Aboard the USCG Bertholf: Operations and Capabilities of the National Security Cutter


09/13/2011: During the Second Line of Defense visit to USCG Island in Alameda, California, Captain John Prince and the Executive Officer of the Bertholf David Ramassini discussed their recent tour aboard the Bertholf.  The conversation occurred in late July 2011 shortly after Captain Prince had relinquished command of the Bertholf to take a new post.

In an earlier article, Captain Prince and Ex O Ramassini discussed the relationship between the equipment on the bridge and their ability to prosecute missions or what we called the con-ops enablement of the National Security Cutter.https://sldinfo.com/on-the-bridge-of-the-bertholf-discussing-the-con-ops-enablement-by-the-nsc/

Captain Prince has provided an important perspective on the Bertholf in a posting to be found here https://sldinfo.com/from-the-bridge-of-the-bertholf/ and Commander Ramassini has as well http://coastguard.dodlive.mil/2011/06/from-the-bridge-of-the-bertholf-northern-edge-2011/. During this interview, Captain Prince and Commander Ramassini discuss their recent experiences with the national security cutter and discuss the relationship between operations and the capabilities provided by the new ship.

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Credit : Slides 1-5 SLD 2011; Slides 6-9 USCG

During this interview, Captain Prince and Commander Ramassini discuss their recent experiences with the national security cutter and discuss the relationship between operations and the capabilities provided by this new class of ship.

SLD: Could you describe the deployments you have had with the ship?

Captain Prince: We’ve done two patrols down to the Eastern Pacific.  One was just a very brief 30-day patrol, but once the crew made the ship ready for operations, we did a 90+day Eastern Pacific deployment.

In addition we’ve conducted a 102-day deployment up to Alaska which also included a patrol of the Hawaiian Exclusive Economic Zone before returning to homeport.

Down in the Eastern Pacific, we had seven different interdictions highlighted by a couple early on in our deployment.  We got a call from our tactical commander that said, “We need you here sooner…can you make 20+ knots for the next 1000 miles so we can get you down here early?” We easily made the speed using just the diesel engines, allowing us to not only arrive on scene more quickly, but also with plenty of fuel for mission end game.

This allowed us to be the primary asset, along with a maritime patrol aircraft looking for a fully submersible drug smuggling submarine.  And even with limited underwater sensors, using reach back into the different intelligence communities, and communicating across different levels of government, we were able to keep ourselves in proximity to the threat for an extended period of time to the point that they ended up scuttling the submarine.

SLD: Presumably, some of that information from the other agencies is displayed on your screens on the bridge?

Captain Prince: Yes, it’s part of our situational awareness which is used for decision making. During our deployments, we’ve dealt with a wide array of threats across a broad range of vessels.  Our drug interdictions have already disrupted a street value equivalent to the cost of the National Security Cutter that otherwise would have been profits in the cartels pockets!

The smugglers are using a variety of vessels. They’re using single engine vessels, close into shore.  They’re using single engine vessels further off shore.  They’re using multi-engine vessels in shore, and off shore.  They’re using fishing vessels.  They’re using semi-submersibles, and they’re using fully submersibles.

In one patrol, we were able to successfully engage and disrupt narcotic shipments across that full spectrum of threats discussed, with the exception of a semi-submersible because there were none of those in our operating area at the time we were on patrol.

On that one patrol alone, we disrupted an estimated 12,500 kilos of cocaine.  The street value of that approaches a half billion dollars.   And if you compare that to the price tag of the ship, I’d say that’s pretty good return on investment given the adversaries we face.

SLD: So the speed and endurance offered by the NSC was a key part of your operational capabilities dealing with a wide spectrum of challenges as well?

Captain Prince: We were able to do it with the ship, not in every case, but in more cases because of the ability of the ship to make speed that our smaller more antiquated ships can’t make.  For a displacement hull, your hull speed is 1.4 times the square root of the length of the ship in feet. That’s your hull speed.  Any speed above that requires an exponential amount of horsepower. By making the ship bigger, it gives us more speed, more efficiently, more economically, and in the long run, cheaper.

SLD: And added to your new C4ISR tool sets, the speed of the ship is a winner in prosecution of bad guys.

