During World War II, PT boats met the enemy up close and at greater frequency than any other surface vessels.1 Their size, speed, maneuverability, shallow draft, and versatility allowed them to attack enemy ships, submarines and merchants, harass shore and harbor facilities, and support amphibious landings, as well as conduct surveillance and reconnaissance, special operator insertion, and search and rescue. They did this with surprisingly few loses, with “only 42 out of 426 PT boats lost to enemy action.”2
Today, like their PT boat predecessors, our Navy’s ten Cyclone-class coastal patrol (PC) ships engage with our allies and potential adversaries with great frequency. Forward-deployed to Bahrain, they are on mission every time they “take in all lines.” With their all-encompassing support structure of a dedicated and expeditionary man/train/equip squadron, our PCs have achieved the highest material readiness scores in the surface fleet over the past three years and maintain their combat, material, and personnel readiness with limited outside support and at a significantly lower cost than other platforms. Operating at close quarters with potential adversaries and knowing that they could transition from routine, to high-tension, to combat operations at a moment’s notice, they are continually focused on the surface-force priority of warfighting while filling an important niche capability in our naval strategy.
Patrol craft missions formally include maritime security operations, maritime infrastructure protection, theater security cooperation, coastal patrol and interdiction, special operations support, high-value unit protection, and intelligence collection operations. In reality, they do even more, as the ten PCs in Bahrain directly support an array of real-world U.S. 5th Fleet missions and national tasking, either on their own, in company with fellow PCs, or in company with other combatants. The numbers are surprising. On a daily basis, forward-deployed naval force (FDNF) PCs make up 30 percent of all 5th Fleet surface combatants and 25 percent of all Atlantic Fleet deployed surface assets.
Looking over the last ten years, PCs have been a part of, and one of, the primary platforms in four out of the five most critical 5th Fleet operations: strike missions into Iraq and Afghanistan, Iraqi oil platform defense, sea control of the Strait of Hormuz, maritime security of the Persian Gulf, and theater security cooperation with our Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners. PCs played a key role in all except for strike missions into Iraq and Afghanistan.
From 2002 to 2010, multiple PCs were continuously on station to protect Iraq’s critical economic infrastructure, the Al Basrah Oil Terminal (ABOT) and the Khor Al Amaya Oil Terminal in the Northern Persian Gulf. The USS Firebolt (PC-10) and her rigid-hulled inflatable boat were the first assets to identify and counter a coordinated attack on ABOT in April 2004. Two Firebolt sailors and one Coast Guardsman were killed in action while preventing the attackers from achieving their objective. Today, PCs continue to operate in conjunction with our Iraqi partners.
5th Fleet’s ‘Eyes and Ears’
FDNF PCs are on station in or around the Strait of Hormuz, dedicated eyes and ears for 5th Fleet on who is in and what is taking place. From April to June 2015, PCs accompanied more than 80 percent of U.S.- and U.K.-flagged merchants through the Strait of Hormuz. These operations prevented an escalation of tensions after Iranian forces intercepted the U.S.-flagged Maersk Kensington and temporarily seized the Marshall Islands-flagged Maersk Tigris. In late 2015, PCs were distributed with other combatants to help mitigate a carrier gap. Based in Bahrain, the Persian Gulf is the PC’s backyard. Their crews know its patterns, the merchant transit lanes, the oil terminal locations and daily procedures, where the fishing dhows go, where the other maritime forces operate, and what they do. With this familiarity, PCs bring a sense of normalcy and security to all those who use the Persian Gulf as a maritime waterway for commerce or their livelihood.
When the majority of maritime surface forces in the region are PC-like in size and capabilities, it makes sense that the PCs are the ideal platform to build trust and partnerships. Their similar, or symmetric, characteristics with our GCC partner nations have helped build and improve those critical relationships. Having a 500-foot DDG or 400-foot LCS conduct an exercise with the United Arab Emirates’ 147-foot Mubarraz or an Omani 246-foot Al-Ofouq patrol vessel would no doubt have benefit, but more can be gained and developed if a similar-sized U.S. vessel is part of that mix. PCs are the only surface assets that annually participate with every GCC partner. Kuwait, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman—it is with the PCs that these countries’ maritime forces primarily train and operate.
