Thursday, March 01, 2007

Cutter Conundrum' and Coastie Window Shopping

The Coast Guard's patrol boats are getting long in the tooth and are desperately in need of a replacement.








The immediate problems go back to the '80s. The Coast Guard had large numbers of 82' and 95' patrol boats. All were slow but useful. The 95 foot boats had been designed in WW2 and produced over several years in different batches, their hulls were quite worn out, the 82'Point class had been built in the '60s they were cramped but useful vessels though a large number had been given to Viet Nam to assist that nation in its attempt to stave off the evil that ultimately consumed it.

As a stop-gap, the Island class patrol boats were ordered in small numbers in fits and starts in the early to mid 80's. Congress was unwilling to fund the CG and they were collateral items in drug war legislation with some actually being bought for the CG by the Navy! The design was (by congressional order) not an American one but an off the shelf Vosper export design. Now the Brits have nothing to learn in the field of shipbuilding, but this was an export design that put paper performance ahead of operational characteristics. The Coast Guard knew this but they needed something fast to catch drug smugglers, the ships could be built very quickly and anyway, they were just considered a stopgap until the Leopold Class was to be commissioned in the early '90s.

The Leopold class was an interesting design. A very strongly built 120 foot patrol boat the craft would have been capable of 30 knots or more despite far stronger construction than the lightly built 110's. They embodied every lesson learned in Patrol Boat ops for the last several decades. They would have had a secondary coastal ASW capability in wartime. These cutters were much needed replacements for a hundred small cutters that were at or past the end of their service lives and the USCG had high hopes for them.

Alas, the Congress canceled them around 1990. A few more 110's were ordered, but the Coast Guard has had a patrol boat deficit since the late '80s. Leopold was laid up incomplete and ordered scrapped.

In the mid 90's a different Congress financed the 87' Barracuda class.
These are quite small cutters. They are NOT replacements for the seagoing 95's and 110's. They are really revenue and law enforcement boats. In those tasks they excel, especially as they are small enough and have a shallow enough draft to get into nearly all small boat stations, and patrol and conduct rescues inshore (an important and little appreciated requirement).

In the late 90's and early 'naughts the first batches of 110's were coming up on the end of their design lives and generating harrowing sea stories for their crews. The Coast Guard began looking at replacements and began designing the ideal cutter of the future.

The ICOF involved a lot of design work as it was to have a composite hull for long life, high speed, high fuel efficiency, a high degree of automation, be operable in any sea state and generally be a mass of conflicting requirements....all under 150 feet in length.

The composite hull took time to develop and the materials science did not progress as planned. The CG wanted to integrate the new Deepwater C4I systems into the new vessels from the start and wanted a homogeneous class for ease and inexpensiveness of maintainability.

The solution to this delay was to completely refurbish the 110's into 123's adding the safer and manpower-saving stern launching arrangements of the 87's. The vessels were stretched 13 feet, their hulls were refurbished and prototypes of the new communications system were installed. This was a logical choice to compensate for the delays in the new design. The planned future vessels would come online as the 123's were wearing out and machinery and equipment in the maintenance pipelines could be switched at once.

Unfortunately the 110' hull did not stretch well.
Unlike a certain-other-debacle this does not seem to be the result of failure to do ones job, but rather a genuine marine engineering learning experience. The stretched hulls were extensively computer tested, but certain choppy seas cause stresses that were not foreseen in the lightly built hulls. The result was yet more harrowing sea stories and the laying up of the refitted ships.

Now there is a problem....the CG needs patrol boats....like yesterday.

But what should they buy, the ultimate cutter design is still decade or 2 off and we have got to get something in the water now.

I'm not an engineer nor a Boatswains mate. I'm certainly not an officer, but this is a BLOG! So keeping in mind my stock disclaimer, here are my thoughts on the matter as I commence tilting at windmills far above my paygrade!

First thing! No more surprises....off the shelf designs only for now.

One obvious choice would be the NAVY/Coast Guard Cyclone class patrol boat. It's very highly regarded in Coast Guard service, uses the same diesels the CG 110's use, is fast and is already in service .


