An announcement in that the M-80 Stiletto is returning to the Caribbean will, naturally, induce another round of “cool ship boosterism” in the milblogosphere. The Stiletto, a hi-tech platform, built by the M-Ship Company, made for ecstatic headlines last year, chasing a drug smuggler through shallow waters.

Time to temper that blogosphere enthusiasm.

Why? We’ve been here before. Anybody remember the Sea Bird Cutters (WSES-2)? Or the Pegasus Class Hydrofoil (PHM-1)? Outside of a small group of naval-gazing aficionados, you probably don’t. They’re all innovative vessels, a collection of strategic oddballs, doctrinal misfits and Big Navy orphans that ended their careers after a sunny Caribbean exile.

I’m hard-pressed to recall a single ship class/tech demonstrator that, once based or made “at home” in the Caribbean, made it out alive.

The Sea Bird Class is an interesting example. Built as oil rig crew boats, the 105 ton (lite) Dorado (WSES-1), Sea Hawk (WSES-2), Shearwater (WSES-3), and Petrel (WSES-4) were pressed into Coast Guard service for a Stiletto-like mission: Fast interdiction in shallow waters (Calling Eagle1!). A surface-effects ship (a 5 foot draft on cushion, 8 feet off), they were, just like Stiletto, an innovative hull form. And, like Stiletto, the vessels had teething problems. The Sea Birds suffered vibration issues, were slow, overweight, had maintenance issues and were pricey to operate. After 10 years, they were sent to layup in 1994, never to be seen again…unless you consider these to be a foundation for Norway’s Skjold Class Patrol Craft.

Love ’em or hate ’em, these ships got the job done. Here’s a bit from Petrel’s history:

“Petrel is one of the most decorated patrol boats in the Coast Guard with forty three drug busts to her credit (more than any other patrol boat in commissioned service)…In addition to her extensive work in drug law enforcement, Petrel has made some dramatic rescues at sea: most recently the sailing vessel Tampawitha which was disabled off the coast of Cuba in 22 foot seas and 55 knots winds…Petrel was also recognized for her humanitarian efforts involving the steady flow of Cuban refugees and the mass exodus of Haitian migrants…”

Not bad for a five million dollar platform! But they didn’t take. So, no matter how glowing the headlines, don’t bet the house on Stiletto.

But, that said, don’t give up hope, either. With the region now under the close supervision of a Combat Command, SOUTHCOM, the Caribbean may, one hopes, become a sort of Skunk Works for new naval platforms and tactics, rather than a nice, out-of-the-way place to park some otherwise unwanted, career-damaging strategic afterthoughts. So buck up, tech lovers! Stiletto may yet buck the trend. (Photos: US Coast Guard)


Posted by Defense Springboard in Coast Guard, Navy, Tactics

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  • Bill

    Uh oh. Now you have really gone and done it. I will be forced to lurk and comment on this post until…oh, say 2014?

    My direct personal involvement in the WSES and RNoN ‘Skjold’ and every craft that came between if it had air under it demands it. 😉

    Seriously, its good to see a little ‘positive’ press about the WSES and what they accomplished (here’s raising yet another beer with ye, Lt. CHandler, USCG. The converted crew boats proved their mettle.

  • What spurred the Coast Guard to take these platfoms? It seemed like the transition was pretty fast–taking three vessels in no time at all.

    We’d spend more time today just…dithering.

  • sid

    We’d spend more time today just…dithering.

    Yeah, but today we have really cool Powerpoints…

  • Bill

    DS asked: “What spurred the Coast Guard to take these platfoms? It seemed like the transition was pretty fast–taking three vessels in no time at all.”

    The answer to that is very complicated and potically charged as well. At the operational level, a mission was defined in the drug war that needed to be met quickly. On the political level, the Bell (Johnny Chaplin and co.) WSES BH-110 design was an offshoot of the cancelled USN 3KSES programs of which Bell had already lost out anyway to Rohr. Bell maneuvered to have a bone thrown at them. But that said, the WSES vessels were dirt simple and hardly ‘Inovative Naval Platforms’ by any stretch..except to those whose only past experience was in the operation of conventional monohulls. I should also mention that the official line about ‘maintenance’ problems was total BS and part of the crafted justification for their early retirement. In fact, only a year or so earlier, the WSES class vessels had been internally documented as having some of the highest availability numbers in the entire USCG fleet.

