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The Impending Rebirth of the Flotilla Pt 2

July 6, 2010

The littoral combat ship (LCS) is America’s latest attempt at restoring the flotilla or gunboat navy in fleet service. Looking at the above photo, however, obviously the vessel is so much more, or less according to your point of view. The LCS is more of the tendency for the USN to build ships which can sail with the battlefleet, possessing a secondary coastal ability, or using its embarked helicopters to attack shallow water threats from a distance. Save for a handful of patrol craft and riverine boats, the flotilla remains elusive, just as numbers regain a renewed importance in order to deal with coastal threats.

A problem with deploying only Blue Water ships is one the Vietnam era navy could long attest to, that very often high end warships are needed elsewhere to deal with peer threats. The Navy discovered this during the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis when it attempted to use destroyers to enforce the Quarantine of Fidel’s rogue regime, while also requiring vessels for sailing into covert missions near the island, as well as interdiction closer to shore. For this specialized purpose the Asheville class gunboats and Nasty class PT boats were purchased, but the real test would come later and far from the sunny waters of the Caribbean.


Vietnam Era River Monitor

It was and remains the most contentious Navy air/sea fight since World War 2. Yet, its lessons were mostly forgotten by a fleet seeking a peer foe equipped with aircraft carriers, submarines, guided missile battleships, nuclear attack submarines, and large amphibious ships,. In contrast, the Brown Water Navy seemed a throw-back to another century, with its monitors and gunboats, as former Navy Secretary John Lehman* once described:

“The American flotillas consisted of Armored Troop Carriers (ATCs), Command and Control Boats (CCBs) and the proven Monitors, all built on sturdy old and reliable LCM-6 hulls. The American Monitors had even more firepower than the French/Vietnamese models in the form of flamethrowers, 20-mm Oerlikon and 40-mm Bofors rapid-fire cannons, back by venerable 105-mm howitzers. All of the American vessels were distinctive in their appearance from the Vietnamese because they were equipped with newly developed bar-armor screens that gave them protection against rocket-propelled grenades.”

The former fighter pilot goes on to describe the real stars of the war at sea, the Patrol Boat, River or PBRs. These were the Navy’s workhorses, and “the cavalry of the riverine force”. Via Wikipedia, here are the specifications:

  • Length: 31 feet (9.4 m) (Mk I)
    32 feet (9.8 m) (Mk II)
  • Beam: 10.5 feet (3.2 m) (MK I)
    11.5 feet (3.5 m) (MK II)
  • Draft: 2 feet (0.61 m)
  • Propulsion: 2 x 220 hp (164 kW) Detroit Diesel 6V53N engines driving Jacuzzi Brothers water jet with 3 nozzles
  • Speed: 28.5 knots (53 km/h).
  • Complement: 4 enlisted
  • Armament: twin M2HB .50 caliber (12.7 mm) machine guns forward in a rotating tub, rear single 50 cal,1 or 2 side-mounted M60 7.62 mm machine gun, Mk 19 grenade launcher.
  • Armor: ceramic armor shields fitted to guns, bridge

And while modern thought insists that  helicopters and carrier bombers can replace Brown Water assets, in practice the two worked as a vital and mutually supportive team ( the more numerous Blue Water ships of the era were often needed elsewhere, as their enhanced abilities demanded). Lehman continues:

“To support their brown-water riverine forces operating in the Mekong Delta, the Navy needed close air support in the form of helicopter gunships. But at the time, none were available. The solution was as old as the naval service: “cumshaw”. (The old Navy terms means straining things outside official channels.) The Army was then in one of its ongoing doctrinal fights with the Air Force as was desperate to keep as many fixed-wing airplanes on its olive-drab flight line as possible. The Navy traded P-2 Neptunes to the Army for Huey gunships, and in July 1966, the first Navy detachment of Seawolves arrived in country…”

Despite the Seawolves’ best efforts, more capability than could be provided by helicopters in terms of speed, loiter time and ordnance load was needed. In early January 1969, Light Attack Squadron Four (VAL-4) was commissioned and deployed to Vietnam. Known as the “Black Ponies”, the new squadron flew the combat-tested Rockwell OV-10A Broncos.