Captain Prince: It is.  For example, one of the tools, which have proven invaluable, is the Forward-Looking Infrared (FLIR).  From over the horizon we can track a target of interest with the FLIR.  Sometimes you get a nebulous radar track that you really can’t correlate to anything else, they’re not putting out their own radar or return so you can say oh, that’s a merchant, or that’s a navy ship.  To be able to basically peek from high on the mast with FLIR and get a visual look at the target, without him really even seeing you, and even at night, you’re assessing the threats in the area of operation without giving away your location.

Commander Ramassini: Another aspect of the impact of speed and endurance on operations can be seen in how long we are able to operate between port calls.  Because of the efficiencies the ship offers, we have greater endurance and don’t need to make port calls as frequently.  And this helps us increase our operational security and provide persistent presence where we expect the smugglers to eventually be.

By not making a port call as often, the adversary doesn’t know where we’re located.  And the longer we stay out, the less opportunity they have to figure out our location in an effort to avoid us.  Every time we make a port call, word travels fast in today’s information age, and our location is compromised. This ship is rarely constrained by fuel and can operate comfortably for nearly thirty days and even loiter for forty-plus with fuel in reserve.  I joke that the ZZ Top song “She’s Got Legs” sums up the NSC capabilities well; and everyday the Coast Guard is finding better ways to use them to support national strategies.

Another aspect of the impact of the ship on operations is our relatively low cross section.  The older cutters have a big cross section, and are clearly visible on the radars of their targets of interest.  With the design of this ship, when you are looking at the radar from a distance, we look like a fishing boat.  That coupled with the use of the FLIR allows us to operate in a much stealthier manner over the horizon before sending our teams up close and personal over the gunwale.

SLD: Could you talk about the power plants on the ship?

Captain Prince: The ship is equipped with two diesel engines, and one gas turbine.  We have actually five different modes of propulsion.  We have what’s called a harbor mode, which is a slow speed mode, one diesel engine driving both shafts.  We have cruising mode, one diesel engine using higher speed clutches, driving both shafts.  That’s about 16 to 18 knots.  We can have one diesel engine driving both shafts, or each engine driving their own shaft.  The ship can make about 24 knots  on the diesels. With the gas turbine alone driving both shafts, 26 knots.  Combined diesel and gas turbine, that’s both main diesel engines and the gas turbine all running at the same time, the ship can make about 30 knots.

SLD: How does that compare to the 270s?

Captain Prince: A 270’s max speed is about 18 knots with both diesel engines all ahead full. Also understand that the 270s are not going to be able to make 12 knots in 10 or 12-foot seas. In contrast, we can operate economically on one engine, and easily transit at about 15 knots.  I gain 25 percent more on-scene time, because it takes 25 percent less time to transit through the off station area.  And the fact that we actually do it fuel efficiently allows us to stay there longer. We recently transited to Seattle and easily made 14-15 knots with a comfortable ride in 12+ foot seas with no degradation in crew readiness due to fatigue as a result of the excellent sea keeping .

SLD: Let us return to your tour and your operational experiences.

Captain Prince: Let me just close out the Eastern Pacific.  Certainly the Eastern Pacific is not known for having the most extreme of weather conditions.  Regardless, we were never out of pitch and roll limits to launch or recover the helicopter. And we were never out of limits, my comfort limits, and XO’s comfort limits to launch or recover a small boat. So there was no time, while we were in that operating area, where we ever out of the mission execution “end game” business.

And a key purpose of the ship is to provide a stable launch and recovery platform for helicopters and small boats; those are the tools we use to actually interdict the smuggler, rescue the person in distress, enforce the law, and ensure security.  A helo could’ve been broken, that doesn’t mean I’m out of business. I can still launch that small boat and now have the capacity to operate with more than one air asset aboard. I can even hangar two helicopters and still have a clear deck to land a third, if ever necessary.

SLD: Could we talk about your small boats and how you use them?

Captain Prince: For a go-fast interdiction, our plan is always to launch two boats.  One is the pursuit boat, the primary chase boat.  Then there’s the secondary boat that we call the support boat. And that secondary boat brings additional people to the scene once the pursuit is done.  When you’re in a small boat and you’re chasing somebody at high speed, you’re getting bounced a great deal. So the goal, the objective of that pursuit boat is simply to stop the target vessel, and maintain some positive control over it.  Then they would be augmented or replaced by the support boat team, who we haven’t been pounded on for the last hour and a half by a rapid pursuit.

