Surface Forces: Cyclones And Mark VIs

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February 19, 2019: The U.S. Navy has rediscovered the usefulness of coastal patrol boats. This was first realized back in 2005 with the creation of NECC (Navy Expeditionary Combat Command) that required such small craft. The Navy had few available and began ordering various new and existing models. One of the more successful has been the Mk VI patrol boats. The Navy planned to obtain 48 of these fifty ton craft and ordered the first dozen in 2012 for testing and use in actual work situations. The Mk VI has proved capable in all it was tasked to do but so far only twelve have been obtained. One of the recent successful tests was its ability to move long (up to 1,100 kilometers) across open ocean. In late 2018 the navy had several Mk VIs operating in and around the Western Pacific island of Guam. This is the largest (550 square kilometers) of the Marianas Islands and an American territory that serves as a military base and support center for the many smaller islands nearby. In October 2018, in the aftermath of yet another typhoon (hurricane type storms that are common in the Marianas) some nearby (about 800 kilometers distant) islands needed some help and it was decided to send two Mk VIs with the required technical personnel and supplies. The two boats traveled nearly 800 kilometers over open ocean at 45 kilometers an hour in about 20 hours without any problem.

The 26 meter (85 foot) Mk VI have a top speed of over 80 kilometers an hour and a max range of 1,400 kilometers (at 40-45 kilometer cruise speed) Armed with two 25mm remotely controlled autocannon and mounts for six 12.7mm machine-guns, these ships cost about $6 million each. There is a crew of ten plus room for eight passengers and some cargo in the main cabin and aft (rear) deck. The Mk VI can be transported overseas by navy amphibious ships, such as the well deck of an LPD. The Mk VI has lightweight (bulletproof) armor over key sections (engine, fuel, control deck) and shockproof seats for the sailors operating the boat. There is also a shower, a small kitchen and shower for extended time at sea. The Mk VI can stay at sea up to 36 hours but usually goes out for 8-24 hours at a time.

The Mk VI is one of the solutions to the patrol boat problem the Navy realized it had when NECC was created. The navy looked around at what little used small craft it actually had. Turned out the navy did have a patrol boat (the Cyclone class). In 2010, only a few years after finding a real job in the fleet (in the Persian Gulf), the U.S. Navy's Cyclone class patrol boats were facing the scrap yard because these ships were, well, worn out and falling apart. This sad tale of missed, or lost, opportunities began in 2005 when the navy scrambled to get the Cyclones fit for duty in its new brown water (along coasts and up rivers) operations. This was for the newly formed NECC and it needed patrol boats and the Navy had very few of those, mainly the Cyclones. That led to a refurbishment of the 13 Cyclones the navy had and that extended their useful life to 30 years. Even though these ships will be too worn out for use by the late 2020s, they are underwent another upgrade to give them new weapons, electronics and UAVs.

The Cyclones were a 1990s experiment that appeared to have failed. Then came September 11, 2001. Of the fourteen Cyclones built, 13 are now with the U.S. Navy and one with the Philippines Navy. But before 2005 the navy was trying to give them away. The fourteen 55 meter (179 feet) long Cyclone class PC (Coastal Patrol) boats were built in the 1990s. After operating them for six years, the Navy decided they had made a mistake, and loaned some of the Cyclone class ships to the Coast Guard and SOCOM (Special Operations Command) while seeking foreign buyers for the rest. Only the Philippines was interested and ended up with one of the Cyclones. In 2005 the Navy began building the NECC coastal force, complete with naval infantry. For this brown water navy, the Cyclones were perfect, and the navy got them back to work.

The Cyclones are more like a PT boat than a typical seagoing warship. Cramped conditions on board meant that the crews live in barracks on land when the ships are not at sea. Living conditions for the 28 man crew (four officers and 24 sailors) are austere on these 336 ton ships. When in service, the ships come back to base once a week for supplies. Often a SEAL team or a boarding detachment is carried. But there are rarely more than 36 people assigned to one of these PC class ships.

The PCs are not considered "boats", but are designated the smallest warships in the U.S. Navy. These ships are normally armed with two 25mm autocannon, five .50 caliber (12.7mm) machineguns, two 7.62mm machineguns, two 40mm automatic grenade launchers, six Stinger missiles and now, with the latest upgrade, two quad tube Griffin missile launchers. Air defense is provided by the shoulder-launched Stinger missiles. While many nations mount anti-ship missiles on ships 336 tons or smaller, the U.S. Navy designed the Cyclone class strictly for coastal patrolling. The ships can cross oceans and have done so whenever distant American naval bases needed additional protection.

Cyclones began receiving the Griffins in 2014. The Griffin first entered service during 2010 on UAVs and AC-130 gunships. The surface-launched version has an 8,000 meter range and is laser guided. Before getting the Griffin the longest ranged weapons on the Cyclones was the 25mm autocannon that were accurate to 4,500 meters. The 15 kg (33 pound) Griffin has a 5.9 kg (13 pound) warhead. The shipboard version of Griffin was tested against remotely controlled small boats of the type Iran often uses in the Persian Gulf. The Iranian boats have small crews armed with machine-guns, RPGs and sometimes small missiles. These boats often “swarm” American warships having several boats get close in. With Griffin, the Cyclones can knock out these swarming boats at a greater distance and handle many of these boats at once.

Navy sailors like the Cyclones for the same reason their Coast Guard brethren like their own smaller ships. Everyone knows everyone, there's more responsibility for each sailor, and a less regimented attitude when at sea. It's also been discovered that the Cyclones can do anything a larger warship can do when it comes to coastal operations. Actually, the Cyclones are better along the coasts, as they draw less water, and are faster (moving at up 65 kilometers an hour).

In the Persian Gulf, the Cyclones began service there guarding the Iraqi offshore wells and pumping stations, as well as stopping and inspecting suspicious ships. Crews serve six months in the Persian Gulf, then fly back to the United States. The ships themselves served at least 18 months before traveling back to the United States. Most of the 13 Cyclones are stationed at the American naval base at Bahrain where they mainly patrol shallow waters close to Iran and the Strait of Hormuz (entrance to the Persian Gulf). Originally the Cyclones were to be replaced by the LCS (Littoral Combat Ship) which has ten times the displacement and much less successful track record. There is no direct replacement for the Cyclones but the navy is so far only building 12 smaller Mk VI patrol boats for NECC. The fifty ton Mk VI, with the addition of a Griffin launcher and more powerful electronics, is still an option and seems capable of replacing the larger Cyclones. Some Mk VIs have been used in the Persian Gulf and performed as well as the Cyclones.

 


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