The Impending Rebirth of the Flotilla Pt 2
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.
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“.