When Iranian forces seized a U.S.-flagged container ship in the Persian Gulf on April 28, for reasons that remain unclear, an American destroyer rushed to the scene, along with three Cyclone-class patrol boats.
These 179-foot-long boats, armed with guns and missiles, are now viewed as among the Navy’s most important ships. Remarkably, they’re also some of the least expensive — setting U.S. taxpayers back just $20 million apiece when the Navy originally bought them in the early 1990s. Most Navy ships — admittedly far larger — cost hundreds of millions, even billions, of dollars.
The Cyclones, which each have two 25-millimeter cannons, machine guns, grenade launchers, batteries of short-range anti-ship missiles and shoulder-fired antiaircraft rockets, are cheap because they’re so simple. They don’t have high-tech sensors, complex weapons or experimental equipment and design features. They’re straightforward metal hulls packing lots of simple guns and missiles that rely heavily on their hardworking 28-person crews to function, rather than on fancy automated systems like on many larger vessels.
Build another 20 and base them out of the Philippines as a tripwire force against the Chinese. Build 20 more and stick them in Tallinn, Estonia, to keep an eye on the Russians. Japan could base another 20, and buy or build 20 of their own.
We need combat power in coastal areas, and Cyclone has it. Not lots of power, mind you — but nobody sinks a US Navy ship without expecting the rest of the US Navy to show up for some payback. And with small pricetags and tiny crews, it’s a vessel — speaking in the cold calculus of war — we can afford to lose.
In naval matters, presence matters. “Showing the flag” is a time-honored Navy mission for precisely that reason. It’s difficult to have a global presence with as few ships as we have today, and it’s impossible to build a sizable fleet when even littoral ships cost a jillion dollars.
Then there’s the Cyclone, packing some punch and able to show the flag in contested shallow waters — quickly. Assuming, of course, we had enough of them, and the proper forward bases in which to berth them.
In September 2010, the decision was made to recall all of the remaining ships of the class due to fatigue damage to their hulls. The class was designed for a lifespan of roughly 15 years. All but the newest member of the class, Tornado, have been in service longer. The vessels will be inspected and a decision will be made whether to refit them or to decommission the ships.
These ships are so in demand that they’re on deployment halfway around the world, years after their hulls were deemed “fatigued.”
So we should build more Cyclones, lots more. And don’t gold-plate them with oodles of new equipment they don’t need. Build ’em fast, build ’em cheap, and give our Navy some of its presence back.