The Navy appears poised to sunset the Mk VI and Cyclone-class patrol craft programs in rapid succession, with no replacements on the horizon. The Navy has done this throughout history, only to discover after hostilities have begun that the decision was misguided. The torpedo boats of World War II were instrumental in ensuring the success of the Pacific island-hopping campaign. The Vietnam War saw a need for riverine boats to patrol deep inland and support ground troops. And the Navy needed riverine forces to patrol the Tigris and Euphrates rivers during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Yet once again, as competition with a rival great power increases, the Navy finds itself on the verge of having no small patrol craft. If the Mk VI was gone before we even knew her, perhaps it is time to ponder what a Mk VII design should entail.
The Mk VII should be larger—closer in size and capability to the outgoing Cyclone class. A vessel in the 500-ton range with an overall length of 200 to 250 feet would be ideal. It should be capable of remaining at sea without resupply for 10 to 14 days. The vessel would be commanded by an O-4 surface warfare officer and have a crew of 40–50. Unlike most recent acquisition programs (the Constellation-class frigates being a tentative exception), the Mk VII must eschew any new, revolutionary, modular, forthcoming, or other buzzword-laden technology. It would rely instead on well-proven off-the-shelf systems to drive down risk and cost. The Mk VIs cost roughly $15 million each, and the Cyclones $50 million (in today’s dollars). A reasonable Mk VII cost target would be $100 million per hull.
The design for the Mk VII should follow the concept of the World War II motor torpedo boats (PT boats, sometimes called “patrol torpedo”)—namely, it should be relatively simple and within the capabilities of multiple small shipyards to build. This would help diversify the shipbuilding industrial base beyond the Navy’s few large, specialized shipyard contractors, and it would encourage investment in training and retaining skilled American laborers outside the Virginia, Florida, and San Diego centers of gravity. In addition, multiple yards producing the craft should lower cost through competition as well as build a surge capacity in the event production needed to be ramped up during a conflict.
The basic design should be a simple, semiplaning monohull. Costly signature-reduction techniques and exotic materials should be eschewed in favor of a simple steel superstructure. Where the radar cross-section can be easily reduced, it should, but not at the expense of simplicity in manufacturing, maintenance, or repair. The goal should be the ability to mass-produce the ship, not protect it from every conceivable threat.
The waterjet propulsion on Mk VI boats should be paired with the four-propeller design of the Cyclone class. Waterjets would limit the Mk VII’s required draft while providing unmatched maneuverability, thus opening up far more potential ports for the craft. Two outboard steerable jets coupled with two inboard boost jets should sound familiar to anyone familiar with the Freedom-variant littoral combat ship (LCS)—but the Mk VII should borrow nothing else from that overly complicated engineering plant. Instead, the vessel should rely on an efficient diesel engine directly coupled to each waterjet, as done on the Independence-variant LCS. A few diesel generators and other standard auxiliary equipment would round out the engineering spaces, while the waterjets and semiplaning hull should see a top speed in the upper 20-knot or even lower 30-knot range, more than sufficient for such a craft. By enabling single-engine operations, the craft’s range and on-station time could be improved, putting the 10- to 14-day patrol without requiring resupply easily in reach.
“First, invent nothing” should also guide weapon selection, both for simplicity’s sake and economics. The BAE Bofors Mk 110 57-mm gun is already installed on both LCS variants and will arm the Constellation-class frigates; wider use will lower the cost per gun and round of ordnance. Borrowing the Surface-to-Surface Missile Module from LCS would also allow the ship to carry eight to ten vertically launched Hellfire missiles to protect against small-boat threats. But its real teeth would come from two to four heavy-duty missiles—Naval Strike Missiles, Tomahawks, Standard missiles, and anything else that fits in a Mk 41 vertical launch system cell—contained in a BAE Adaptable Deck Launcher system. This system could be placed on the outer edge of the ship, flush with the superstructure, with one or two cells stacked atop one another to minimize the footprint and avoid increasing the overall length. The missiles would turn a patrol boat into a serious player, able to hold far larger ships at risk while offering a land-attack capability as well.
As for sensors, again nothing here should be new, revolutionary, or modular. The ship should use the COMBATSS-21 management system from LCS and the Constellation class. It should be paired with the fleet’s standard AN/SPQ-9B fire-control radar, a military-grade navigation radar, and a simple civilian surface-search radar for redundancy. A basic Link 16 would allow the ship to operate with larger ships and aircraft and take better advantage of its strike missile capability. A passive-only variant of the AN/SLQ-32 electronic warfare system could help provide early threat warning without requiring any new technological breakthroughs. Couple this with a communication suite able to operate in the high, very high, super high, and extremely high frequency spectrums and the ship’s combat systems are complete.
The ship should have a stern boat ramp. The fleet’s standard seven-meter rigid-hulled inflatable boat would be sufficient, but the eleven-meter boat would improve boarding capability as well as increase the possibility of embarking Naval Special Warfare detachments.