    I’m afraid I’m just getting started on this subject..

  • Bill

    While I am in a feisty mood at the moment…my opinion of the Stilleto and how it came to be at all does not make for pleasant reading. I might have to quote other AMV greybeards too…Nat, you reading any of this?

  • Let’s hear it! Let fly!

  • leesea

    Bill I too have reservations about the M80 which was built as an SOF ocean transport not an attack or patrol craft. The fact that no martime service is operating it shows how little support it has. Not seakindly and not well outfitted, sealegs questionable.

    Let’s not forget that other HSVs have been sent to the Carib? The HSV2 Swift (time chartered by MSC) is operating as a small GFS testbed platform down south now. Personally I have my doubts that anyone needs high speed for what is essentially a school ship mission. But I guess the Navy sees it as cheap asset?

    Also the USCG had plans to send Fast Deployable Boats FDB on an MSC ship down south. The boats were Fountain cigarettes I think launched from davits on a T-AGOS mothership.

    I am really happy to hear someone tell the truth about the WSES! I thought they were better than their press said? Presumably the Sentinels will perform same anti-drug missions better?

  • Big D

    I always wondered why SES never took root… it always seemed to be a better solution than foils or trying to push a non-nuke monohull past 40kts.

  • Bill

    Why the SES didn’t ‘take root’? Too many failed roots to simplify the answer to that one. Here are a few examples of the horticultural failures:

    1. The ‘big’ 80-knot SES frigate program that started it was pretty clearly an expensive solution in search of a mission by the time it was mercifully cancelled by Jimminy Carter. But the platform clearly had potential..

    2. The Cardinal SES minesweeper SES design was botched and the risk-averse in NAVSEA scattered like cockroaches when the lights go on when a test section ‘failed’ a routine shock test…but the Norwegians got it right and theirs perform superbly and are their only mine-warfare platform, one that makes any the USN NAvy owns look downright silly when comparing performance parameters.

    3. Several failed attempts to use the SES for FAC designs in the USN were sunk by the weight of combined we techies went off and assisted the Norgies in the design and build of ‘Skjold’…a superlative vessel in all respects and whose proven performance gives me license to say ‘neener neener’ to the USN.

    4. The WSES were overloaded in their USCG configuration and thus performance suffered. However, their performance still spoke for itself and there was keen interestin some quarters of the USCG to go ahead and develop an SES cutter that was truly designed and built for the mission. Alas, their unique logistic train and some congressional intervention by way of forcing some ‘extra’ Bollinger cutters on USCG when they did not ask for them meant that the SES cutters had to go. They were practically given away too…

    5. There were two SES variants in the original mix competing for LCS. Of all the competing types, only those two variants could easily achieve the 50 knots without 250 zigawatt ion-fusion hyper drives. OF course, neither was chosen in the final down-select. Cebrowski was speed really didn’t matter any more after all and whether it ever did is still a source of ‘some disagreement’ ;-).

    oh..and foils?..I love foils. You haven’t gone fast happy on the sea until you have done it on a hydrofoil. But they have a problem hitting things…and then bad things happen.

  • These are great comments…If I may, Bill, what’s your background? How did you become the air-cushioned blog-crawler?

  • Bill

    Designing, building and testing advanced ships and craft has been my career for about 25 years. (‘advanced’ is what we also use to describe/include ‘oddball’, ‘unworkable’, ‘Newtonianly Challenged’..;-)) Surface-effect ships were far and away the biggest part of that. I’ve personalyly commissioned 35 of them around the world over that 25 years, helped design gawd knows how many now, and the ‘Skjold’ was the culmination of all that experience (with a superb and experienced team supporting me, of course). Being ‘in the trenches’ like that gives one a little perspective that is usefull for sorting the BS from the NA as I sit back and watch the USN chase its tail.

  • You know, if you can cram some of that wisdom you’ve accumulated over the years into 2500 words, I bet you’d have one heck of a Proceedings article.

