Surface Forces: Irreplaceable Cyclones

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March 22, 2018: The U.S. Navy has a patrol boat problem. 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 are, 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 the newly formed NECC (Navy Expeditionary Combat Command) and it needed patrol boats and the navy had very few of those, mainly the Cyclenes). 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 now undergoing another upgrade to give Cyclones 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. But 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 mean 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. Now ten of the 13 Cyclones are stationed at the American naval base at Bahrain where they mainly patrol shallow waters close the 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 building 48 smaller Mk VI patrol boats for NECC. The 26 meter (85 foot) craft have a top speed of over 70 kilometers an hour and a range of over a thousand kilometers (at a much slower cruising speed.) Armed with a 25mm remotely controlled autocannon and small arms, these ships cost about $6 million each. There is a crew of ten plus eight passengers. The Mk VI can be transported overseas by navy LPDs (Amphibious ships). For the moment there is no replacement for the Cyclones although using the fifty ton Mk VI, with the addition of a Griffin launcher and more powerful electronics, is still an option.

 


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