In the mid-afternoon of 2 August 1964, the USS Maddox (DD-731) was attacked about 30 miles off the coast of Vietnam by three torpedo boats from North Vietnam in the now-famous Gulf of Tonkin engagement. The PT boats used conventional tactics, firing their torpedoes from abeam the Maddox at approximately 5,000 yards. The Maddox, when torpedoes were detected in the water, scored a direct hit on one PT boat with her 5-inch battery, and aircraft from the USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14) engaged the other two PT boats and drove them off. The entire firing time of the engagement was 21 minutes.
Two nights later, the Maddox, In company with the Turner Joy (DD-951) again participated in a running battle, this time for over three hours, against surface units 65 miles from the Vietnam coast. The night was dark, the seas were rough, and the enemy PT boats never got into firing position before being taken under fire by the Maddox and the Turner Joy, assisted by aircraft from the carriers Ticonderoga and Constellation.
Seven weeks later, in another night incident, the destroyers Richard S. Edwards (DD-950) and Morton (DD-948) were approached by four or five high-speed targets 42 miles off the Vietnamese coast. The targets were detected approaching from the stern, then splitting in to two groups, and closing on the flanks of the two destroyers. At about 10,000 yards, they were taken under fire by the 5-inch gun batteries of the destroyers, and shortly thereafter disappeared from the radar scopes. Although aircraft were on the scene, low ceilings and poor visibility precluded active participation or visual sightings.
Another PT boat-destroyer action took place about 16 miles off the coast of Sinai on 11 July 1967. An Israeli force consisting of the destroyer Elath and two torpedo boats engaged an Egyptian force of two PT boats at about 11:30 p.m. After exchanging gunfire with the Israeli torpedo boats, the Egyptian force split; one PT boat turned west and one east. While being pursued, the western PT boat exploded about 15 yards from the Elath, presumably from damage caused by the Elath's guns. The eastern PT boat was caught between the two Israeli torpedo boats and Slink by gunfire in a 20-minute fight. There were apparently no torpedoes fired by either the Egyptians or Israelis.
Battles between PT boats and destroyers are not new in naval warfare; yet, there were unique aspects to these engagements. The first of these is that small, conventionally armed torpedo boats had shown a willingness to challenge larger ships with superior firepower on the high seas. Secondly, the attacks had been conducted from 16 to 65 miles at sea, at times over 100 miles from PT boat bases, often in rough seas, and almost always at night—attesting to the sea-keeping ability of these boats. Thirdly, each of these attacks had proved that naval guns can drive off attacking PT boats if the boats are ineptly used or taken under fire early in their attack runs. Finally, if enemy air superiority existed and weather did not preclude air cover over the target ship, the chances of a PT boat reaching attack position were severely limited. The absence of attacks since the establishment of continuous air patrols in the Gulf of Tonkin bear witness to this fact.
Thus, in mid-1967, for operations on the high seas, it appeared that destroyers remained superior to small, fast boats, despite the increasingly aggressive use of PT boats in naval warfare.
All of this changed, however, on the afternoon of 22 October 1967. On that day, three missiles, fired from "Komar"-class PT boats, sank the Israeli destroyer Elath about 13 miles off Port Said, and with this first attack on a naval ship by surface-to-surface missiles, a new era in naval warfare unfolded. A new dimension, reminiscent of the appearance of the Monitor in Civil War days, had been added to naval warfare.
The sinking of the Elath was no fluke, even though the patrol boats fired their missiles from within the harbor of Port Said. The Elath was on a war patrol, manned for battle, superbly trained, and, considering her age of 23 years, well equipped. The crew was alert and actually sighted the incoming missiles at a range of five or six miles, which allowed sufficient time to maneuver the ship, to begin increasing speed, and to bring anti-aircraft guns to bear on the missiles. When first observed, the missiles appeared to be off course, but shortly after the sighting, they altered course directly for the Elath. Striking the superstructure, the first missile destroyed the ship's radio antennae, and moments later the second missile hit the engine room, leaving the destroyer dead in the water, on fire, and listing heavily. The Israelis attempted to save their ship and, indeed, had made excellent progress when, an hour-and-a-half later, a third missile was sighted heading for the ship. It exploded on the stern; and as the Elath capsized and sank, a fourth missile exploded in the fiery scene. Regardless of who fired the missiles or who maintained them, the evidence is unmistakably clear: four missiles, four hits.
