WHEC 378' Hamilton class
The 378-foot High Endurance Cutter class are the largest cutters, aside from the two Polar Class Icebreakers, ever built for the Coast Guard. Highly versatile and capable of performing a variety of missions, these cutters operate throughout the world's oceans. They are powered by diesel engines and gas turbines, and have controllable-pitch propellers. Equipped with a helicopter flight deck, retractable hangar, and the facilities to support helicopter deployment, these 12 cutters were introduced to the Coast Guard inventory in the 1960s. The first of the class was the Hamilton (WHEC-715) commissioned in 1967. The ships were built at an approximate cost of $16 million to $20 million [in then-year dollars]. Initially 32 of vessles of this class were to be built though only 12 were ever constructed.
Beginning in the 1980s and ending in 1992, the entire class was modernized through the Fleet Renovation and Modernization (FRAM) program at Todd Shipyard in Seattle. The $55 million per-vessel stem-to-stern overhaul included engineering, habitability, electronics and combat systems upgrades that greatly enhanced the ship's mission performance capabilities. Weapons systems and communications capabilities were upgraded and many portions of the cutter were remodeled. The most visible were the the sleeker, quicker 76mm Oto Melara gun which replaced the old 5" gun, the CIWS mount and the new retractable helicopter hanger.
The High Endurance class cutters were designed for a variety of missions, including long range search and rescue (SAR), oceanographic research, law enforcement and defense operations. Before the arrival of satellites, the Coast Guard cutters provided ships and aircraft's with navigational and meteorological information. These Coast Guard cutters were assigned to ten mile-by-ten mile patrol areas called ocean stations. The ocean stations provided immediate information and were the vital link for trans-oceanic crossings.
The foremost mission is the Coast Guard's historic tradition of protecting the safety of life and property at sea. With a flight deck capable of landing a Coast Guard HH-65 Dolphin or HH-60 Jayhawk helicopters, a state of the art communications and sensor suite and extended endurance, the WHEC cutter is a floating command center capable of coordinating ships and aircraft for search and rescue or responding to natural and environmental accidents and disasters.
Another mission of the High Endurance cutters is that of maritime law enforcement. Most often, boarding teams from Munro are on the front line protecting the stocks of living marine resources found in Alaska fishing grounds. But the law enforcement role also includes reducing the flow of illicit drugs and other contraband into the United States, interdicting illegal migrants and checking mariner compliance with vessel safety regulations. This includes Alaskan fishery patrols, enforcing international and domestic fishing requirements. The cutters patrol the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea, the Eastern Pacific down to South America. In 1977, the United States adopted a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in response to growing concern over the marine resource depletion. This gave the Coast Guard a much increased area to patrol, especially off the tremendous Western coast line in the rich waters of the North Pacific and the Bearing Sea.
Defense Readiness is the third primary mission. High Endurance class cutters of Coast Guard Squadron Three served in Vietnam. Tasking during the confilict was primarily in support of Operation Market Time, which involved sorting through the hundreds of small vessels of the Vietnamese coast in serach of enemy weapons smugglers. Periodic training with the Navy and participation in joint exercises compliments continuous onboard efforts to ensure that crew, weapons and sensors are ready to function effectiviely in support of national security goals. These unique capabilities make the cutter an ideal platform for low intensity conflicts, coastal surveillance missions and port security roles. The cutters on the West Coast are often the only regular military presence in the Bearing Sea and the Gulf of Alaska.
In 1996 the 24th annual U.S. invitational maritime exercise in the Baltic Sea. U.S. Baltic Operations 1996 (BALTOPS 96) -- conducted in the spirit of NATO's Partnership for Peace initiative -- included 48 ships and aircraft from 12 squadrons of NATO-member and Partnership for Peace countries. For the first time ever, a U.S. Coast Guard vessel participated in the exercise. The high endurance cutter USCG Gallatin (WHEC-721) trained participating nations in a variety of coastal patrol practices, including sanction enforcement through visit, board, and search and seizure procedures.
