Video Above: Northrop Grumman& Eastern Shipbuilding Group Build New Coast Guard OffShore Patrol Cutter
By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven
(Washington D.C.) Coast Guard ships are built for the specific purpose of maintaining security and stability, preventing disaster, protecting the homeland, rescuing people from the brink of catastrophe and, in many instances, averting otherwise crippling devastation … so it may not seem surprising that when one new Coast Guard ship was itself ravaged by disaster while under construction, the shipyard was able to rebuild, restore and sustain mission focus amid destruction.
In October of 2018, Category 5 storm Hurricane Michael ripped onto shore in Panama City Florida, wreaking havoc upon Eastern Shipbuilding Group’s facilities at crucial points in the construction of the Coast Guard’s new OffShore Patrol Cutter (OPC).
That is what happened after… buildings were destroyed, progress was setback or eliminated, work was interrupted...ESG launched an effort to implement immediate cost and schedule relief to return from the brink of complete devastation.
Hurricane response is one of many Coast Guard missions, so one could almost say there is a certain inspirational consistency between the broader Coast Guard mission itself and the shipyard’s effort to fight through the disaster.
Hull and superstructure of the USS Argus under construction at Eastern Shipbuilding’s yard in Panama City, Florida, images courtesy of Eastern Shipbuilding Group. ESG photo
The shipyard’s Phoenix-like resurrection from near complete destruction in the aftermath of the hurricane could therefore be described as consistent with the spirit and intent of the Coast Guard mission to respond to disaster, repair damage, provide humanitarian assistance and restore stability.
“ESG’s shipyard is located about 15 miles east of Eastern’s headquarters and main yard in Panama City, and just a few miles west of Mexico Beach, Fla., where Hurricane Michael made landfall. Our yard was hit hard. In the midst of our reconstruction, we were hit by the pandemic, like so many other businesses in the country. Through hard work and determination, we were able to recover after the hurricane and keep our employees on the job,” Joey D’Isernia, President of Eastern Shipbuilding Group, told Warrior. Eastern was able to sustain operations, and just two months afterwards, we were able to start construction on the original schedule….
The ESG shipyard restoration included massive efforts to reconstruct infrastructure, salvage and repair essential parts, technologies and components and, perhaps of greatest importance, preserve the inspirational mission focus necessary to complete the task. ESG photo
It was a disaster of consequence, as the Coast Guard mission to build a new fleet of Medium Endurance Cutters to replace the decades old existing 210-foot and 270-foot cutters with a larger, more advanced, high-tech multi-mission ship was considered the service’s highest acquisition priority. So without any room for wavering or hesitation … the mission had to go on.
There were many new dimensions to this mission, as the overall conceptual vision for the new OPC Coast Guard ship had been informed by strategic, tactical and technological variables unique to a modern threat environment. The new generation of Coast Guard ships would need the tactical and technical versatility to operate in both littoral and deeper water conditions with an ability to respond to an entirely new sphere of threat circumstances when compared with previous Coast Guard ships.
This threat-conscious approach is part of why ESG has aligned with Northrop Grumman to integrate a new generation of C4ISR systems to the ship to include an advanced computing “nerve center,” data-sharing, communication systems and machinery controls. Northrop Grumman engineers are also providing the monitors and controls needed for the ship’s diesel-electric propulsion power plant and Integrated Bridge System (IBS). “The asset is not solving a problem in a vacuum”, Papp stated. “It is solving a problem for the Coast Guard”.
“The IBS provides centralized access to sensor information, command and control information to provide safe and efficient transit during those operations. The computer network system we provide supports both unclassified as well as classified operations and interfaces with the C4ISR subsystems”, Michael Corrigan, Site Director of the Northrop Grumman facility in Charlottesville Virginia, where the equipment is built and tested, told Warrior.
These kinds of technical additions are consistent with Northrop Grumman’s long standing expertise in the area of sensors, C4ISR and mission systems, given that, for example, Northrop Grumman provides systems such as the Distributed Aperture Systems 360-degree camera sensors for the F-35. In fact, Northrop Grumman engineers explain that the technical approach to the OPC seeks to leverage some of the commonality with other surface ships their company has supported over the years, an initiative which includes the use of common technological standards to expedite continued modernization.