In many ways the Elath was typical of the destroyer-type ships of most small navies of the world. The pride of the Israeli Navy was originally commissioned in 1944 as HMS Zealous, carried a full-load displacement of 2,500 tons, and was armed with conventional destroyer armaments. When transferred from Britain to Israel in 1956, the Zealous, renamed Elath, had armaments similar to her original configuration. The Elath was a vintage World War II destroyer (as is the USS Maddox), with guns typical of her class and a minimal air defense capability against high-speed attackers.
The Elath's antagonists, the Soviet-built "Komar"-class PT boats, are of post-World WarII design, and were produced in the mid-1950s. These boats have a speed of 40 knots, displace 75 tons and are armed with two Styx missiles which are mounted in fixed launchers, one on each side of the main cabin. An even more modern version of Soviet missile-equipped PT boats is the 160-ton "Osa" class, which mounts four fixed launchers for the Styx missile and has better sea-keeping ability and longer range than the "Komar." The Styx missile is about 20 feet long, has short wings, sub-sonic speed, a 1,000-pound high explosive warhead, a firing range from PT boats of about 13 miles, and a maximum range of 20 to 25 miles. Missile guidance is provided by pre-firing radar inputs, an auto-pilot during the cruise phase, and radar homing for terminal guidance. There is some indication that newer models may have infrared homing capability.
The Soviet Union designed the" Komar" and "Osa"-class PT boats for its own coastal defense; but as a bonus effect, the possession of these boats has allowed the Soviet Union to supply its Communist and non-Communist allies with a weapons system that is relatively inexpensive for the payload it can deliver. At present, East Germany, Poland, Communist China, and North Korea have either or both classes of PT boats. In addition, Indonesia, Syria, Egypt, Algeria, and Cuba all have navies equipped with the "Komar" or "Osa"-class boats and Styx missiles.
In contrast, the Western navies have no missile-armed PT boats or missiles especially designed for ship-to-ship warfare. The U. S. Navy has never developed a ship-to-ship missile for main battery armament, although proposals to do so date back at least 15 years. The most common reasons given for the lack of such development are:
- Missiles would be vulnerable to countermeasures not effective against gun projectiles.
- Missiles are vulnerable to anti-air missile defenses.
- Missiles are not suitable for naval gunfire support of land campaigns.
- Task forces likely to encounter missile-equipped surface forces would be protected by air power, which would be the primary force to engage the enemy missile launchers.
The U. S. Navy has been aware of Soviet ship-to-ship missile capabilities for many years, but even the possibility of confrontation with Cuban missile boats during the Cuban crisis of 1962 did not change the basic position. As an example, the U. S. Navy is developing a missile with ship-to-ship capability, but this new missile, called the Navy Standard Missile, is primarily designed to replace the Tartar-Terrier missile air defense systems. Similarly, the Sea Sparrow is designed as an air defense missile system with a surface-to-surface role included. This adaptation of the successful Sparrow III air-to-air missile system is intended for use by a wide variety of ships; e.g., certain destroyers and replenishment ships, which lack self-protection from missile and high-speed air attacks. With some reduction in weight, the Sea Sparrow system could be used with PT-type boats; however, at this time, the U. S. Navy does not intend to arm PT boats with this, or any other, missile system.
There is an evident imbalance in actual ship-to-ship missile capabilities possessed by the Communist nations and their allies, and the contemplated missile capabilities of the U. S. Navy and the Free World. The Elath incident conclusively proved that ship-to-ship missiles are a serious threat to conventionally armed surface forces and cannot go unchallenged. What then should be the reaction of the Free World to the Elath incident?
