More than at any time in recent memory, the Navy faces greater and more diverse threats in the littorals, including long-range aircraft armed with antiship cruise missiles (ASCMs), attack submarines with cruise missiles, midget submarines, multipurpose corvettes, coastal missile and gun systems, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), sophisticated mines, and medium- and short-range ballistic missiles. Most notably, Navy surface combatants are now vulnerable to attack, with little to no warning, from small, low-observable guided-missile patrol boats (PGGs) or fast-attack craft (FAC) with ASCMs. The PGG/FAC threat alarms warfighters deployed in high-clutter and compressed operating environments, from the South China Sea to the high North Atlantic. If adversaries are investing in these small, multipurpose platforms, should the U.S. Navy not do the same?
Navy PGGs could improve force generation and employment options by providing a numerical advantage in projecting naval combat power in a high-intensity littoral conflict. The Navy has the technological means, prospective funding, and opportunity to incorporate these underrated, yet highly capable, platforms into the fleet to counter enemy combatants and land-based threats without placing its capital ships within range of cruise missiles. Dispersing forces with a multilayer offensive mind-set using PGGs supports the Navy’s distributed maritime operations (DMO) concept—a synchronized but disaggregated fleet to project power and survive in the battlespace.
Low Cost, High Payoff
The PGG is not new to the maritime fight. Many navies have incorporated this type of small combatant in the past 50 years. For example, in the 1970s, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Elmo Zumwalt envisioned a high/low ship concept featuring high-end Aegis-capable platforms complemented by small patrol frigates and hydrofoil attack craft.1 The justification was to augment expensive weapon systems with low-cost, highly lethal ships (such as the Oliver Hazard Perry–class frigates and Pegasus-class hydrofoils) to overwhelm Soviet naval defenses. The Navy fielded only six Pegasus-class hydrofoils (PHMs) from 1974 to 1993, and they were not used in fleet exercises, despite being outfitted with AGM-84 Harpoon missiles. Instead, their missions became counterdrug operations and coastal defense.
Recently, the Navy has experimented with both unmanned and manned small ships. One version in particular is the one-of-a-kind M80 Stiletto, produced as a prototype by the Knight & Carver Company in 2006 and still in use today. The Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering’s Rapid Reaction Technology Office, Emerging Capabilities Division, funds the Stiletto Maritime Demonstration Program to help accelerate delivery of innovative maritime technologies.2 The Stiletto costs roughly $6–10 million—cheap when compared with an Arleigh Burke–class Flight III destroyer at $1.8 billion per hull.3 Add extra sensors, communication equipment, and a weapons suite to a PGG similar to the Stiletto and it would still be relatively affordable to rapidly produce and field. Suppose such a Stiletto costs $25 million. The Knight & Carver Company could build about 72 for the price of a single destroyer. Adding an eight-tube launcher to each boat would equate to 576 ASCM/land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs). For scale purposes, it takes just six DDGs to reach that number of vertical-launch system (VLS) tubes; however, their loadout is both offensive and defensive.
On 4 May 2020, the Navy signed a 20-ship future frigate production contract (about $1.3 billion) to chip away at the 355-ship goal.4 While the new frigate is a step toward a 355-ship fleet, it is wrong to assume the frigate’s testing, evaluation, and delivery to the fleet will be on schedule, given delays in recent programs. The Stiletto, by contrast, can be purchased using no-bid and sole-source acquisition contracts, which accelerates production and delivery to the fleet.5 If categorized as a battle force ship and a small surface combatant, the Stiletto would help the Navy achieve its goal of 355 ships by 2034.6
Unlike a destroyer, a PGG has one purpose: offensive combat. It can travel 500 miles on a single tank of fuel at speeds up to 60 knots while cutting through 13-foot waves.7 Using stealth, speed, and surprise, a swarm of Stilettos could concentrate on a designated target area, overwhelm an enemy’s defenses, and enable sequential strikes from a carrier air wing or surface combatants. Using swarm tactics, the PGGs could mimic carriers or destroyers using electronic warfare means, influencing enemy platforms to prioritize their target selections on the wrong combatants. If outfitted with a UAV, the Stiletto could also be used as an advanced scouting platform to enhance the targeting cycle and battlespace awareness. These stealth missile boats could wreak havoc on a blue-water navy while supporting inland forces in the DMO concept.