  • Bill

    I wrote a Point Paper on the subject about 7 or 8 years ago. It was specifically intended to enlighten the reader, from my humble perspective of course, as to the ‘hows and whys’ surrounding the visibly successful Norwegian navy advanced ship programs and the stark comparison between those and our own dismal record here. I wrote it because I got tired of attending various meetings with USN civilian and active-duty personell with shiny metal bits on the uniforms and hearing over and over the “how the heck they [RNoN] do dat?” question posed in so many forms. The technology employed was developed right here in the good ole USA, fer cryin out loud, by what was then a capable and savvy bunch of USN civilian engineers who had sufficient license, direction and funding to take risk, innovate, and ‘git r dun’.

    My point paper ended up being widely ditributed. However, it was a bit too ‘pointed’ and opinionated to be acceptable fodder for the usual journals. 😉 If I can find a way to temper my cynicism down a few decibels, maybe I’ll try again.

  • Big D

    I, for one, would love to see both.

  • Me too! If you’ve got something you don’t mind an icky, no-account blogger seeing, you can find my email contact in my profile over at my home blog. Shoot something over!

  • Bill


    Being the keenly insightfull fella that I am (my ex does not get a vote on that) I figured you might want to read it..I emailed it to you yesterday.

  • Ach…Spamfilters are the bane of my…got it. Email inbound.

  • Big D

    So, what about the rest of us? Can we get it as a guest post? 🙂

  • Bill

    What is a guest post when it comes to attaching PDF files? Wait one..if I can figure out how to post it on our website, then maybe I can figger out how to link it too. (I’m old ..this interwebs stuff defeats me routinely).

  • I can pass it on to Big D, if ya’ll approve.

  • Bill

    Anything I forward to anyone is then fair game for forwarding onward..or comment/criticism back at me too, for that matter. In addition to my own indaequate prose, I get my mitts on some interesting stuff from time to time via ‘truly awesome powerpoint presentations’ [sarcasm intended] that I will thow out there if the info is not restricted in distribution in any way and I think it relevant to a topic at hand.

  • Mac

    Well, Interesting blog this should be for we lucky few that may stumble upon it. I was on the out fitting crew of the uscgc seahawk in 1982 and commissioned her that same year. The wses division back in those days where multi-crew (blue,gold,green and i`ll be damned to recall the fourth brown maybe}Anyway I rode her the shearwater and petrel for 3 years. I really don`t think any one sailor has more actual sea time then your humble poster. This thread should be fun to watch.

  • Ralph B.

    I only worked with the SES program for two years but loved every part of it. I was called a Mechanical Engineering Technician. Of particular interest in the photo of the WSES craft (seen above) is my favorite ship the SES-200! It is gray and does not have the WSES stacks. The ship was an WSES that had a 50 ft plug added amidship. That is the boat I worked on the most for those very enjoyable two years. I even have a 1/40 scale working model of the SES-200.

    I worked with a Bill on the program… maybe it is the noteworthy and knowledable one posting all the great comments.

  • Denton-Kerr

    Mac – the other color was RED. I was a SN on both the RED crew (LT Justice) and the BLUE crew (Bosin) and have been looking for others who were there in the mid 80s. I was there during the 1984.1985 span and went to the shipyards in Wando, SC for the retrofit of the Seahawk (I think it was Seahawk … I know it wasn’t Petrel) with the RED crew. My email is if there is anyone out there who would like to chat about the SES DIV gimme a holler! I’d love to hear from anyone else who was there.

  • Nice post,
    Thanks for the effort you took to expand upon this topic so thoroughly. I look forward to future posts.

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  • B.Smitty

    Hey Bill,

    Any chance you could forward that PDF on to me too?


  • Mark S

    I was the type desk manager for the WSES class for their last years. We did some great work in eliminating maintenance problems and reducing the weight (and therefore load) on the cutters. They were extremely versatile platforms and I was sad to see them go. Their decommissioning had nothing to do with the Island Class patrol boats. They were decommed due to the budget crunch that the government was under (similar to now). The folks I worked with in Key West keeping these boats running were all top notch. That was a high point in my Coast Guard career (still ongoing).