From Australia we have this well proven design from Tenix. Their 56 meter Search and Rescue craft is based on their stock 57m fast attack craft, but it has actually been built! Two were delivered to the Philippines a few years ago. The Philippine Coast Guard is so pleased with the design that they are ordering 6 more of these instead of buying more of the similarly sized Cyclone class ships (they operate 1 of those too). The design is interesting for a number of reasons. It is reasonably fast (26 kts). It has a large (enclosed) rescue deck for survivors (or migrants). It is very seaworthy and despite its small size it has a landing deck for a small helicopter. There is no hangar but the cutter seems to have a similar capability to the larger Reliance class cutters with 1 third the crew in a package 7knots faster and no bigger than the Cyclone class...ie one that can fit in many Coast Guard stations. It's 20-30 feet longer than the CG seems to want but its manning is reasonable (though admittedly 10 more than a 110'). It is likely more seaworthy than a 110' and it is very well adapted to SAR duty. In all likelihood its maintenance and operations costs are fairly low (these being of PARAMOUNT importance to the Philippine Coast Guard).


Versatility is the watchword of the Coast Guard, and few vessels are as versatile as Denmark's Flyvefisken class. These 35 knot vessels are nominally fast attach craft, but are fitted with modules for pollution control, search and rescue, oceanography as well as 4 weapons modules for SSMs, SAMs minesweeping gear, and torpedoes. The heavy weapons are superfluous in CG service but a case might be made for one or more of the neat 12 packs of Evolved Seasparrows or perhaps a SeaRAM on overseas deployments. Sooner or later an asshat is going to take a potshot at a cutter with a missile and a good point defense missile would be useful...especially onewith secondary antiship capability...decadent I know.... the point is the vessel is quite adaptable to a war situation if necessary.

The HUGE workdeck (used for mines and torpedo tubes in RDN service) would lend itself admirably to ATON (aids to navigation) work and pollution control in the rare cases the CG has to do that. Base crew without the big weapons (which the CG would rarely if ever use) is 19....very economical indeed. There are 4 modules for weapons or other kit. Forward the Danish models are fitted with a 76mm gun so the CG's superb 57mm weapon would be no problem, let alone the smaller guns we could actually afford to put on it right now.The hull is constructed of a fibre-reinforced plastic! Despite this, these ships are minimally ice strengthened (but NOT ice breaking) and designed to operate safely in some of the worst seas on the planet...the Atlantic between Denmark and Greenland. This is a VAST improvement upon the CG's 110's (which, with their hull plating about the thickness of a nickel(!) do not deal well with ice).
With a waterline length of 164 feet it is closer to what the Coast Guard says it needs. The speed is remarkable but depends on a gas turbine, (fuel hawg!) note that on cruising diesels alone the speed of these vessels is still 20 kts A Coast Guard version would likely make 26-30 kts on uprated diesels not optimized for cruising, or perhaps 4 diesels (possibly at the expense of one of the mission modules). I like this one a LOT. :)

Going a bit smaller we come to this Lurrsen design for the German Sea Rescue Service. Only 144 feet long, and drawing 10 feet of water, these ice strengthened vessels are capable of 26 knots, have a stern launched rescue boat, and are designed with north sea winters in mind. The big fire monitor on the bow could easily be replaced with a machine gun or light auto-cannon. Incredibly, they have a small helipad for light helicopters, and though this tiny platform might give airdales harrowing seastories, it is a useful emergency capability to have, extending the range of small choppers or allowing wounded rescuees to be medi-vacd. The German Maritime Rescue Service is a civilian organization that exists only by private donations therefore economy of operation is high on their priority list. These vessels were built in the 70's and are very highly regarded. Lurrsen still advertises being ready to build them and the company seems quite proud of the design.

