A week after Galrahn — mostly in passing — raised the question of whether there would someday be a replacement program for the Cyclone-class coastal patrol boats, the Naval Expeditionary Combat Command announced the award of a $30 million contract for the first of as many as 48 85-foot Mark VI-class patrol boats, slated for delivery in 2014. Less than half the length of the Cyclones, the Mark VIs are slated to replace even smaller craft with the Maritime Expeditionary Security Force (MESF), not the Cyclone PCs (five of which are forward deployed in Bahrain).
But as the MESF scales up, how does that change the middle, in-between space that exists between the forthcoming Mk VI boats and the two Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) configurations? The LCS program is well chronicled here, and that is not the question I hope to raise. The reality is that the Navy has 20 LCS hulls in the works, which will slowly overtake the remaining Oliver Hazard Perry frigates outfitted with the same 25mm Mk38 Mod 2s as the new Mk VIs. And as Galrahn points out, the remaining Cyclones — even with upgrades — are inching inexorably towards the end of their service lives without any programmed replacement.
Whatever the changes to the space between the Mk VIs and the LCS, the space in-between still seems pretty enormous. And it is a critical space, however the Department of the Navy decides to count it in terms of battle force ships. Global maritime traffic and the sea lanes the U.S. Navy is charged with guaranteeing continue to become more crowded and congested. Many of these essential waterways — the Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca — are neither appropriately nor efficiently covered by large, high-end surface combatants.
How much, on the one end of the spectrum, can the LCS cover — as it exists today, not as it was envisioned? And has doctrine and force structure planning caught up to this new reality? What additional capability does the Mk VI promise at the opposite end of the spectrum? As the U.S. Coast Guard once rode several of the Cyclone-class PCs hard to help manage gaps in coverage, should the Navy now be looking closely at the USCG’s new Sentinel class Fast Response Cutters? And as an institution, how does the Navy view this space? Is it appropriately incentivized as a career path? Does it dedicate enough resources to thinking about — much less managing — it?
Two reality checks. First: Iran’s ability to threaten safe passage through the Strait of Hormuz has been a clear and present danger for years now. As the War in Iraq began to deteriorate, Iranian aggressiveness mounted — and then the global economy began to struggle, only heightening Iran’s leverage by means of threatening the Strait. Yet only recently, was there a force posture shift in the Gulf. Right now, four additional Avenger-class mine countermeasures ships are enroute to Bahrain to reinforce the four already forward deployed there — as well as British and other allied minesweepers. Additional MCM helicopters and the USS Ponce (currently being converted) are not far behind. They join five Cyclone-class patrol boats. The only question to my mind is why now, and what took so long? Is this latent appreciation of the imperative to provide a compelling capability — compelling not on paper, or in pure military terms, but compelling to the commercial world — and the markets — to guarantee the Straits. And are there not more PCs enroute because we don’t need them or because the existing combination of aging ships and crews cannot support any more hulls deployed forward?
Second: when I think of the dirty work of patrol boats and minesweeping, I can’t help but think of the example of the U.S. Air Force’s irrepressible (and ongoing) disdain for the A-10 (which also, it turns out, have some utility in this space).
Are we good enough at this space? Are we ready for more serious challenges to international sea lanes in this space? And do we have the tools and dedicated personnel to persevere when called upon to do so?