Surface Forces: Ukraine Rebuilds With NATO Ships

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December 13, 2021: In late November Ukraine received the second two of five former U.S. Coastguard Island class cutters. The first two arrived in 2019 and the fifth one was added to the deal because the Ukrainians were pleased with the performance of the first two and asked for more, as well as help with adding more weapons, like a pair of anti-ship missiles.

These cutters are 158-ton coastal patrol boats that can also operate farther out in open seas but are not designed for ocean voyages. For that reason, the Island Class ships were delivered via a larger (171 meter/550 foot long) cargo ship with a reinforced deck for carrying cargo containers in addition to other cargo in the below deck spaces. The two patrol boats were on the deck alongside cargo containers. The two boats are loaded and unloaded using heavy dockside cargo cranes. Smaller boats like this are regularly carried long distances this way. The U.S. Coast Guard calls all its seagoing ships cutters and the larger ones do make long voyages when transferred to another part of the United States or to foreign ports in wartime to augment U.S. Navy ships for patrolling coastal areas near ports. There are six Island Class cutters in the Persian Gulf, also delivered via a larger transport.

Ukraine asked the U.S. for help in rebuilding its navy and coast guard after most of its ships and patrol boats were lost in 2014 when Russia seized Crimea. After that Ukraine has only one frigate left and is now ordering similar and smaller (corvette) warships from NATO nations. The U.S. concentrated on rebuilding the coast guard and has also supplied sixteen smaller patrol boats as well. Ukraine is deliberately rebuilding its navy with ships obtained from NATO nations. This makes it easier for Ukraine to eventually join NATO with NATO-standard weapons.

The 34 meter (110 foot) "Island Class" 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-dimensional surface radar that can track up to 200 objects as well as portray islands and shorelines. There is a modern GPS/INS navigation system, including electronic (displayed on a flat-screen) charts (maps of the sea). The endurance of these ships is five days.

Between 1982 and 1995 forty-nine Island Class boats were built and their design was based on a successful British ship of the same type. Currently 37 Island Class boats are in service with the American coast guard. Another eleven were transferred to Ukraine, Georgia, Pakistan, and Costa Rica as foreign aid while two were disarmed and sold to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. The cutters being transferred as foreign aid are refurbished and their first crews trained in the United States. 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 64 and has received 40 so far with the first three 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 coast guard was so pleased with the FRC that it increased its original order for 58 to 64.

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.

Eight of the Island Class boats were retired early after a botched attempt by an American firm to upgrade them, and eventually all the Island Class ships. American shipbuilders received a $100 million contract to modify all 49 Island Class cutters to extend their useful life a bit until the replacement 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 with the loss of the eight modified Island Class boats.

 


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