Surface Forces: The Will Of The People

November 1, 2007: One of the unspoken truths is that military needs do not always determine what is, or is not, purchased by the U.S. Department of Defense. It is not unusual for projects to be funded by Congressional fiat. Sometimes, they are useful. Other times, it's just a politician bringing home the bacon to their state or district. The latest example is a series of "earmarks" (in essence, a Congressional directive saying that this money WILL be spent on a certain project) from a Senator and two Congressmen in Washington state dating back to 1999. These earmarks have been for the purchase of a series of small patrol craft.

 

One might think that in a global war on terror, small patrol craft are a good idea, particularly around American ports, or ports in areas where American forces have deployed. The problem is that the Coast Guard and Navy have evaluated these earmarked boats, and found them to be not useful. Yet, Congress has the final word on spending, and despite these evaluations, more earmarks have emerged.

 

Part of this is a Navy bias against small vessels. This is somewhat understandable, as many of these small boats need to be delivered to likely operating theaters. The boats also require a support vessel like a tender. The tender becomes a target for terrorists– and a high-value one at that. This then makes the patrol boats largely dependent on a land base, and that requires a friendly host nation. It is much simpler for the Navy to get a littoral combat ship or frigate, either of which can carry two MH-60 helicopters equipped with torpedoes, Penguin anti-ship missiles, Hellfire missiles, and a 7.62mm or 12.7mm machine gun, to patrol a region in a number of roles (anti-submarine, anti-ship, or general patrol).

 

Helicopters are even faster than patrol boats, and their firepower is more than sufficient to blast any pirate or smuggler out of the water. They can also be based off a ship, and do not require a host nation. That said, they lack persistence, and they even run more expensive than a patrol craft (the patrol craft Congress ordered run about $5 million per copy, the MH-60R runs at about $29 million per copy).

 

In essence, the Navy has made a decision to largely rely on helicopters. In essence, their disadvantages are relative small compared to their advantages and flexibility. But some in Congress aren't listening, and the Navy will find itself having to deal with small craft they may not want. – Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)

 

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