The small boats are capable of about 35+ knots.

Commander Ramassini: The Legacy Ships have two small boats while the National Security Cutter has three.  While we typically only employ two, it does provide us the redundancy and additional capacity if there’s ever a casualty, if something happens where we need to put that third boat in the water, we have it.

SLD: Might you highlight an example of how the NSC’s endurance enhances operational efficiencies?

Captain Prince: A perfect case in point was down off of Hawaii where we were targeting tuna boats for inspection.  We hopped on a boat at eight o’clock in the morning.  We finished the boarding and it was time to move onto the next tuna boat.  If the next guy was 60 miles away, that was no big deal.  At 15 knots, I’m there in four hours, and can finish another boarding.  The next guy’s 40 miles away, and I can reach that third boat and do another boarding.  So I have been able to do three boardings that day covering vast areas within our Exclusive Economic Zone without over-taxing my propulsion plant or using a significant amount of fuel.

If I were on a 378 or 270, I wouldn’t get there until sundown for the second one unless I came up on the gas turbine which would use nearly three times as much fuel.  I could do one or two during that same day as opposed to the NSC where I did three.

SLD: What is the patrol cycle planned for the NSC?

Captain Prince: We were just on a 102-day tour. The general practice is to deploy and patrol for three plus months at a time, responding as necessary to mission demands.  We work to keep our personnel tempo at 185 days away from homeport each year; although we’ve been logging and are projected to perform well over 200 days in FY12.

SLD: To cover the Bering Sea for the year, how many cutters will one need?

Captain Prince: With a 185 days away from homeport perstempo, 2.5 to 3 cutters are needed to maintain a 365 – 24/7 presence which accounts for transit time, dedicated underway training periods, and scheduled maintenance that may be conducted away from homeport.

SLD: Any final comments?

Commander Ramassini: I have had a chance to observe the new capabilities for well over a year now and find them critical to our missions out there.  We have discussed the command capabilities, but having the other mission enabling speed of the system and end-game asset capacities inherent in the ship are crucial as well.

You have three small boats instead of two and actually have the space for four if ever warranted. Instead of having one helo, you can literally have three on board at one time if there was ever a need.  You could also have a helo, and two UAVs in the hangars while maintaining a clear deck for operating with interagency and inter-service partners.

The ship is designed with the two hangars; we can roll in two helos protecting them from the elements if we wanted to take two helos downrange with us.  We have that flexibility, given the mission set.

We have the ability to operate with DOD, if we’re going to land an Air Force or Army helo, Special Forces, or USN or USMC helos, we have that flexibility to do that.  During this past patrol, we did training with Army Special Forces preparing them to deploy overseas.  They bounced off our deck dozens of times demonstrating firsthand our ability to land the third-wheel H-60 aircraft and operate even partnering with high end DOD partners.

We also offer great flexibility and adaptability for Homeland Defense and Security; and even serving abroad in support of U.S. Combatant Commander’s global maritime partnerships.  The transit ability and the sea legs in this ship are remarkable – we offer outstanding partnership and persistent presence wherever we go.  Up in the Bering Sea where we’d cover a 300,000 square mile area, steaming all the way up to the Maritime Boundary Line, and back down to the Aleutian Chain, and cover that area in a very efficient manner waving our flag, protecting our exclusive economic and projecting U.S. national interests in the Arctic along the Maritime Boundary Line, the U.S./Russia Border. So we have that presence.  And just be able to show our peer competitors that we’re still concerned about this area, and we have a presence with remarkable helicopter launch and land capabilities up in the harsh Bering Sea with a ship like this is important to our nation and ultimately our sovereignty.

The Coast Guard has something special here. Although the National Security Cutter is 40 feet longer than our old 378s we operate with 50 fewer people and with only about ten percent more than are currently on our 270s.  Efficiency and economy comes with technology – we’re embracing it and moving out smartly and effectively.  The NSC – She’s got legs and a crew who knows how to use them!