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The Navy’s Flop Could Be The Coast Guard’s Godsend
By Harold Hutchison

The Littoral Combat Ship has been a lightning rod of controversy. While it has cutting-edge technology, it has been very expensive (at least $400 million per hull), and it has been lightly armed. The Navy is planning to halt construction after thirty-two hulls, evenly divided between the Freedom-class and the Independence-class designs. The vessels are also lightly armed, presently working with a Mk 110 57mm gun and a number of .50-caliber machine guns. The armament suite seems to be closer to that of the Bertholf-class cutters in Coast Guard service than to a real warship.

The Navy has been running short of hulls as the ChiComs and Russians are expanding their navies, and other regions of the world remain festering hotspots. Clearly, the Littoral Combat Ship is not up to fighting a high-end war. But that is not to condemn the vessels as worthless. These ships may, in fact, be the right ships in the wrong armed service.

The Coast Guard is facing an acute crisis – one that makes the issues faced by the United States Navy seem trivial by comparison. This service is tasked with securing 19,924 kilometers of maritime borders, about 65% more than the entire land borders of the country. Meanwhile, the number of hulls is dropping – eight Bertholf-class cutters are being asked to cover the same missions as 12 Hamilton-class high-endurance cutters that are being retired.

The Coast Guard is also in need of replacements for 14 aging Reliance-class medium endurance cutters still in service. These vessels require 75-83 crewmen to man – meaning the entire force requires 1176 crewmen. That same number of crewmen could man over two dozen of the littoral combat ships. In other words, fourteen aging vessels could be replaced by at least two dozen modern vessels. That is a good trade, both in terms of the number of hulls in the water (at least ten more than the number of Reliance-class cutters), but also in terms of the capabilities of those hulls (faster vessels, each of which can carry two MH-60 airframes).

The Littoral Combat Ship, miscast as a naval warship, appears to be a natural fit for the Coast Guard, particularly for stopping the flow of illegal drugs. During a 2010 deployment to Southern Command, USS Freedom carried out four narcotics busts in 47 days. The Coast Guard’s all-time “champ” in drug busts, the medium endurance cutter USCGC Dauntless (WMEC 624) has scored 85 busts over 46 years in service. In short, USS Freedom’s drug bust total in 47 days – an average of just under 12 days between busts, probably took Dauntless 26 months to equal largely because Dauntless has averaged six and a half months between her drug busts.

If one ship on loan to the Coast Guard for just under seven weeks can rack up that kind of record in counter-drug operations, what sort of record could several Littoral Combat Ships deployed to the Caribbean on counter-narcotics operations rack up? Wouldn’t it be a good idea to find out?

The Littoral Combat Ship was a mistake for the United States Navy. It lacks the firepower to go up against serious opposition, and fixing it for the Navy will be even more expensive. However, this ship could be a godsend for the Coast Guard, which is desperately in need of new hulls, and could help the United States secure its maritime borders.