The prospect of high-end maritime warfare is no excuse to forget everything about low-end conflict and shrug off the valid, real-world lessons gleaned from gritty, grinding low-end sea conflicts like, oh, the Sri Lankan small-boat war. Sri Lanka demonstrated that small boats are critical in the low-end fight and suggested that they might be darned useful in a high-end maritime conflict.

The long-festering civil war in Sri Lanka was a pretty interesting laboratory for maritime warfare, re-emphasizing some lessons from the “high PT Boat” era in the South Pacific. In Sri Lanka, small gunboats armed with rapid-firing 20mm and 30mm auto-cannons, supplemented by a changing cast of smaller weapons (grenade launchers, machine guns, etc.), were used to seal off large sections of coastline, sanitize areas, and to secure sea room for larger ships. But Sri Lanka was an off-the radar sideshow, quickly forgotten by those in “big war” maritime strategy set.

It’s happened before.

In an earlier war, PT Boats captured the romantics, getting headlines for their occasional audacity in rarely attacking capital ships (and by being largely ineffective when they did). But their real jobs were to do everything else the more glamorous big ships didn’t do. PT Boat escort missions for smaller craft were as critical as they were unheralded. PT Boats played a huge role in the interdiction and destruction of low-level, unit supply lines–but the dangerous and dirty business of attacking and sinking resupply barges didn’t often make headlines. PT Boats didn’t win big sea battles, but they ensured that gains made by bigger ships were consolidated and maintained–critical battlefield missions that are discounted today.

Maintaining, say, an island blockade in a complex sea full of neutrals, curiosity seekers, USVs, UUVs and “little green men” auxiliary forces is a really hard mission. It simply can’t be managed by a big ship alone (they’d run out of missiles, frankly). In that sort of environment, big ships quickly become targets while small boats remain a threat for a longer period.

At some level, there is just nothing more useful than a fast patrol boat with good sensors, a whole lot of guns, and maybe a bigger anti-ship missile or mine. The Mark VI’s are a great first start–small, fast, hard-hitting craft that fit in that neat little 50-80 ton, 2-3 day endurance niche. We shouldn’t treat these craft as afterthoughts in the high-end fight (or at any other time). Integrate ’em. Use them. Get young, creative officers aboard!

It’d be great to see the Mark VI be a vanguard of a Patrol Boat/FAC renaissance. But I fear our “Mark VI Doctrine” is going to end up in the “too-hard-to-generate” file, leaving the Mark VIs to be lionized but ignored, living out their service lives wallowing about in some Naval Expeditionary Combat Command purgatory, occasionally venturing forth in the well-deck of some amphib. (If the Iran riverine command boat debacle of 2016 is any guide to the future, then any hope of reinvigorating small boat doctrine is well and truly DOA.)  Patrol boats need a strong service advocate.

How Do We Tend These?

Aside from the question of  “what do small patrol boats do?”, the other major concerns from folks mulling maritime strategy are largely logistical-based.

That’s good–small boat logistics isn’t a trivial thing. But America managed to extend a massive PT Boat training, deployment and support pipeline into a contested Pacific before, and could easily reconstitute it again.

For forward-deployed PT Boats, a host of tailored tenders were developed–small, armed, faster ones for contested areas, with larger, more “lux” variants for secured areas, and modified “do anything” LSTs for tender services supported PT Boats everywhere else.

My sense is that German Type 404 Elbe Class Tenders–small 15-knot, 3500 ton vessels built for Baltic combat boat/sub support would be a nifty means to support a handful of forward Mark VI’s (and Sea Hunters, subs and any other “small craft” out there). Interestingly, the Type 404’s make a loose fit with the forward-minded PT Boat Tenders (converted Barnegat Class Seaplane Tenders–utilitarian craft that did great service in a range of navies until the ’90s). Barnegat Class Tenders clocked in at about 18 knot, 2700 tons, and, like the Type 404s, they had enough weaponry that they could dissuade all but the most dedicated of attackers. With all the excitement in the Baltics, it’d be great to see how Mark VIs do, working with (and from) Type 404s.

At the end of the day, putting a cheap little ‘ole logistics ship forward is not a big investment. And if it helps get a squadron of ten or so Mark VIs into the fight (as well as maybe a few subs) for a few days at a time, well, I sure could think of far worse ways to employ taxpayer money.

Where Do We Base Them?

There’s a lot of hand-wringing about where these boats might be based. Well, there’s growing appreciation that these boats will be transients, tended just as we tended small boats in the Pacific War–in anchorages of opportunity. Sure, maybe we’ll need some host nation support to do that today, but allowing a tender to operate in a sheltered, austere anchorage is very different from, say, building a full-up base for destroyers or subs or something.

