Surface Forces: October 20, 2003

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: The U.S. Navy Cyclone class gunboats have found themselves a new career in the Persian Gulf; chasing pirates.

Another task in the Coalition's nation building mission is ridding Iraq's Persian Gulf waters of pirates. Coalition forces maintain a significant security presence in Iraqi waters in support of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1483. Under 1483, coalition forces will provide law enforcement and security functions for the area until an Iraqi maritime security force can be established. During the height of the war, the Navy was on guard against pro-Saddam forces using the small dhows as bomb platforms.

Local pirates are believed to routinely prey upon both local traders and smugglers in Gulf waters. Most incidents are never reported nor do they occur near where coalition forces can be rapidly brought to bear, but sometimes the good guys get lucky.  According to the Office of Naval Intelligence's Maritime Log, pirates preying on local dhow traffic were interdicted by U. S. and Australian navy and U. S. Coast Guard crews on September 29. At 7.30 PM local time, a distress call was received from one of several dhows in the northern gulf area and a SH-60B Seahawk helicopter from the USS Fletcher was vectored to the scene. Using infrared radar, they tracked the boat with four persons until it could be intercepted. 

The USS Firebolt arrived on scene with Miami-based U.S. Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment 407, who performed a thorough search of the suspects and their vessel. The Australian Navy frigate HMAS Newcastle dispatched a liaison officer and a translator to assist with the questioning of the four suspects. The boarding team found goods stolen from the dhows aboard the speedboat. 

The Firebolt is one of the Navy's "Cyclone class" boats designed for coastal patrol and interdiction surveillance. In the early 1990's, they were considered too bulky for commando missions and too small for the regular surface Navy. Armed only with a pair each of 25mm and .50 caliber machine guns, along with two Mk 19 grenade launchers and six "Stinger" missiles, these are the 21st century version of the venerable World War II "PT" (Patrol Torpedo) boat. While the crew musters less than 30, there are an additional eight Special Operations personnel assigned to these boats. 

Everything changed after September 11th and the Navy agreed to pay for maintenance and operations of the Cyclones, while the vessels operated under Coast Guard tactical control. Five or six boats were manned by the Coast Guard, four were based at Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base and two worked out of Naval Amphibious Base Coronado. 

In January 2003, the USS Chinook and USS Firebolt were assigned to maritime interception operations in the Persian Gulf. Pirates in the gulf waters can be quite brazen, even if there's no 'hot' war. On April 23, 2002, the Military Sealift Command's USNS Walter S. Diehl was passing through the Straits of Hormuz when  six small power boats sped alongside. The Diehl does not look like a warship and probably appeared to be easy pickings. The Diehl fired flares to warn the small boats away, but the boats did not back down and a gunner opened fire with a .50-caliber machine gun. The Diehl's gunner kept firing as the ship moved ahead and the small boats then sped off. 

So between terrorism and piracy, the Cyclone class patrol boats might find a second life. The Coast Guard and Navy wants to keep at least five and, if funding is available, all 13 on the books. Considering that they only cost $23 million apiece and their relatively new status, it would make sense to keep them involved in the War on Terror.

As the global threat of piracy grows, naval forces may also have to rely on heavier weapons than those usually found on littoral or coast guard type vessels. At the end of September, United Defense Industries announced that they had been awarded a $79 million contract to supply eight 57mm Bofors-pattern guns for the Coast Guard's new National Defense Cutters, which are expected to be launched by 2006. Demand for these weapons could reach close to 100, if it's decided to install them on other Coast Guard and Navy ships. - Adam Geibel 

USS Firebolt homepage, online at:
http://www.novanavyleague.org/uss_firebolt.htm

USS Firebolt specifications, online at:
http://navysite.de/pboats/pc10.htm.

 


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