First, each country should assess the capability of its navy to perform its missions in the context of the new threat. This assessment is necessary with respect to possible naval antagonists in each hemisphere, such as: Japan and South Korea versus North Korea; Taiwan versus Communist China; the Republic of South Vietnam versus the Democratic Republic of Vietnam; Morocco and Tunisia versus Algeria; Israel versus Egypt and Syria; NATO countries versus the Warsaw Pact countries or the South American navies.
Secondly, where mission accomplishment is jeopardized, each country must find new weapon systems or tactics to overcome the threat. With the exception of Japan and NATO, however, most of the Free World navies rely heavily on the United States to provide naval armaments. Therefore, the United States must also reassess the impact of the "Osa" and "Komar"-class patrol boats on the smaller navies of the Free World, and retailor mutual defense sales and aid to meet the new threat. It is doubtful that these navies will be able to accomplish their missions with vintage Fletcher-classdestroyers, ancient LSTs, World War II minesweepers, or old PCs when the potential enemy has missile-launching PT boats.
An assessment of the missile and PT boat threat to small navies should not be started without first determining the missions each navy is to perform. In general there are five basic naval missions that the smaller allied navies may need to perform in their specific area of the world:
Anti-Submarine Warfare. This is the primary mission of the Japanese Self Defense Force, NATO, and South American navies.
Coastal Defense. Traditionally, navies have been a first line of defense for maritime nations. The use of naval forces for coastal defense also has validity for the smaller and less developed countries of the world. Israel and Egypt use naval forces to protect their coastal cities; the Republic of the Philippines required a naval coastal defense capability against pre-coup Indonesia; and Taiwan needs naval forces to protect it from Communist Chinese invasion.
Anti-Smuggling. Although not applicable to the U. S. Navy, this mission is of major importance to other navies around the world, particularly in the lesser developed areas.
Counterinsurgency. In South and Central America, around the rim of Asia, the coastal areas of Africa, and other areas of the world where insurgency is a constant threat, a requirement exists for naval forces responsive to the needs of a counterinsurgency effort. This is a proper mission for many navies and one that may increase in scope in the years ahead.
Riverine Warfare. Although closely related to counterinsurgency operations, this mission is distinctive because of its land-locked nature. In addition to Vietnam, operations in such areas as the Congo, the Amazon delta, Venezuela, Central America, and Malaysia would require armed river patrol craft.
These missions, although not all-inclusive, are certainly typical of those that must be considered in developing future Mutual Defense Programs and the naval armaments to support them.
The United States has provided large quantities of naval aid to other nations in the past 30 years, starting with 50 over-age destroyers loaned to Britain in 1940. Only in rare instances (and then usually to NATO countries) have new construction naval armaments been provided to our allies. Most of the ships have come from our mothball fleet. With each passing year, the cost of placing these older ships into an operationally ready status, and maintaining that condition, continues to increase. The reasons for this stern from advancing technology—which has made many of the ships unsuitable for modern warfare without major overhauls or installation of new equipment—and from the advanced age of the ships, which means limited and expensive spare parts support. Now, in addition to the cost, there is a new consideration: old ships would be extremely vulnerable to the modern missile-equipped weapon systems of the Communist nations and their allies. Because of cost and obsolescence, the long-standing U. S. practice of supplying old naval equipment is rapidly becoming an inadequate response to naval needs. It is time to reassess the naval capabilities of the smaller allied nations and to prepare a new program to enhance the ability of the smaller navies to contribute to the common defense.
In general terms, the existing mission capabilities and shortcomings of the smaller Free World navies are found in:
Anti-Submarine Warfare. Much of the existing ASW capability relies on over-age U. S. destroyers. Several navies have destroyer-type ships which, because of their age or material condition, cannot be made effective for this mission. Although some small navies have foreign-built destroyers of first rate quality for ASW, e.g., Venezuela's Italian-built, Almirante Clemente class, none of these destroyers have air defense systems to counter the Styx missile. The contributions that these small navies make to the ASW forces of the Free World are very significant and worth retaining. Each individual country, however, must rely on its ASW ships for other missions, such as coastal defense, for which ASW sensors and weapons are unsuited.