Back in the 1970s, when the US Air Force “fighter mafia” was trying to sever itself from the decades of tyranny enforced by the bomber generals, and bring new ideas and platforms to fruition, their slogan was “NOT A POUND FOR AIR-TO-GROUND“.  The mantra for the new flotilla will be “NOT THE SORT FOR CARRIER ESCORT!”. This would break the ties with the decades old design philosophy that says every USN warship built in the last 60-70 years must be able to sail with the carriers, armed with weapons to protect the carriers, and endurance for Blue Water global deployments.

Instead the flotilla would emphasize its offensive capabilities. They will be especially geared for shallow water sailing with speed and armament adequate for this environment. Their enemies will be speedboats, pirate skiffs, smuggler launches, and midget submarines. Though readily adaptable for the Brown Water, riverine, their primary environment will be the Green Water where merchantmen are more at risk. In appearance, it would not be dissimilar from the 1960s era fleet, as proven in the proposals by Captain Henry J Hendricks in his Proceedings article  “More Henderson, Less Bonds“:

The Influence Squadron-Riverine Detachment

  • one 49-foot riverine command boat
  • three 38-foot patrol boats
  • two 33-foot assault boats

The Influence Squadron-Coastal Element

The flotilla is not to replace the Blue Water mission, any more than large warships need be in the dangerous coastal regions. The small warships will be force multipliers, allowing carriers and their escorts the freedom of the deep oceans, only requiring them for the worse crises. They will also greatly relieve the stress on sailors deployed on extended cruises, and also the wear and tear on warships now enduring maximum deployments. The new flotilla will be the antidote to these problems ongoing since the 1960s–keeping numbers, retaining presence, and restoring affordability.

The final argument against restoring the flotilla, is the charge that we are trying to destroy the Navy, by distracting it from its primary Blue Water role. Honestly, considering its current shrinking status, with threats mounting each new decade and hulls get increasingly harder to build and afford, I don’t see how we will survive without new ideas.

Note*-Lehman quotes are from his book “On Seas of Glory: Heroic Men, Great Ships, and Epic Battles of the American Navy“.



26 Comments leave one →
  1. Chuck Hill permalink
    July 8, 2010 6:56 pm

    Mike, thanks for the plug. I’m just a contributor, but I do find your blog a gold mine of ideas.

  2. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 8, 2010 6:40 am

    Chuck Hill wrote a balanced and sensible explanation of why build small warships. I also just found out he has a blog and I can see why!

  3. Chuck Hill permalink
    July 7, 2010 8:37 pm

    Were PTs worthwhile?

    Basically I think what happened was that we needed to increase our naval power as much as possible as quickly as possible. Yards that could make conventional warships were already churning them out as fast as they could, so we looked at other, less capable ship and boat builders and had them make what they could–PC, SCs, PTs etc.

    They did a job as best they could. Would we have built them in peacetime?–no but for the short term they gave us another increment of capability we would not have had otherwise.

    It is a balance of fixed and variable costs. Comparing the high ticket items accumulated in peacetime with the low budget items manufactured in war time, in terms of return on investment. For their capability, the low cost items have relatively high operating costs in terms of fuel and personnel so they are shed in peacetime, while the high cost items have comparatively low operating cost compared to their utility.

    PTs were generally a failure as torpedo launchers–largely because the torpedoes were bad and we didn’t know it. The successes with the PTs in the Philippines at the beginning of the war were done with older torpedoes that did not have the problems.

    Turned out they were more useful for attacking barge traffic, but the up gunned LCIs/LCSs were a better solution.

    Re the PCs/SCs, they did not have a lot of success sinking subs, but on the other hand, once they were available and convoying ships along the US coast, the German submarines stopped coming and went to less dangerous waters.

  4. Veritas7.62mm permalink
    July 7, 2010 4:18 pm

    More uber expensive silliness from LM that we dont need.

    US 43% world military spending

    #2 is China around 7%

    Enough already.

  5. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 7, 2010 7:42 am

    Jerry, thanks for that personal insight of the river war!

    Al L-This was after a refueling stop with the Carl Vinson, where the Freedom was catching drug smugglers for Southern Command. So she was heading back in.

  6. Al L. permalink
    July 6, 2010 11:39 pm

    Mike B said:
    “Looking at the above photo, however, obviously the vessel is so much more, or less according to your point of view. ”

    Does the photo indicate the LCS will move out of the littoral or that the CVN will move closer? Can’t tell from that shot.

