As the US Navy continues a long, forty-year trend of moving away from small combatants, the US Coast Guard’s recapitalized fleet of small cutters is surging out onto the world stage. Boosted by the new assets, compelling strategies, and a swashbuckling “bias” for action, ”the cost-conscious Coast Guard is quietly and efficiently filling the void left by the Navy’s longstanding disinterest in operating small, presence and security-oriented vessels.
While the Navy has struggled to field small new combatants, the Coast Guard has done a lot of work to build their small ship force into a low-budget—but quite effective—distributed presence and constabulary-oriented system. ships, improved targeting resources, and increased partner capabilities, the Coast Guard’s primary sea duty, anti-drug patrols, are becoming far more efficient.
But the Coast Guard, a small component within the sprawling Department of Homeland Security, operates under enormous cost constraints. With a tiny FY 2023 budget proposal of $ 13.8 billion — $ 3.6 billion less than what the Department of Homeland Security wants to give US Customs and Border Protection—the US Coast Guard is under real pressure. And while the Navy appreciates Coast Guard help and Congress appreciates the Coast Guard’s cost-conscious successes, the Coast Guard is wearing thin after decades of being asked to do a lot with very little.
Help may come from Congress. Tired of funding the Navy for small-ship oriented missions the service is unwilling to execute, weary of pouring money into an organization that lacks strategic direction, and exhausted by the constant drumbeat of accidents and scandals, Congress is thinking About taking matters into their own hands. One option under consideration allows the Navy to walk away from the troubled Littoral Combat Ship, but transfers much of the Navy’s small-ship operating budget over to the squared-away and cost-effective Coast Guard.
The two billion dollars Congress allocates annually to simply sustain the Navy’s poor-performing Littoral Combat Ship fleet would make an enormous difference for the Coast Guard, allowing the service to strengthen, recapitalize and prepare for future challenges.
Punching Above Its Weight
In stark contrast to the Navy, the Coast Guard has worked through a tough fleet recapitalization. Today, that recapitalization is paying off.
Far from being tied to the US mainland, new Coast Guard cutters have been active overseas. The Coast Guard’s 4,600-ton Legend Class National Security Cutters gained notoriety for their record-breaking cruises into the Western Pacific and their transits through the Taiwan Strait. Not to be outdone, the service’s pint-sized, 353-ton Sentinel Class Fast Response Cutters are deploying to the Persian Gulf, constituting throughout the Pacific Ocean, and sailing in waters that have not seen a US government vessel since World War II.
And while the Coast Guard’s austere Heritage Class Offshore Patrol Cutter has yet to enter service, the Coast Guard is preparing for the new ships by deploying their venerable fleet of mid-sized cutters to the Arctic, Africa and everywhere in between.
When compared to the Navy’s troubled Littoral Combat Ships, the Coast Guard’s procurement record is solid. The Navy spent $ 20 billion developing and building the Littoral Combat Ship, while the Coast Guard is spending less than $ 4.5 billion to field 66 of their tiny Sentinel Class cutters The little ships are a great value. Even though the Fast Response Cutters are insignificant as conventional “high-end” warfighters, these small surveillance cutters are going everywhere and doing just about everything that the Littoral Combat Ship was originally intended to do.
In the Middle East, four of an expected six-ship Fast Response Cutter detachment have either arrived or are on their way to their new homeport in Bahrain. The final pair will embark in late 2022. The Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship—a ship purpose- built to work in the littorals and whose first variant was commissioned four years before the first Sentinel Class Cutter entered service, has yet to arrive in the Gulf. The first Littoral Combat Ship may make an initial visit to Middle Eastern waters later this year.
In the deep Pacific, six Sentinel Class cutters operate out of Hawaii and Guam in addition to several based in Alaska. They have been busy. Last year, Sentinels rushed emergency supplies 800 miles from Guam to typhoon-struck Palau, some 800 miles from Guam. Another helped rescue missing mariners off Poluskuk Atoll, 600 miles away from base.
Fast Response Cutters have deployed as well; last year, a Sentinel patrolled off Samoa, filling in for an out-of-service local boat. Three others conducted extended fisheries patrols, with the USCGC Oliver Henry, travelingling 7,500 miles through Micronesia, the Marshalls, Kiribati, Narau, and Palau over the course of 37 days. This year, the Hawaii-based USCGC Joseph Gerczak completed a sprawling 14,000-mile patrol of Oceania, working with local maritime law enforcement along the way.
The Coast Guard isn’t done — the 48th Sentinel Class patrol boat was only delivered in March and these low-cost ships are already doing exactly what the Navy’s pricey and controversial Littoral Combat Ships were originally meant to do. When the Sentinel Class production lines stop, these handy little vessels will be operating all over the globe, venturing forth in small task groups, extending the operational reach of the Coast Guard’s too-small fleet of National Security Cutters and other large vessels.
But it is not just the ships that matter. Throughout history, the Coast Guard has always pushed their small patrol boat navy to the limit. It’s the strategies and low-cost operational innovations that really made the Coast Guard more effective. Cost constraints made the Coast Guard experts in conducting dispersed operations. Low funding incentivized the Coast Guard to unlock the efficiency of intelligence-based targeting. Coast Guard operators enacted and adopted ersatz refueling and resupply strategies, built out collaborative partner networks, and demanded accountability when doing so.
And it all works. On a shoestring.
Moving dollars where they are best used
Transferring the Navy’s LCS money—basically an extra $ 2 billion a year over the next couple of decades—to the Coast Guard would be a game changer, potentially keeping the National Security Cutter production line open, building more Fast Response Cutters, or adding hulls to the Offshore Patrol Cutter program. A few still-serviceable Independence Class Littoral Combat Ships could also be transferred into the Coast Guard and transformed into surveillance frigates, boosting the Coast Guard’s aviation and mission support capabilities in the deep Pacific.
But the Coast Guard has a lot of other needs, too. The Coast Guard’s new cutters bring a lot more to the table, but they need more funding to operate. The Legend and Sentinel cutters each cost 1.5 to 2 times more to operate than their less-effective predecessors. The incoming Coast Guard Commandant, Admiral Linda Fagan, also cautioned Congress at her confirmation hearing that every cruise starts and ends at a shore facility, warning that the Coast Guard’s The Coast Guard’s $ 1.18 billion FY 2023 Unfunded Priorities List devotes some $ 700 million to vessel-oriented homeport improvements, maintenance facility development, maintenance backlogs and training facility recapitalizations. The Navy’s un-needed money could certainly help sustain the Coast Guard at sea and ashore, and the American taxpayer would get a lot of “bang” for the buck.
The Navy’s push to shed small ships is an ideal opportunity to boost America’s effective and cost-conscious Coast Guard. Given America’s changed geopolitical circumstances and the Navy’s marked disinterest in continuing its traditional constabulary missions, the Coast Guard needs to grow. Congress should move forward. , reallocating the Navy’s small combatant funding to the Coast Guard, and, at least, put the nation’s maritime first responders on par with other parts of the Department of Homeland Security.