The decision is difficult to justify. Outside the US Navy, interest in small boats is great. Allies have lined up to claim many of the US Navy’s fourteen 355-ton Cyclone-class coastal patrol vessels. Eleven old Cyclones have been assigned to three foreign navies, and one more may follow soon. The U.S. Coast Guard is busy putting 65 Sentinel-class small vessels into service and still wants a few more.
The Navy is not responding to the tactical trend. The worldwide interest in America’s otherwise rickety and poorly maintained fleet of combat patrol vessels has not prompted demand for a Cyclone-class replacement, nor has it caused anyone in the U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense to reflect a little more on the composition of the U.S. fleet of 296 ships. China’s large, diverse, ever-proliferating fleet of small and irregular fighters risks being left unanswered.
The wholesale elimination of small combat-oriented ships by the Navy is unprecedented. According to the Naval Vessel Register, only ten combat ships – eight minesweepers, one tug and one transport ship – are less than 2,400 tons.
With the US Navy outright dismissing smaller combat ships as too vulnerable to take on China and other modern maritime rivals, it would be worth devoting some of the Department’s intellectual energy to exploring why so many US allies think so so different way.
At the very least, it should be somewhat embarrassing for risk-averse American surface warriors to see America’s former fleet of small ships – discarded as unsuitable for front-line fighting – move straight to the front lines of modern maritime conflict.
The South China Sea is a battlefield of small ships. Just a day ago, relatively small Philippine Coast Guard vessels and supply vessels bound for Ayungin Reef clashed with the Chinese fleet. This week, the Philippines commissioned two of the US Navy’s discarded Cyclone-class ships. The new additions will soon carry out dangerous tasks in the increasingly disputed South China Sea.
More interestingly, the Philippines actively advocated for small vessels, acquiring more Cyclones rather than augmenting its fleet of three retired Hamilton-class US Coast Guard cutters. What exactly led the Philippines to request two old 355-ton speedboats instead of one big 3,200-ton vessel? What do they see in small ships that the US Navy doesn’t?
Currently, five Cyclones are serving in the Royal Bahrain Naval Forces, three in the Philippine Navy and another three are on commission in the Egyptian Navy. Two of the remaining three are likely to be scrapped, and one is still scheduled to be transferred to a foreign navy.
Watching the world adopt tiny ships that the US Navy has never liked and has had difficulty employing effectively is fascinating. But rather than respond to pent-up demand and tactical utility by taking advantage of America’s apparently popular design niche, the US Navy is abandoning downsized manned combatants and apparently hoping that friendly robots will somehow take their place.
They will not. Maritime robots are valuable assets, but small crewed vessels handle a range of diplomatic, surveillance and presence tasks that humans can only perform – at least at this time. Until then, the US Navy seems perfectly content to leave these difficult tasks to the Coast Guard’s small ships.
Cyclone: The Unwanted Vessel
The US Navy has not wanted small ships for years. America’s last small combatant, the Cyclone-class coastal patrol vessel, was conceived after 1988’s Operation Praying Mantis, intended to reduce Iran’s operational capabilities in the Persian Gulf.
The Navy’s surface warriors did not have much involvement on the ships. The small ships were to serve as specialized transport, a kind of “battle taxi”, tasked with taking small Special Operations teams into action. After the tests and trials carried out in the Caribbean and Africa, the American special operators abandoned the platform and after a few years, the Navy was faced with the annoying bureaucratic task of supporting a young group of small ships that lacked an established mission. But rather than try to find a viable mission for the small fighters, the Navy opted for the bureaucratic expediency of trying to get rid of the unwanted vessels.
Twenty-five years ago, the Navy almost sank the Cyclones. The entire fleet was to be decommissioned in 2002, and although the 9/11 attacks intervened by giving new life to the beleaguered Cyclones, the attacks came too late to save the lead ship, the USS Cyclone (PC-1). She was discharged in 2000 after only seven years of service. She transferred to the United States Coast Guard, and the vessel remained idle at the Baltimore Coast Guard Shipyard until she was finally transferred to the Philippines in 2004.
The rest of the Cyclone class patrol boats, rejected by the Coast Guard for being too expensive to maintain and too costly to operate, gradually found a mission in the Persian Gulf. A useful presence, serving as security patrol vessels or as general-purpose visitation, boarding and search platforms, the Navy downplayed their contributions and periodically proposed withdrawing the vessels. Lamenting maintenance costs and the inability of Cyclone crews to integrate into the large US fleet, the last five Cyclones were retired from US service in early 2023.