Integrating PGGs into DMO
Next summer, the Navy will execute Large Scale Exercise 2021, incorporating multiple fleets to test the applicability and effectiveness of the DMO principles outlined in former CNO Admiral John Richardson’s A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority (version 2.0) and further underscored by CNO Admiral Michael Gilday’s Fragmentary Order 01/2019.8 Admiral Gilday challenged the Navy to “develop and field affordable, lethal, numerous and connected capabilities.”9 The PGG can fulfill some, if not all, of these requirements.
Information sharing and data fusion are paramount for success in today’s battlespace. Scouting effectiveness and the ability to strike first with speed and accuracy will make the difference in the first 96 hours of the maritime fight. PGGs can enhance scouting effectiveness while building redundancy and resilience in the command-and-control architecture by employing small UAVs. In a DMO environment, UAVs would be sensors, weapon carriers, and communication platforms that could expand the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) footprint of a disaggregated fleet. A pair of PGGs tucked away in a fjord or island cove could receive targeting data from their attached UAVs and deliver a salvo of long-range missiles independent of nonorganic ISR support. In addition, with the advent of the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye and its capability to support Naval Integrated Fire Control–Counter Air (NIFC-CA) missions and surface fires, these PGGs, tapped into the tactical data link networks, could further enhance the fleet’s detect-to-engage sequence. Finally, a synthesized capability would enable the freedom of action necessary for large surface combatants to defend the carrier, provide sea-lines-of-control protection, and conduct long-range precision strikes.
If produced in high numbers, the Stiletto, armed with weapons such as the Harpoon, Naval Strike Missile, or Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile, could significantly increase naval offensive combat power.10 This multipurpose capability perfectly supports the tenets of the DMO concept. In the words of Admiral Scott Swift, former U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, “The kill rate should matter more than the kill ratio.”11
Overcoming PGG Limitations
For every advantage a ship possesses, a limitation exists in its hull design or weapon systems. Fast-attack boats—such as Stilettos, larger corvettes, and even the littoral combat ships (LCSs)—generally cannot operate in a high sea state, have shorter unrefueled range than larger ships, cannot rearm at sea, and cannot carry large, power-intensive weapon systems. However, these limitations can be mitigated to an extent. For example, several NATO partners have developed reinforced hulls for their small ships that can withstand the higher sea states in the North Atlantic and Baltic Sea. The Stiletto already has such a hull, and its small draft (3 feet for an 88-foot boat) turns a limitation into an advantage—the ability to access remote ports, harbors, or rivers when larger ports and supply depots are being targeted and destroyed or are congested because of an influx of merchant shipping.12
As for rearming at sea, no Navy surface combatants can routinely rearm their VLS at sea—none. This is a systemic problem for the surface fleet. If Stilettos could be modified to expedite afloat or expeditionary rearming, they could return to combat operations much faster than VLS ships.
As for a PGG’s size, many mistakenly assume these small vessels would be sitting ducks in a high-end missile fight, especially from an air threat. However, during the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88), an Iranian Combattante II–class missile boat shot down two Iraqi MiG-23 Floggers.13 A PGG’s primary defense is its standoff range, stealth, and overlapping air and surface cover. For example, in the South China Sea, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Type 022 Houbei PGG can remain under an antiaccess/area denial (A2/AD) umbrella and execute sea-denial operations against the U.S. Navy.14 From that refuge, the PLAN platform can launch C-801/802/803 missiles (the 803 having an approximate 220-mile range) with impunity.15
In Europe, the Russian Navy protects its small combatants by leveraging Russia’s numerous rivers and coastal inlets under the protection of its A2/AD structure, which can engage targets and hold most of Europe at risk. Most recently, the Russian Navy demonstrated this capability during the Syrian conflict, when corvettes launched Kalibr LACMs against Islamic State targets from the Caspian Sea in 2015.16 The newly commissioned Buyan-class corvette continues to support a strategy that resembles the Soviet Strike-Recce complex—a layered construct to deter U.S. Navy ships from attacking the Soviet Union.17 Buyan-class corvettes employ short-range surface-to-air missiles, a multipurpose gun, and Kalibr LACMs that compete in capability with the BGM-109 Tomahawk family of missiles.