For a class that was initially designed to only last 15 years, they have proven their relevance far beyond what was envisioned. PCs provide a vital capability to our operational commanders, and add to our surface-force vision of “distributed lethality,” primarily through their size, speed, maneuverability, and versatility.3 They bring essential capabilities to all five naval functions set forth in our Navy’s March 2015 A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower: all-domain access, deterrence, sea control, power projection, and maritime security.4
Presence and Projection
The key piece of all-domain access is battlespace awareness. A forward-deployed PC-sized craft gives the operational commander awareness thorough a sustainable and consistent presence. Aircraft give the best awareness over a large area, but they cannot maintain consistent presence. Submarines and larger surface assets can provide consistent presence and capability, but as evidenced by 5th Fleet operations with today’s PCs, we do not have enough to go around, and the unique characteristics of a smaller platform allow us to understand and control critical pieces of the maritime environment.
A PC’s persistent presence can also be an effective deterrent. Deterrence is no doubt difficult to quantify, and it is obvious that a PC does not possess the deterrence capability of a carrier strike group (CSG) or large surface combatant. Yet current 5th Fleet operations in vital sea lanes such as the Strait of Hormuz have shown that after weighing all associated risks, a capable forward-deployed PC-sized vessel may be the best-suited capability to protect a set of our national and maritime interests.
Small ships are also well suited to assist with sea control and power projection. Antiship ballistic and cruise missiles are perhaps today’s greatest threat to our CSG-centric Navy, and it is a threat delivered from multiple platforms—from shore-based, to aircraft, to submarines, and to surface ships such as the People’s Liberation Army Navy Luyang DDG and Jiangkai FFG.
Today’s Navy is clearly focused on countering these threats, as evidenced by increased investments in such capabilities as Virginia payload modules, F-35 and F/A-18 strike fighters, and SM-6 missiles. Our submarine force may be our least vulnerable, but is challenged by the array of missile sites an adversary can muster. Aircraft provide a quick and flexible counter, but in today’s contested environments, they are challenged by the sheer numbers of fighter aircraft and surface-to-air missiles at an adversary’s disposal. The surface Navy has long been focused on defense of the CSG, but our destroyers and cruisers are challenged to successfully counter multi-axis missile attacks unless you have a ring of steel around the carrier. Renewed focus by the surface Navy on the offensive, as evidenced by the successful Kongsberg naval strike missile test off of LCS and the ongoing surface action group deployment of three DDGs to the Pacific, will increase our punch. These efforts, however, are focused primarily on blue-water operations.
Development of our own small and highly maneuverable antiship cruise missile (ASCM)-armed PC-sized surface combatants is a logical addition, especially when you consider the threat from the ever-growing Type 22 and Type 37 Chinese missile boats. The argument is not for a flotilla of small PCs to replace submarines, larger surface combatants or aircraft, but an ASCM-armed PC squadron forward-based, which could be concealed by land in combat operations while remaining highly maneuverable and versatile, giving operational commanders multiple warfighting options in responding to a wide variety of events or threats. A new class of PCs would thus complement our distributed lethality capabilities, while continuing to be well suited to provide maritime security and build partnerships in bounded regions.
President John F. Kennedy wrote in his foreword to At Close Quarters, “the need for small, fast, versatile, strongly armed vessels does not wane. In fact it may increase in these troubled times when operations requiring just those capabilities are the most likely of those which may confront us.”5 As the PT boats of World War II did, today’s PCs have proven that a current and future PC-sized vessel is essential to an effective maritime force. Navy leadership should take action now and begin plans for a missile-armed replacement to the Cyclone class.
2. Milan Vego, “Think Small: Adding small combatant ships would beef up the Navy’s capabilities,” Armed Forces Journal, July 2008.
3. VADM Thomas Rowden, RADM Peter Gumataotao, and RADM Peter Fanta, “Distributed Lethality,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 141, no.1 (January 2015), 18–23.
4. A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, March 2015), www.navy.mil/local/maritime/150227-CS21R-Final.pdf.
5. Bulkley, At Close Quarters.