Modernization of Coast Guard Cutters and Naval Surface Combatants

July 17, 2009

CBO released a study today that examines alternatives to current Navy and Coast Guard long-term procurement strategies for their small surface ships known as small combatants. As articulated in their respective long-term shipbuilding plans, the Navy and the Coast Guard intend to purchase a total of 83 small combatants. CBO estimates these purchases would cost more than $47 billion over the next 20 years.

The Navy is building two versions of its new combat ship designed for operations near coastlines (the littoral zone). Also, the Coast Guard is building replacements for its existing classes of high-endurance cutters and medium-endurance cutters. As the designation small combatant implies, the Navys two versions of littoral combat ships (LCSs) and the Coast Guards national security cutters (NSCs) and offshore patrol cutters (OPCs) are designed to be significantly shorter in length, lighter in weight, and shallower in draft than most Navy surface warships (carriers, amphibious ships, cruisers, and destroyers).

Although all four types of ship are about the same size, they are designed to perform different missions. In general, The Navys LCSs are designed to have less range than Coast Guard cutters but to operate at much greater speeds and close to shore during wartime as part of a naval battle network. The Coast Guard ships are meant to operate independently at sea for long periods of time and at some distance from the shore and not to engage in major combat operations.

In the early stages of implementing the ship programs, however, the Navy and the Coast Guard have encountered various challengesincluding cost overruns and construction problems. As a result of those delays and cost overruns, some members of the Congress and independent analysts have questioned whether the Navy and the Coast Guard need to buy four different types of small combatant and whetherin spite of the services well-documented reservations about using similar hull designsthe same type of hull could be employed for certain missions.

To explore that possibility, CBO examined three alternatives to the Navys and the Coast Guards current plans for these four ships.

  • Option 1 explores the feasibility of having the Coast Guard buy a variant of the Navys LCSto use as its offshore patrol cutter.
  • Option 2 examines the effects of reducing the number of LCSs the Navy would buy and substituting instead a naval version of the Coast Guards national security cutter.
  • Option 3 examines the advantages and disadvantages of having the Coast Guard buy more national security cutters rather than incur the costs of designing and building a new ship to perform the missions of an offshore patrol cutter.

According to CBOs estimates, all three alternatives and the services plans would have similar costs, regardless of whether they are calculated in terms of acquisition costs or total life-cycle costs. CBOs analysis also indicates that the three alternative plans would not necessarily be more cost-effective or provide more capability than the services existing plans. Specifically, even if the options addressed individual problems that the Navy and Coast Guard might confront with their small combatants, the options would also create new challenges.

Eric J. Labs of CBOs National Security Division wrote this report. Eric has been at CBO for 14 years and holds a Ph.D. from MIT. With three children, two dogs, and two cats, Erics hobby is sleeping.