Paramilitary: U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Replacement Crisis


July 18, 2022: Australian shipbuilder Austal, which has one of its ship building facilities in the United States, recently won a competition to build 11 of the new Coast Guard 4,500-ton Heritage class OPCs (Offshore Patrol Cutters). The two losing bidders were Eastern Shipbuilding, which won the initial contract for the Heritage-Class cutters but in 2019 suffered major hurricane damage to its Panama City shipyard, where the cutters were being built. The other losing bidder was VT Halter, a division of Singapore based ST Engineering which acquired major shipbuilding operations in the United States via purchase in 2003, and has already won the contract to build four new Coast Guard icebreakers.

Austal had an edge because it had been building ships for the American military, and doing it successfully, for a long time. Eastern will still be by building the first four cutters but Austal has an opportunity to build the next eleven, a project worth $3.3 billion, and possibly more because the coast guard wants 25 of them if Austal can outperform Eastern Shipbuilding in terms of quality and delivering on schedule.

The Heritage class cutters are larger than the current thirteen 1,800-ton Famous-class and fourteen 1,200-ton Reliance-class OPCs. These older OPCs have been in service 30 to 50 years each and all will be gone soon because of old-age. The more capable Heritage-Class is not only larger but faster, better equipped and armed than the older OPCs. Heritage-class ships are 110meters (360 feet) long and have a top speed of 45 kilometers an hour. Max endurance is 60 days at cruising speed (26 kilometers an hour). The crew of 126 operates a wide array of electronics and sensors, including electronic warfare systems and decoys. There are also three high speed boats for boarding parties or high-speed pursuit. Heritage cutters also have a hangar and landing pad for a MH-60 helicopter and at least one UAV. Standard (peace-time) armament for a Heritage-class OPC includes one 57mm gun, two 12.7mm machine-guns in stabilized mounts and four crew served 12.7mm machine-guns. In wartime cutters come under control of the navy and have space for additional weapons and sensor systems for wartime use.

The Coast Guard has had budget and design problems developing new cutters of all sizes to replace the many older ones that are in need of replacement. Austal’s reputation for meeting quality standards and delivering on time and on budget was one reason for getting the Heritage contract.




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