Surface Forces: U.S. Coast Guard Running Out of Ships


March 25, 2007: For the second time in four months, the U.S. Coast Guard has experienced a major disaster in its shipbuilding programs. This time around, the Coast Guard was finally forced to admit defeat in its effort to build 58 new patrol ships (Fast Response Cutters.) The ship builders (Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman) screwed up, big time. While the Coast Guard shares some of the blame, for coming up with new concepts that didn't work out, the shipbuilders are the primary screwups because they are, well, the shipbuilding professionals, and signed off on the Coast Guard concepts. Now the Coast Guard is looking at buying an existing (off-the-shelf) design, and in a hurry. That's become urgent because of an earlier screw up.

Last December, the Coast Guard discovered that a ship upgrade program made the modified ships structurally unsound and subject to breaking up in heavy seas. All eight of the modified 123 foot cutters (as coast guard ships are called) have been removed from service after cracks were found in the hull and decks. The 123 foot "Island Class" ships used to be 110 feet long and displace 154 tons. After 13 feet were added to the hull length, ship displacement went to 166 tons. Crew size (16) didn't change, but top speed (53 kilometers an hour) was reduced five percent. The ships are armed with a 25mm cannon, and two 12.7mm machine-gun. The original plan was to spend $100 million to modify all 49 of the 110 foot ships, so as to extend their useful life (normally, 15 years) a bit, until a new class of cutters was built. The modification also added a rear ramp for launching a small boarding party boat.

The modification program was already in trouble for being behind schedule and over budget. Now the program is halted, and probably dead. This leaves the coast guard short of ships right now, and in danger of being in even more trouble over the next decade. The coast guard has 250 cutters, and the Island Class ships are a fifth of that. With the failure of the Fast Response Cutter program, the coasties have to really hustle to even get an off-the-shelf into service before many of their current ships are unfit for service.




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