April 1, 2014  

Arctic missions demand more high-endurance cutters

The author argues that the Coast Guard needs two more multi-mission Legend-class ships to replace decades-old WHEC vessels such as Coast Guard Cutter Mellon (WHEC 717), seen here off Kodiak, Alaska. (USCG photo)

Scott C. Truver

Over the past few years, concerns about an ice-free Arctic have drawn statements from U.S. national, Coast Guard and Defense Department policymakers that make it sound as if the region had only recently broken above the horizon. (A good example is a February 2012 article in which Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr. noted, “The Arctic region—the Barents, Beaufort, and Chukchi seas and the Arctic Ocean—is the emerging maritime frontier, vital to our national interests, economy and security.”

Of course, the Arctic emerged long ago as a federal policy driver. Two years before Secretary of State William H. Seward acquired what would become the Alaskan Territory in 1867, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service dispatched the lighthouse tender Shubrick to become the first U.S.-flag ship to reach that far northern coast. “From this modest beginning, cutters would eventually sail into the Bering Sea and the Arctic,” wrote historian Dennis Noble. The work in Alaska’s western and northern waters would become known as the Bering Sea Patrol…. Eventually, other duties devolved upon the cutters until they became, in effect, the only government known to those who resided in the isolated Bering Sea and coastal Arctic regions. As a part of this government service, cutters provided badly needed rescue units.”

And, as Adm. Papp noted in 2012, “Then, as now, our mission [was] to assist scientific exploration, chart the waters, provide humanitarian assistance to native tribes, conduct search and rescue, and enforce U.S. laws and regulations.”

The Coast Guard’s high-endurance cutters (WHECs) have been essential to Alaska/Arctic missions. The service’s 2013 white paper on resourcing the U.S. Coast Guard said, “Complemented by long-range aircraft, Coast Guard surface assets conduct long-duration patrols from the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska along the maritime boundary line between Russia and the United States, to Hawaii and Guam — distances that cover hundreds of thousands of square miles of barren ocean space. Operating year-round in severe, highly demanding, distant environments calls for specialized training, equipment, and assets.”

The Tyranny of Distance

Distances from USCG cutter homeports to Kodiak, Alaska. (Source: U.S. Coast Pilot 8, Appendix II)

Distances from USCG cutter homeports to Kodiak, Alaska. (Source: U.S. Coast Pilot 8, Appendix II)

For this reason, the Coast Guard has for more than 40 years operated Hamilton (WHEC 378)-class cutters in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea. Alaskan Patrols (ALPATs) typically begin with a cutter transiting north from its homeport — Seattle, Wash.; Alameda or San Diego, Calif.; or Honolulu, Hawaii — stopping in Kodiak, Alaska, for fuel, to top-off stores, and embark an aviation detachment and helicopter, followed by an in-transit patrol to a designated area for focused patrol duty. The overall length of each patrol averages 90 days away from the cutter’s homeport. Thus, reducing in-transit “dead-time” can be a vital factor in carrying out the ship’s numerous missions. (Normally, ALPATs do not include operations above the Arctic Circle, even in summer months.)

In the worst case, patrols originating in Honolulu have up to an eight-day transit to Kodiak followed by:

* A two-day stop in Kodiak on the way in
* A three- to four-day mid-patrol break
* A one- or two-day stop on the way out
* Another eight days’ transit back to homeport

This reality leaves only about 67 days (74% on-scene presence) for actual patrols in Alaskan waters.

ALPATs originating from Seattle fared better, with about 85% of their days away from homeport spent on actual patrol and protecting America’s interests. Alameda is the next most-efficient transit case, but San Diego is virtually identical to Honolulu. Hawaii-based high-endurance cutters steaming at best economical speed (12.5 knots) will burn some 78,500 gallons of fuel costing about $392,500 (at $5.00/gallon), on just the transits to and from Kodiak, before the real jobs could begin.