  7. Fencer permalink
    July 6, 2010 10:31 pm

    The Influence Squadron doesn’t really seem to be balanced. The Coastal Element has no combat abilities and do six patrol boats really need 45,000 tons of shipping to remain operational?
    Perhaps it should be broken into two separate units: a riverine force of patrol boats with a single brown-water mothership (didn’t LSTs preform this function in Vietnam?) and a blue/brown-water squadron of OPVs or cheap, lightly armed frigates (what about the National Security Cutter?).

  8. Jerry Mcclain GMG1 m-112-2 march 68-march 69 permalink
    July 6, 2010 9:05 pm

    we were sent north right after we got on or boats, to the covet rivire. that was in march of 1968. we were their about 3 mounths when that sent the pbrs to relived us. on that river you better stay in the chanel or you would be agrown. we led the pbr up tokd them to stay in the chanel. they did not lisen to us it took us about a hr. we were slower than them. we got abot 1/3 way back to the base. there the were all three of them agrown. ask if we could help, their answer was no. we had been back to the mounth of the river aroud 3hrs. when here they came.the drift on a pbr is not much. but the river would look like it was deer and it would be 1in. so the pbrs speed did not help in that river.
    you look at the pic of that motor here you will see the real work horse of the brown water navy. The only thig that would slow us down is a rpg 7 we got hit by 2 of them but right after another. 5 medavck no one was killed. we just kept on shoting and fixing the wounded. we came out of that river 5 days later. i was all most out of amo on all guns, when we got back they sent us to dong tam for repires. i brought her out of the yards looking like new. some one took a pic the best duty i have ever had when we tied up. the pic. was on or web site had a pic. but lost it, i was had my arms drap over the 40mm gun barrel my 81mm loader was standing behind me. i was boat captain then. then buda took over. all the time till then LT Nelson was on bord so we were all ways the no one i front. who ever wrote LT. up for thah star did a good job should have got the cross or more. any one know about that pic or any of the crew from march 68 to march 68 email me pbrs might be fist but the motor could slug it out wihe the nva or the vitcongs we proved that. we found out later it was a 850 nva, that 5 days. we were no 2 boat at that time cause the ASBS were leading us then. that was the last time they did. I saw what a rpg7 would do to the top gun mount on that aspb went through and the gunner. out the other side. did the same to us. JERRY MCCLAIN GMG1 M-112-2 68-69

  9. Scott B. permalink
    July 6, 2010 6:27 pm

    Meanwhile, in the early hours of 4 July, pirates hijacked yet another vessel in shallow waters :

    EU Naval Forces report

    MT Motivator is a chemical tanker with a deadweight of 13,065 tons ? That means a design draft of about 28 feet, i.e. about 8.5 meters.

    What was such a vessel with a design draft of 28 feet doing in the dangerous shallow waters where pirates are supposed to hunt their prey.

    Oh wait…

  10. leesea permalink
    July 6, 2010 6:04 pm

    I just caught one technical error in the description of PBRs weapons. Very few if any had Mk 19 40mm grenade launchers. The first boat had Mk15.

    Also the after pintal sometime had a 60mm mortar on it.

    Hell in the end as always the boat’s weapons varied only by the imagination and scrounging ability of their crews!

    By bridge I assume they meant the one man cockpit?

  11. leesea permalink
    July 6, 2010 6:00 pm

    I forgot to add to Mike’s point that one of the great lessons learned from Vietnam ops in-country (i.e. Gamewarden and MRF) was the absolutely necessary teaming of boats and helos/aircraft. That was applied up until OIF when the Navy sent new riverines in to relieve the USMC Small Craft company but did NOT give the sailors any aviation assets though UAVs came along belatedly.

    Now the USN is setting up two helo gunship squadrons.

    All littoral ships need a helo deck or UAV pad IMHO to cove the smaller boats.

  12. leesea permalink
    July 6, 2010 5:53 pm

    Hudson is correct to point out that PTs were conducting ops in the littorals since before WW2. The operations which the PTFs conducted in the Vietnamese littorals were different but the operating principles of stealth and speed still were applied.

    There may be some physical differences in the assets used in either the brown or green waters, but both are dangerous and immediate. But there are other operational factors which make them different.

    Not much of which is recognized by blue water navy types.

    Be that as it may, there is a need for a specturm of ships in the US Navy from the smallest to the largest.

  13. David A. White permalink
    July 6, 2010 5:30 pm

    With the weapons available to practially every counry in this era, it is so much easier to destroy anything that they desire. A country can build a lot of gunboats for what they spend on a surface ship. Case in point, I would bet that it took more to operate 1 carrier in Vietnam than to operate all the costal and riverine forces combined.

