U.S. 5TH FLEET AREA OF RESPONSIBILITY (July 3, 2013) Patrol coastal ship (from left) USS Squall (PC 7), USS Thunderbolt (PC 12), and USS Tempest (PC 2) prepare to float off the motor transport vessel M/V Eide Transporter. The PCs’ arrival brings the total number to eight PCs here to support maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Danielle A. Brandt/Released) http://www.flickr.com/photos/navcent/9200781038/in/photostream/
Three Navy coastal patrol craft arrived in the Persian Gulf this morning aboard a transoceanic transport ship.

Once again, the US Navy is moving more warships to the Persian Gulf. This time, though, we’re not sending an extra aircraft carrier or another task force. This is arguably a de-escalation of possible tensions with Iran. In a nutshell, the Navy is replacing big ships with small ones.

The three new ships – Tempest, Squall, and Thunderbolt – are Cyclone-class PCs, which stands not for “personal computer” or “politically correct” but “patrol, coastal.” They are relatively small vessels – 179 feet long, 380 tons displacement, and boasting just 28 crew. They are well-suited to shallow waters, protecting oil rigs, and working with our Arab allies’ modest fleets. Another two PCs, Hurricane and Monsoon, will join the Bahrain-based 5th Fleet next year, leaving just three in US home waters to do (primarily) counter-drug operations for 4th Fleet out of Mayport, Florida. Meanwhile, however, the Navy’s cutting back on aircraft carriers, destroyers, and even minesweepers on duty in the Gulf.

That’s not to say the Cyclones can’t fight. In fact, the five already homeported in Bahrain are being upgunned with Raytheon-made Griffin missiles, the same relatively short-ranged weapon being added to the controversial Littoral Combat Ships. (The newly arriving PCs will get their Griffins later). Last year, the Navy just happens to have successfully tested the Griffin against small fast-attack craft, the favored watergoing weapon of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

“We’re just installing the Griffin missile system on the patrol craft now. That’s a laser-guided rocket that will help counter any kind of swarm tactic,” said Capt. Joseph Naman, commander of 5th Fleet’s coastal patrol craft, in a conference call this morning with reporters. “I would take the PC over a swarm [of fast-attack boats]. Pound for pound the punch is much harder.”

Loading up small craft with heavy machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades is a cheap way to put firepower on the water, but they may not hit much of anything. “The speedboats with the guns and the guys hanging off with RPGs, all those [weapons] are unguided, all those are not stabilized,” Naman explained. In the Gulf, “we’re normally seeing about one to three-foot [waves] on a good day and maybe five to seven-foot seas on some of the interesting days we have.” That’s bad news for the Revolutionary Guard gunner trying to eyeball his target from a jouncing deck. By contrast, even before the Griffins are installed, the Cyclones have two 25-milimeter quick-firing cannon and a multitude of machineguns, all on stabilized mounts to keep them on target in rough seas.

NAVAL SUPPORT ACTIVITY, Bahrain (July 3, 2013) Patrol Coastal ship USS Tempest (PC 2) transits from Khalifa Bin Salman Port to Mina Salman Pier. The arrival of Tempest, USS Thunderbolt (PC 12) and USS Squall (PC 7) brings the total number to eight PCs here to support maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class (SW) Stephen Murphy/Released) http://www.flickr.com/photos/navcent/9201581288/in/photostream/

The coastal patrol craft USS Tempest in the Persian Gulf.

That’s still a lot less firepower than the bigger and more-expensive-to-operate warships that the Cyclones are effectively replacing. This spring, the Pentagon announced the Navy would halve the number of aircraft carriers patrolling the Persian Gulf at any given time from two to one – which also cuts in half the accompanying cruisers, destroyers, and submarines – because it simply could not afford to sortie the carrier strike groups under the budget cuts known as sequestration. (The uncertainty over a stopgap spending measure called the Continuing Resolution, since resolved, was also a major factor).

The Navy’s also cutting back on patrols by its workhorse Arleigh Burke DDG-51 destroyers, Capt. Naman said. “The slight decline in DDGs closely correlates to our decline in forces in Iraq and our drawdown in Afghanistan,” he told reporters. To support the wars on land, the fleet has been making longer and more frequent deployments over the last decade, to the point that both ships and their crews are getting tired. Now, said Naman, “we’re trying to stretch [out] the time between deployments a little bit longer so we can do the maintenance on the ships we need to.” (But sequester complicates maintenance as well).

“It doen’t mean we’re going to do away with the DDGs,” Naman emphasized. But as the patrol craft flotilla increases from five historically to eight now and 10 next year, he said, “we’re picking up a lot of the missions they were doing.”

NAVAL SUPPORT ACTIVITY, Bahrain (July 3, 2013) Patrol Coastal ship USS Tempest (PC 2) transits from Khalifa Bin Salman Port to Mina Salman Pier. The arrival of Tempest, USS Thunderbolt (PC 12) and USS Squall (PC 7) brings the total number to eight PCs here to support maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class (SW) Stephen Murphy/Released) http://www.flickr.com/photos/navcent/9198801073/in/photostream/

Tugboats move the newly arrived USS Tempest into harbor in Bahrain.

Most of those missions are low-profile cooperation with the Gulf Cooperation Council states – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the UAE, and the big brother, Saudi Arabia. Building up local partners is the best long-term bulwark against Iran, and those partners’ own fleets consist largely of smaller coastal craft much more similar to the Cyclones than to the Arleigh Burkes. Those international missions include training exercises – “there’re over 15 of them we do every year with the GCC nations,” said Naman – and protecting offshore or coastal installations such as the ports, oil rigs, and desalinization plants on which the region’s economy depends. In the shallow waters of the Gulf, small can be beautiful, Naman said: “We can go more places with the PC than we can with the DDG based on the draft alone.”

