It’s time for an upgrade
During the last week of April, with little fanfare, the US Coast Guard released a much anticipated opportunity to build up to 27 Waterways Commerce Cutters. After the detailed design and build contract is awarded in spring 2022, a lucky shipbuilder will begin replacing the Coast Guard’s eclectic fleet of 18 venerable River Buoy Tender (WLR) and 13 Inland Build Tender (WLIC) ).
The Coast Guard’s waterway maintenance fleet has been ignored for too long. It is time for America to deal with the covert Coast Guard ships that spend their days tending to some 28,200 naval helpers on America’s 12,000 miles of waterways. With an average age of over 55, the riverine workboat fleet has expanded into nine distinct vessel classes, ranging from the Coast Guard’s oldest cutter, the 77-year-old Inland Construction Tender and the Coast Guard “Queen of the Fleet” USCGC Simlax (WLIC-315) to the two youngest members of the river fleet, the River Buoy Tenders USCGC Kankakee (WLR-75500) and Greenbrier (WLR-75501).
The lack of interest is understandable. At best, the buoy dinghies are utility craft, eclipsed by the Coast Guard’s dashing cutters and white-hulled patrol boats. Inland buoys and construction bids, which ply America’s waterways, are even less exciting. They navigate calm waters, set up buoys, clear brush from navigation signals, remove wrecks, and perform various construction tasks. But the Coast Guard’s often unnoticed contribution to the maintenance of waterways is critically important to keeping America’s shipping system open, functional and trouble-free.
The new vessels – a first installment of 16 river buoy tenders and 11 inland construction tenders – are expected to enter service between 2025 and 2030, coming at a fascinating time of economic and technical change on America’s waterways. Over the expected ’30 year minimum’ design life of the new tender, Waterways Commerce Cutters have the potential to preside over a waterfront renaissance, supporting much more intensive domestic use of America’s first true highways. than most think.
There is a lot to be done, and frankly, the winning shipyard could immediately begin to advocate for the development of the record program. Coast Guard demand may be undersized for the need ahead. The Coast Guard, of course, has rightly focused on the $ 5.4 trillion that the U.S. shipping system provides to the U.S. economy today. But the Service may have underestimated the ultimate business case for the tender.
Such a suggestion may be contrary to popular opinion. Some maritime innovators view old-fashioned aids to navigation as obsolete, a dying maritime feature ready to be replaced by “virtual” buoys or other sophisticated electronic traffic control systems. That’s fine, but the old-fashioned ‘mute’ steel buoy isn’t going away anytime soon, and with more and more river traffic online, an active Coast Guard presence will still be needed on rivers. . A renewed and reinvigorated fleet of Waterways Commerce Cutter can help get the Coast Guard where it needs to be as inland waterways transform.
America’s waterways are already changing. River passenger traffic is increasing and inland waterway passenger volume could increase much faster than expected. Take Viking Cruise Lines. The company is known for its rapid expansion into new markets. Viking entered the ocean cruise market in 2015 and today it plans to have 16 ships in service over the next few years. On the river side, over the past eight years, Viking has ordered more than 60 river cruise ships around the world.
It will soon be America’s turn. Viking’s first river cruiser, the Viking Mississippi, is expected to be a large ship, with 193 cabins and a capacity of 386 guests. And Viking is not the only one. American Cruise Lines is bringing a fleet of at least four modern riverboats online, joining the majestic four riverboats of the American Queen Steamboat Company. If these large river cruisers take off, they will spur waterfront development, force operational changes on the waterways, and, at a minimum, require leading navigation aid.
The broader shipbuilding community may not fully understand that the Coast Guard’s new inland fleet will, almost by default, offer more utility than traditional offerings. The aged and infirm fleet is already an underappreciated provider of emergency response services – according to Coast Guard Commander Admiral Karl L. Schultz, “Interior Cutters and Heartland Sectors have responded to more than 1,100 maritime incidents in 2020, “responding to” casualties, oil spills, releases of hazardous materials and various security threats. As modern platforms become more reliable and capable, a range of response tasks emergency will open to new inland navigation buoys and construction offers from the Coast Guard.
Its good. American rivers flow through some of the least prepared cities and areas potentially at highest risk for accidents and other contingencies in the United States. If any of the planned large new river cruise ships encounter any problems, riverside first responders will have a hard time dealing with hundreds of passengers and crew. They will need help. And then, as the acute danger passes, the Coast Guard will likely be called upon to manage or monitor what will be a complex multi-agency recovery, investigation and rescue effort.
On rivers, the potential for industrial accidents is always present, and as river development and passenger traffic increase, emergency response and timely command and control platforms are likely to still be more in demand than today.
Nor is the likely need focused solely on conventional short-term emergency responses. On rivers, emergencies are often slow-moving things, where disaster lasts for days or even weeks. In an example from 2016, a barge carrying 2,400 tonnes of anhydrous ammonia ran aground in the Quad Cities area, and authorities took ten days to secure, refloat and transfer the dangerous cargo. River and coastal responders know that complex contingencies with hazardous cargoes can become strained and last for weeks.
For this kind of work, the new interior cutters, which should provide up to 11 days of accommodation and habitability for around 17-19 crew members, could be perfect assets for situations where the means of command and on-the-spot checks are required for some time. To this end, the endurance of cutters is a highly valued evaluation factor, and a means of improving the endurance of cutters in a pinch could be an interesting differentiator for responding shipyards.
It might also be interesting for innovative shipyards to consider how the new tenders could support other components of the state, locals, and the Department of Homeland Security in the event of an emergency, and, potentially. , integrate with Coast Guard hazardous materials experts within the national response team, commandos in the maritime security response team or other Coast Guard special resources. The Coast Guard is already indicating that the platforms should have strong multi-agency communication capabilities, and there are other features that a shrewd builder could come up with to gain an edge over the competition.
Floods, storms and natural disasters are all areas where a refreshed inland cutters fleet can shine. Category 4 Hurricane Laura forced the Coast Guard to repair or replace 80 aids to navigation, but it also created toxic hazards. During the hurricane response, twenty of the thirty-one spill response requests made to the National Response Center were forwarded to the USCG for action. Disasters can be seasonal or one-time. Annual spring floods are a chronic challenge, and, on the other hand, government experts estimate that the New Madrid Fault, which runs roughly from the bottom of the rivers from Memphis, Tennessee to Paducah, Ky., Has 25 to 40% chance of generating an earthquake of magnitude 6 or greater in the next 50 years.
All of these disasters require – or would require – significant navigation aid recovery work on inland waterways. But the cutters, already optimally positioned throughout the inland navigation system, will still have to go where they are needed. Perhaps this is why the Coast Guard has placed an emphasis on mobility, emphasizing both speed and draft as important performance requirements.
Finally, the future fleet of river tenders will be used during a period of significant technological change. As a decidedly low-tech platform, the Coast Guard avoids high-tech trinkets and wants bidders to offer only rugged solid-state equipment. But that doesn’t mean shipbuilders have to give up thinking about the future.
The vast potential of unmanned platforms is already evident, and as buoys are, for the most part, unmanned platforms that simply lack motors, these offerings may have a real future in bringing unmanned craft to the sea. American waterways. Some assumptions about how these future platforms might fit into the future inland waterway commercial cutter fleet may be an interesting way for the Coast Guard to keep the inland waterway commercial cutter fleet relevant in the future. , mixing exciting new technology with the hard, old-fashioned task of keeping America’s waterways open and American commerce carefree all the way to sea.