  14. Scott B. permalink
    July 6, 2010 5:08 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “The New!”

    OK, this bridge to nowhere from the last century was supposed to look like *The News* in the *Old* New Wars, but isn’t today supposed to be the first day of the *New* New Wars, a major cultural revolution in which such EXQUISITE toys have no place ?

    Shows that no metamorphosis is an easy thing to go through…

  15. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 6, 2010 4:47 pm

    Scott asked “What is this picture meant to suggest ?”

    The New!

    Fencer wrote “this squadron has no defense against aircraft or missiles and it’s only weapon against submarines or fast attack craft are three helicopters ”

    These type environments are the same where we are currently using histories most expensive warships. Is the enemy not there because we are so powerful? They are currently non-existent, so we need ships like these for the wars we are fighting right now. the battleships on constant deployments, waiting 70 years for World War 3 is bankrupting us, as there has been no air or sub attacks against our carriers. But a few on hand is adequate when these threats arise.

    No one on this blog ever said we should send Influence Squadrons into high threat areas, less they are well protected. Recall my posts concerning “the supercharger”.

    This is how you economize in peacetime, and not stretch yourself thin in war. Recalling Corbett who said “In no case can we exercise control by battleships alone”. So you need the flotilla for a balanced fleet. Currently unbalanced and top heavy with capital vessels. As powerful as they are, easily upset by the slightest disturbance, from any old Third World pirate, which should be handled by these new cruisers, leaving the rare tough jobs to the Big Boys.

  16. Hudson permalink
    July 6, 2010 1:32 pm

    Scott B.,

    Well, yes, “could have been”, and “may be argued”….

    My sense from reading the extensive combat record of these boats, much of it years ago (“They Were Expendable”), was that they filled a nich in a great war involving thousands of ships and craft of all descriptions. It’s true that most of their ‘fish’ missed their mark; still, the Japanese feared them and took evasive action when the were around. The PTs did interdict supplies vital to the Japanese garrison at Gualdalcanal and performed many small raids and missions in and around the Solomons. In one particularly ugly incident the machine gunners were given the task of executing dozens of Japanese swimming in shallow water that the Navy decided could not be permitted to survive.

    And ditto in the Mediterraean: dueling with German E-boats and armed lighters, generally raising hell. I know the Navy was happy to learn they could buy nine PTs for the price of one destroyer, and began mass producing the different models. There were certainly other classes of ships that rendered less service to the Navy in the war. For example, the two battlecruisers, Guam and Alaska, that did little if anything for the naval effort and were scrapped, along with so much else, after the war.

    I’d be interested to know what Samuel Elliot Morrison wrote about the PT boats in his monumental history of the war in the Pacific. I read several volumes years ago; can’t remember.

  17. Scott B. permalink
    July 6, 2010 12:41 pm

    Hudson said : “Despite their obvious disadvantages (gas guzzlers, make of plywood–also the brilliant deHaviland Mosquito), they did contribute to the war effort, certainly in the measure of their expense and numbers.”

    This doesn’t seem to be the opinion of famous Naval Experts & Historians such as DK Brown or Norman Friedman to name those two.

    Here is what DK Brown wrote in his “Nelson to Vanguard” (p. 141) :

    “Support of these craft involved setting up numerous bases for training, maintenance and operations and a few depot ships, and it may be argued that the results did not match the effort put in.”

    And here is what it says in Norman Friedman’s “Navies in the Nuclear Age” (p. 99) :

    “An objective viewpoint strongly suggests that, as in the First World War, the resources expended on these craft were wasted and could have been more profitably employed elsewhere.”

  18. Scott B. permalink
    July 6, 2010 12:09 pm

    BTW #2 : I find the picture of the Über Exquisite Sea Slice (by the so navally-competent LockMart) at the very end of the present blog entry very intriguing. What is this picture meant to suggest ?

    Picture of Sea Slice

  19. Hudson permalink
    July 6, 2010 11:59 am

    If I were going to lionize the small ship/robust boat, I would start with the PT boats of WWII, which did play important roles in the war, particularly in the Pacific and Mediterranean, ocassionally taking on much larger ships, such as Japanese cruisers, with a few successes.

