Expeditionary Maritime Security Operations in the Littorals


In the immediate aftermath of military operations in a nation with significant coastal area, smuggling of weapons, fleeing militants and demonstration of presence are all important missions.

It’s a mission we’ve seen performed in Iraq after the initial 2003 invasion. And maritime security and presence operations are a key role for the Littoral Combat Ship.

Let’s take a look how the Coast Guard performed this mission in 1983-84 after the October 25, 1983 invasion to remove the Cuban installed Marxist government.

The U. S. Coast Guard was the logical service to fulfill these missions. As an armed service, it could deploy quickly and integrate fully into the joint command structure. As the nation’s seagoing police, it had developed great expertise in coastal surveillance and interdiction in the fight against illegal drug traffic. And its image as a humanitarian organization with a history of protecting lives and property at sea made its arrival less politically sensitive to both sender and recipient.

A squadron of four cutters, three 95-foot patrol craft (WPBs) and one support unit, was chosen. These were manned by a little more than 100 men and women. All four vessels were chosen from the Seventh Coast Guard District in Florida because of their proximity to the operating area and their familiarity with Caribbean waters, vessel types, and traffic patterns. The squadron commander was assigned from the Atlantic Area staff.

WPBs are seaworthy, fast, well armed, and small enough to steam along the coast, yet large enough to self-deploy across the Caribbean. Since their routine patrols include drug interdiction, law enforcement, and search and rescue missions, their 15-member crews are well versed in interception, boarding, searching, and seizing procedures. The WPBs chosen were the USCGC Cape Fox (WPB-95316), USCGC Cape Gull (WPB-95304), and USCGC Cape Shoalwater (WPB-95324).

Planning for the worst case, no support from ashore, a support cutter was included, in this case the USCGC Sagebrush (WLB-399). The 180-foot seagoing buoy tender (WLB) was an excellent choice. Designed and built more than 40 years ago to resupply offshore lighthouses, WLBs can carry a large amount of fuel, water, and provisions. Capabilities integral to a WLB not found in a WPB are a heavy lift cargo boom, a large forward cargo deck, a machine shop, welding facilities, and electronics repair.

Additional WPB support was included by embarking a special support team of senior enlisteds in supply, electronics, and engineering rates and WPB spare parts on the Sagebrush. This team was drawn on short notice from a WPB shoreside support group, an experimental concept at Coast Guard Base, Miami Beach. The group was part of a multi-crew, multi-hull program. Designed to exact the maximum underway time from hulls without exhausting crews, the program used three crews to man two hulls. The support group provided additional maintenance during the hull’s short in-port periods.

A squadron of three seaworthy patrol boats supported by a sizeable bouy-tender to extend their deployment time. Not a bad little concept of operations.

The article goes on to mention not only the successes of the operation, but some of the challenges and shortcomings as well, logistics and communications being the biggest, not surprisingly for a scratch team.

It wasn’t all that long ago that many types of US Navy deployments were supported by dedicated support ships –tenders- specifically charged to support the maintenance and logistics of forward deployed assets. While the Navy still has a handful of submarine tenders, in the past there were tenders for PT boats and other small craft, seaplanes, and even oceangoing combatants such as fleet destroyers.

Typically, a tender would be moored nearside or in an anchorage of a forward base.  Rather than spending time and money to build infrastructure forward, the Navy simply moved a ship into position. And as operating areas moved, so to did the tenders.

Not so today.  The LCS-1 Freedom is forward deployed to Singapore, where it is dependent upon a small team of US Navy personnel acting primarily as contracting agents for both US contractors (flying over as needed for specific taskings) and host nation facilities.

That’s all well and good in peacetime, but who is to say that Singapore might now bow to diplomatic pressure to deny port rights to US ships in a future incident?

Three  other geographic regions come to mind when we think of littoral regions that could benefit from US maritime security operations using less than major combatants.