Despite its shortcomings, a U.S. PGG would be combat effective, and its use in DMO could be optimized by prepositioning the units, critical munitions, food, and fuel, and establishing expeditionary advanced bases (EABs) before hostilities commence.
PGG Concept of Operations
This notional concept of operations will cover the joint operational phases 0 to 3 (out of six phases). The tactics and application of technologies described below could be attainable with continued development and testing.
Information messaging and prepositioning forces support phase 0 (shaping), which involves strategic messaging and deterrence.18 During phases 0 and 1, operational planners should assume that Military Sealift Command will prioritize other supplies and munitions over the delivery of PGGs to the area of operations. To overcome this limitation, the Navy should position PGGs at EABs, similar to what it did with torpedo patrol boats in the southwest Pacific during World War II. In Europe, a squadron of PGGs could work independently of the Standing NATO Maritime Groups (SNMGs) that operate in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean or be integrated into the SNMGs, as required. In the Fifth and Seventh Fleet areas of operations, PGGs could operate with allies and partners.
If deterrence fails, PGGs can be used for combat operations in phase 2 (seize the initiative). First, PGG crews would expect to operate in a high-clutter radar environment, using coastal waters and stealth to mask their movements. Once the PGGs are in position, UAVs conducting advanced scouting and acquiring targeting solutions would forward that data to an E-2C/D Hawkeye that, in turn, would relay it to the carrier strike group commander or higher. In a high-end fight, it is safe to assume that over-the-horizon means of communication will be disrupted, forcing units to rely on secure, line-of-sight communications and data transfers to execute mission tasking. With the information forwarded to the disaggregated fleet via UAVs and E-2 Hawkeyes, the surface combatants would be able to synchronize multiple-axis attacks on an enemy surface action group or other targets while operating in a degraded or denied electronic environment. If not directly engaged in the main effort of an attack, a squadron of PGGs could execute coordinated feints, deceptions, diversions, or demonstrations—all enabling components of the DMO concept.19
Offensively, while one variant of Stilettos conducted ASCM/LACM attacks, another variant could perform sea-denial operations with offensive mining using its 20-ton cargo capacity.20 This would lessen the burden of offensive mine warfare on Navy attack submarines and P-8A Poseidon aircraft and allow them to focus on other antisubmarine warfare, antisurface warfare, or reconnaissance missions.21 Modified Stilettos also could conduct SEAL team insertions into specified target areas to further boost deception efforts, operational and tactical reconnaissance, or joint forward air controller support. In phase 3 (dominate), PGGs would use the EABs to rearm and resupply to sustain the forward fight until the transition to phase 4 (stabilize), which would most likely result in the redeployment of PGGs to stateside locations.
At a time when ship and weapon system cost overruns plague the Navy, its leaders must reevaluate the requirements for the fleet to fight, survive, and win in the littorals. The Navy must overcome a proclivity to invest in large combatants and take a holistic and realistic approach to warfare in the 2020s and beyond.22 The PGG program nests appropriately with the CNO’s effort to advance partnerships with industry and foster innovative ways for the fleet to be more agile, lethal, and, most important, sustainable.
The pivot toward a missile-employment style of naval warfare is here. It will be a numerical fight and a readiness game under the DMO concept.23 Investing in PGGs is a calculated but acceptable risk the Navy must take to increase the number of multipurpose ships in a relatively short time, as missile-carrier platforms are the force multiplier in the DMO concept. Simple, cost-effective platforms such as the Stiletto complement the high-end weapons and sensors on large surface combatants, aircraft, and submarines and enable flexible and achievable alternatives to project naval power.
1. Steven Wills, “The Perils of Alternative Force Structure,” Center for International Maritime Security, 3 October 2016, cimsec.org/perils-alternative-force-structure/28259.
2. Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division Public Affairs, “Stiletto Maritime Demonstration Program Hosts First Capability Demonstration,” 8 February 2013, www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=71967.
3. “M80 Stiletto,” Naval Technology, 2019, www.naval-technology.com/projects/m80-stiletto/.
4. “Report to Congress on U.S. Navy Frigate FFG(X) Program,” USNI News, 5 May 2020, news.usni.org/2020/05/05/report-to-congress-on-u-s-navy-frigate-ffgx-program-8.
5. “Report to Congress on U.S. Navy Frigate FFG(X) Program.”
6. Megan Eckstein, “30-Year Plan: Navy Puts 355-Ship Cap on Fleet Size; Plans to Introduce Large Combatant, CHAMP Auxiliary Hull,” USNI News, 21 March 2019.
7. Douglas Ernst, “Navy SEAL’s ‘Batmobile’ Turns Heads along the Potomac after Annual Event,” The Washington Times, 14 April 2018, www.washingtontimes.com/news/2018/apr/14/navy-seals-batmobile-m80-stiletto-turns-heads-alon/.
8. Megan Eckstein, “Large Scale Exercise 2020 Will Be Postponed Amid COVID-19 Pandemic Concerns,” USNI News, 25 March 2020, news.usni.org/2020/03/25/large-scale-exercise-2020-will-be-postponed-amid-covid-19-pandemic-concerns; ADM John M. Richardson, USN, A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority (version 2.0), Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (December 2018), 8.
9. Richardson, A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, 6.
10. Christopher H. Popa, Sydney P. Stone, Ee Hong Aw Aw, Choon Pei Jeremy Teo, Licun Edwin Cai, Wai Hoe Chong, Rachel Cline, Jiesheng Jackson Hong, Chong Khai Roger Koh, Wee Leong Lee, “Distributed Maritime Operations and Unmanned Systems Tactical Employment,” Systems Engineering Capstone Report, Naval Postgraduate School, June 2018, 35, calhoun.nps.edu/handle/10945/59587.
11. ADM Scott H. Swift, USN, “A Fleet Must Be Able to Fight,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 144, no. 5 (May 2018), www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2018/may/fleet-must-be-able-fight.
12. “M80 Stiletto,” Naval Technology, 2019.
13. Stephen W. Miller, “Fast Attack: Still a Threat in the Littoral,” Asian Military Review (April/May 2018), asianmilitaryreview.com/2018/10/fast-attack-still-a-threat-in-the-littoral/.
14. James R. Holmes, “Fleet Design with Chinese Characteristics,” Transcript of Hearing on China’s Military Reforms and Modernization: Implications for the United States, 15 February 2018, 110, www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/transcripts/Hearing%20Transcript%20%20February%2015%2C%202018.pdf.
15. Miller, “Fast Attack: Still a Threat in the Littoral.”
16. Tyler Rogoway, “Russia’s New Little Missile Packing Patrol Ship Is a Pretty Genius Design,” The War Zone, 30 March 2018, www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/19796/russias-new-little-missile-packing-patrol-ship-is-a-pretty-genius-design.
17. Milan Vego, “Recce-Strike Complexes in Soviet Theory and Practice,” Department of the Army Soviet Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, KS, 1990, ii.
18, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Operations (Joint Publication 3-0) (22 October 2018), V-13.
19. Kevin Eyer and Steve McJessy, “Operationalizing Distributed Maritime Operations,” Center for International Maritime Security, 5 March 2019, cimsec.org/operationalizing-distributed-maritime-operations/39831.
20. Mark D. Faram, “The Navy’s Coolest Looking Vessel Heads to Washington,” Navy Times, 3 April 2018, www.navytimes.com/news/your-navy/2018/04/03/the-navys-coolest-looking-vessel-heads-to-washington/.
21. Faram, “The Navy’s Coolest Looking Vessel Heads to Washington.”
22. Popa, “Distributed Maritime Operations and Unmanned Systems Tactical Employment,” 120.
23. Popa, 120.