Coastal Patrol Boats Boost Naval Presence

By Edward Lundquist
A little more than a decade ago, the U.S. Navy’s coastal patrol boats were destined to be decommissioned. But after 9/11, the Navy came to realize that the small PCs could fill a big gap. Today, the Navy operates 13.

Designed to support special operations teams, the lead ship of the class, USS Cyclone (PC 1) was commissioned in 1993, and the last of the 14 ships, USS Tornado (PC 14) joined the fleet in 2000.  

When the Navy decided there wasn’t a mission for PCs and was going to divest them, five were loaned to the Coast Guard. One of those five was subsequently transferred to the Philippines. But as the need for a small patrol ship became obvious, the Navy asked for the Coast Guard to return the PCs, and no more PCs were made available for foreign transfer.

Today they are busier than ever, with 10 forward deployed with the U.S. Fifth Fleet in the Arabian Gulf providing coastal patrol, surveillance and interdiction, escort of larger ships, protection to maritime infrastructure and participation in exercises with allies and regional partners.

“This class of ship is ideal for working in this area,” said Capt. Brendan McLane, commander of Destroyer Squadron 50. “They greatly increase our ability for continued maritime security operations and theater security cooperation in Fifth Fleet.”

U.S.-based crews used to rotate to PCs stationed in the Gulf.  Now all the ships have permanent crews, and families can accompany sailors to Bahrain.
Under the rotational crew model, there were five PCs stationed in Bahrain, operating in the Fifth Fleet, and eight were stationed at the Little Creek Amphibious Base in Norfolk for training, with 13 crews rotating between them on six-month deployments. Now, under the permanent crew model, the training platforms are no longer needed, so three Norfolk-based PCs moved to Mayport, Florida. Today there are 10 PCs stationed in Bahrain manned by 10 crews. More than $13.8 million in costs associated with rotating crews are projected to be saved every year.

“The well-being of our sailors and families is critical to the accomplishment of our missions and this shift to permanent crews has improved that,” said McLane.

According to McLane, the small PCs have a large impact on overall surface combatant posture in the Fifth Fleet area of responsibility.

“The PCs comprise 22 percent of the surface fleet out here,” said McLane. The ships are in the northern, southern and central portions of the Arabian Gulf, and they are doing the majority of the interactions with mariners, he said. “A lot of the interactions are winning the hearts and minds from the standpoint of reaching out to the mariners, mainly the dhows and the fishermen. The PCs interact with them, ask them how they’re doing and see what’s going on. They’re used to seeing the PCs. They call us when they need to and they know that there’s a safe place not too far away.”  

McLane said 179-foot long PCs also work for coalition task forces — both CTF 150 and CTF 152. “We have two of them in CTF 152 right now who work for a Saudi commodore who commands the task force. The Arabian Gulf is their backyard. So they’re able to give us a perspective that we didn’t have before when I was the acting commander.”  

The 380-ton PCs have a crew of four officers and 25 enlisted, and can achieve speeds of 35 knots.

PCs are much closer in size to the partner navies in the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes most of the nations in the Arabian Gulf — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman. “The PC is really a right size of ship, and the right height of eye, if you will, to be on an equal playing field with our partners here in the GCC, but also the mariners, as well. When you have the master of a dhow and he’s talking with the CO on a PC, and they’re on equal level, it has a whole different effect that someone on a DDG bridge wing with 45-foot height of eye talking down to him.”

McLane said having additional PCs in theater means he can have more ships in more places at the same time. “It’s about presence, and being afloat and being where things happen, whether it’s safety of life at sea — invariably, two or three times a month we will get a call where a mariner is in distress and our ship is right there — so it’s rescue and assistance, it’s providing water, providing medical when called upon and just to make sure that we’re viewed as friends and neighbors out here.”  

The PCs pack a disproportionate punch for a ship their size, said McLane.
The manned 25 mm Bushmasters have been replaced with the remotely operated, stabilized version of the Mk 38 25 mm gun. There are also .50 caliber machine guns that can be mounted. And PCs are being fitted with a rudimentary but effective Griffin surface–to-surface missile to defend against small boat attacks, considered to be a big threat in the Gulf.  