Their likely replacements are represented by the very similar (but slightly larger ) Herman Marwede. A bit slower with a much higher superstructure, this vessels helicopter arrangements seem less....scary. The high focs'le looks to improve seakeeping but the moderate freeboard and flush deck of the Essberger might be better for some SAR situations (yes I'm way beyond my expertise here). I'm not sure if this ship is ice strengthened, but given the operating area I'd be surprised if it wasn't. The ship is still brand new so I don't know if it is as well regarded as the Essbergers.
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There are myriad other designs as well by many very highly regarded naval architects, but these are in service, seem to be working quite well and are reasonably economical to operate.

So let's buy something!

Anyhow this concludes my un-liscenced foray into marine procurement.


UPDATE: Welcome Murdoc Online readers!

UPDATE2: Note that in referring to the 123s STRUCTURAL problems as unforeseen,
I was not suggesting that the other issues that have been widely reported were as well. However the contractor related issues regards wiring and shielding, were, as I understand it, not nearly as serious as some reports suggested and were fixed almost immediately.

Also, while the work-deck of the Danish craft would make them useful as supplemental buoy tenders, the lack of both a full sized buoy hold and a true icebreaking capability would mean that the versatile "black hull fleet" would still be needed.

4 comments:

Wonderduck said...

Here's an idea that's going to go over like a lead balloon with the higher-ups, but might work with the important people: the crews.

Buy one of each type. Get five crew sets (or five 'core crews'). Have each crew set serve on each of the ships for, say, six months, at which point they cycle to the next vessel.

At the end of the 2-1/2 years, have the five crews, from the captains on down to the lowest of the enlisted, submit their appraisals of each vessel.

That way, you get a (hopefully) honest assessment of each craft's strengths and weaknesses from each position's point of view.

The bridge crew might like Ship 'A' because of the ergonomic design of the controls; those who work primarily on the decks might like 'B' because of (insert reason here); the engineers might prefer 'C' because the yadda, the whirlybirders like 'D' because of the stability in rough seas; nobody likes 'E' because it only has one toilet.

In a perfect world, the decision is therefore made by the people on the pointy end of the stick, those who'd have to actually USE the darn things.

In the real world, the powers that be would throw away the assessments and buy Ship 'E' because of the lowered plumbing costs.

fm said...

Good post Ken.

I thought you might be interested to know that in Australia, the main competitor to Tenix in the patrol boat sector is a company by the name of Austal, who incidentally is the designer and builder of the second LCS design with shipyards in Mississippi, I think.

They recently won the competition to provide 56 m patrol boats to the Royal Australian Navy. They're called the Armidale class:

http://www.austal.com/index.cfm?objectID=696021DA-A0CC-3C8C-D939D60FAC0C3C2E

That might be another design that's competitive for your Coast Guard's requirements.

The company also does other, mostly smaller, classes of patrol boats and they've had some success in the Middle East:

http://www.austal.com/go/product-information/defence-products/patrol-boats

Also of interest in the Armidale class is the relative cost of acquiring the fleet. Austal signed a contract with the Australian Department of Defence for construction of 12 vessels and through life maintenance support for 15 years at a cost of A$553 million (approximately US $300 million). As ships and support goes, I thought that was a hell of a bargain in 2003. Since then they've added two extra vessels to the contract (but I'm not sure how much extra that cost).

http://www.austal.com/index.cfm?objectid=44D22B77-A0CC-3C8C-D9532368A289CD67

I'm just a regular punter like yourself but I thought you might be interested in that.

Cheers from Down Under...

FM

Ken said...

Thanks for commenting!

...and thanks for the links!

I read recently that the whole Armidale class was just taken out of service for structural reinforcement....but can't find a primary internet source for that.

fm said...

A little late, but perhaps you will read this reply...

Yes there has been a couple of instances of water contamination in the fuel lines. It's in a couple of boats, so it's obviously not a one-off, but it's also not the most serious of problems for a first of class that is still in the build phase. As I mentioned above, the contractor is also responsible for maintenance of the fleet, and taking the the fleet out of service for a period is as much about not letting the contractor off the hook rather than any great concerns. They get paid for the number of sea days that they deliver and there are penalties if they can't deliver. So it's a bit of that that's going on. I don't think the engineering problems are serious. There were only six boats in the water so far last time I looked. Plenty of time yet before the Fremantle class is withdrawn from service.