This Operation Needs a Snappy Code Name, Like Maybe, I Dunno, “Earnest Will?”

Following the harassment of a US flagged merchant vessel last week, and the seizure of a Marshall flagged vessel recently by Iran, the US Navy is preparing to escort all US flagged merchant vessels through the Straits of Hormuz, the narrow chokepoint that separates the Persian Gulf from the Gulf of Oman.

Persian Gulf

Of course, this hearkens back to the late 1980s, when Kuwaiti oil tankers, frequently attacked by Iran, were reflagged under the US colors, and escorted by US Navy warships. That was Operation Earnest Will.

Iran, for the most part, shied away from direct attacks upon escorted shipping. They instead used Silkworm missiles to attack ships before the convoys formed up, resulting in Operation Prime Chance and Operation Nimble Archer, and they covertly mined the straits, which eventually resulted in Operation Praying Mantis

Of course, that was back in the 1980s. Ronald Reagan was willing to negotiate with the Iranians, but he wasn’t willing to put up with a lot of tomfoolery. After the drubbing the Iranians received in Praying Mantis, they greatly reduced their confrontations with the US for a considerable period of time. One suspects the current administration is somewhat less likely to militarily punish Iran for bad behavior.

Incidentally, the convoying operation just announced has us thinking once again of the very useful Cyclone class patrol boats, and it turns out, David Axe is featured in Rueters talking about them as well.

For more than a decade, a small force of 10 patrol boats has plied the shallow waters of the northern Persian Gulf, guarding Iraq’s strategic oil terminals and keeping an eye on Iranian military moves. The 10 Cyclone-class boats, based in the tiny Gulf state of Bahrain, are some of America’s busiest warships and would likely be the first to see action if the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program ever turned violent.

For the vast majority of maritime security operations, you don’t need  a major warship and its associated weap0ns, so much as you need the sensors, and most importantly, the physical presence. As someone once mocked the Air Force concept of “virtual presence*”, it’s “actual absence.”

The Cyclone PCs have a huge advantage over other warships available for escort duty. They’re there in the Gulf. And numbers matter. As a practical matter, the area a surface warship can surveil is pretty much the same, be it a Burke class destroyer, or a Cyclone PC. Yes, the Burke can better integrate outside information. But the organic surface sensors for both classes are pretty much the same- surface search radar, and binoculars. They both have roughly the same range. Given that a Burke ties up almost 300 sailors, versus about 28 for a PC, and you could buy replacements for all the current PCs for probably less than the cost of a single Burke, it plain makes sense to have a small fleet of them available for operations like this.

Further, using assets like the PCs for the actual escort (which would have had little difficulty dealing with the four small craft that actually seized the M/V Maersk Tigris) allows you to use Burkes or other major warships in wide support. That is, rather than tying down your most effective weapon to the slow convoy, it can maneuver to where it can best influence events, be it by conducting surveillance, or by actual combat, or simply by keeping it less vulnerable to Iranian weapons. Using the cheaper assets as an escort is an economy of force, and allows you to devote your prime assets to the main effort, which, should shooting start, isn’t so much actually protecting the convoy, as it is degrading Iranian capabilities. That is, attacking their assets.

What steps Iran will take next to counter us is an open question, but if I were on the NavCent staff, I’d sure take a look back at previous operations like Prime Chance and Nimble Archer.

 

*Virtual presence was an Air Force term for its ability to reach any point of the globe in a matter of hours. Which, when minutes count, the Air Force is only hours away.

Foreign Aid to Egypt to Shut Down- Should the USN Seize the Corvettes?

News is coming across the wires that US foreign aid to Egypt will be suspended, not because of the Shutdown, but in reaction to the removal of the Islamist Morsi government. Mind you, I find it insane that we’d protest the overthrow of a government completely at odds with our interests, but that’s a story for another time.

But here’s the thing. Over the last 15 years or so, the US has been working with Egypt to design and build (on our dime, and here in the US) a class of four large Fast Attack Craft– or small Corvettes, however you wish to slice that distinction. Known as the Ambassador class, they’re nice looking, modern little ships,  Some open source stuff I’ve seen says the first has been delivered.

Galrahn on his twitter feed suggested the US should seize them and turn them over to the USN.

