With the cost of the Navy’s littoral combat ship skyrocketing and its funding in peril of repercussions from Congress, some say the sea service ought to give serious consideration to acquiring cheaper boats that could complement a reduced fleet of larger surface combatants.
For the past two decades, naval forces have been mostly engaged in the littoral or shallow waters near coastlines, including combat operations in the rivers and estuaries of Iraq, the oil fields in the Persian Gulf and high-volume traffic areas such as the Horn of Africa and the Malacca Strait, says Lt. Bashon Mann, spokesman for the Navy.
“The number of Navy vessels that can operate most effectively in these areas, however, is relatively small, as most large and medium combatants — destroyers, cruisers, aircraft carriers and even frigates — are designed for deep water operations,” he says.
The littoral combat ship was conceived to bolster the Navy’s capabilities in shallow water environments. It plays a significant role in the service’s future 313-ship fleet. But these ships are under construction and will not become fully operational until 2009 at the earliest.
The Navy owns a small fleet of patrol coastal boats that are in use in the Persian Gulf to protect oil platforms. The Coast Guard is operating five of the 180-foot boats, though the Navy reportedly is attempting to reclaim them for near-shore missions. Once thought to be obsolete, the PC boats have renewed relevancy in current operations, say analysts. But others say a new type of vessel is needed.
“We look at the PC as what’s wrong with the current fleet of coastal boats because the PC is essentially just a miniature destroyer, and it doesn’t perform its mission as well as it could because of that,” says Bill Burns, president of M Ship Co., based in San Diego. “Rather than just trying to take a blue water ship and shrink it down for the green water or brown water, you really need to rethink what the objectives are and what the missions are and where the boat’s going to be operating.”
In conjunction with the Defense Department’s Office of Force Transformation, Burns’ company built Stiletto, an 80-foot boat with a carbon fiber composite hull designed to operate in the littoral and riverine environments.
“The M hull uses the bow wave energy to make the boat move more efficiently through the water. And by harnessing the bow wave energy, we can increase the lift-to-drag ratio of the boat, which allows the boat to go faster and have a smoother ride quality and carry a larger payload. And it does all of that with a very shallow draft, which is very important in the riverine and littoral,” he tells National Defense.
The composite material is customizable, meaning ceramics or metals can be mixed directly into the hull for ballistic protection.
A crew of three operates the boat, which can accommodate 40 war fighters, an 11-meter rigid inflatable boat and several unmanned vehicles while traveling at 48 to 50 knots, he says.
The company can build 40 M hulls for the price of one LCS, he adds.
“I think there is a need for the larger craft, but you don’t necessarily need to have all the same type of craft,” says Burns. “I think a combination of boats working together is going to be the best solution for littoral combat in the future.”
U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., inserted a $22 million earmark into the 2008 House defense authorization bill to fund upgrades for the Sea Fighter, a 1,100-ton catamaran that the Navy is using to test concepts and technologies for the LCS. Though the service reportedly has no plans for the 262-foot boat in its future fleet, Hunter insists that it has operational value and ought to be given a mission.
But “compared to the LCS, it’s clearly not as capable,” says Work. The Navy does not want a single-ship class, and the experimental catamaran, which lacks a hangar and berthing for passengers, would require a lot of modifications to make it operational.
“I don’t believe the Sea Fighter will replace the LCS,” says Work. However, it could be used for special operations support, he points out.
Meanwhile, M Ship Co. is in the process of building two more demonstrators of its composite hull technology — one vessel for the riverine market and another one for the unmanned surface vehicle market. Both will hit the water by the end of the year, says Burns.