A mission the Cyclones can’t perform, however, is minesweeping. The Navy doubled the number of Avenger-class mine counter-measures (MCM) ships in the Gulf from four to eight last year amidst Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, but now it’s sending the extra four Avengers home again. “They made a conscious decision to bring additional MCMs over here temporarily,” said Naman. “It wasn’t a homeport shift; it was a deployment….We have moved some portion of those back; the remaining ones will go back this fall.”

In the long run, the mine-clearing mission will fall to the Littoral Combat Ship, which will also hunt submarines and Iranian-style small attack boats. (The LCS will have plug-and-play “mission modules” to tailor it for each of the three threats). While the Navy has made major progress on LCS’s costs, it’s still working out both tactics and technology for the highly unconventional new ships.

Both variants of the Littoral Combat Ship are also about eight times larger than a coastal patrol craft (3,000 tons displacement versus 380). So even in the future, the Navy will likely need both types for different missions in different depths of water. For now, until the LCS becomes fully operational, it’s up to the Cyclones to patrol the shallows.

Comments

  • Aurora

    Do they still teach naval history at Annapolis & the Naval War College? If not, do a search on “USS PANAY incident”. If naval history is still taught, then they better check the drinking water at both locales and OPNAV. I’m not sure this is the wisest move.

  • Don Bacon

    Using a $400 million LCS with Griffin missiles, 57mm gun and machine guns would be interesting when faced with cheap and plentiful hundreds of swarming fast small boats armed with missiles and torpedoes.

    The Iranian naval warfare doctrine includes swarming tactics which focus on surprising and isolating the enemy’s forces and preventing their reinforcement or resupply, thereby shattering the enemy’s morale and will to fight. Iran has practiced both mass and dispersed swarming tactics. The former employs mass formations of hundreds of lightly armed and agile small boats that set off from different bases, then converge from different directions to attack a target or group of targets. The latter uses a small number of highly agile missile or torpedo attack craft that set off on their own, from geographically dispersed and concealed locations, and then converge to attack a single target or set of targets (such as a tanker convoy). The dispersed swarming tactic is much more difficult to detect and repel because the attacker never operates in mass formations.

    This was demonstrated in Operation Millennium Challenge in 2002. “If the games had been real, it would have been the worst US naval defeat since Pearl Harbor.” So all US Navy ships would have to be removed from the Persian Gulf if the balloon ever goes up.

    • Aurora

      Many of us have been harping on this subject for years, Don. USN can’t, or won’t, remember PUEBLO. If they get one of these little crappy ships cut off from the herd, or some inept planner sends it out without adult supervision, we’re risking a political and military disaster.

      • Don Bacon

        I caught it — “little crappy ships” = LCS.

        Check out the Freedom facebook page for photos of the 57mm in action and “the winner of our Deployment Pie in the Face Contest — Command Master Chief.”

    • PolicyWonk

      Don -

      I was aware of the results of Millennium Challenge, which was kept pretty quiet. The old-timer/cold-war crowd in the “blue water” navy didn’t like the results for obvious reasons.

      And these are the same guys that created the ingenious over-kill/under-kill platform known as the LCS. Way to big, lightly armed, and expensive to be useful against swarms of small cheap boats, and not big enough (or well protected) to support participation in a full fleet.

      Regards,
      PW

  • Don Bacon

    Pulling warships from the Fifth Fleet AOR — commonly but erroneously called the Persian Gulf — has nothing to do with (US-created) tensions with Iran, and never did. The carriers were there to support OEF in Afghanistan. Pulling one was a function of the decrease in activity there, and had nothing to do with Iran or sequestration. Also carriers are in short supply because normally most of them are in port. Currently seven of nine (not counting Ike) are in port — typical.

    Iran continues as a concocted “major threat” because it contributes to U.S. political strategy, and it doesn’t hurt to sell $30 billion in military equipment to U.S.-allied Gulf despotic undemocratic potentates because of the “Iran threat.”

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brian-Scott/100000748340975 Brian Scott

      how else can we rationalize defending the GCC tyrants ?

  • brownie

    What we still need is an off the shelf CORVETTE of European manufacture, fitted with US electronics and weapons, weighing about 1,200-1,400 tons. We won’t get one, of course.

  • http://cgblog.org/ Chuck Hill

    The video of the PCs being moored includes a 110 foot US Coast Guard cutter departing at time 0:40

  • Ed

    I dont know, but wouldn’t a few attack helo’s pouring out 20mm do the job? How about a couple of wart hogs. It would eat through these toys. Night time, no problem thermal siganture of an outboard. One 50 cal into it stops it dead. Coast Guard has proven this.
    I am more concerned about the message it sends.

  • Rob C.

    I’m not sure about the use of the Cyclones to help fill in the holes for departure of the bigger naval units. 25mm bushwackers are not bad guns, but as its been said before. If Iraq send swarm small boats, then they would be in trouble.

    Given the range Iran’s small boys, its possible some of them may take cruise by a Cyclone. Griffin maybe expensive way to take these low-cost units out. Cyclones aren’t not substitutes for real Fast Attack Craft that Iran and other Gulf states use. Griffins aren’t Exocite missiles or Chinese Anti-Ship Missiles they use. Most of those FACs use 76mm rapid-fire cannons. If their descent copies, they could cause problems. LCS aren’t ready yet, their diffidently not well armed yet either. 57mm gun is only singular weapon.