The United States Navy has traditionally shunned smaller ships. It has also traditionally found them pretty handy in every war. Let’s take a look at the smallest named combatants in the current inventory, the Cyclone class PCs.
The Cyclone class PCs, or Patrol Coastal, were originally intended to support SEAL teams, replacing the early PB MkIII class 65’ patrol boats. To speed procurement, an existing design sold to foreign navies was adapted to US standards.
The PC is 179’ long, has a beam of 25’, displaces 331 tons, and has a speed of up to 35 knots. Powered by four Paxman diesel engines, at a 12 knot cruising speed, they have an endurance of about 2000 nautical miles. The crew of five officers and 24 enlisted man an armament of two Mk 38Mod2 stabilized 25mm guns, and a collection of various other smaller machine guns, such as M2 .50cal and M240 7.62mm guns. There is currently a program to provide the PCs with the BGM-176 Griffin missile for a more robust anti-surface capability.
The 14 ships of the class were commissioned between 1993 and 1996. Unfortunately, even before deliveries were complete, it became apparent they were rather poorly suited to their intended special warfare role. And as noted, the Navy traditionally shuns smaller ships. And so, by 2000, the US was already looking to divest itself from the PC program. The lead ship of the class, PC-1 Cyclone,* was decommissioned, and transferred to the US Coast Guard. Three additional ships were also transferred. Cyclone herself was subsequently transferred to the Philippine Navy.
The Coast Guard was not thrilled with the poor endurance and high fuel consumption of the ships, but given how few ships they had, they took what they could get.
In the meantime, after the attacks of 9/11, and especially the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the US Navy found itself ever more concerned with maritime security operations in the Arabian Gulf (or Persian Gulf). Much of that consisted of providing security to Iraqi oil facilities in the gulf. In addition, interdicting smuggling, providing force protection for friendly forces, and simply keeping an eye on shipping in the region were critical tasks. And when it comes to tasks like that, a single ship, no matter the type, can only cover a relatively small geographic footprint. That is to say, numbers matter more than combat power. And while we have a large navy, it would be impossible to deploy sufficient cruisers, destroyers and frigates to the region to effectively fulfill those mission.
And so the Navy soon found the PC as quite valuable in these missions. The three ships still with the Coast Guard were transferred back to the US Navy and placed back into commission. And rather than deploying the ships for six to nine months in the region, followed by a lengthy transit back to the US, the Navy decided to permanently base the ships in the Gulf, and simply rotate crews on a scheduled basis. Right now, 10 of the 13 ships are stationed in the Gulf. The remaining three are supporting (similar) operations in the Caribbean while based out of Mayport, FL.
In spite of being in very high demand in the Gulf, the PC community is still something of the red-headed stepchild of the Surface Warfare navy. Naval Special Warfare has pretty much given up on them, and Surface Warfare is focused far more on the DDG-51 Burke and getting the LCS program to resemble something like a useful asset. The ships have gone through an extensive rehabilitation, but they were designed for a service life of 15 years, and rehab can only stretch that for so long.
There are limitations to the ships as well. To steal a comment from a piece over at CDR Salamander’s :
We also need to remain cognizant of all that is wrong with what is small.
-Vulnerability. Small surface craft have historically proven to be extremely vulnerable to attack from the air. Employing them prior to gaining aerial supremacy could have costly consequences. Due to their limited size, single hits from most current air- and surface-launched missiles would be a mission kill and likely kill or wound a significant percentage of the crew. Recoverability and damage control suffer due to small crew size and limited space and weight for DC equippage.
-Limited Payload. Size constraints limit magazine capacity. Stability issues when mounting things like ASCMs topside. A robust logistics train needs to be established to keep them properly armed in the even hostilities break out.
-Endurance. This is a killer. It dramatically increases the footprint we would need to effectively operate. In lieu of that, some sort of tender would need to be developed. Again, logistics train into theatre issues.
That’s all very true. Unfortunately, the commenter urges a much larger replacement, in the corvette sized category. Which bumps up against the LCS program. The Navy simply won’t look at anything that close in size.
And further understand, these PCs are incredibly vulnerable to any but the most modest threats at sea. Against any other real warship, they are facing near certain destruction. But that is the whole point. The PC, as used today, is intended to release expensive warships for those missions that need a warship. The PC is relegated to far less risky, but still necessary missions. And it does those mission as a much, much lower cost, in terms of ship cost, operating cost, and in manpower needed to crew the ships.
Matthew Hipple, who usually writes at CIMSEC, teamed up with some fellow PC community officers to pen a piece in USNI’s Proceedings magazine to sing the praises of the PC:
PC capabilities come with comparatively low costs in manning, resource consumption, and payload. The footprint in personnel and resources is minimal. In raw numbers, a guided-missile destroyer (DDG) is crewed by enough sailors to man ten PCs—a second Forward-Deployed Naval Forces (FDNF) PC fleet. For a year’s regular operation, the FDNF PC fleet uses less fuel than a deployed DDG under way for two months. Additionally, PCs need no tugs, no cranes, and only minimal line handlers for entering port. These austere characteristics are ideal for commanders seeking operational and engagement opportunities.
The PC’s payload also makes it comparatively advantageous for some operations and engagement. Beyond merely “being there,” presence is observing the pattern of life and engaging local forces. Day-to-day observation, security, and engagement do not require platforms with Tomahawks or a well deck. From South America to the South Pacific, PC-type vessels are the preferred option for the regular business of maritime security. In this light, a guided-missile cruiser or DDG might not be only an over-application of resources for engagement but also less compatible. For a small footprint, PCs are an unobtrusive and complementary member of the local civilian and military maritime community.
One of the issues facing the PC community is that, as noted, the ships are getting old. And the Navy has no Program of Record for replacing them. In the comments at CDR Salamander’s, as always when discussing ship programs, there are a ton of suggestions for what the “perfect” PC replacement program should be. The problem is, all the nice stuff most folks want costs a lot of money. Every time you add a capability to a ship, be it a weapon, a sensor, additional manpower, speed, endurance, it adds to the size and cost of the ship. And as you drive up the cost of the ship, you both reduce the numbers of ships you can possibly buy for a given slice of the shipbuilding budget, and you inexorably increase pressure to add even further capabilities to a ship. After all, if you’re going to build a ship n sized, should it also include x system, just like every other ship class that size? Pretty soon, you find yourself going from a 300 ton patrol ship, to a 2500 ton corvette, and suddenly, you start to grasp how the Navy ended up with the half billion dollar LCS.
My own preference would be to see a virtual repeat build of the current Cyclone class. Failing that, I’d actually accept a considerable step down in capability, and buy 25 or so of the Coast Guard’s new Sentinel class patrol boats.
*All ships in the class received wind themed names.