Why the Offshore Patrol Cutter Matters for the USCG and the Nation


2013-03-30 By Scott C. Truver

The U.S. Coast Guard has in place ambitious programs that will revitalize the U.S. cutter force to meet the daunting requirements of the 21st Century.

Three highly capable cutter classes are underway in March 2013.

First, the Legend-class high-endurance National Security Cutters (NSCs) have been designed to meet the most demanding of operational needs in vast far-offshore areas like the western Pacific and extreme environments like the Bering Sea in January.  They replace the 12 obsolete Secretary-class 378-foot high-endurance cutters acquired beginning in 1967.

The program calls for eight NSCs:  three are in the fleet; two are under construction at Huntington Ingalls Industries/Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Mississippi; and the sixth is awaiting fiscal year 2013 funding to begin construction.

Although the two final NSCs have not yet been funded, Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Robert J. Papp has repeatedly underscored his commitment to proceed with the program, should the resources be found.  Congress has indicated that it might include long-lead funding for the seventh ship in
the fiscal year 2013 budget.

If so, why not take advantage of shipyard learning-curve efficiencies to buy the last of the class, too?  At the margin, NSC #8 should be a bargain!

A 2008 Coast Guard illustration of a prototype Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC). OPCs are to be adaptable, multi-mission vessels with a C4ISR electronics suite, and capable of sustained, intensive small boat and flight operations in support of law enforcement, defense and search & rescue missions. Coast Guard illustration

According to an October 2012 issue brief by Ronald O’Rourke of the Congressional Research Service, the average procurement cost (then-year dollars) for all eight NSCs is approximately $684 million each––not bad for a sophisticated, highly capable, multi-mission cutter ready for deployment upon arrival!

Second, the 25 medium-endurance Offshore Patrol Cutters (OPCs) will complement the NSCs and replace the 13 “Bear”-class medium-endurance cutters (WMECs) that entered service in the 1980s and the 16 “Reliance”-class WMECs that joined the fleet in the 1960s.

Looking to the future, “The OPCs will be the ‘workhorses’ of the Coast Guard for the next 40 years,” Admiral Papp explained in mid-January 2013, “and they are critical to our long-term mission effectiveness.”  Detail design and construction are to begin in 2016.

Third, as many as 58 small Sentinel-class Fast Response Cutters (FRCs) will be acquired to carry out coastal and near-shore patrol and response tasks.  Considerably smaller and less capable and expensive than the OPCs, the FRCs replace 41 Island-class 110-foot patrol boats — the low end of the CG’s “high-low” cutter mix.  O’Rourke estimates the cost at $73 million per boat.  Bollinger Shipyards of Lockport, Louisiana, is building the first 30 coastal FRCs, with the CG planning to hold a competition in 2015 for the remaining 28 boats.

All looks good for the CG, except government-wide “sequestration” promises draconian budget cuts for several years.  With the increasing use of “affordability” as something of an OPC key performance parameter, the potential is growing for ill-conceived decisions to be forced on the CG, from which there might be no easy way back.

In that, the OPC program might be frustrated by a “middle child” syndrome––overlooked, nestled as it is between the mature NSC and the ramping-up FRC programs, with long-term operational performance needs scrubbed and re-scrubbed to meet near-term fiscal constraints.

As Admiral Papp stated during congressional testimony in March 2012:

We re-scrubbed the requirements. We have battled ourselves within the Coast Guard to make sure we’re asking for just exactly what we need, nothing more nothing less. And I have said three things to my staff as we go forward—affordable, affordable, affordable.

This ultimately could be a challenge to the CG and the Nation, as the OPC is not simply a replacement for the geriatric and mission-constrained WMECs; it’s the Service’s high-capability Maritime Security Cutter-Medium that will serve the United States well into the 2050s, if not beyond.

Complementing the National Security Cutter-Large, the OPC will carry out operations in offshore environments that require a multi-mission cutter that is fully interoperable with Coast Guard and other Department of Homeland Security assets as well as Department of Defense forces.  It must feature increased range and endurance, greater weapons capabilities, a larger flight deck and space for up to 500 alien migrants, and enhanced C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) equipment that far out-pace the cutters it replaces.  It must also be capable of all-weather aircraft and small-boat operations — something that the obsolescent WMECs cannot do.

The less-costly 25 OPCs will thus complement the higher-end capabilities of the six or, if the CG is lucky, eight NSCs.  Look at it this way:  in the OPCs the Nation gets a modern, multi-mission cutter with about 75% of the capabilities of an NSC at 70% of the cost.

In September 2012, the CG issued a request for proposals for the first phase of a two-phase approach:  Phase 1 includes awards to as many as three bidders for preliminary and contract design, for which proposals were submitted by eight shipyards in January 2013; and the second phase will be a down-select to a single shipbuilder in 2016 for detail design and construction.

As Defense News correspondent Chris Cavas reported last October, a variety of U.S. and European shipyards are interested in the program, ranging from “repair yards that have never built a complex warship or large cutter” to “tried-and-true shipbuilders like Huntington Ingalls and Bath Iron Works.”