A patrol boat base is a far smaller, more independent footprint. Heck, add in an old-fashioned barge carrier type of ship (Something like the SS Cape May, for example), and that’d be a fully-equipped mobile base, capable of scooping up the patrol boats and heading off to the next location in a jiffy. Tuck the whole thing under a land-mobile air defense umbrella, and these little guys can operate with virtual impunity.

Sure, little guys like the Mark VI Patrol Boat may need physical landed bases. But as small patrol boats are far less obtrusive and “needy” than most ships, their needs can be taken care of in simple facilities that are low profile enough to be overlooked. In World War II, a fully-developed PT Boat Squadron Base, built to serve about 13-15 boats, needed only about 250 people and 10,000 tons of “stuff” to get the job done. That’s the sort of base that could get dispersed and vanish into the South Pacific someplace. In the fights to come, you want things to disappear into existing maritime traffic–and only a few platforms can do that.

Conclusion:

In a high-end fight, there’s a lot of fun C4ISR stuff for small, low-observable boats to do–jamming, electronic warfare, targeting, the occasional mine/anti-ship missile strike….Working with Sea Hunters, UUVs and subs, a small-crewed unobtrusive vessel could be quite useful in tamping down smaller threats, harvesting competing unmanned craft and doing all those extra things needed to win (or exploit the win) in a large-scale fight. They’re all missions that are best left to boats with good sensors and rapid-firing guns to manage.

Adding in the unmanned enablers, there simply aren’t enough missiles in all the world to sink all these little annoyances–but they could help make life miserable for any competing high-end Navy–just knowing a few little pesky missile-lobbers might be at sea means they can’t rest and find refuge in even their “home” waters.

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President Trump, Nominate A SECNAV ASAP

by admin on March 19, 2017

One of the biggest frustrations I have with White House staff (of any party) is that moment when happy West Wing “warrior functionaries” get drunk on their power and start micro-managing, inserting themselves too deeply in obscure Department of Defense operations than is politically healthy.

Despite anything the underestimated White House powerbroker Rick Dearborn says (and, for the record, I like Rick as he always treated me well when I had dealings with Sessions), it’s just a matter of efficient use of Presidential Authority–you can’t govern agencies with a commissar. They don’t replace competent, loyal Cabinet Secretaries. Take the Department of Defense. We can only assume President Trump appointed Defense Secretary Mattis to be awesomely effective in his job, so, if that’s the case, certain chubby White House staffers need to get the @!#$ out of the way and let Secretary Mattis work his magic–however he darn well wants.

Obstructing Secretary Mattis by objecting to his staffing decisions (or by appointing a commissar to mind him) is a direct contravention of Presidential interests. Trust me, the weeds of DoD staffing is not a political hill the White House wants to die defending. And it’s a really, really great way to alienate the guy the Boss appointed to run his DoD affairs in the first place. Let Cabinet Officials do their jobs.

Knee-jerk “hey that departmental appointment isn’t one of our guys!!” interference from some Soft JV West-Wing Snowflake does a lot to complicate things that should be relatively simple. The nomination of talent for the poor bloody DoD bureaucratic infantry should not be a politically costly drawn-out process, chock full of folks who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) make the cut.

Such foolishness does little more than sacrifice Presidential momentum and, ultimately, saps Presidential power.

It has to stop. Let DoD–or at least the Department of the Navy and Marine Corps–get to work.

Appoint a Mattis-minded SECNAV ASAP.

If You Love It Let It Go….Manage Itself!

Look, White House Staff meddling starts with every good intention (variants of “we need our guys in there!”), but these West Wing Denizens are 1) far too far removed from the agency they’re “over-overseeing” to make a good pick and 2) they’re overwhelmed with day-to-day dramas and end up moving too darn slowly.

Respect the fact that White House micromanagement kills everything, and, well, despite his hostility to “Big Government”, I don’t think President Trump wants to kill off the DoD.

A clogged staffing pipeline has consequences. I mean, I watched Ray Mabus struggle to staff his office, hamstrung by a sclerotic White House NSC staff who couldn’t be bothered to find a suitable female replacement for Robert Work. After a long while, the White House picked poorly, leaving their hapless pick, Jo Ann Rooney, to sit in purgatory for a year before the White House finally got around to withdrawing their deeply flawed pick. The second pick, Janine Davidson, was far better received, but it took the White House three years (!!) to make the change. That’s just unacceptable, and it does the administration little good (though some Mabus-haters probably sighed in relief).