With a target cost of $100 million per hull, there will not likely be much budgetary room left for add-ons. But a close-in weapon system (CIWS) or small flight deck would be nice-to-haves. Installing a CIWS would improve small-boat defenses while also providing air-search and point-defense capabilities. The system is mature and, while it is being phased out in favor of SeaRAM, it has a strong community of maintainers in the fleet.
The flight deck would be a big reach, but one with the potential to dramatically improve the ship’s possibilities. It should be only big enough to support a medium-sized UAV, such as an MQ-8 Fire Scout or ScanEagle, not a crewed aircraft. This helps with space constraints, weight restrictions, as well as manning limitations while again capitalizing on already-invested research and development dollars. The flight deck could feature a retractable awning, allowing the space to serve as both hangar and launch and recovery deck. The priority for any UAV would be a surface-search radar capable of feeding tracks to the ship’s combat system, EO/IR capability for identification and classification of tracks, and the potential to be armed.
Finally, the Mk VIIs should be named and commissioned United States ships—USS. This is vitally important, to prevent adversaries who might see interfering with or even seizing a nameless patrol boat as a risk-worthy transgression. If presence is part of the mission, then the Navy must be clear about exactly what is present: a sovereign, commissioned warship of the United States of America.
The benefits of a Mk VII patrol craft go well beyond tactical and operational wins in the event of hostilities; it would improve the surface warfare officer corps writ large. Division officers and/or department heads on such ships would be forced to juggle more than their counterparts do on larger, better-manned ships. They would learn small-unit leadership to a degree not currently possible on larger ships. Officers assigned to the platform would, by virtue of the limited crew size, receive a greater share of bridge and combat watchstanding time and a greater share of special evolutions, increasing their mariner and warfighting skills. The use of waterjets is an art unlike anything else in the pantheon of shiphandling and truly mastering it, especially on a small ship that will be called to enter restricted ports and routinely dock without the use of tugs, would dramatically improve an officer’s confidence in any traditional shiphandling circumstance. Most important, however, it would expand the early command program, reversing the current Navy trajectory of retiring it. Allowing high-achieving O-4s to command such a capable vessel would result in increased retention of the service’s most command-minded officers as well as providing a future cadre of destroyer and frigate captains whose leadership, seamanship, and earned confidence have been tested earlier and more often.
The Mk VIIs would be useful across many different maritime terrains and combatant commander responsibilities: not only in the South China Sea, but also in Bahrain, the Mediterranean, Africa, Japan, Singapore, Korea, and U.S. Southern Command in the Western Hemisphere. And it would give interactions with partner nations a capable but perhaps less intimidating U.S. Navy guest than a destroyer, especially partners whose navies comprise patrol boats or corvettes almost exclusively. A U.S. flag waving from a 200-foot ship docked at their pier in a shallow port does far more to build relations than the vague and ominous silhouette of a destroyer at anchor on the horizon.
While there are ways in which a clean-sheet design might be desirable, a brand-new program would certainly entail risk. But “invent nothing” could go beyond systems and include the hull itself, were the Navy to adapt its design from the Coast Guard’s Sentinel-class fast response cutters (FRCs). This design meets 80 percent of the above suggestions for the Mk VII and costs $65 million per hull in Coast Guard configuration. The suggested armaments and sensors would increase the cost, but manageably so.
The challenge would be finding space for the Adaptable Deck Launcher (which comes in varying lengths, depending on the expected payload). The ships would also need a datalink. The existing 25-mm gun and multiple crew-served weapons mounts would be sufficient for most missions, though the Mk 110 could be added on some as an upgrade. In addition, the FRC’s crew complement is only 24, roughly half the size envisioned for a Mk VII. Increasing this number by a quarter would still result in lower annual operating costs, and parts commonalities across the Navy and Coast Guard fleets would save additional funds. The ship and design are small enough that many shipyards could build or maintain them, not just the traditional large Navy suppliers. And the design already meets American Bureau of Shipping High-Speed Naval Craft criteria as well as Naval Sea Systems Command stability standards.
The FRC is probably as close to a home run as can reasonably be expected: a proven design, built in a small U.S. shipyard (Bollinger, in Louisiana), with room to grow. Considering the groundwork and risk mitigation is done and these ships are operationally deployed today, how can we not strongly consider them?
A modest investment (in shipbuilding terms) of $4 billion would have a radical effect on the Navy quickly. For about the cost of two Flight IIA Arleigh Burke–class destroyers, the Navy could expand the shipbuilding base, the Navy’s distributed lethality, and the size of the fleet. An upgunned FRC or new-design Mk VII would not do everything a destroyer can do—for one thing, its antisubmarine capability would likely be very limited, and antiair capabilities would come at the expense of strike capability—but not every ship has to be capable of every mission. It would roughly double current early command opportunities and would make the adversary’s targeting picture substantially more challenging in a head-to-head fight. The Navy’s recent ambivalence toward small ships is at odds with its deep-seated reverence for the David-vs.-Goliath feats of John Paul Jones and his sloop-of-war Ranger. The service’s culture is built on the fact that every big fight the Navy has fought has required the service of junior officers in command of small ships. The Navy has the officers—it needs the ships.