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Navy’s Smallest Fighting Ships Prove Littoral Warfare Concepts 

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By David Axe 

NavysSmallestLITTLE CREEK NAVAL AMPHIBIOUS BASE, Va. — The Navy’s smallest fighting ships — Cyclone-class patrol boats — are blazing the way for a future fleet of littoral combat ships.

Little Creek is slated to receive as many as 22 LCSs in coming decades, according to base spokesman Scott Mohr. But until the LCS ships arrive, these 180-foot vessels may be one of the Navy’s most useful assets for littoral warfare, officials say.

Fourteen Cyclone-class boats, known to sailors as PCs, were commissioned beginning in the early 1990s to support the special warfare community. The PCs proved to be too big for special operations in very shallow water, so the Navy began to dispose of them.

It donated one to the Philippines and transferred five to the Coast Guard, which has used them for maritime law enforcement. The remaining eight ships were slated for disposal when the war on terrorism intervened and, simultaneously, the Navy began to take littoral or “green water” operations more seriously.

In the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Navy found itself tasked with protecting the country’s two offshore oil terminals in the shallow waters of the northern Arabian Gulf. Large warships drew too deeply to get in close to the platforms, but the patrol boats, with only eight feet of draft, were just right.

In 2003, the Navy deployed four PCs to the Gulf. This year, a fifth boat joined them.

Last year, recognizing the utility of these craft in green waters, the Navy halted all efforts to dispose of the remaining boats and even began negotiations with the Coast Guard to take back the transferred PCs. The Navy moved two West Coast-based boats to Little Creek, a move that consolidated all operations and training at the Virginia base. At any given time, three boats are at Little Creek for drydocking and training while the rest remain forward deployed.

Thirteen 30-person PC crews that are based at Little Creek fly out to the Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf, on six-month rotations.

Lt. Marisa McClure and Lt. Cmdr. Brent Devore, both PC skippers, say their boats are ideal for green-water operations. Their light tonnage, powerful propulsion plants and shallow draft mean they can move nimbly in crowded coastal waters. Recent modifications — including additional small-caliber weapons, such as machine guns and grenade launchers; a digital navigation system, and a stern ramp for launching and recovering small boats — have only increased the patrol boats’ effectiveness in littoral missions.

“The Navy is starting to branch us out,” says McClure, currently commanding Thunderbolt (PC-12), one of the training vessels at Little Creek. “Our main mission is with the Fifth Fleet. We are defending the oil platforms in the northern Arabian Gulf. But we do other missions in the Gulf as well, like maritime interdiction.”

“Maritime interdiction,” in Navy parlance, means boarding and searching vessels that are suspected of ties to terrorists or criminals. It’s a staple of day-to-day naval operations and a huge growth business for the world’s navies, especially in green waters. The shift towards maritime interdiction in shallow waters is one of the major factors in the LCS development.

In terms of missions and crew size, the PCs increasingly look and operate like “baby” LCSs.

The Navy in 2004 issued contracts to both Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics to build prototype LCS, each to their own design. Both designs emphasize modularity, maneuverability and shallow draft. Littoral combat ship hulls will accommodate a wide range of specialized modules tailored to missions such as anti-submarine warfare, surface warfare and mine warfare. While displacing around 3,000 tons, almost as much as an Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate, LCS will be crewed by only 75 people, versus a Perry’s 300.

Just 30 sailors serve aboard the 380-ton displacement PCs, which leaves little or no reserve in most tactical scenarios. “To put a [small] boat in the water takes the majority of my crew,” McClure says.

LCS crews are tasked with even more diverse missions, and with twice as many sailors as a PC, perhaps face even greater personnel problems.

Devore, commanding Hurricane (PC-3), also a training vessel, says the sailors on his crew are already hybrid sailors. “On bigger ships, you’ll have 30 people in each skill set,” Devore says. “On a ship [the size of a PC], you have 30 people to do everything. That’s hard.”

“It’s very senior,” McClure says of her crew, “‘mainly because they’re asked to do a lot of things outside their ratings.”

Thunderbolt Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Gary Jeter exemplifies this trend. Besides handling the PC’s small boats, he also stands watch as an officer of the deck — a responsibility usually reserved for officers, of which a typical PC has only four. “I have, like, five other jobs besides officer of the deck and boatswain,” Jeter says. “You’ve got to be flexible.”

Having so many jobs means a lot more training than what a typical sailor might require. The PC community’s rotation schedule — a six-month deployment every 16 months — leaves just enough time at Little Creek for schooling, under way exercises in the Chesapeake Bay and downtime for sailors, whose workloads are often greater than anything they’ve experienced before.

Devore says the small size of PC crews creates a family dynamic that helps sailors cope with the high stress level. Somewhat uniquely, a PC crew’s morale does not seem to be tied to any particular hull. While on deployment, a crew will fall in on whatever Fifth-Fleet PC is available in theater. ‘[Crew-swapping] is the same as having a car at home and getting a rental car when you’re traveling,” Devore says. “The rental car’s got a gas pedal and brakes just like the car back home. It just takes a little time to get used to the nuances.”

The differences among the eight PCs are “very subtle,” Devore adds.

The way the PC crews rotate onto forward-deployed boats is an outgrowth of the Navy’s Sea Swap experiments that saw destroyer crews share hulls — and another preview of the way future hybrid sailors will man the LCS fleet.

The Navy’s goal in swapping crews is to reduce the wear and tear that comes with repeated ocean crossings … and to squeeze more operational utility out of fewer vessels by keeping them in the combat zone longer without overtaxing sailors.

The strategy appears to be working for the PC sailors. An eight-boat force with 13 crews has maintained five boats in the Arabian Gulf for three years.

Changes are looming for Little Creek’s PC crews. McClure and Devore both speak of the day when the new Iraqi Navy assumes responsibility for the country’s national waters, at which point the forward-deployed PCs will return home. When that happens, Devore says, he expects the Navy to exploit some of the boats’ other strengths — namely, their similarity to the vessels operated by the world’s small navies.

“The Gulf is far from being all we’re capable of,” Devore says. “The future of these boats is in international cooperation … Navies in South America, the United Arab Emirates… they have a bunch of these 200-foot ships for coastal defense and combating piracy,” Devore continues. “That’s what we’re suited to.”

He says he expects Southern Command to request PC deployments for exercises and operations with friendly navies as soon as the boats become available.

LCS also will play a critical role in multinational missions, notes Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Mullen, who in a speech at the Naval War College called for a ‘1,000-ship-navy’ with vessels from all over the world operating together to keep the seas free from terrorists and criminals.

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