The same pattern is manifesting itself in the Department of Defense (and Department of the Navy and Marine Corps) today. White House staff have wasted time defending their own power-base-boosting picks, floating candidates who either couldn’t (or wouldn’t) make it through the vetting process (Bilden) or were just not realistic (if Wikipedia is to be believed, one GOP stalwart floated for SECNAV apparently got busted using a sitting SENATOR’s auto-sign pen to sign his performance evaluations). Again, this has to stop.

Get a SECNAV nominated now.

Dear President Trump:

So, President Trump, if you want to get stuff done, let Secretary Mattis generate his slate, pick from the best one offered up, and move forward!

Look, anybody Secretary Mattis picks is, by definition, “your guy” and will do well by you. (And trust that if they don’t, Mr. Mattis will simply END them.)

A prompt, trouble-free SECNAV nomination (remember, Ray Mabus was nominated on March 27, 2009, so the clock is ticking!), is a real political boon. And that–if your “loyal-but-misguided” staffers can let go of the fact that a SECNAV nominee may not be a dyed-in-the-wool supporter of one member of the White House staff or another–that is the only way to get “wins” on the board for a White House that desperately needs some “wins”.

So, my message to you, Mr. President, is to nominate a Mattis-generated slate of Department of the Navy and Marine Corps leaders. They’ll get nominated with little expense of political capital and do well by Your Administration. I’ll guarantee that if nominated, those DoD staffers will get some “wins” on the board far faster than the set of squabbling functionaries staffing the West Wing–functionaries who put their interests before yours–ever will.

So, Mr. President, I urge you to nominate a SECNAV this week–no–nominate a SECNAV TOMORROW.

Time is a’wasting, and there’s a lot to do.

Let’s get it done!

(You know my email if you want to discuss this, Mr. President! Craig.hooper AT nextnavy dot com. Good luck with your pick!)

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Osprey Down: Learning From Another Hard Landing

February 5, 2017

Last week America lost an MV-22 Osprey, a Special Operator and, in addition, had several servicemen injured in a bungled “fishing expedition” in Yemen. What can we learn from this? Details are trickling out, but regardless of their veracity (first reports are often wrong, and there’s always a lot of CYA in this sort of […]

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The Next SECNAV Is…Philip Bilden!

January 27, 2017

The next SECNAV is going to be “off-the-radar” financier Philip Bilden. Mr. Bilden will be taking on an important post–he’ll run the tip of the spear of any kinetic (and some non-kinetic!) actions the Trump Administration might consider, leading service honored with a Trump-promised 350 ship goal, and his tenure will be blessed with a host […]

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Mulling Bath’s “Bad” Bid

January 19, 2017

Reports claim that General Dynamics Bath Ironworks is trying to force the Navy to grant it a cost-plus contract to build the initial Flight III DDG-51 destroyer. The cost-plus request is a real head-scratcher for observers–and it is an action that should concern every Blue-Water Navalist out there. Obviously, a cost-plus proposal is a pretty […]

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How Big Defense CEOs Can Try To Manage Mr. Donald Trump

January 1, 2017

In the Trump Era, “Big Defense” CEOs must either market themselves as visionary, “national” assets or wait to die under withering attack from the White House. Look, for any defense company has a big marquee program like the F-35, the Ford Class Carrier or the SSBN(X), being a colorless, faceless and largely anonymous means of […]

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What Will Trump’s 350 Ship Navy Mean for Bath Ironworks?

December 3, 2016

If the Trump Administration is going to build a 350-ship Navy, then Bath Ironworks will have a big role. I had a chance to talk with the Times Record’s Nathan Strout, and offered a few thoughts on the future fleet’s impact upon Bath Ironworks. There’s some skepticism out there about the 350-ship goal. Let me […]

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Fred Harris Hangs Up His Hard Hat

December 1, 2016

Fred Harris, great shipbuilder that he is, is out. His “retirement” was expected–the General Dynamics Corporate Office tends to be intolerant of failure, and Fred had staked his future on the OPC bid that Bath lost. It’s something of a sad tale. Three years ago, Fred Harris was on top of the world. NASSCO was […]

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How To Build President Trump’s 350-Ship Navy, FAST

November 18, 2016

When a President-Elect repeatedly makes a commitment like “350 ships”, it is my humble sense that, as President, Mr. Trump is going to want 350 ships sooner, rather than later. He’s certainly not going to want them in 2025, or 2030. He’s going to want 350 ships darned quick. And cheaply. Sure, maybe he’ll want […]

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Bath Ironworks: What’s Next?

November 13, 2016

Poor Bath Ironworks. Over the past decade, Bath has endured one heck of a fall from grace–going from a favored ship-production site and world-renowned naval combatant manufacturer to, well, something of a demoralized mess. It’s serious. Wandering around the Navy Yard, I have never heard the Navy semi-publicly vent over a shipyard’s attitude and performance […]

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