This worked for a while, but soon the challenges — cost of fuel, increased wear and tear on aging cutters, reduced on-scene presence — of some 16 days’ transit from homeport to Kodiak and back home forced a new course. After years of internal service debate about supportability and infrastructure requirements, the Coast Guard decided in 2007 to permanently move an Alameda-based Hamilton-class cutter to Kodiak. With the USCGC Munro (WHEC 724) homeported in Alaska, ALPATS originating there routinely apply virtually all of their days away from homeport to actual patrol duties, beginning almost immediately as the cutter pulls away from the pier, with no fuel burned on “dead-time” transits.

And the Future?

The 12 obsolescent Hamilton-class cutters, which were commissioned between 1967 and 1971, are being replaced by eight multimission Legend (WMSL 418)-class National Security Cutters (NSCs). As of early 2014, the Coast Guard had decommissioned four Hamiltons and will continue to take them out of service as the NSCs are delivered. The Munro will soon be gone and with it the high-endurance cutter presence in Kodiak. If all goes as planned, there will be a concomitant reduction in U.S. homeport high-endurance cutter “presence”:



WHEC 378


WMSL 418

Alameda, CA



Charleston, SC



Honolulu, HA



Kodiak, AK



San Diego, CA



Seattle, WA



This might be problematic. “There are a lot of academic discussions around the Arctic these days, but for us, this is not an abstract academic discussion,”  Coast Guard Deputy Commandant for Operations Vice Adm. Peter V. Neffenger, remarked in July 2013. “As people move into a region where there are challenging operating conditions, difficult lines of supply, lack of shore infrastructure, lack of logistics…it demands a presence of those agencies like the Coast Guard that are required to govern those areas. So, all of the Coast Guard’s authorities and responsibilities in the rest of the country around the coast apply in this new ocean that is opening up.”

The NSCs will perform all of the missions conducted by the WHECs, which in addition to ALPATs include counter-drug patrols in the eastern Pacific and Caribbean, High Seas Drift Net patrols in the central Pacific, and joint military exercises and deployments worldwide. They are highly capable ships, equipped with advanced command-and-control systems, onboard sensors, information exchange, onboard and off-board surface and air assets, and weapons systems to meet a broad spectrum of multimission needs. They are able to get on scene quickly, maintain persistent presence for extended periods, monitor the areas with organic and off-board sensors, and carry out missions using small boats, helicopters and unmanned airborne systems––in fair and foul weather, 24/7.

Arctic Shield 2013 provided a glimpse of the value that the NSC brings to the Arctic region. The operation, which focused on western Alaska and the Bering Strait, included outreach and an assessment of the Coast Guard’s capabilities in the Arctic. In addition to other cutters and boats, the USCGC Waesche (WMSL 751) deployed as a command-and-control platform and conducted various missions, including maritime domain awareness, search and rescue, and law enforcement. In many regards, Waesche had more C4ISR—command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance—capabilities than all the other USCG Arctic Shield 2013 assets combined. And, as Adm. Papp noted in a 2013 interview, “Using the cutter fleet instead of establishing bases over the next 10 years will save money and allow for greater flexibility.”

The NSC fleet thus will provide a mix of capabilities required in high-stress operational areas that include the North Slope of Alaska, Bering Sea/Gulf of Alaska, eastern Pacific, Caribbean, West Coast, and East Coast/North Atlantic. But there are concerns that eight might not be enough, and early studies in the late 1990s indicated that as many as 16 NSCs would be needed. However, numerous assessments since then concluded that the cost-constrained Coast Guard force structure would comprise eight NSCs, 25 Offshore Patrol Cutters, and 58 Fast Response Cutters. Affordability is king!

There are no plans to replace the Hamilton-class high-endurance cutter in Kodiak with an NSC. As the WHECs are being decommissioned and not being replaced on a one-for-one basis with NSCs, operational coverage in critical areas will begin to lessen; actual patrol time on station will decrease and cost per patrol for fuel will increase. Although the NSC concept of operations calls for 230 days away from homeport each year (compared to about 185 days/year for the Munro), that depends on the service implementing a yet-to-be-developed crew-rotation policy. Failing that, the Coast Guard could administratively change the required operational tempo from 185 to 230 days per year, increasing the burdens on single crews. Thus, the loss of a major, high-endurance cutter based in Kodiak could introduce operational inefficiencies in a key asset and a critical operational area.