The U. S. Navy, with its vastly superior resources, solves the problem of multiple missions for its destroyers by tailoring its task forces to the threat. Where surface-launched missile attacks are possible, air superiority is provided to engage hostile ships at long range. Also, ships with electronic countermeasures capabilities are employed to foil enemy missile and fire control systems. As a final precaution, conventionally armed units are accompanied by ships armed with missile air defense systems capable of shooting down incoming missiles.
A defense-in-depth concept, whatever its merit, is not practicable for smaller navies. They cannot assure themselves of the air superiority or density of search effort necessary to intercept hostile ships, and with limited numbers of ships they lack flexibility in task force composition. Therefore, in order to effectively operate destroyer-size ASW ships on a multi-mission basis, these small navies must have missile air defense systems for individual ships. An alternative to having an air defense system would be to design a new, fast, ASW ship that does not present a suitable target for ship-to-ship missiles. The U. S. Navy has not been overly successful in developing small ships for open-ocean ASW, but a continued effort to develop this type craft has merit for small navies.
Coastal Defense. Destroyers are the backbone of coastal defense forces around the world. The Latin American countries, for example, have over 50 such ships in their navies. It would be desirable to use the ASW forces for this mission, but to do so would add a requirement for ship-to-ship missiles. Coastal defense requires engaging and sinking the enemy. Most destroyers lack the speed for this mission against marauding patrol craft, unless the patrol craft close for a torpedo and gun attack. To sink a missile-equipped patrol boat will require air attacks, ship-to-ship missile capability on the part of the coastal defense ship, or a smaller, faster ship capable of countering missile attacks while closing for a kill.
Anti-Smuggling. As the performance of smugglers' boats increase, the utility of a 15-knot PCE or other equally slow ship approaches zero. Those navies needing help in reducing smuggling require new, fast, well-armed patrol craft that are equal to the task. Some small navies, that of the Republic of the Philippines for one, have purchased new hydrofoil craft from Japan and Italy for this purpose.
Counterinsurgency. This mission requires more than one type of ship because of the multifaceted operations involved, e.g., troop carrying, amphibious landings, anti-infiltration, and coastal shipping inspection. Whatever the U. S. Navy develops for this kind of warfare should be capable of being adapted for use by the other countries needing such forces. Present capabilities in most cases are limited to old PCs (12 to 20 knots), minesweepers, and over-age U . S. Coast Guard cutters of the 40-foot variety. These old craft are incapable of engaging Soviet-built conventional torpedo boats which externally based insurgents may have at their disposal. A specific case in point is the suspected use of high-speed boats based in Cuba to infiltrate insurgents into South and Central America. The "African Queens" in the various navies should be put to rest as soon as possible and replaced with new, fast, well-armed craft.
Riverine Warfare. These forces are at present a collection of old U. S. landing craft, with ancient engines, slow speed, and limited firepower. U. S. Navy equipment designed for use in Vietnam should be useful in most countries requiring a riverine force. The specific needs of each country may vary, but simplicity of operation, versatile armament, high speed, and especially a quiet low speed capability are the common denominators in this type of warfare.
It is clear, then, that the smaller navies of the world are critically short of two major items: modern air defense systems and high-speed patrol craft. Both of these deficiencies may have been a factor in the Israeli decision, announced in January 1968, to rush newly designed fast patrol boats in to production. This decision shows an apparent awareness by Israel that ships of destroyer size cannot defend themselves against missile attack without modern air defense systems. Furthermore, Israel recognizes that the smaller patrol craft it currently uses cannot accomplish all the missions required of its naval force; i.e. ASW, coastal defense, air defense, and antimissile boat defense. Lacking a modern shipboard air defense system, it appears that Israel has opted for a smaller ship (240 tons) which presents a more difficult target than a destroyer for ship-to-ship missiles. This new class of ship, called the Saar (Hebrew for "tempest"), will be equipped with sonar, 40-mm. guns, and torpedoes. Israel hopes that the Saar can out-gun, out-maneuver, and out-run the "Komar" /"Osa" patrol boats and older destroyers of the Arab navies, while at the same time gaining much of the versatility those ships lack.