While cost targets for the first three OPCs have not been specified, the CG estimates that OPCs Number 4 through 9 will cost about $310 million each, and OPCs Number 10 through 25 will be capped at $300 million.  However, O’Rourke’s total-program estimate is about $484 million per ship after all 25 have been delivered.

Given the reality that the first OPC will not be delivered until 2020 at the earliest, the 25-ship OPC fleet program will not be completed until the mid-2030s, and the last OPC will be decommissioned in the mid-2060s, it’s important that the risks to success be addressed.

Most important, the OPCs will need to be designed, engineered and built to carry out a broad spectrum of missions and tasks in offshore areas––anticipating and responding to traditional and non-traditional threats and challenges on and from the sea during each OPC’s 30-year service life.

Thus, the ability to accommodate several generations of technologies, systems and equipment to carry out missions and tasks only dimly perceived in 2013 must be designed-in from the start. 

Modular and open-architecture designs can help respond to future requirements quickly and cost-effectively, but these are complex propositions.

The OPC’s multi-mission responsibilities will require extended transits and sustained on-scene presence far offshore, as well as ops in closer regions, and the program has been structured to meet several key performance parameters:

  • Minimum operational range of 8,500 nautical miles at a sustained speed of 14 knots
  • Operational sustainment of 185 to 230 days away from home ports each year, with a core crew of about 120 plus detachment personnel
  • Top speed threshold of 22 knots and objective of 25 knots
  • Patrol endurance of 45 to 60 days, with 14 days between refueling
  • Enhanced seakeeping to support boat and aircraft operations in sea state 5 (wave heights of 12 feet)

These and other OPC requirements are complex and drive similarly complex characteristics and capabilities, which won’t come cheap.  “How do you provide persistent sovereign presence in the offshore waters?” Admiral Papp asked at a Washington DC “think tank” conference in March 2012. “You can’t do it with patrol boats. It takes ships, and ships are expensive.”

Although the OPC will primarily operate in the Coast Guard’s deep-water area of responsibility (AoR) beyond the nation’s territorial sea, the OPC concept of operations indicates that OPCs will carry out critical jobs spanning coastal/near-shore as well as offshore/high-seas AoRs:

  • Ports, Waterways, and Coastal Security
  • Search and Rescue
  • Drug Interdiction
  • Migrant Interdiction
  • Living Marine Resource
  • Other Law Enforcement
  • Defense Readiness.

opc fact sheet

Furthermore, through its unique set of law enforcement and military capabilities, the OPC will be a key element of the “National Fleet,” bridging the gap between the Coast Guard’s law enforcement/homeland security missions and the Navy’s military/defense missions. 

Although it’s not envisioned that the OPC will deploy with Navy aircraft carrier groups, the cutter’s conops does indicate that it could deploy with amphibious ready groups and support regional combatant commanders in low- to medium-threat environments.

To do so, the OPC must be fitted with advanced, secure C4ISR systems to operate seamlessly in highly complex netted environments and have hard- and soft-kill weapons to defeat a broad spectrum of surface and airborne threats.

(For Admiral Buzby’s discussions of the fleet approach for the NSC working with MSC ships see the following:


And, as much as performance risk needs to be taken into account, so must industrial-base capabilities-risk also be addressed.

For example, experience and capabilities to design, engineer, build and deliver “war-ready” ships are the sine qua non for program and operational success.  Rear Admiral Wayne E. Meyer, “Father” of the Navy’s Aegis cruisers and destroyers, used to say, “There’s nothing more complex than trying to design and build a warship…nothing!”  The broad success of the Aegis program is due in no small part to a “tried and true” industrial base that had the skills and experience to deliver design, engineering and production excellence.

So it must be for the OPC program.

The USCG/industry team must ensure the ability to deal with complexity in systems design, engineering and integration; planning and production schedules; logistics and supply chains; quality assurance; and testing. 

In this regard, the OPC is much closer to the NSC than the FRC in design and operational complexity “drivers,” and this might well shift the decision from “repair yards that have never built a complex warship or large cutter” to a “tried-and-true shipbuilder.”

In short, the OPC can’t be just your “grandfather’s WMEC” on steroids.  It needs to be a complex, multi-mission cutter to meet daunting operational requirements––unless, that is, the CG’s “middle-child” cutter is “short-sheeted” to meet near-term fiscal “bogeys.”  If so, it would be a waste of the taxpayers’ money at a time when doing more, affordably, is clearly in order.

Dr. Truver is a Washington DC-based naval and maritime analyst.

A shorter version of this commentary was posted to the U.S. Naval Institute website:


For our Special Report on the larger ship, the National Security Cutter see the following:


Editor’s Note: The OPC will be a crucial asset in dealing with the challenges of the Arctic opening and the Canadians are moving ahead with their OPCS for the decades ahead.



For one industrial competitor’s review of the program and discussion of its approach see the following:

For the USCG solicitation statement for the OPC see the following:


For a useful presentation of various concepts for meeting the USCG’s need for an OPC see the following: