Throughout naval history, small and powerful vessels were a key element of maritime defense. From the American Revolutionary War till the present, patrol boats have been a force presence in nearly every conflict. In World War II, patrol boats were used by both the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard for a multitude of missions, including as the fabled PT (patrol boats–torpedo), as ship escorts and for anti-submarine patrols. In Vietnam the PBRs (patrol boats–river, or swift boats), used by the Navy and Coast Guard made a name for themselves with their ability to penetrate the Mekong Delta far upstream into Vietnam.
A patrol boat is a relatively small naval vessel that is generally designed for coastal defense duties. Its ability for asymmetrical use in blue, green or brown water makes it a force multiplier in any setting. Patrol boats have multi-mission capabilities that include border protection, anti-smuggling, antipiracy, fisheries patrols, immigration law enforcement and search-and-rescue operations, making them a perfect fit for the Coast Guard.
Marine Protector Class
One of the Coast Guard’s most versatile platforms is its 87-foot coastal patrol boat (WPB), known as the Marine Protector Class. These boats are named after birds of prey or endangered fish species. According to Master Chief Joseph Beaupre, who has 22 years in the Coast Guard, there are 73 of these patrol boats in service, and “all were constructed by Bollinger Shipyard in Lockport, Louisiana, and allow an interoperability capability with other Coast Guard units.” Beaupre explained, “These vessels and their crew make up a large portion of the Coast Guard’s near [shore] and inshore response capabilities.”
The Coast Guard is unique within the U.S. military, in that it tends to give responsibilities to its junior members more quickly than other branches do. Command of the 87-foot ships is split between senior non-commissioned officers (non-commissioned officers in charge, or OINCs) and the top junior officers considered for this assignment. Master Chief Petty Officer Jeffrey Beaupre, the OINC of the 87-foot U.S. Coast Guard Cutter (USCGC) Flying Fish, said, “The 87s allow the Coast Guard maximum flexibility and response capability for all 11 Coast Guard mission.” He continued, “Starting in the last 1990s, these boats began to replace the 82-foot patrol boats, which were mostly Vietnam-era vessels, offering more capability in a larger platform. They offer a patrol range out to 200 nautical miles and allow us to stay underway for three to four days without replenishment.” Beaupre noted, “These ships are the dividing line between the Coast Guard’s small boats and large cutters, and the 87’s shallow draft allows us to work with both.”
According to the Coast Guard, the 87 is constructed with an aluminum superstructure and a steel hull. Its main deck is designed for a 25-year service life and offers several enhancements over the aging 82-foot patrol boats. Ship improvements include increased stability in open seas (up to 8 feet), upgraded quarters and comforts for 11 crew members, and better fuel economy—the Cutter burns approximately 165 gallons of diesel per hour at its max speed of 25 knots. The Coast Guard placed its original order for 50 boats in 1999, and they were delivered by mid 2002. Several additional orders brought the total to 73 ships, with the last, the USCGC Sea Fox, completed in October 2009.
Beaupre explained, “The ship’s vastly larger pilothouse is equipped with an integrated bridge system, including an electronic chart display information system, which interfaces with the Coast Guard’s new surface search radar. It is a tremendous upgrade for command and control capabilities and allows us to interface with both shore and larger afloat units.” Computers along with fiber-optic networks are also available, and each ship is able to have Wi-Fi capability installed. As mentioned, the 87-foot patrol boats are multi-mission capable, and since the September 11 attacks, a homeland security mission has come to the forefront of the Coast Guard’s missions and is usually conducted in the form of ports-waterways-and-coastal-security patrols.