First, the Caribbean. Long considered a “territorial sea” by the US Navy, it still today sees quite a bit of US naval activity, primarily in suppression of drug smuggling. But the dwindling numbers of low end frigate type combatants is making it harder and harder to support tasking there.  Other ships make occasional deployments there in support of US national interests, but generally as a break from the normal routine of deploying as a part of a Carrier Strike Group or Amphibious Ready Group.  The LCS is seen as likely to spend considerable time on the Caribbean station. The Coast Guard’s 154’ Sentinel class Fast Response Cutters are probably the smallest craft that could profitably be used in these operations, and Key West based cutters will likely do so.

Second, the Persian Gulf, specifically, the Straits of Hormuz. This is possibly the critical shipping chokepoint in the world. A large percentage of the world’s oil transits the Straits. Iran is on one shore, with the UAE on the other. Oman and Saudi Arabia also are close to the chokepoint. All three of the states on the southern shore have small combatants dedicated to patrolling the waters, but the US Navy has long had a presence in the region, and military operations such as Operation Praying Mantis have flared up from time to time.

A large part of the peacetime requirement for Maritime Security Operations is boarding and inspecting vessels, ranging from massive supertankers to tiny fishing boats.  While larger ships can dispatch a ship’s boat to do so, it makes little sense to tie up a billion dollar destroyer to haul around an 11m rubber boat.  Smaller patrol vessels (even something as small as the old 50’ PCF Swift boat) could profitably be used for such a mission, and supported easily by either shore assets or a very inexpensive tender as done in the cited article. Again, the Sentinel class cutter would be quite suitable.  Of course, in a shooting situation, small craft would have very limited utility, and would require greater support, but any shooting war there would call for a fairly large scale US Navy response anyway.

The third region that occurs to us is off the eastern coast of Africa, where piracy off the coast of Somalia has plagued shipping for the past decade. While an international coalition of nations has maintained a significant anti-piracy patrol in the region (with some fairly odd bedfellows- both the Chinese and Iranians have staged anti-piracy patrols there) and greatly suppressed recent pirate activity, there could be cheaper ways to do so. Again, something smaller than a tender supported squadron of Sentinel class probably wouldn’t work. And given the large area of concern, significant support in terms of land based patrol aircraft and ship-based helos are needed, but again, tying up billion dollar destroyers doesn’t seem terribly efficient.

The Coast Guard currently plans to buy 58 Sentinel class  cutters. An additional buy of 12-24 for the Navy to operate in choke points would hardly be a massive burden to the shipbuilding budget. Nor would the modest crews of the ships be an undue burden on the Navy.

As for a tender to support forward deployed assets?  Rather than building a ship from the keel up, the Navy could very easily buy any number of fairly large Platform Supply Vessels on the used market. These ships are sturdy, and already built to carry large volumes of liquid and dry cargo, often to include provisions and spare parts. Containerized workshops for limited repair facilities would be easy to provide.

The small political and infrastructure footprint of this scheme makes it more palatable for host nations to allow operations, and facilitates partnership operations with less developed nations. Further, such smaller craft have an inherent ability to support special operations warfare assets in inshore waters.

At very modest costs in money and manpower, the Navy could support important Maritime Security Operations in critical areas while freeing up expensive assets of the battleforce to focus on their primary warfighting missions.

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3 responses to “Expeditionary Maritime Security Operations in the Littorals

  1. Grog

    X, hope you won’t object to a correction.

    The sentence “The Coast Guard’s 123’ Sentinel class Fast Response Cutters are probably the smallest craft” is incorrect. The FRC are 154 feet. The 123 foot cutters were actually 110 foot Island class cutters that had 13 feet of hull extension installed. There were eight cutters that received this modification, all eight are now retired. The extension caused major hull stresses, and ultimately these modified cutters were deemed not seaworthy.

  2. This post highlights, once more, the lack of strategic thinking in the USN today. Balance requires, however, mentioning the fact that Operation Market Time off Vietnam required the use of USCG assets then as well. The Navy needs to obtain a fleet of what we used to call DEs to fulfill the role seen here, and the neglect of such things will hurt us tremendously in the future.

    I am convinced that the next war we see will not allow a build up as we have seen in the past. We will win/lose with what we have, and, increasingly, it looks like we will lose it. “Where there is no vision, the people perish….” Proverbs 29:18