Analyzing Alternatives for the Offshore Patrol Cutter
The white Coast Guard cutter with the bright red “racing stripe” is a common sight on the nightly news. Coast Guard cutters come to the aid of stranded vessels, perform a variety of law enforcement roles, and accompany expeditionary forces in times of war. The oldest of the Coast Guard’s Medium Endurance Cutters (WMECs) first entered service in the 1960s, and the class is becoming increasingly expensive to maintain and operate. What will be required of the ships that replace it?
The U.S. Navy is also interested in fast, maneuverable ships that can be reconfigured for a variety of missions. The first of these Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) was commissioned in 2008, and its design — down to the ability to base helicopters, and to launch and recover small boats — at first sounds a lot like that of the Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC) the Coast Guard seeks to acquire. Why couldn't the Coast Guard just buy some of the same ships?
“The simple answer is that it's for the same reason that people don't buy a turbo-charged two-door sports car when they really need a V-6 minivan,” writes Master Chief Petty Officer Brett Ayer. “Our mission, operational requirements, and budget are much more ‘minivan like' than the LCS.” While the Navy is concerned with speed, agility, and modularity, the Coast Guard prizes reliability, economy, and unsupported range.
The process of comparing available options against operational requirements is often referred to as an Analysis of Alternatives (AoA), and is an important step in the process that the DoD and other elements of the U.S. government use to plan for and acquire major new systems. These studies are large undertakings that define a future capability gap, identify alternatives for filling that gap, and perform a thorough cost and effectiveness analyses of those alternatives. In 2009, the U.S. Coast Guard asked the RAND Corporation to perform an alternatives analysis study for the Offshore Patrol Cutter.
“People don't buy a turbo-charged two-door sports car when they really need a V-6 minivan”
Master Chief Petty Officer Brett Ayer (June, 2013)
Rarely does a single piece of equipment have as many roles as a Coast Guard cutter. A single OPC has to be capable of pursuing a fast, noncompliant smuggling vessel in the warm waters of the Caribbean, and be equally able to perform rescue operations in the North Pacific in winter. RAND has a long history of performing AoA, and AOA-like studies for the DoD. In recent years, it has examined options for the U.S. Army in its acquisition of the Joint High-Speed Vessel, and for the U.S. Air Force on its airborne tanker and its next-generation gunship.
RAND analysts evaluated the capabilities of existing vessel designs, of potential OPC configurations , and of the Coast Guard's new National Security Cutter (NSC). They ranked the frequency of various mission types using the history of the Medium Endurance Cutter as a guide for how often the OPC might be called upon to perform such duties. Finally, they modelled the performance of various ships under different sets of circumstances.
- What ships exist in the same class as the proposed OPC?
- What are the missions the OPC will be called upon to perform, and with what frequency?
- What effects do the change in one characteristic (ex. number of helicopters) have on others (ex. number of crew needed)?
- What are the costs and performance of the alternatives?
The RAND analysis informed the Coast Guard and congressional decisionmakers as they build the Coast Guard’s Offshore Patrol Cutter. The first example of the OPC is expected to see service in 2018.
“The vessels we are building today are larger, more sophisticated, and have capabilities that cutter crews from 20 years ago could not have imagined.”
Master Chief Petty Officer Brett Ayer (March, 2013)