Navy’s Tiniest Warships Could Lead Assault on Iran
Cyclone-class Coastal Patrol Ship USS Firebolt (PC 10) steams ahead during an exercise in the Arabian Gulf. Navy photo.
If the U.S. Navy goes to war against Iran, its tiniest ships could play the biggest role. Diminutive minesweepers and coastal patrol boats are being upgraded, rearmed and pushed to the maritime front line in the Persian Gulf. Which is kind of ironic: the bigger-is-better Navy has been trying to get rid of the warships for years.
Small ships have never really been the Navy’s thing. Tasked with deploying all over the world, far from its U.S. shipyards, the Navy prefers big vessels capable of carrying lots of fuel and supplies and taking a beating on long ocean crossings. The average size of an American destroyer has more than doubled since the early 1990s, now tipping the scales at 9,000 tons displacement.
But small ships have an edge in certain situations. For one, they can safely sail in shallow waters and get closer to an enemy’s coastline. These advantages didn’t stop the Navy from planning to replace a few dozen patrol boats and minesweepers, each weighing in at just 1,000 tons, Littoral Combat Ships that were three times the weight. Over the years the Navy gave away several of its patrol boats to The Philippines and the Coast Guard. In 2006 and 2007 the sailing branch decommissioned half its minesweepers, even though they were barely 10 years old. The remaining small ships weren’t expected to stick around much longer.
But LCS has been delayed by mismanagement, cost overruns and design problems, sparing the tiny vessels for the time being. The Navy should count itself lucky. The small ships it was trying to replace are now getting new weapons and sensors for a potential fight against Iran.
Iran has developed “swarm” tactics using large numbers of speedboats or drones to overwhelm ships’ defenses. Cheap, powerful underwater mines are another of Tehran’s favorite weapons. The Navy decided its 13 Cyclone-class patrol boats and 14 Avenger-class minesweepers were the best countermeasures.
Under a crash program valued at $4 million, the Cyclones — five of which are permanently stationed in Bahrain — are getting a new laser targeting system for their twin 25-millimeter cannons. The Mk-38 laser kit gives the “high-precision accuracy against surface and air targets such as small boats and unmanned aerial system,” according to contractor BAE Systems.
Four Avengers are in Bahrain, with another four on the way. They’re getting new mine-neutralizing robots for Iran duty.
In a sense, the surge of small warships is the belated fulfillment of a long-abandoned vision for the future fleet. Theory, war games and formal studies in the late 1990s supported a major expansion of the Navy’s small-ship fleet. Vice Adm. Art Cebrowski, head of the Naval War College, recommended the Navy develop a heavily-armed, 1,000-ton warship he called “Streetfighter.”
“These smaller, more single-purpose warships are the capital ships of a 21st-century fleet,” said Wayne Hughes, a retired Navy captain teaching at the Naval Postgraduate School.
But “Big Navy” hated the idea of small ships taking funding that could be used for larger vessels. The Streetfighter concept got hijacked and corrupted. It ballooned into the current Littoral Combat Ship, which is three times the size of Streetfighter.
It’s not clear whether the small-ship surge in Iran represents a permanent change in the Navy’s attitude toward the tiny combatants. Once the Iran crisis has passed, the Navy could shift right back into its big-ship mindset.