“The Griffin missile system is something that is new to us. It’s adapted from an air-launched weapon. We’ve put it to maritime use and now PCs have a quick point defense capability,” McLane said.

Griffin has been around since 2008 as an air-launched weapon that could engage targets on the ground from aircraft not normally having such a capability, like a C-130 Hercules.

Five of the Navy’s 10 forward deployed PCs operating from Bahrain have Griffin, and the others will have it installed this year. The missiles are carried in fixed launchers which carry four containerized missiles and are mounted amidships in pairs facing to each side. Griffin is a laser-guided weapon, which receives target imagery from the Bright Star electro-optical infrared camera sensor mounted on the mast, locks onto a target, lases it and then initiates the firing sequence.

McLane said he has two PCs — Squall and Hurricane — that can launch, operate and recover an unmanned aerial vehicle while underway. “We have the capability to get a real-time, full-motion video feed from them. I can watch exactly what the two ships are doing, sitting back here in Bahrain in our ops center and get a good situational awareness and understanding of what’s going on out there as it happens,” McLane said.  

McLane previously commanded an Arleigh Burke-class DDG guided missile destroyer. “I’ve got 280 people on the 10 PCs if they’re fully manned. My DDG had 300. So, again, I’ve got 10 ships doing things with less people than I had on one DDG.”

Serving alongside the PCs in the same role are six U.S. Coast Guard Island-class 110-foot patrol boats.  

Like the PCs, they are highly maneuverable and able to operate in shallow waters. And, like the PCs, they have a small crew — three officers and 19 enlisted.

Lt. Cmdr. Mitch McGuffie, commanding officer of USS Firebolt (PC 10), said the mission is exciting. “We primarily support operations in the Arabian Gulf, and spend a majority of our time conducting maritime security operations, such as boardings and ‘approach and assist’ visits around the Gulf. We also conduct a large number of training exercises with our Gulf partners. I have worked with just about every country in the Gulf over the past 11 months in command.”

McGuffie said the 25 to 28 sailors assigned to a PC are “hands down the most dedicated and hardworking sailors in the Navy and what keeps them going is the camaraderie.”

The small size and crew of the PCs means there isn’t room for spare parts or supplies, or people to do much maintenance or repairs. That work falls to the squadron’s engineering readiness department and a combat systems readiness department to supplement the ship-level maintenance requirements with the ship’s crew to meet all requirements.

More significant maintenance is contracted to commercial shipyards in the region by the Forward Deployed Regional Maintenance Center in Bahrain.  

In the Fourth Fleet, PCs also are in demand. Capt. John Zuzich, U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command, U.S. Fourth Fleet future operations director, said the PCs primary mission will be interdicting narcotics being trafficked through the Western Caribbean Sea and Eastern Pacific Ocean. U.S. Coast Guard law enforcement detachments will be embarked on the PCs. “Navy planners are looking at forward deploying the PCs from Naval Station Guantanamo Bay or San Andres Island. Additionally, the planned use of one of the U.S. Navy’s unmanned aerial systems would further increase the PCs interdiction capabilities.”

The PCs will also be employed in theater security operations. “The PC platform is the most similar U.S. Navy platform to the patrol craft many of our partner nations operate. This will make joint operations and training possible including embarking foreign shipriders, joint patrolling and participation in international exercises like Tradewinds,” Zuzich said. “Additionally, PCs require more fueling and resupply stops allowing for smaller engagements during foreign ports visits.”  

Zuzich said the PCs size and draft are an advantage in terms of speed, stealth and logistics. “The PCs speed and size make it able to conduct interdiction operations from the vessel themselves, as demonstrated by the Coast Guard when they operated the platforms from 2003-2011. The size and relatively low height of eye makes them harder to detect by potential traffickers. Finally, the size and draft allows them to use ports that are off limits to larger Navy vessels due to draft or pier space restrictions.”

Topics: Shipbuilding

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