A change in administrations always brings uncertainties regarding changes to strategies, budgets, force structures and acquisition programs. This year there are additional reasons to be concerned about the future of the U.S. military. Great power competition with China and Russia is intensifying. The government is focused on combating the COVID pandemic and stabilizing our economy. The national debt continues to grow.
At the same time, the U.S. military is facing enormous demands that are stretching available forces. Each of the Armed Services is also simultaneously pursuing major modernization efforts. The Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard, in particular, have ambitious plans with many moving parts, not all of which may come to fruition.
Given these circumstances, it makes sense to protect highly successful acquisition programs wherever possible, if only as a hedge against uncertainty. One such program is the Coast Guard's Legend-class National Security Cutter (NSC). Despite the demonstrated value of the NSC, strong bipartisan Congressional support for these ships, and the fact that the NSC supports thousands of high paying manufacturing jobs across the country, the Coast Guard is on the verge of having to terminate the production line due to lack of funding.
Here are five reasons why the new administration and Congress should insist that the NSC production line be kept open, and NSC number twelve be fully funded and built.
1. The NSC is a remarkable platform. Simply put, the NSCs are the most sophisticated and capable ships ever built for the U.S. Coast Guard. They were designed and equipped with advanced systems and capabilities that allow them to operate as traditional agents of law enforcement and humanitarian assistance, but with the capacity to rapidly shift to supporting defense operations as part of the joint force. They have greater capability and endurance than the twelve Hamilton-class cutters they are replacing and are loaded with advanced sensors, weapons, and command and control equipment. They can also launch and recover small boats and operate helicopters along with unmanned aerial vehicles such as the Scan Eagle in the harshest marine environments. At a recent industry-sponsored video conference, Vice Adm. Steven D. Poulin, commander, Coast Guard Atlantic Area, declared: "I've seen that time and time again. The capacity, the technological edge that those Coast Guard cutters bring to the fight … that is an incredible platform."
2. Demands on the Coast Guard are mounting. The Coast Guard is facing both existing mission challenges as well as the addition of new missions. The international transportation of illegal narcotics is surging, which leads to Central American migrants fleeing north to the U.S./Mexican border. Illegal fishing has become an epidemic, overtaking drug smuggling and piracy as a global threat. Meanwhile, the rise of the Chinese Navy and Chinese Coast Guard in the Western Pacific is posing a growing problem for the U.S. military and our allies in the region. The U.S. Coast Guard is the Service best equipped, trained and empowered to counter China's day-to-day “grey area” operations involving its coast guard and the so-called merchant marine militia.
Over repeated deployments, the NSC has proven itself to be what the nation needs to meet global threats. As one example, in that same video conference, Vice Adm. Linda L. Fagan, Commander of the Coast Guard’s Pacific Area, explicitly stated that the NSC “is game-changing for us in countering the narcotics flow in the Eastern Pacific.”
3. There is always uncertainty in the U.S. shipbuilding plans. The Navy’s ambitious shipbuilding plan is currently under review and may not receive the necessary resources to meet its highly ambitious objectives. But even if it does, there are uncertainties about the future of major programs such as the nascent Constellation-class frigate. The Navy should consider the Coast Guard’s NSC as its hedge against the high risks associated with first of class new programs.
The Coast Guard is working hard to manage multiple ship re-capitalization programs simultaneously but also faces challenges. In 2019, the Department of Homeland Security directed the Coast Guard to recompete the contract to build the remaining Offshore Patrol Cutters after the winning company fell behind schedule and, according to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, may need $600 million more to complete the first four ships. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) declared that the program remains high risk.
4. The NSC is arguably the most cost efficient naval ship production line in the country. With credit to the Coast Guard for maintaining a stable design, the NSC program has seen a reduction in the price of successive vessels while consistently delivering ships on time and on budget. According to a recent GAO report, “Despite [adding ships 9-10-11], the program’s total life-cycle cost is still less than the program’s initial estimate for eight ships. Coast Guard officials attributed the decrease to more accurate estimates and reduced O&S costs.” This program is too good to be halted prematurely.
5. Building NSCs will protect the shipbuilding industrial base while preserving thousands of high paying jobs across multiple states. Building NSCs also will help keep a robust shipbuilding supply chain for all the Sea Services. It is important to remember that many of the same companies providing parts and services for the NSC line also support other Coast Guard and Navy programs. Like with many parts of the defense industrial base, the shipbuilding supply chain has grown thinner and more brittle over time. Terminating National Security Cutter production could cause some of these companies and workers to exit the industry.
At a time when the administration has as a primary mission restoring a U.S. economy that is struggling to recover from the COVID pandemic, the nation would be wise to keep open a very solid shipbuilding program that draws from nearly 500 suppliers across 39 states, supporting over 7,000 jobs nationwide.
The good news is the initial funds have already been made available. Congress provided $100 million in the FY 2020 budget for long-lead items for NSC 12, contingent on the Coast Guard saying they want the ship. Further, the FY 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) authorized NSC 12 and approved $550 million for the construction of the ship. Now Congress should appropriate the needed funds for NSC 12 this year (FY22), and the Coast Guard’s leadership should act prudently and decide to build the twelfth ship and keep the National Security Cutter line open.
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.