Congress Hates On the Navy’s Tiniest Warships
Lawmakers won’t let the sailing branch count its ‘Cyclone’ patrol boats
The U.S. Navy’s 13 Cyclone-class patrol boats are 179 feet long, pack two 25-millimeter cannons plus machine guns, grenade launchers and two quadruple mounts for short-range Griffin anti-ship missiles.
Displacing just 330 tons, the Cyclones are arguably the most heavily-armed American warships relative to their size. But for all that firepower, the U.S. Congress refuses to include the patrol boats in the official count of deployable, battle-force vessels.
Congress’ decision to delist the Cyclones— which the legislative body codified in the 2015 military funding bill — is the latest blow in a bureaucratic battle over ship-counting that pits lawmakers versus the Navy.
Since acquiring the patrol boats in the mid-1990s until recently, the Navy struggled to find a place for the diminutive vessels in a fleet dominated by much larger, oceangoing aircraft carriers, cruisers and destroyers.
The Cyclones spent a decade in a kind of planning limbo. But then in 2003, the United States invaded Iraq — and suddenly the patrol boats found their calling. The waters of the Persian Gulf around Iraq’s sole oil terminal, where tanker ships hook up to load the precious crude, are too shallow for destroyers and cruisers. So to protect the strategic oil facility, the Navy deployed Cyclones.
The tiny but hard-hitting boats proved adept at shallow-water patrols. After the reborn Iraqi navy took over oil-terminal protection, the Cyclones shifted to more general missions in the waters separating Iraq and Iran. Today 10 of the Navy’s 13 Cyclones are forward-based in Bahrain and represent America’s vanguard in its ongoing standoff with Iran over the latter’s nuclear program.
To better prepare the patrol boats for combat in crowded, chaotic waters, in 2013 the Navy began improving the vessels — adding the Griffin missiles to greatly boost the boats’ firepower. To better reflect the Cyclones’ new role and armament, in March 2014 the Navy revised its criteria for inclusion in the official battle fleet … and added to the roster the 10 patrol boats in Bahrain.
That boosted the battle force to 288 vessels — and raised the ire of some lawmakers at a time when the Navy was struggling to increase its ship numbers while staying within tight “sequestration” spending caps.
“With America’s national security budget under severe pressure, it is imperative that the Congress and the American people be able to visualize just how radically sequestration is impacting American naval strength,” Rep. Randy Forbes, a Virginia Republican, said as he criticized the new counting rules.
Congress was swift to mandate a return to the old counting system in the next year’s military spending act. The restored rules took effect in late March and immediately removed the 10 Cyclones from the official tally.
To be clear, the patrol boats remain on duty despite disappearing from the battle-force roster.
But Congress’ intervention does have the effect of making the Navy appear weaker than it actually is — an obvious political advantage for the Republican majority in Congress as it seeks to undermine Pres. Barack Obama and his Democratic Party.
True, the Cyclones are comparatively small and short-range vessels and usually require help from a heavylift cargo ship to move between oceans. But the patrol boats are very much on the naval front line — and would be some of the first U.S. forces to see action if the standoff with Iran ever turned hot.
The Navy is adamant that the Cyclones should be in the battle force count. In its annual report to Congress on long-term shipbuilding plans, the sailing branch formally protested the patrol boats’ omission. “They are fulfilling long-standing and validated naval missions, functions and tasks, protecting U.S. national interests while providing stabilizing assurance to our allies and partners in a volatile region of the world,” the Navy said of the Cyclones.
It’s worth pointing out that the tension over the boats’ status will eventually resolve itself. The Navy plans to replace the Cyclones with much larger Littoral Combat Ships in coming years. The LCSs are on the official battle-force list … and no one has proposed removing them.