After his defeat at Waterloo and surrender to the Royal Navy, Napoleon is said to have remarked, “If it had not been for you English, I would have been Emperor of the East. But wherever there is water to float a ship, we are sure to find you in our way.” This simple observation goes to the heart of littoral warfare and is as true today as it was 205 years ago. It was not the wooden wall of Britain’s great two- and three-deckers that Napoleon was referring to, but the hundreds of sloops, brigs, pinnacles, and many other types of inshore craft that sought out and denied the French the use of their own coastal waters.
Likewise, it was not the ironclads and cruisers of the Union Navy but rather the hundreds of smaller requisitioned, converted, and purpose-built craft that slowly choked the Confederacy from Vicksburg to Cape Hatteras during the Civil War. Similarly, the U.S. Navy’s PT boats did yeoman service among the islands of the Pacific, as did the brown-water riverine forces battling the Viet Cong for control of waterways of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam
But it was British Coastal Forces during World War II that truly demonstrated the importance of littoral warfare, as the Royal Navy took the war to the enemy’s doorstep from the fjords of Norway to the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean to the jungle waterways of the Arakan. These forces demonstrated time and again that the key to littoral warfare is having “good enough” ships in greater numbers and an aggressive attitude.
The U.S. Navy sought to address this deficiency following the Cold War, as it saw no blue-water threat and an increasing requirement to operate in the littorals against smaller, asymmetric navies. The 14 Cyclone-class patrol ships were fast, well-armed, and of sufficient size to serve a variety of functions and support special operations forces. But they were too expensive for this purpose with too short an operational life span and were abandoned in favor of other options.
Unfortunately, the replacement concept in the form of the littoral combat ship (LCS) repeated the error of attempting to design a ship that can do everything—the result is a ship that will fail at most of its tasks. The LCS comes in two hull forms and is supposed to be readily convertible to different missions by swapping modules while reducing operating costs and the number of hulls needed. What the Navy got instead are ships that are badly under gunned, have low survivability when seriously damaged, are unable to outfight or outrun attackers, and are far too expensive for what is needed. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) has embraced the tactic of swarming individually superior U.S. Navy ships, just as a lion can be defeated by a pack of hyenas. There is a place for the LCS concept in today’s Navy, but not as a true littoral combatant.
A Proven Gunboat Design
The Navy’s problem remains its obsession with blue-water ships and big-budget contracts instead of stepping back and rationally thinking about what is actually needed to fulfill requirements at a cost-effective level in terms of construction, use, and the risk of combat losses. The enemy of “good enough” is the desire for perfection and there is no reason to spend time and money reinventing the wheel when a proven gunboat design already exists that is good enough for the Navy’s littoral combat needs. A modern version of the Fairmile D motor torpedo boat—the famous Dog Boats of the Royal Navy’s coastal forces in World War II—is what the U.S. Navy needs today.
The Fairmile D boats were the most heavily armed and successful gunboats of World War II. They were not the fastest boats, but as a general-purpose craft called on for many different functions, they were the best available. At 115 feet long and 20 feet 10 inches wide with three Packard engines, it could travel at speeds up to 29 knots at full load with a displacement of between 95 and 120 tons. It could also carry a 30-man crew while drawing only 5 feet of water and operate in Force 4 seas. It was an excellent example of a gunboat that was “good enough” and could be produced quickly.
A modern version of the Fairmile D boat would have a fiberglass hull instead of a wooden one, power supplied by commercial high-speed gas (possibly water jet?) engines with a small auxiliary engine for those occasions when stealth is needed, and commercial off-the-shelf communication equipment, radar, and sonar. This would keep the cost per unit to a minimum. It is important to remember that these craft are intended to go in harm’s way instead of more valuable assets, such as the $700 million LCS.
Furthermore, by using the same inlaid pre-drilled and tapped mountings strips first pioneered in the Fairmile B motor launches, the Navy would have the ability to swap out weapons systems as needed for various missions. With the use of some tools (and a liberal amount of WD-40), crews could swap out systems as varied as a recoilless rifle, powered and unpowered automatic weapons, antiship missile launchers, mine-laying and -sweeping gear, depth charges, and perhaps even a modern form of Mousetrap antisubmarine rocket system. Lastly, a versatile, general-purpose, high-speed, shallow-draft vessel that can be tailored to the buyer’s needs has potential for the civilian, law enforcement, and military export markets.
A Perfect Support Base
The Navy has a proven design to transport and support these modern gunboats. The Whidbey Island-class dock landing ship (LSD), which just got a service life extension, can operate as a mobile support base for a squadron of six gunboats. With accommodation for 500-plus Marines and other facilities, the ship is ideally suited to support the personnel needed to man and maintain the gunboats while deployed. Without Marines embarked, compartments previously dedicated to Marine supplies and equipment could be converted to machine shops and repair facilities, and the 440-foot well deck will hold three pairs of gunboats with room to spare. The gunboats themselves would be placed in manually operated scissors-type hydraulic cradle arms that would be bolted in place to the well deck floor for transportation and servicing. The cradles themselves would be individual sections that could be bolted into position by either the crew manually or with the aid of a small crane truck. When not needed, they can be unbolted and stowed along the side or at the forward end of the well deck.
The Whidbey Island design includes a long, clear afterdeck for operating V-22 Osprey aircraft and helicopters. By foregoing Osprey operations and adding a hanger capable of housing helicopters with a contingent of armed UAVs, the ship’s aviation detachment would be able to provide ship-to-shore transport, reconnaissance and rescue, infiltration and extraction of special forces, and air support for interdiction and antisubmarine operations.
In littoral warfare, numbers matter and a simple analysis of the LCS program versus a modern class of Fairmile Ds bears this out. For one $700 million LCS several squadrons of gunboats could be acquired. For the cost of two LCS units, the Navy could acquire three more improved Whidbey Island-class LSDs, with the added benefit of adding to the amphibious ship fleet.
A true gunboat in substantial numbers offers these advantages:
- Self-supporting units that can be deployed to any location where naval forces are needed.
- A deployed squadron can cover and control a far larger area than a single ship can.
- Provide heavy fire support for the infiltration and extraction of special operations teams.
- Two or more squadrons to the Persian Gulf region would provide additional escort craft in contested and counter to the swift IRGCN gunboats.
- A vessel capable of being rapidly reconfigured for a variety of tasks, including search and rescue, reconnaissance, convoy escort, piracy suppression, mine laying, minesweeping, and antisubmarine work against the shallow-water diesel submarine threat.
- A valuable asset in the domestic fight against drug and human smuggling by sea.
- Increased opportunities for early command experience for junior officers and a practical platform for small-boat handling.
If we fail to heed the lessons of history regarding coastal and littoral warfare, then we will be unprepared for a coming war abroad and on our own doorstep. Neither are wars we can afford to lose.