service can remain Semper Paratus in all of its missions.