And there’s ample precedent for this. The four modified Spruance class destroyers built for the Shah of Iran were seized and entered service with the US Navy as the Kidd class, and provided yeoman service for 20 years.

While the Ambassadors weren’t designed for US Navy use, most of their systems share a fair amount of built-in interoperability. Further, they’d be pretty handy forward deployed in restricted waters, say, in the Persian Gulf, especially where they could routinely call on carrier or land based air support.

The Cyclone Class PC

Let’s just say the Navy isn’t a big fan of small ships. It would rather build big ships. Part of that might be empire building (it’s more prestigious to command a big ship than a little one) but most of it is that, overall, a bigger ship is more versatile than a smaller one.

But every generation or so, the Navy is reminded that it needs small ships for niche taskings. Such needs have given rise to the Ashville class gunboats, the Pegasus class hydrofoils, and the Cyclone class patrol boats (known as “PC’s for “Patrol, Coastal”).

Conceived in the late 1980s, and built in the early/mid 1990s, the Cyclones suffered the same fate as previous small  ship classes. Production numbers were cut, Big Navy wasn’t terribly willing to support them either operationally or in terms of maintenance, and they quickly faded into the background. Not having any real idea what to use them for, the Navy even decommissioned some, and foisted them onto the Coast Guard. The Coasties, always desperate for hulls, took them, but they were hardly fans of them. Designed for a niche naval role, they were expensive and ill suited for Coast Guard missions.

Adapted from a foreign design, the Cyclone class PCs were originally intended to support SEAL team and other Naval Special Warfare operations, replacing earlier small craft. But at 170’ and some 300 tons, they proved to be a touch too large for that mission, and a touch too small for most others.

Orphaned, and programatically languishing, a funny thing happened on the way to being retired.

War with Iraq (and tensions today with Iran) called for a much greater than normal naval presence in the Persian Gulf.  Obviously, carrier strike groups, amphibious groups, cruisers, and destroyers were sent to add raw combat power.

But a large part of what our Navy needed to do was far more mundane. Simply keeping track of the untold thousands of dhows and other small vessels of the Gulf and ensuring that they were not engaged in activities such as covert planting of naval mines, or ferrying arms and people to insurgent groups meant that many of these small vessels needed to be stopped, boarded, searched, and tracked.  While a billion dollar destroyer can do this mission, it’s a bit of overkill. Many times, the small PC craft were perfectly suited for such a role. And so the Combatant Commander for CENTCOM asked for more. 5th Fleet, the Navy fleet responsible for the region, responded by forward basing several Cyclones, and rotating crews as needed. Unfortunately, the problem with swapping crews was one every landllord was familiar with-renters never care for a property as much as owners.

Further, by this time, the PCs, designed for a 15 year life, were getting long in the tooth. The original M38Mod1 25mm gun mount was not terribly accurate, nor, when exposed to the marine environment, terribly reliable. The ship’s small Rigid Hulled Inflatable Boat was difficult to deploy and recover via a crane. And the hulls and engines were tired and damaged from wear and tear.

But the demand from CENTCOM for PC support was such that the Navy has given them a new lease on life.

The ships loaned to the Coast Guard have been brought back into Navy service.* The four Paxman diesels that drive the PCs at up to 35 knots have been refurbished. The hulls have been repaired and overhauled.

Rather than rotating the crews to ships forward deployed, now the crews are forward deployed to Bahrain for a stabilized two year tour. Eventually, 10 of the class will be stationed in the Gulf. Three will remain stateside.

Additionally, improvements to the weapons systems are underway. The forward Mk38 is scheduled to be replaced with a Mk51 gun mount, using a navalized version of the M230 30mm gun from the AH-64 Apache helicopter. The MAWS universal mount may also be used to mount one of several short range guided missile systems to further enhance the PCs combat capability.

The ship class intended to replace the Cyclones, the LCS, has grown to a bloated monstrosity, and so the PCs will likely have to serve considerably longer than anyone had ever anticipated.

Chris Cavas, always good at finding a Navy story, has some great pictures of some PCs arriving in the Gulf.

Here’s a presentation on the updated Mk51 gun mount.

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The Mk51 in action.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9YvutTKW2vY]

And here’s the USS Sirocco (PC-6) on patrol in the Gulf.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UJa1VgPS66A]

*One ship was given to the Philippines, and remains in service with them.