    Despite their obvious disadvantages (gas guzzlers, make of plywood–also the brilliant deHaviland Mosquito), they did contribute to the war effort, certainly in the measure of their expense and numbers. They inspired innovation, particularly as to their armament. I don’t know that the crews loved their boats. I suppose their equivalent would be the missile boat of today, which other navies have embraced though not the USN. But the PT boats fulfilled a wider variety of roles including rescue, I think.

    Not sure how many we might use. The Navy certainly has riverine craft. I don’t think the Navy has quite come up with a contemporary equivalent to the legendary PT of yore. Maybe it never will–with helicopters and UAVs buzzing overhead.

  20. Fencer permalink
    July 6, 2010 11:34 am

    For a unit designed to operate “in the dangerous coastal regions” where capable, heavily-armed warships dare not go, this squadron has no defense against aircraft or missiles and it’s only weapon against submarines or fast attack craft are three helicopters (the same weapon you disparage the LCS for relying on). Basically this “Influence Squadron” is incapable of doing anything more then patrolling the rivers of third-world countries, and while that is a valuable (and often neglected) function of a navy it will hardly change the face of naval warfare.

  21. Scott B. permalink
    July 6, 2010 9:01 am

    BTW, you gotta like that big massive wake produced by the LCS-1 boondoggle on the first picture of this blog entry :

  22. Scott B. permalink
    July 6, 2010 8:39 am

    Mike Burleson said : “I don’t see how we will survive without new ideas.”

    Mike, with your *new* ideas, the Navy might be able to prosper as an oversized coastal force, but the Navy won’t survive as a global Fleet capable of meeting worldwide commitments.

  23. Scott B. permalink
    July 6, 2010 8:00 am

    Mike Burleson said : “They will also greatly relieve the stress on sailors deployed on extended cruises, and also the wear and tear on warships now enduring maximum deployments.”

    At the risk of repeating myself again, here is something I posted yesterday :

    ““With only 10 feet from waterline to the tips of the propellers, these shallow draft vessels had excellent in-shore capability for they could maneuver into places that larger ships couldn’t possibly travel. On the open seas, even in calm weather, this shallow navigational draft sometimes made the gunboat an uncomfortable ship to ride. Heavy seas would cause these boats to roll, pitch and yaw relentlessly. It was not unusual for a patrol gunboat to experience 45 to 55 degree rolls for days on end. In a harbor without a breakwater, rolls of 10 to 15 degrees was not uncommon. During one particular storm, the crew of one gunboat saw their ship heel over to the point that the inclinometer bubble reached 65 degrees. It was during this storm the ship lost one of the radio whip antennas, all the stanchions and lifelines on one side, and the ship’s boat –all torn off by waves and heavy weather. If the constant side-to-side rolling wasn’t bad enough, the pounding fore-to-aft motion of the ship’s bow in up and down angles of 15 to 25 degrees, followed by the inevitable slam against the uncompressible ocean surface would seem to rattle the brains, bones and teeth of the gunboat sailors. Resting, sleeping and eating were all but impossible under these conditions, and fatigue overwhelmed even the most durable sailors. It was at times like this that the gunboat sailor understood why the first question asked of him upon his arrival onboard was “Ever been seasick?”! (emphasis added).

    How is putting sailors on Exquisite HSVs with poor seakeeping qualities supposed to relieve their stress ?

  24. Scott B. permalink
    July 6, 2010 7:53 am

    Mike Burleson said : “Though readily adaptable for the Brown Water, riverine, their primary environment will be the Green Water where merchantmen are more at risk.”

    At the risk of repeating myself again and again, pirates off Somalia DON’T hunt their prey in shallow or even littoral waters.

    Why does this most basic real life fact continue to be ignored ?

  25. Scott B. permalink
    July 6, 2010 7:17 am

    Mike Burleson said : “The former fighter pilot goes on to describe the real stars of the war at sea, the Patrol Boat, River

    This illustrates the enduring confusion generated by the excessive use of Naval Newspeak Buzzwords like *Littoral* or *Shallow*, leading to somewhat ludicrous situations where riverine boats get labelled as the real stars of the war at sea.

    Either one wants to discuss brown water or one wants to discuss green water, but one cannot continue to ignore this fundamental distinction and pretend the heteroclite flotilla which gets so much buzz to be the future of Naval Warfare in the *missile age*.

    Empty rhetoric will NEVER produce a healthy debate.

  26. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 6, 2010 7:14 am

    I mistakenly left out the citation for the John Lehman quotes. Fixed now.

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