Big ships — aircraft carriers, destroyers, submarines — get all the glory, but it is the Navy’s smallest vessels that could prove pivotal in future conflicts.
Navy leaders have placed emphasis on launching smaller, inexpensive systems with multiple capabilities from larger ships. The service’s enthusiastic support for the Littoral Combat Ship and the introduction of the Mobile Landing Platform underscore the reliance on the “secondary systems” they carry. Both vessels are designed as “platforms for platforms,” from which unmanned systems and smaller vessels can be staged and launched, as former Undersecretary of the Navy Robert O. Work has repeatedly stated.
While small-boat manufacturers are not immune to downturns in military spending, they are better insulated from it. Because they build non-military specific vessels — and ones that do not necessarily require complicated construction on the level of a large surface vessel — they can diversify more quickly. They also have access to foreign and commercial markets that manufacturers of warships are often barred from tapping.
“I wouldn’t say that we’re totally insulated from the budget crisis,” Dean Jones, national sales manager for Metal Shark Aluminum Boats, told National Defense. “In any market, boats are inherently expensive because of what they have to do and the difficulty of building them to exact specifications. But we’re cautiously optimistic that the small-boat Navy, at least, will not be as hard hit. We, and companies like us, offer a product that is unique in its purpose and capabilities, but that doesn’t necessarily shelter us.”
Metal Shark provides two of the Navy’s small patrol craft. The 27-foot Defiant is used as a force-protection vessel in foreign and domestic waters. Jones likened the patrol craft’s job to preventing attacks like the one in 2000 that ripped a hole in the USS Cole in Yemen and killed 17 sailors. There are about 20 of the small boats in service.
“Two guys in a johnboat with a bomb managed to nearly destroy the Cole,” Jones said. “That is exactly what these boats are designed to do: protect the large, high-value ships when they are in port and unable to mount a defense of their own.”
Like tactical trucks, small boats are also riding a wave of policy change that has swept special operations to the forefront of U.S. military strategy.
The Navy needs smaller, more affordable, “better” platforms, Work said at the National Defense Industrial Association’s 2012 Expeditionary Warfare conference.
“People say it isn’t a small-boat Navy,” he said. “Yes it is. The coastal, riverine forces operate an enormous amount of small craft.”
The expansion of the small-boat Navy will augment the service by providing larger ships a way to patrol and police shallower waters and rivers inland. They also can feed information to the fleet and operate in littorals within reach of missiles that could threaten large vessels.
“Think of the force as a total battle network of capabilities,” Work said. “Consider everything a sensor. We need to launch more secondary systems off the platform either autonomously or semi-autonomously to affect better operations over range.”
That force, as Work, other Navy officials and the Obama administration have insisted, will remain deployed on a global scale. But capabilities must be added to the existing fleet without expensive new development programs and with the understanding that new platforms are unlikely to succeed, at least in the short term, Work said.
While big-ticket procurement programs grapple with heavy cuts to their bottom lines, several small-boat purchases continue at a brisk pace.
SAFE Boats International was recently awarded a $30.5 million contract to build a new class of coastal patrol boats for the Navy’s Expeditionary Combat Command. The award is for an initial run of five boats. If the Navy decides to buy a sixth vessel, the company will net another $6 million. The Navy plans to eventually purchase 48 boats.
Designated by the Navy as the Mark VI patrol boat, the vessel is a version of SAFE Boats’ 78-foot Archangel patrol boat. The boat will lengthen the reach of the Navy’s coastal patrol fleet by replacing the smaller 68-foot Mark IV and 34-foot Sea Ark vessels.
The first Mark VI is scheduled for delivery in 2014.
Powered by twin diesel engines and water jets, the Mark VI can run at 30 knots with a full load and can be armed with up to 25mm weapons. The vessel has a range in excess of 600 nautical miles and the ability to burn both marine-grade diesel fuel and JP-5, according to company information.
The pilothouse is equipped with shock mitigating seating that features integrated work stations for the crew. The cabin can be rearranged depending on its intended role. Seats can be added for a larger crew or configured to allow for control of unmanned systems. It can also house a temporary medical triage area.
