Twenty-four years after the Navy shuttered the sprawling Charleston Naval Base in South Carolina, a new navy is coming.
The Commandant of the Coast Guard, Admiral Karl Schultz, identified Charleston as a “future Coast Guard operational center of gravity” in his annual State of the Coast Guard address Thursday. Charleston has “the potential to grow into the largest concentration of assets and people in the Coast Guard” in five years, Schultz said.
This strategic move makes sense. Charleston is already home to a large concentration of Coast Guard assets and personnel. Considered an enjoyable duty station, and one of only a few strategically located seaports in America that still boasts a low cost of living, the area is an ideal place for additional Coast Guard investment. And, as the Port of Charleston is expected to become the deepest harbor on the East Coast by 2021, the maritime importance of the region for the U.S. Coast Guard is set to grow.
New assets are coming, and Admiral Schultz confirmed the Coast Guard would use the port as a base for “a compliment of yet to be built offshore patrol cutters.” According to the Commandant, the first Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC), the Argus, is set to be delivered in 2022, and the program—despite hiccups—is still expected to generate twenty-five hulls that “will ultimately comprise almost seventy percent of our offshore presence.”
He emphasized that the U.S. Coast Guard considers Charleston a strategically-important home port and that the Coast Guard is committed to pursuing significant support infrastructure investments to make Charleston a center of gravity for Coast Guard operations on the East Coast.
While the announcement is new, the outlines of a large base have been taking shape for some time. The long-abandoned naval base in North Charleston is already home to three cutters. The National Security Cutters USCGC Hamilton and USCGC James share a rickety pier with the large “aids to navigation” buoy tender USCGC Willow. But the USCG is confident that the outpost, with the help of some horse-trading between various parties for additional waterfront space, is primed for fast growth. In June 2019, the Coast Guard announced that 5 national security cutters were to be based at the new Low Country super base by 2024.
This large buildup is not without risk. It is fast-paced, and tied to the impending delivery of new ships that won’t be able to be berthed anywhere else. It will also require major investments in shore infrastructure—and obtaining funding for those improvements is such a high priority that the Commandant, in the hours before his speech, escorted a Congressional delegation to the future Coast Guard superbase and explained the needed investments. Thanks to those efforts—and thanks to the stature of the South Carolina Congressional delegation—money is coming; to date, the USCG received $23 million in Major Acquisitions Systems Infrastructure funding in Fiscal Year 2019 to support homeporting National Security Cutters in Charleston and $140 million in a Fiscal Year 2019 disaster supplemental funding aiming to make Charleston’s waterfront and shore infrastructure more resilient following Hurricanes Irma and Florence.
Reinvigorating An Abandoned Base
The future Coast Guard “superbase” is an enormous boost for the former Charleston Naval Shipyard. The yard, ordered closed in the 1993 BRAC, was shuttered on 1 April, 1996, eliminating a host of naval activities, including the Naval shipyard, the Charleston Naval Station, the Naval Fleet and Industrial Supply Center, the Fleet and Mine Warfare training Center and the Naval Reserve Center. The 2801-acre facility is now an array of public and private entities, including Detyens Shipyard, the State Department, NOAA and a range of other Federal entities. Reflecting Charleston’s burgeoning importance as a key U.S. cargo hub, the south end of the old naval complex will host an enormous cargo handling facility to service large “post Panamax” container vessels.
While the exact components of the future Coast Guard base are not known, the new Coast Guard base will likely consolidate elements of Coast Guard Sector Charleston, Coast Guard Station Charleston, and the Coast Guard Maritime Law Enforcement Academy—all based at different sites throughout Charleston. The new base may offer additional collaborative growth opportunities with the range of nearby federal partners that have taken up residence on the base and in the overall region.
The USCG is currently working closely with Federal Law Enforcement Training Center on a campus master plan and developing a multi-phase infrastructure build-out plan to support new assets and personnel.
Ultimately, Charleston is a strategic port. It is why the U.S. Navy commissioned the Charleston Navy Shipyard in 1901, operating the yard until 1996. The Navy’s departure left a large strategic gap in America’s maritime readiness, but the Coast Guard—which has long recognized the strategic importance of being where the Navy is not—is moving in, advancing Charleston’s outsized contribution to the national security of the United States. (Credit: Forbes)
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