Surface Forces: Bad Decisions

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November 19, 2019: Ukraine recently received the first two of four former U.S. Coastguard Island class cutters (as seagoing coast guard ships are called). The 34 meter (110 foot) "Island Class" ships displace 158 tons. These ships have a crew of 16 and a top speed of 53 kilometers an hour. They are armed with a 25mm autocannon and two 12.7mm machine-gun. A RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat) powered by an outboard motor is carried and is normally used to carry boarding parties. The Island class has a two-dimension surface radar that can track up to 200 objects as well as portray islands and shorelines. There is new GPS/INS navigation equipment including electronic (displayed on a flat-screen) charts (maps of the sea). The endurance of these ships is five days.

The 49 Island Class boats were built between 1982 and 1995 and their design was based on a successful British ship of the same type. Three other nations have each received two Island class cutters. One of those nations is a Black Sea neighbor of Ukraine; Georgia. The cutters being transferred are refurbished and their first crews trained in the United States. Six of these cutters have been serving with the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf. The transferred ships are about 30 years old and if maintained well are good for another decade of service. Normally these ships spend about a third of the year at sea.

The Island class is being replaced by the new Sentinel class FRC (Fast Response Cutter) design, the U.S. Coast Guard has ordered 58 and has received 35 so far with the first one entering service in 2012. These are 46.8 meter (154 feet) long, 353 ton, vessels equipped with an 8 meter (25 foot) rigid hull boat launched and recovered internally from a ramp in the stern (rear) of the ship. Armament consists of a remotely controlled 25mm autocannon and four 12.7mm (.50 caliber) machine-guns, plus small arms. Top speed is 52 kilometers an hour and the crew of 22 has sleeping and eating facilities onboard so the ship can be at sea 5 days at a time, FRCs each average about 2,500 hours (over 100 days) a year at sea.

The Fast Response Cutter is basically a slightly larger version of the Dutch Damen Stan 4207 patrol vessel. The Dutch design was selected in 2008 because in 2007, the Coast Guard was finally forced to admit defeat in its effort to build an earlier design for Fast Response Cutters. The shipbuilders (Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman) screwed up, big time. While the Coast Guard shares some of the blame, for coming up with new concepts that didn't work out, the shipbuilders are the primary culprits because they are, well, the shipbuilding professionals and signed off on the Coast Guard concepts. Under intense pressure from media, politicians, and the shame of it all, the Coast Guard promptly went looking for an existing (off-the-shelf) design and in a hurry. That had become urgent because of an earlier screw-up.

American shipbuilders also bungled a plan to spend $100 million to modify all 49 of the Island Class cutters so as to extend their useful life a bit until the FRC arrived. The modification also added a rear ramp for launching a small boarding party boat. In 2006 the Coast Guard discovered that this upgrade program made the modified ships structurally unsound and subject to breaking up in heavy seas. All eight of the modified 123 foot (40 meter) cutters were removed from service after cracks were found in the hull and decks. At that point, the modification program was already in trouble for being behind schedule and over budget. The program was first halted and then killed.

 


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