It is an agency whose active force is about two-thirds the size of Customs and Border Protection. However, among its many missions is securing America’s coastline – which is over six times the length of the U.S.-Mexico border. That agency is the U.S. Coast Guard, and it needs some help.
How bad off are they? Last year, General John Kelly, United States Marine Corps, who was the commander of United States Southern Command, admitted that nearly 75% of drug smugglers were getting through. At the time, he had four Coast Guard cutters and one U.S. Navy vessel – and he needed sixteen.
The Coast Guard has long been using older vessels to hold the line, and has been short of materials. Now, replacements for the old vessels are coming – but in some cases, there are not enough of them. The Coast Guard has twelve Hamilton-class high endurance cutters, which will be replaced by eight Bertholf-class national security cutters. How eight ships can replace twelve is an open question: No matter how good they are, a pair of cutters cannot be in three places. That sounds bad enough. But according to the Thirteenth Edition of Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet, the Hamilton-class was supposed to have 36 vessels.
That provides a sense of how the Coast Guard has been shorted over the years. Now, the Coast Guard is trying to replace its present force of 27 medium endurance cutters (13 Bear-class vessels and 14 Reliance-class vessels) with 25 Offshore Patrol Cutters. The 16th Edition of Combat Fleets of the World reports that each Offshore Patrol Cutter is expected to cost about $484 million – a total program cost of $12.1 billion. Not a bad price, but they could do better – and the ship in question not only has been in service, but has shown it could be outstanding in the drug interdiction role – and it is about 25% cheaper.
The ship in question is the Freedom-class littoral combat ship. At a sail-away cost of $362 million for each vessel, a purchase of 25 would save the Coast Guard about $3.05 billion. The Coast Guard could then take those savings and buy an additional eight Freedom-class ships – a total buy of 33 vessels.
Furthermore, compared to the Bear and Reliance classes, the Freedom’s manning requirements will save money as well. The Freedom’s 50-person crew is half that of a Bear-class cutter, and two-thirds of a Reliance-class cutter’s. The Coast Guard would be able to man the 33 Freedom-class ships, and still have 625 extra crew to reassign elsewhere. These savings do not even take into account what the bulk purchase of 33 more Freedom-class vessels would do to the unit cost of the program. For $5 billion more, the Coast Guard could probably be able to build another 15 Freedom-class vessels and find an extra 50 personnel to field four dozen of these ships.
Those details mean that the Freedom could help Southern Command close the gaps General Kelly described in 2014. In 2010, USS Freedom (LCS 1) went on a 47-day deployment in SOUTHCOM’s area of operations. When all was said and done, she racked up four drug busts in those 47 days, while carrying out two port visits to improve what the Navy called “theater security cooperation.” Keeping Freedom’s accomplishments as just one ship in mind, imagine the Coast Guard flooding the SOUTHCOM area of operations with several Freedom-class vessels would mean for the security of America’s maritime borders.
Buying the Freedom-class littoral combat ship instead of the Offshore Patrol Cutter does not solve all of the Coast Guard’s problems by any means. One other issue is that this armed service has less than 230 fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft to cover its mission. But giving the Coast Guard Freedom (or at least 25 of her sisters) would be a good way to start making “Semper Paratus” a reality.