The combatant craft-medium (CCM), or Mark 1, is another upcoming small-boat procurement program. The CCM program is seen as the replacement for the 36-foot Naval Special Warfare rigid-hull inflatable boats.
Two companies — Gulfport, Miss.-based United States Marine Inc. and Clackamas, Ore.-based Oregon Iron Works Inc. — won contracts to build versions of the Mark I in September 2011.
The military is in the process of evaluating the company’s designs and a final downselect is scheduled for this calendar year. The Navy eventually will buy 30 craft by 2021. The program is a resurrection of a previous attempt to replace the Navy’s RHIBs that was stymied by mobility requirements. The new vessel has no airdrop requirement and will fit inside a C-17 or larger aircraft, according to the solicitation.
Though there is no program of record yet, the Navy has plans to replace its Mark V special warfare craft with the so-called combatant craft-heavy. The Navy has 20 Mark Vs, which will be replaced as they rotate back from overseas deployments, Work said.
Naval special warfare also operates two SEALIONs — SEAL insertion, observation, neutralization boats. At 71 feet long, the aluminum craft is 11 feet shorter than the Mark V, so it fits on to a C-17 Globemaster. The Mark V requires a C-5 Galaxy, which is larger and needs a longer runway to take off.
Small boat manufacturers have the advantage of diversification — they can scale their designs and produce myriad configurations depending on the exact specifications of the client.
Metal Shark has a varied catalog ranging from 16 feet to 80 feet, each of which can be customized to meet the needs of any of the armed services, Jones said. The Coast Guard uses eight of its designs, has a total of more than 1,000 Metal Shark boats and is continuing work on a $192 million contract to replace the service’s response boat-small. As many as 470 vessels could eventually be delivered with another 30 built for Customs and Border Protection.
SAFE Boats also is in the Coast Guard market. The company builds that service’s 25-foot response boat-small and 33-foot special purpose craft-law enforcement.
Metal Shark provided the Army with 54 boats during the Iraq War and builds small security vessels for the Air Force. In 2011, its 38-foot Defiant was chosen as the Navy’s force protection boat-large training platform. The vessels are used to train force protection sailors at the Navy’s Little Creek Training Center in Virginia.
The shorter 27-foot Defiant, designated as the force protection boat-small, performs border patrol, harbor protection and coastal patrol in overseas installations where the Navy has large concentrated assets, Jones said. In addition to providing defense for large ships, it also pilots them in and out of harbors. The Navy has 19 of the them stationed in Bahrain.
Even at its size, the 27 Defiant is stable enough to carry weapons up to .50 caliber. It has berths and a head for its crew, allowing for long-range patrols and other missions. An air-conditioned cabin is an added luxury. It fits inside a C-130 and is, therefore, deployable worldwide.
While the U.S. military market remains uncertain at best, international demand for smaller boats is growing. Jones said overseas business has doubled every year and continues on that trajectory. The company generally goes through the State Department’s foreign military sales process, but not always. Because the boats are not inherently military vessels, rules regarding selling weapons to other countries do not always apply. He likened most foreign transactions to selling Humvees to allied or non-embargoed nations.
That opens up opportunity for diversification that, say, tank manufacturers can’t access, he said.
“There are a lot fewer restrictions on the commercial international market,” he said. “We can sell a government a boat without a gun, but we can’t stop them from putting a gun on it, making it a weapon of war. So in that case its better to go through FMS.”
Metal Shark can churn out a boat every 15 days once it gets geared up to do a production run of 15 units, Jones said. A single specialized vessel, like the ones they make for law-enforcement agencies, can take between 120 and 180 days. They run between $250,000 to $350,000 per copy, relatively affordable for a Navy that rarely deals in thousands of dollars.
The company also performs all of its own systems integration, which keeps costs down. Start to finish, the engineering, parts, systems and construction happen at the company’s Jeanerette, La., facility.
The company has made so many boats for the Navy that it has become its primary and preferred customer, Jones said.
“We’re used to it because we’ve done so many,” he said. “Building to Navy specifications is just another piece of the puzzle that completes the boat. It obviously takes more work, and it’s more cost than building a boat for a fishing company or a sheriff’s department. But sometimes boats with Navy requirements are easier to build than a one-off because they order more of them.”Photo Credit: SAFE Boats International