The US Navy is proposing a controversial plan to decommission its 25 shallow water fighters. It’s the natural consequence of strategic group thinking, according to one expert.
Under current planning, the 13 Cyclone-class and 12 Mk. VI Patrol Vessels will start leaving the fleet next month. Some of the 179 feet long Cyclones might persist in service for a few years, but the Navy wants to remove all 85 foot Mk. VIs by this fall.
The Navy took a full day to answer several questions about its plans for the patrol boats. He answered each question identically. Budget options are “pre-decisional,” a spokesperson said. “We will not comment on future budget decisions until the budget request goes to Congress later this year.”
The dismantling frenzy could leave the fleet without any small combatants who can ply the shallower waters of the Persian Gulf, where Iran deploys dozens of speedboats equipped with rockets and cannons.
Navy chiefs floated the struggling Littoral combat ship as a possible replacement for the Cyclones and Mk. VIs. But where a Mk. VI has a draft of only four feet and a Cyclone draws 7.5 feet of water, an LCS has a draft of 14 feet, which means it is likely to run aground in the shallower areas of the Persian Gulf.
With their small size, heavy weaponry, and low operating costs compared to a half-billion-dollar LCS, the patrol boats stay very busy. The Navy keeps 10 of the $ 39 million Cyclones and three of the $ 8 million Mk. VIs in Bahrain for daily patrols in the Persian Gulf.
Despite their usefulness, tiny fighters don’t have many champions within the Navy bureaucracy. “Great Power Competition” with China and Russia is the concept of the day.
Beating the Chinese and Russian fleets requires bigger ships, and a lot of them. No one is interested in fighting for small ships, even if they represent a rounding error in the Navy’s $ 200 billion annual budget.
At the Pentagon, “Funding is sometimes a bit like a children’s soccer game,” said Eric Wertheim, author of The combat fleets of the world. “Wherever the ball goes on the pitch, the kids will follow behind and snuggle around the ball, ignoring the rest of the pitch and their positions.”
“They don’t stay in their positions and instead form a mass of legs and children around the ball, leaving large parts of the pitch – often where the ball was moments ago – unattended.”
At the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan more than a decade ago, the Navy’s large ships “took a beating,” Wertheim said. “Now that the high-end threats from Russia and China are where the ball lies, unconventional and low-end missions risk being overlooked. “
The problem is, reality doesn’t bow to the Pentagon’s group thinking. While the US military was occupied in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia and China were rearming. The myopic focus on the former has helped create today’s bureaucratic panic on the latter. Planners scramble to restore high-end capabilities they neglected when those capabilities were unpopular internally.
Now that great powers are all anyone in the US Department of Defense can think of, bureaucrats risk overlooking the threat that lesser powers like Iran continue to pose. Tehran is not going to cancel its foreign affairs just because dissuading Tehran becomes embarrassing for the US Navy.
In fact, Americans’ preoccupation with China and Russia represents an opportunity for Iran. Beijing and Moscow took advantage of Washington’s war on terrorism to modernize and deploy their forces in places where the Americans were patrolling.
Expect Tehran to do the same as the major power reprogramming sucks money from Washington’s naval garrison in the Persian Gulf.
As patrol boats head for breakers and less suitable ships replace them – or, worse, nothing replace them – Iran’s own armed ships will have the shallow waters of the Persian Gulf all to themselves.
“This is one of the dangers defense watchers often see in budget trends,” Wertheim said. “All funding seems to go to key priorities, while the less exciting mission areas are often overlooked, often leaving a void that can be exploited. “