The U.S. Coast Guard is taking on an expanded role in the Western Pacific, deploying cutter crews and working with the U.S. Navy to establish an American presence in far-flung island nations. The USCG’s law enforcement and search-and-rescue capabilities dovetail neatly with this mission, and the service wants to double down with four more cutters specifically for the Indo-Pacific.
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In its unfunded priorities list for Congress for FY2024 – an indicative set of recommendations for appropriators, above and beyond the budget request – the Coast Guard included a line item for $400 million to fund the acquisition of four more Fast Response Cutters (FRCs), the smallest and most numerous of its seagoing vessels. The FRC has proven itself on long-distance patrols out of Hawaii and Guam, performing tasks above and beyond what might be expected of a 150-foot patrol boat. The class has a nominal range of 2,500 nm, but is capable of 3,500 nm at reduced speed, and it is ideal for fisheries patrols in the wide EEZs of the Pacific islands.
Guam and Hawaii each have three FRCs, and the Coast Guard’s unfunded priorities list would add four more in the region. The acquisition would increase its role in the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy and “begin to transform the Coast Guard from an organization which currently provides episodic presence, to be persistent and visible.”
It would also be a low-cost way to increase American presence on the far side of the Pacific. The U.S. Navy’s smallest seagoing patrol vessels – the Independence-class and Freedom-class LCS – cost about $500 million to build and $50-70 million per year to operate. Each LCS’ annual operating cost would be almost enough to order a new FRC (historically about $65 million each, though construction prices have increased with inflation). The smaller cutter has a crew complement of 24 coastguardsmen, half the crew size aboard LCS, and a simpler marine diesel drivetrain.
Though the FRC may be more economical, the two platforms are both capable of supporting U.S. Coast Guard operations. An Independence-class LCS, USS Mobile, is currently under way in the Pacific with a U.S. Coast Guard boarding team aboard, headed for a fisheries enforcement mission in Micronesia.