Video Above: Northrop Grumman & Eastern Shipbuilding Group Build New Coast Guard OffShore Patrol Cutter

By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington.D.C.) They intercept dangerous shipments of illegal drugs, support the U.S. Navy securing international waterways, thwart terrorism, crime and piracy on the high seas near U.S. shores and, perhaps most of all, they regularly rescue people on the brink of death. The U.S. Coast Guard, and at times under-recognized sphere or portion of the U.S. services increasingly in demand, as threats to the homeland continue to mount due to the growing global reach of major power rivals.

Within the Coast Guard mission scope is a balanced, yet crucial need to patrol both littoral and deep water areas as part of an integrated operational approach, a task assigned to the services’ medium endurance cutters. However, the current fleet of 29 legacy medium endurance cutters (33 not too many years ago) have been in service for decades and are reaching obsolescence and are badly in need of replacement.

There is where the Coast Guard’s emerging Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC) enters the equation, a new ship envisioned as a more capable, better networked, larger and far more advanced, high- tech medium endurance cutter than has ever existed.

A U.S. Coast Guard report on the ship had stated that the OPC will provide a capability bridge between the national security cutter which patrols the open ocean in the most demanding maritime environments, to the smaller and the fast response cutters, which serve closer to shore.

Artist’s rendition of the Offshore Patrol Cutter, images courtesy of Eastern Shipbuilding Group.

The Coast Guard selected Eastern Shipbuilding Group Inc. (ESG) to build the ship, by choosing them to continue into phase 2 of the OPC development, which includes detail design and construction. While smaller than some of the largest shipbuilders, ESG is known for building highly complex ships of very high quality, on time and on budget, and has helped design the practical design and technological configuration of the ship. The first cutter in the class of the new fleet, Argus, is slated to set sail at some point in 2022. ADM Robert Papp (RET) is currently President of the DC offices of ESG.

“ESG came through with a great price for the government with a ship almost matching the operational capabilities of their largest assets, but offering a significant cost reduction in both construction and over the life of the vessel. One of the things I focused on was I did not want to reduce future capabilities of any acquisitions program, while knowing we had to get the Coast Guard fantastic ships at affordable prices,” Papp said.

At 360 feet, the ESG OPC is much larger than the 210-foot and 270-foot medium endurance cutters they are replacing and also engineered with an entirely new sphere of command and control systems, sensor technologies and networking applications. This new dimension of technology is of great significance to Coast Guard planners, who anticipate that new levels of networked, yet disaggregated operations will increasingly be necessary. Northrop Grumman and ESG drew from state of the market technologies to build this ship.

“When you build a Navy ship, you have to focus on power and speed. The Navy has oilers that can refuel ships, whereas most Coast Guard ops are independent of the fleet. You don’t have a supply ship so you must have room on board for fuel, food and supplies, and you need to conserve that fuel,” Papp said.

This need to optimize the scope of available resources and propulsion efficiency is part of why the new ESG ship is built with an auxiliary hybrid electric-diesel propulsion systems to increase efficiency and loitering capability, a first in the CG fleet.

“If you are doing surveillance, you can use the ship service generators and electrical power to cruise at a reasonable speed to preserve your fuel,” Papp said.

This technical effort to engineer new dimensions of ship technology is comprised of an ESG collaboration with Northrop Grumman to provide the C4ISR systems to integrate with and optimize ESG’s OPC vision and design for the ship.

Working in close coordination with ESG to ensure that the ship’s technical infrastructure aligned with ESG’s structural vision for the ship, design specs and technical requirements, Northrop Grumman is building the Integrated Bridge System, an integrated set of technologies connecting the helm and control centers to the ship’s propulsion, steering and navigation. As part of its contribution, Northrop Grumman also provides the ship’s Computing Network System, Machinery Control System and Propulsion Control System along with the monitors and controls for the ship’s propulsion power plant. Interestingly, Northrop Grumman has leveraged some of the commonality with cutting edge technology it has built into other Navy and Coast Guard ships to optimize technical performance and ensure sustained upgradeability.

The advanced networking and C4ISR is of critical importance to the Coast Guard’s OPC vision, in part because the service is looking to acquire 25 new ships to replace an existing fleet of now less than 30 medium-endurance Hamilton cutters.

Coast Guard Off Shore Patrol Cutter - Courtesy of Eastern Shipbuilding Group

“This is the largest acquisition in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard. We are responsible for the majority of the C4ISR capabilities on the OPC; including the command and control system, communications, navigation through the integrated bridge system, the shipboard computer network system, navigation and combat system data distribution system, surface search radars, primary and secondary gyrocompasses, as well as other navigational sensors. Our key objectives have been to deliver affordable solutions and keep the program on track,” Michael Corrigan, Site Director of the Northrop Grumman facility in Charlottesville Virginia, where the equipment is built and tested, told Warrior.

Papp explained that the engineering vision for the ship has, since its inception, relied upon this tactical and technical approach emphasizing networking and C4ISR to, among other things, expand the surveillance reach for medium endurance cutters. Having spent years serving on and commanding now decades-old medium endurance cutters, Papp added that their surveillance capabilities were often limited to a surface ship radar “something inside of about 20 miles.”

“Now, because of C4ISR and the ability to share satellite data and aircraft data, we can make our ships smarter. Instead of just searching, you can direct ships exactly where they need to look,” Papp added.

PART II - Off Shore Patrol Cutter Technology

(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.

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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 Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

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.