US Coast Guard Cutter MIDGETT departed Seattle Washington on 18 June 1999. Midgett was the first Coast Guard Cutter to deploy to the Gulf as part of a carrier battle group (USS CONSTELLATION). In the Gulf, the primary mission was to enforce the United Nation's sanctions, and conduct search and rescue. Although two other cutters had deployed to the gulf, this was the first time a cutter has taken the place of a Navy ship as part of a Naval Carrier Battle Group. At times it was difficult to stay at the speed of the Battle Group, which usually cruised at 20 knots, and MIDGETT had to use the turbine engines constantly. The use of the turbines consumes more fuel than the diesel engines, and so the crew had to perform fueling at sea (FAS) every few days with the USS Sacramento, and other Navy oiliers. This was the first time since World War II that a Coast Guard cutter had joined a Navy amphibious group for real-world operations. The last major operation was the Normandy invasion in which nearly three quarters of the landing craft unit coxswains were members of the Coast Guard. The cutter routinely conducts boardings in support of law enforcement patrols. This experience directly translated to the cutter's ability to conduct Maritime Interdiction Operations (MIO) once on scene in the Arabian Gulf. The sailors aboard MIDGETT, which deployed with an HH-65 helicopter, also have extensive experience in search and rescue, one of the Coast Guard's bedrock capabilities.
The Hamilton-class is a 378 feet long cutter with a displacement of 3250 tons. The cutters are powered by two Fairbanks-Morse diesel engines, which deliver a total of 7000 horsepower. When speed is necessary, the cutter uses two Pratt-Whitney gas turbine engines, which deliver a total of 36000 horsepower. The economy of the diesel engines enable the cutter to engage in extended law enforcement patrols with a cruising range of 14400 miles at 12 knots. With both gas turbines on line a total of 36,000 horsepower is available and can propel the ship to speeds up to 29 knots. Gas turbine engines provide speeds which allow the cutter to respond quickly to a search and rescue call or law enforcement operations. With two controllable pitch screws and a bow propulsion unit, the cutter is extremely maneuverable, a significant advantage in close quarters conning situations.
The cutters are equipped with modern weapons systems. A MK-75, 76mm gun mount, controlled by the MK 92 Fire Control System, is located on the bow. The 76mm is capable of firing 80 rounds per minute. On the stern, a MK15, 20mm CIWS (Close-In Weapons System) mount is ready to take aim against air targets which threaten the ship. The CIWS is capable of firing approximately 3500 rounds per minute. Defense of close in targets is provided by batteries of 25mm chain guns and .50 caliber machine guns. The two MK38, 25mm chain guns are located on the port and starboard side of the ship, just aft of the small boats. MELLON was the first and only ship in the Coast Guard to fire the Harpoon missile. That system has since been removed due to fiscal constraints.
The cutters are equipped with a retractable hangar capable of housing one HH-65 helicopter and protecting it from the harsh maritime environment. The telescoping hangar was manufactured by Indal Technologies Inc. Ontario, Canada. It is designed to hold either the USCG HH-65 or the USN SH-2F helicopter. The hangar is extended when the helo is housed, and is retracted during flight operations in order to provide an adequate launch/recovery area. The cutters are equipped to provide in flight refueling to numerous types of aircraft. The flight deck can also be used to receive logistical support via vertical replenishment operations.
These vessels are equipped with advanced Navy equipment such as the Command Display and Control system, which collects, and displays data on ten display screens to monitor subjects being tracked, maneuver, avoid collisions, create search and rescue patterns and locate individuals in the water. This system is also used for navigation, piloting and internal communications. In 1977 CGC Morgenthau (WHEC 722) became the first cutter to have women permanently assigned, and CGC Gallatin was the second later that year.
The Coast Guard established the Ship Structure and Machinery Evaluation Board [SSMEB] as a way of assessing the condition of ships and determining if their service life can be extended. The assessments are supposed to be conducted on one or more ships of each type 10 years after the commissioning of the lead ship and at each 5-year interval thereafter. An SSMEB consists of a review of the repair history of a class of cutters, an assessment of the future supportability of the main propulsion, auxiliary, and prime mission equipment on that class of cutter, and a thorough physical examination of the hull, engines, and auxiliary equipment. An SSMEB’s determination that a ship’s service life can be extended by a certain period (e.g., 5 additional years) should not be taken to mean that the ship will necessarily reach the end of its useful life when the 5-year period has ended. A subsequent SSMEB will determine if the useful life can be extended further.
In 1990, officials in the Coast Guard’s Cutter Division estimated that the 378-foot cutters had a service life that could be extended from 2007 through 2012, or 4 to 5 years longer than the service life estimates used in the DMAR. SSMEBs on the 378-foot high-endurance cutter had not been performed because of budgetary constraints, according to the Coast Guard’s Chief Naval Engineer. In light of information needs for the Deepwater Project, the Coast Guard initiated assessments on one 378-foot cutter which was completed in fiscal year 1999.