“Northrop Grumman is providing and integrating C2 work stations with computers and software to provide that situational awareness, intelligence support to allow a commanding officer to execute the missions,” Corrigan explained.
Corrigan further added that the OPC uses two Northrop Grumman built navigation sensors, the MK 27F which provides attitude and heading information and the MK 39 Mod 4 which operates as an inertial navigation system that is providing Assured Position Navigation and Timing (APNT) information.
“The performance of these sensors allows the crew to provide very accurate positioning data to numerous sensors across the ship, even in a GPS-denied environment. Critical data is routed to and from sensors, including the combat weapons system,” Corrigan said.
Northrop Grumman has built and maintains both the Land Based Test Facility (LBTF) and the Test and Integration Facility (TIF) for the OPC program. The LBTF is utilized to test the OPC Machinery, Propulsion and Electric Plant Control systems, and will also be utilized for training and to support the shipyard test and trials. The TIF is utilized to test the platform’s C4ISR systems.
Northrop Grumman photo: Northrop Grumman’s dedicated LBTF and TIF labs utilized to test key technology systems for the platform as well as for training.
Northrop Grumman developers say that the OPC facilities have brought world class testing and a powerful technological basis leveraged from existing commonalities from previous Navy and Coast Guard products, in terms of quality, technology and lifecycle.
“Northrop Grumman has created a true force multiplier with ESG. It is an additional assurance to the Coast Guard of a low risk solution with state of the market technology,” a senior Northrop developer told Warrior.
A Coast Guard essay on the OPC fleet mission objectives writes that “the OPCs will provide the majority of offshore presence for the Coast Guard’s cutter fleet, bridging the capabilities of the 418-foot national security cutters, which patrol the open ocean, and the 154-foot fast response cutters, which serve closer to shore.”
The 360-foot OPC will execute these missions with drones, an onboard helicopter and high speed over-the-horizon capable small boats. “Our goal is to give Combat Systems Certification for complete interoperability and data sharing with the Navy. Each OPC will be capable of deploying independently or as part of task groups and serving as a mobile command and control platform for surge operations such as hurricane response, mass migration incidents and other events. “The cutters will also support Arctic objectives by helping regulate and protect emerging commerce and energy exploration in Alaska,” according to the Coast Guard paper.
It is with this expanding mission focus that the ship was built with a new generation hull design for greater endurance and fuel efficiency and breakthrough levels of sensors, networking and command and control systems to accommodate a modern threat environment. This threat environment requires more dispersed, yet interoperable mission tasks, a dual-pronged tactical approach well suited to the Coast Guard mission objectives which often include a need for ships to operate by themselves for sustained periods of time while pursuing missions.
This is part of why the tactical rationale for the ship’s mission scope includes the greater use of drones and advanced networking to align the Coast Guard mission more fully with Navy and Marine Corps objectives. Interestingly, this may in part be why the OPC’s technological configuration is designed to improve interoperability and its broadening mission scope aligns with a just released Coast Guard, Navy and Marine Corps maritime warfare strategy document called “Advantage at Sea - Prevailing with Integrated All Domain Naval Power.”
It is not by accident that the Coast Guard is fundamental to this multi-service strategy as there is a growing need for the Coast Guard to safeguard homeland shores, protect vital passageways and support expanding U.S. Navy and Marine Corps missions. These mission objectives further explain the importance of the ESG-Northrop Grumman team which has for several years sought to leverage the necessary technical systems to accomplish the intended mission.
“The Coast Guard’s mission profile makes it the preferred maritime security partner for many nations vulnerable to coercion. Integrating its unique authorities—law enforcement, fisheries protection, marine safety, and maritime security—with Navy and Marine Corps capabilities expands the options we provide to joint force commanders for cooperation and competition,” the Advantage at Sea strategy essay notes. Northrop Grumman and ESG’s focus on a new generation of technology is specifically intended to support this strategy, as improved C4ISR systems and an advanced hull design can help facilitate more dispersed operations and greater strengthen interoperability with Navy and Marine Corps missions. Better networked and technically capable ships are part of how the Coast Guard can build roughly 26 new OPCs to perform, improve and expand upon the legacy 33-ship strong medium endurance cutter fleet.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest*.* Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.