Although something of an apples-to-oranges comparison, the U.S. Navy “rule of thumb” is that it takes about three warships to sustain one in forward-deployment areas away from U.S. homeports. This reality has contributed to the Navy’s decision to increase forward basing in Rota, Singapore, Guam and Bahrain.

In addition to loss of operational capability, shoreside support billets for that cutter along with the associated material supply businesses that a cutter of that size demands will likely atrophy, perhaps meaning a loss of civilian jobs in the area and other economic impacts. For example, the cutter itself will require shoreside maintenance beyond the organization level accomplished by the crew and will purchase local consumables for maintenance, repair and subsistence. In addition, a WHEC crew numbers about 170 sailors, perhaps a third of whom are married, many with families that accompany them to Kodiak. All contribute to the economic base of the region.

Because of the variety of the missions and tasks the NSCs will be performing, there is solid merit in the Coast Guard’s homeporting scheme with NSCs in Charleston, Alameda and Honolulu. There will however, be a measurable loss in Alaskan patrol time and cost of fuel associated with the absence of major cutters in Kodiak. For every Kodiak-based NSC, the United States will get 21 days’ additional on-scene presence in an increasingly critical world region — a total of 370 additional days away from homeport each year from two NSCs and at an annual fuel savings of $1.6 million.

The Coast Guard’s 2011 High Latitude Study assessed the requirements for polar operations and capability gaps, concluding that there was a need for at least one additional high-endurance cutter (not an icebreaker) deployed in the Bering Sea carrying a short-range helicopter. “The analysis shows that the current Coast Guard deployment posture is not capable of effective response in northern Alaska and that response may be improved through a mix of deployed cutters, aircraft, and supporting infrastructure including forward operating locations and communications/navigation systems.”

This was echoed by maritime consultant Dennis Bryant, who noted, “The most important of the USCG taskings, and a force-multiplier for all other taskings, is the requirement to sustain the federal capability to conduct maritime operations in ice-impacted waters of the Arctic.” He continued, “The other taskings for which the Coast Guard is designated the lead agency also reflect traditional Coast Guard missions. These consist of enhancing Arctic domain awareness; improving hazardous material spill prevention, containment and response; promoting Arctic oil pollution preparedness, prevention and response internationally; increasing Arctic search-and-rescue capability; expediting development and adoption of the IMO Polar Code, and promoting Arctic waterways management.”

But “robbing Peter to pay Paul”—reassigning one of the Honolulu- or Alameda-based NSCs to Kodiak—creates challenges in meeting other USCG Pacific demands. Instead, should the resources become available, the service could assess the benefits from building additional NSCs for Alaska/Arctic operations––perhaps including an ice-capable (not ice-breaking) strengthened hull design. And, while a single NSC in Kodiak looks to provide a significant increase in patrol/response capabilities, the assessment should address two NSCs for the Alaska/Arctic region. This looks to increase operational capabilities and maintenance, support, logistics, training and personnel quality of life—all factors that contributed to the Coast Guard’s current posture of multiple NSCs in three homeports.

And there is Coast Guard precedent for permanent basing of a major cutter in Kodiak. Commissioned in 1942 as a light icebreaker, after the war the USCGC Storis (WAGL/WMEC 38) was transferred to Juneau in 1948 to support Bering Sea patrols and from 1957 until decommissioning in 2007 operated out of Kodiak. As soon as the Storis was taken out of service, the Coast Guard dedicated the Munro to Kodiak, clear testimony of the need for a permanent presence there.

Audacious Good Fortune

There is an old adage, “Good fortune smiles on the audacious.” Certainly, Secretary of State Seward was audacious when he negotiated the agreement to transfer Russian America to the United States. Nearly 150 years on, “Seward’s Folly” looks to have been one of the best decisions in U.S. history—a bargain at twice the price!

So it could be for the U.S. Coast Guard to re-look its program, policy and posture and build two more NSCs for Kodiak, dedicating them to the nation’s still-emerging maritime frontier.

Scott Truver is a Washington, D.C.-based naval analyst who has conducted studies for the U.S. Coast Guard since 1979.