Although Israel has elected to build a new naval force around a single class of ship, it is doubtful that this would be a suitable response for all navies. Israel is tailoring the Saar for the limited missions of the Israeli Navy; additional tasks such as open-ocean ASW or convoy operations, riverine warfare, and anti-smuggling patrol would all require different types of vessels for effective operations.
Another possible response would be to build "Komar" /"Osa" type patrol boats. This would be only a partial solution for most navies. When operating against larger, conventionally armed ships, the "Komar" is an excellent coastal patrol vessel; but against small and high-speed surface targets its missile capabilities are reduced, and it lacks sensors or armament for other naval missions.
A more suitable method of modernizing would be to reduce the vulnerability of present Free World naval forces, to missile and high-speed conventional attacks without jeopardizing mission capabilities. This can probably best be done by acquiring a capability to neutralize the threat through a combination of speed and missile air defense.
What can the United States do to help its allies achieve the improved speed and missile capabilities demanded by the dramatic changes in the Communist-supported naval threat?
Where action is warranted, the United States should: (1) be prepared to provide modern systems from its own family of weapons; (2) design new weapons systems tailored to the needs of small navies; and (3) proceed at a faster pace in developing new types of naval ships and arms. Specific actions to consider might include:
- Providing the Sea Sparrow III missile air defense system to those navies using destroyer type ships for open-ocean ASW or convoy escort missions. This missile system, costing one-tenth as much as the Navy Standard missile system, would enhance the capability of ASW destroyers to defend themselves against missile attacks and thereby allow them to contribute to other naval missions.
- Providing the new Navy Standard missile system to those navies using destroyer type ships for ASW/Coastal Defense missions. This combination air defense/ship-to-ship missile system is more complex and costly than the Sea Sparrow system, but affords longer range protection which could materially improve the survivability of destroyers against most naval surface forces.
- Providing Patrol Gun Boats of the Flagstaff (PGH-1) or Tucumcari (PGH-2) class for navies where coastal defense and anti-smuggling are required missions. These hydrofoil craft are fast (over 40 knots), light (60-70 tons), armed with 40-mm. cannon, 81-mm. mortars, and twin 50-mm. machine guns.* They could be adapted for torpedoes and possibly a Sea Sparrow installation.
- Providing new construction river patrol craft and counterinsurgency craft to navies requiring help in coping with this type of warfare. Consideration should be given to producing in quantity such useful craft as the Assault Support Patrol Boat (ASPB), Armored Troop Carriers (ATC), and Command Communications Boats (CCB), which are designed specifically for the counterinsurgency mission.
- Design and construct a 250-to-300-ton ship, similar to the Saar, which is suitable for Coastal ASW and Coastal Defense, to replace old destroyers and inadequate patrol craft.
The danger signals are clear. The Soviet Union has provided its allies with formidable and modern weapons systems. If this trend continues, it is reasonable to expect that, in the future, these Soviet allies will receive even larger ships equipped with ship-to-ship missiles. Before this day arrives, the navies of the Free World must be prepared. As the world's foremost naval power, the United States must help those who rely on us by providing modern equipment to accomplish modern missions and counter modern threats.
In the Tin Can Navy
Forty years ago, two destroyers, on foreign station, met and passed. The junior signalled the senior, flying a division commander pennant, "Permission requested to proceed on duty assigned."
Without the aid of a computer, back flashed the answer. "Granted. Those men shooting crap on your fantail are out of uniform."
—Contributed by Captain E. B. Perry, U. S. Navy (Ret.)
(The Naval Institute will pay $10.00 for each anecdote published in the Proceedings.)