Let’s just say the Navy isn’t a big fan of small ships. It would rather build big ships. Part of that might be empire building (it’s more prestigious to command a big ship than a little one) but most of it is that, overall, a bigger ship is more versatile than a smaller one.
But every generation or so, the Navy is reminded that it needs small ships for niche taskings. Such needs have given rise to the Ashville class gunboats, the Pegasus class hydrofoils, and the Cyclone class patrol boats (known as “PC’s for “Patrol, Coastal”).
Conceived in the late 1980s, and built in the early/mid 1990s, the Cyclones suffered the same fate as previous small ship classes. Production numbers were cut, Big Navy wasn’t terribly willing to support them either operationally or in terms of maintenance, and they quickly faded into the background. Not having any real idea what to use them for, the Navy even decommissioned some, and foisted them onto the Coast Guard. The Coasties, always desperate for hulls, took them, but they were hardly fans of them. Designed for a niche naval role, they were expensive and ill suited for Coast Guard missions.
Adapted from a foreign design, the Cyclone class PCs were originally intended to support SEAL team and other Naval Special Warfare operations, replacing earlier small craft. But at 170’ and some 300 tons, they proved to be a touch too large for that mission, and a touch too small for most others.
Orphaned, and programatically languishing, a funny thing happened on the way to being retired.
War with Iraq (and tensions today with Iran) called for a much greater than normal naval presence in the Persian Gulf. Obviously, carrier strike groups, amphibious groups, cruisers, and destroyers were sent to add raw combat power.
But a large part of what our Navy needed to do was far more mundane. Simply keeping track of the untold thousands of dhows and other small vessels of the Gulf and ensuring that they were not engaged in activities such as covert planting of naval mines, or ferrying arms and people to insurgent groups meant that many of these small vessels needed to be stopped, boarded, searched, and tracked. While a billion dollar destroyer can do this mission, it’s a bit of overkill. Many times, the small PC craft were perfectly suited for such a role. And so the Combatant Commander for CENTCOM asked for more. 5th Fleet, the Navy fleet responsible for the region, responded by forward basing several Cyclones, and rotating crews as needed. Unfortunately, the problem with swapping crews was one every landllord was familiar with-renters never care for a property as much as owners.
Further, by this time, the PCs, designed for a 15 year life, were getting long in the tooth. The original M38Mod1 25mm gun mount was not terribly accurate, nor, when exposed to the marine environment, terribly reliable. The ship’s small Rigid Hulled Inflatable Boat was difficult to deploy and recover via a crane. And the hulls and engines were tired and damaged from wear and tear.
But the demand from CENTCOM for PC support was such that the Navy has given them a new lease on life.
The ships loaned to the Coast Guard have been brought back into Navy service.* The four Paxman diesels that drive the PCs at up to 35 knots have been refurbished. The hulls have been repaired and overhauled.
Rather than rotating the crews to ships forward deployed, now the crews are forward deployed to Bahrain for a stabilized two year tour. Eventually, 10 of the class will be stationed in the Gulf. Three will remain stateside.
Additionally, improvements to the weapons systems are underway. The forward Mk38 is scheduled to be replaced with a Mk51 gun mount, using a navalized version of the M230 30mm gun from the AH-64 Apache helicopter. The MAWS universal mount may also be used to mount one of several short range guided missile systems to further enhance the PCs combat capability.
The ship class intended to replace the Cyclones, the LCS, has grown to a bloated monstrosity, and so the PCs will likely have to serve considerably longer than anyone had ever anticipated.
Here’s a presentation on the updated Mk51 gun mount.
The Mk51 in action.
And here’s the USS Sirocco (PC-6) on patrol in the Gulf.
*One ship was given to the Philippines, and remains in service with them.