Happy 227th Birthday Coast Guard—A Look at Some Recent Fleet Modernization Efforts

photo of a Coast Guard cutterHere’s a water cooler fun-fact: it’s Coast Guard Day!

On this day in 1790, the Tariff Act authorized the construction of 10 ships to enforce maritime tariff and trade laws and prevent smuggling. These ships—known as “revenue cutters” for the tax revenue they would reclaim—made up the Revenue Marine, which would later become the U.S. Coast Guard.

Today, the Coast Guard is the principal federal agency responsible for maritime safety, security, and environmental stewardship. Since the 1990s, it has also been working on modernizing its aging fleet of ships and aircraft. For Coast Guard Day, the WatchBlog looks at our reviews of the Coast Guard’s modernization efforts.

Ambitious projects with better capabilities

The Coast Guard has taken on some ambitious projects to replace several types of ships in its current fleet, including the:

The newer ships generally provide more and better capabilities than the older ships can. For example, in addition to the basic capabilities that the High-Endurance Cutter currently provides, the replacement National Security Cutter will also be able to:

  • collect, analyze, and transmit classified information
  • carry, launch, and recover unmanned aircraft
  • more easily and safely launch and recover smaller boats
  • travel away from shore for longer time periods

Figure 1: Comparison of High Endurance Cutter and National Security Cutter Capabilities(Excerpted from GAO-16-148)

“Better” may not be good right away

Although a number of Fast Response and National Security Cutters are now operational, the Coast Guard hasn’t been able to take full advantage of their increased capabilities because both ships have had engine trouble—requiring an unanticipated amount of time in maintenance.

In addition, the expected service life of the Medium-Endurance Cutters will expire prior to delivery of the first replacement Offshore Patrol Cutter—potentially leaving the Coast Guard unable to fully execute all of its missions. And procuring the Offshore Patrol Cutter won’t be cheap: it’s slated to cost $12.1 billion, about one-half to two-thirds of the Coast Guard’s planned acquisition budget between 2018 and 2032. That means that some difficult trade-off decisions will have to be made.

Offshore Patrol Cutter
(Excerpted from GAO-17-346SP)

Many projects; no plan yet

It’s not clear how the Coast Guard will go about accomplishing all of its objectives within a constrained budget environment. It concurred with our 2014 recommendation to create a 20-year fleet modernization plan to identify the assets needed to operate its missions, the resources necessary to acquire these assets, and the difficult trade-offs that may be required. At this point, however, we don’t know when the Coast Guard will complete such a plan, and what level of detail it will contain.

To learn more about these and other major Coast Guard modernization programs, check out our assessments of them on pages 87-100 of our annual “Quick Look” report for the Department of Homeland Security.


  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Marie Mak at makm@gao.gov.
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