Twelve for Twelve: Congress Needs to Fund Another National Security Cutter

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The U.S. Coast Guard is in the midst of an unprecedented modernization effort. It is completely replacing its existing ships, acquiring new heavy polar icebreakers, expanding procurement of the Legend-class National Security Cutter (NSC), beginning production of the Offshore Patrol Cutter and starting to build the first of nearly 60 Fast Response Cutters. The Coast Guard is also acquiring new aircraft and, for the first time, planning to deploy unmanned aerial vehicles aboard its ships. It is vital that Congress fully supports this effort, including by providing funding for a twelfth NSC.

The Coast Guard’s push for modernization of its platforms and systems is coming just in time. The challenges faced by the Coast Guard, including increasing drug trafficking, human smuggling, predation against this country’s fisheries and maritime resources, changes to the environment and international challenges from great power competitors are growing. For too long, the Coast Guard has been stressed to meet these threats with ships and planes that are aging and increasingly obsolescent. As Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Karl Shultz made clear in his 2018 State of the Coast Guard address: “Our missions have never been more relevant or demanding than today; however, we face very real readiness challenges – so much so, that we’re approaching a tipping point. Coast Guard men and women are doing more and more, in increasingly complex and dangerous environments, with aging platforms and infrastructure.”

Yet, the Coast Guard is being asked to manage the near-total transformation of its fleet and maintain its readiness with an inadequate budget. Its proposed Fiscal Year 2020 budget is a 7.6 percent decrease over the previous year’s level, including a $1 billion decline in its ship procurement account. Given the growing international threat environment and its expanding mission requirements, the Coast Guard’s modernization and readiness budget needs to be substantially increased, not decreased.

A significant element of the Coast Guard’s modernization effort is the new Legend-class NSC. The NSC is a major leap forward in almost all respects in comparison to the ships it is replacing. The larger (418-foot) NSC provides better seakeeping and higher sustained transit speeds than its predecessor with greater endurance and range. This means it can spend more time-on-station, cover a larger patrol area and respond to more emergencies.

The new NSC is a remarkable platform with state-of-the-art systems. It can deploy not only a combination of helicopters and drones but also rigid-hull inflatable boats to conduct intercept missions. The Legend-class cutters are loaded with advanced sensors, electronic warfare systems, and weapons. The Coast Guard plans to equip all its NSCs with the ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicle, which the Commandant has described as a “game changer.” The ScanEagle, which can carry a variety of sensors, will greatly extend the surveillance envelope of the NSCs.

The Coast Guard is already seeing the benefits of acquiring new ships.  At a recent Senate budget hearing, when the Commandant was asked how the Coast Guard could increase drug seizures at sea, he responded that it is a matter of capacity. The Coast Guard already is seeing the benefits of acquiring new ships, notably the NSCs. In the war on drugs, the Coast Guard seized a record 223 metric tons of illegal drugs at sea in 2017. Twenty-nine Coast Guard cutter deployments were conducted in the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific to intercept those drugs. Of these, only four, or 13 percent, were the new Legend-class NSCs. Nevertheless, they were responsible for intercepting 33 percent of the total haul for that year.

The Legend-class NSCs are also supporting U.S. foreign and security missions far from American shores. The first new NSC, the USCG cutter Bertholf, is currently operating off the Korean peninsula helping to enforce the United Nations’ sanctions against North Korea. It also joined a U.S. Navy warship in a passage through the Taiwan Straits. Because the U.S. Coast Guard is one of the five armed services and also a law enforcement agency, the NSCs possess unique authorities and capabilities that are highly relevant and useful in today’s dynamic global environment.

Initially, the Coast Guard had planned to replace twelve of its Hamilton-class cutters with only eight new NSCs. A significant reason for this was the Coast Guard's belief that it could implement a crew rotation concept in which there would be two crews for each NSC, swapping crews while the ships were deployed. This would have allowed vessels to achieve a goal of 230 days away from the cutter’s homeport. In February 2018, the Coast Guard decided to abandon the crew rotational concept because it would not work as advertised.

While unquestionably a better vessel than that being replaced, eight NSCs were just not enough to adequately address the Coast Guard’s expanding mission space. Today, a total of 11 Legend-class NSCs have been acquired. In fact, 12 is the minimum number of Legend-class cutters the Coast Guard should be allowed to procure. This would be a one-for-one replacement of the Hamilton-class cutters.

Congress has consistently believed in the need to acquire additional NSCs beyond the Coast Guard’s planned eight. It added funds for the ninth through eleventh ships. Now it needs to help the Coast Guard one more time. Congress needs to see the acquisition of the Legend-class NSC through to completion by funding a twelfth cutter. Given the evidence from the operation of the first four NSCs, this expenditure will be recouped many times over.

Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.

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