The US Coast Guard must fill the void.
In the absence of viable small combat boats (between 100 and 2,000 tons fully loaded) in the US arsenal, the United States is ceding small combat boat design and operational know-how to other countries. Valuable efforts to reduce and minimize America’s maritime weapons systems will lose some of their urgency, and shallow-water navigation skills will fade outside of secretive SEAL boats and low-hazard port security vessel operators. Depths that cost so much to acquire.
It is dangerous that, just at a time when peace in the Pacific depends largely on the intimate interactions of rival small ships and their crews, the US Navy is deliberately eliminating opportunities to understand the strengths and limitations of the fleets of small ships currently facing each other in the South and East China Seas. Without small ships, the US Navy now has nothing to offer struggling allies and can’t do much to engage or train small ship sailors.
It’s no secret that the US Navy loves to hate small ships. Small fighters require a lot of logistical support, offer fewer comforts to crews and tend to have a shorter service life. They are uncomfortable – and sometimes dangerous – on long transits. And finally, experience on small ships does not translate into a career path like that of American sailors on large ships.
Small ships require an operational finesse that the US Navy does not value. Ultimately, they are the platforms most likely to get into trouble, directly engaging criminals or other navies in hand-to-hand combat, but that is precisely why the US Navy needs to rethink its position on small crewed ships. American sailors must understand small ships and combat with them.
Instead of replacing the Cyclones, the Navy and Department of Defense want to let the technology advance. Until a viable unmanned option emerges, the US Navy is much happier ignoring small combat vessels and outsourcing to other countries or the US Coast Guard for the difficult and intimate “defense” missions customer-facing” of small boats.
The Coast Guard is rising to the occasion. The already overstretched Coast Guard is sending its 360-ton Sentinel-class rapid response cutters all over the map. Recently, the USCGC rapid response vessel Myrtle Hazard (WPC 1139) joined Papua New Guinea in the fight against illegal fishing. The Fast Response Cutters could even end up in the South China Sea, conducting joint patrols with friendly regional groups.
But the Coast Guard would be the first to admit that the Fast Response Cutters are not warships. Built for remote law enforcement, it is a small, surveillance-focused vessel that is pressed into service to support boarding operations. For those tasks, the Fast Response Cutter works well and works even better with local air support and an auxiliary support vessel in close proximity. Anything else and the little cutter is outmatched.
Of course, with a new design, the Fast Response Cutter could carry out more combat-oriented activities. But the Coast Guard, with a tiny $13 billion budget, can’t afford to make too many innovative combat modifications: It has ten other major statutory missions to worry about in addition to the defense readiness mission.
If the Navy remains committed to abandoning the small ship niche, the Coast Guard can – and should – do what it does best and partner with small ship stakeholders. Under the aegis of the United States Coast Guard, Japan, South Korea, Finland, Sweden and other high-end small and offshore vessel navies, as well as shipbuilders, can meet to discuss innovations and requirements common to small ships.
This is an arduous task worthy of the US Coast Guard. Small ships are always exercises in compromise. They can’t do everything. But small ships can do a lot, and an effort to create a suite of “NATO-like” interoperable and maneuverable small ships capable of operating in close quarters with numerous hostile vessels would pay enormous dividends.
A global effort to outline the future of small combatants could advocate for a series of vessels. Some missions and environments could be suitable for a tightly integrated combat ship modeled after the Finnish 250-ton Hamina-class missile boats. These tiny ships, based in the Baltic Sea, punch above their weight, boasting a combination of cannons, four anti-ship missiles, torpedoes, mines and even anti-aircraft missiles.
Instead, the group could focus on designing a tough, hard-to-rame brawler, reinforcing some waterline features designed to hurt larger ships that try to stand up and intimidate.
Even a modernized, gun-packed variant of South Korea’s small Pohang-class corvette, built to take on a mass of similarly sized maritime militia vessels, might even be useful. In old-school smallboat conflicts, the old calculus of broadside effectiveness still applies once opposing forces go beyond shoulder-to-shoulder, laser beams, water cannons, and other intimidation tactics. : the amount of lead in the target.
Suppose America’s “big ship” Navy doesn’t want to think about small combatants. In that case, the United States Maritime Service can, as it engages with small-ship navies around the world, do a great service in creating sets of standard requirements, silently calculating where and how small vessels can best contribute in the contested maritime zone of the future.
It’s a thankless job, but the Coast Guard can trust that wherever its strategies take them – whether to the Arctic, the Western Hemisphere or the world of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing – they will follow—US Navy and often the rest of the US government.