The warships available to American commanders and policy makers are the most capable in history. Advanced sensors, weapons, and networks have set the expectation that naval forces must reach a certain level of technological prowess. Our 13 Cyclone-class patrol coastal ships (PCs)—small and simple—buck that trend but are invaluable for their forward presence, protection, affordability, regional compatibility, and leadership development.
The Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz are a critical global artery in terms of commercial traffic, infrastructure, and the confluence of peoples. The key to maintaining stability in this area is constant presence and clear protection by the U.S. Navy—a requirement ably supported by the PC fleet forward deployed there.
PCs are well designed for presence and protection missions as they are able to transit all but the shallowest and most confined areas with speed and agility. The shoal waters and crowded oil fields our larger ships avoid are daily transits for the PC fleet. Speed and access combine with superior maneuverability, a compact command and control structure, and a formidable gunnery team including stabilized 25-mm gun systems and Griffin missiles. The PC is a powerful contender for close-in fighting, particularly in unexpected conflicts.
PC capabilities come with comparatively low costs in manning, resource consumption, and payload. The footprint in personnel and resources is minimal. In raw numbers, a guided-missile destroyer (DDG) is crewed by enough sailors to man ten PCs—a second Forward-Deployed Naval Forces (FDNF) PC fleet. For a year’s regular operation, the FDNF PC fleet uses less fuel than a deployed DDG under way for two months. Additionally, PCs need no tugs, no cranes, and only minimal line handlers for entering port. These austere characteristics are ideal for commanders seeking operational and engagement opportunities.
The PC’s payload also makes it comparatively advantageous for some operations and engagement. Beyond merely “being there,” presence is observing the pattern of life and engaging local forces. Day-to-day observation, security, and engagement do not require platforms with Tomahawks or a well deck. From South America to the South Pacific, PC-type vessels are the preferred option for the regular business of maritime security. In this light, a guided-missile cruiser or DDG might not be only an over-application of resources for engagement but also less compatible. For a small footprint, PCs are an unobtrusive and complementary member of the local civilian and military maritime community.
Additionally, PCs are a leadership incubator—an invaluable opportunity for the surface community and its sailors. From our notional ten PCs mustered from one DDG crew, we have more “surface area” for leadership: ten ships with ten triads leading ten crews standing ten bridge watches and operating ten engineering plants—all amounting to more than ten times the opportunity. We have ten commanding officers (CO), as junior as a lieutenant, ten lieutenant (junior grade) executive officers, and 20 second tour division officers already stepping into department head roles. We have ten chiefs as senior enlisted advisors leading first- and second-class petty officers, who will earn and stand officer of the deck. A third-class petty officer serving as engineering officer of the watch is not unusual.
These small crews also require cultivating close connections between departments and through the chain of command. On larger ships it is less likely that a sailor, from CO to fireman, might daily converse with or encounter the entire crew. On a PC, this engagement is necessary and inevitable; there is only one mess deck, after all. On a PC, every special evolution becomes an all-hands event requiring cross-departmental qualifications for every sailor. The increased opportunity for leadership is aligned with a necessity to grab that opportunity.
As the opportunities and threats of advancing technology change the character of war, we might think our Navy must match those heights at every level. However, there is a vast and important space filled by PCs in day-to-day maritime security and against low-end threats, serving the commander, community, and our people. For both return-on-investment and in the absolute, the ship is an incredible platform for both mission execution and cultivating warfighting. The PC is an opportunity we should covet as sailors and a platform we should carry forward as a Navy.