The Navy’s Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf doesn’t have an effective long-distance missile for ship-to-ship engagements. The Navy’s plans to eventually position eight Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) in the gulf by 2018 will not alleviate this problem, given current armament and design.
(Tarbi wanted to use the Arabian Gulf instead of Persian, but the guidance of the Associated Press is that Persian Gulf is the correct term. We we won’t go into all the strategic, political or religious reasons that some –especially in the NAVY — want to call it the Arabian Gulf. Suffice it to say some folks don’t like giving Iran that much perceived influence. The Editor)
As the Pentagon reduces the deployment of Carrier Strike Groups (CSGs) in the Gulf from two to one, the deployment of escorting cruisers, destroyers, and fast attack submarines will decrease as well – leaving Fifth Fleet commanders with significantly fewer assets in any future surface engagement. Fortunately, an affordable US-built Fast Missile Craft (FMC) is now on the market, and its purchase and incorporation into Fifth Fleet would provide commanders with permanently forward-deployed assets that are capable of taking the long-distance shots that an aircraft carrier’s accompanying cruisers and destroyers once assured.
Fast Missile Craft Can Augment Fifth Fleet
In 2013, the US delivered the first of four Fast Missile Craft (FMC) to the Egyptian Navy under its Foreign Military Sales program. If more were purchased by the Pentagon for use in the US Navy, they could significantly strengthen the Fifth Fleet’s forward-deployed presence in the Persian Gulf.
Built by VT Halter Marine in Pascagoula, Mississippi, these 204-foot ships are only slightly larger than the 179-foot Patrol Crafts (PCs) that currently patrol the Gulf – but pack significantly more firepower. The most notable improvements include the addition of the 76mm OTO Melara cannon, akin to the Navy’s Oliver Hazard Perry class frigate, as well as eight Harpoon ship-to-ship missiles (SSM). Equally as significant is the fact that the entire vessel is outfitted with technology familiar to today’s Navy sailors, such as Raytheon’s Close-In Weapon System (CIWS) and Rolling Airframe Missiles (RAM), Lockheed Martin’s Combat Management System (CMS), and Sperry Marine’s Integrated Bridge System (IBS). Furthermore, while the LCS is projected to average about $448 million per ship, the FMC is currently being delivered to Egypt at a cost of approximately $322.5 million.
If purchased for the US Navy, the presence of FMCs in the Gulf would have several beneficial strategic effects. First, the full-time presence of the better-armed FMCs on patrol in the Persian Gulf would partially relieve the need for cruisers and destroyers deploying to the region, freeing up those assets for use in the Pentagon’s strategic repositioning to the Pacific. Operational integration with U.S. Air Force assets in nearby Qatar and United Arab Emirates (UAE) could also offset the FMCs lack of an offensive anti-air capability.
Second, because the FMCs carry the Harpoon SSM, their forward-deployment would increase the missile range of indigenous Fifth Fleet surface assets from 5,500 meters today to over 125 kilometers, giving commanders a permanent offensive anti-surface capability in the region. Third, because the FMC is $125 million dollars less than the LCS, a combined FMC/LCS purchase and deployment model would allow the Pentagon to realize greater savings while delivering more effective strategic options to commanders in the region. As most Navy shipbuilding initiatives suffer from initial setbacks and cost overruns, the FMC program is already up and running within the United States – it may be time to take advantage of it.
Patrol Craft and LCS Are Outgunned
The Navy plans to station 10 Cyclone Class PCs in Bahrain by the spring of 2014. Originally designed to support special operations teams, the lightly armed PCs typically undertake coastal patrol and maritime interdiction missions. The Pentagon recently funded the PC Modernization Program in an effort to match the PCs’ capabilities against the small fast-attack boats favored by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN). This modernization included weapon improvements, such as the addition of a newer gyro-stabilized Mk 38 Mod 2 25mm autocannon and laser-guided AGM-176 Griffin SSM. However, these weapons only have max ranges of 3,000 meters and 5,500 meters respectively – meaning that the PCs may be better able to defend against a swarm of incoming fast-attack boats, but still remain severely outgunned by the frigates and corvettes of the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN).
The new LCS only offers a modest improvement in potential surface-to-surface engagements. Similar to the upgraded PC, the LCS also includes the short-range Griffin SSM for defense against a small boat attack. The installation of the Mk 110 57mm cannon is an improvement over the PCs’ 25mm gun, giving LCS captains the ability to take on surface targets at an effective firing range of 8,500+ meters. However, due to weight concerns and design limitations, the Navy’s staple 76mm cannon and Harpoon SSM were not included in the LCS’s current configuration. Thus, the eventual forward-deployment of LCSs in place of PCs will only result in approximately 3,000 additional meters of offensive range capability – an insignificant distance when viewed in light of the US Navy’s last surface engagement in the region.
A History Lesson
Operation Praying Mantis, the last major surface engagement in the Persian Gulf, took place on April 18, 1988; this event also marked the surface Navy’s first exchange of long distance anti-ship missiles fired over the horizon and without a line of sight. In one incident, three US ships engaged and sunk an Iranian missile boat with six standard missiles (SM-1s), one Harpoon missile, and guns, but not before the Iranian ship launched and barely missed with a Harpoon missile of their own. Later, in a separate surface engagement, another US ship launched a Harpoon missile at an Iranian frigate, striking its bridge and rendering it helpless against the finishing blows of US aircraft.
Towards the end of the day, a third Iranian frigate was severely damaged by American aircraft and had to be towed back to port. In “Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles That Shaped American History,” author Craig Symonds describes this decisive surface victory as one that “demonstrated the extent to which American technological and operational superiority had outpaced the rest of the world”. In one day, the US Navy crippled or destroyed three of Iran’s principal fighting ships because they could fight ‘over the horizon’ and coordinate with lethal air power.
Those lessons should be remembered by fleet planners today. The US Navy must remain prepared to engage Iranian surface combatants at sea and at range, and not solely plan to defend against small fast-attack boat swarms in the littoral. Deploying the FMC in tandem with the LCS would provide Fifth Fleet commanders with this long-range capability, in addition to maintaining the multi-mission benefits of having the LCS in the region.
Luke Tarbi, a former Navy officer who served in the Middle East, Asia-Pacific and sub-Saharan Africa, is a member of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and the U.S. Naval Institute.