The Pentagon is buying the wrong ship, and it’s costing taxpayers billions

April 30, 2015

Cyclone-class boats before the modernization program in formation. Courtesy of U.S. NAVY

The United States will spend $585 billion on its armed forces in 2015 — the biggest military budget in the world by far. That’s just the Defense Department budget and doesn’t include the tens of billions of dollars that Washington spends on veterans, the purview of the Veterans Administration, or nuclear-weapons development, which falls under the Department of Energy.

There’s tremendous pressure in Congress to spend less. Though the Pentagon argues vehemently that budget cuts will harm national security, there are some fairly obvious places where defense cuts would not only save taxpayers’ money, they could also actually boost national security.

Case in point: the Navy’s patrol force for the Persian Gulf. The sailing branch’s plan is to revitalize the force with new vessels that will cost far more than the current ships. Worse, the new vessels will probably be far less effective. The Navy could do better by spending less — more than $3 billion less, to be precise. That would surely please Congress as well as skeptical voters.


The cyclone-class coastal patrol ship USS Firebolt during an exercise in the Arabian Gulf, October 1, 2011. U.S. NAVY/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Walter M. Wayman

For more than a decade, a small force of 10 patrol boats has plied the shallow waters of the northern Persian Gulf, guarding Iraq’s strategic oil terminals and keeping an eye on Iranian military moves. The 10 Cyclone-class boats, based in the tiny Gulf state of Bahrain, are some of America’s busiest warships and would likely be the first to see action if the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program ever turned violent.

Consider: 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.

In a way, the Cyclones are a happy accident. The Navy commissioned 14 of the boats, starting in 1993, in the hope of using them to transport SEAL commandos ashore on secret missions. But the Cyclones proved to be too big for the infiltration role. In 2000, the sailing branch began disposing of the boats, donating one to the Philippines and lending several others to the Coast Guard.


The Cyclone-class patrol coastal boat USS Sirocco speeds north to provide support in conjunction with Maritime Security Operations in the Northern Persian Gulf, April 13, 2005. U.S. NAVY/Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Robert McRillate

Then after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Navy found itself with the new mission of protecting Iraq’s oil infrastructure — and also preventing Iran from exerting potentially damaging influence on the shattered country. The Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class destroyers — its standard warships — penetrate 31 feet into the water, deep enough to risk frequent grounding in the shallow waters of the northern Persian Gulf.

By contrast, the Cyclones draw just seven feet of water, so they can freely maneuver throughout the watery frontier separating Iraq and Iran. The Navy abruptly halted its efforts to dispose of the patrol boats, asked the Coast Guard to return the borrowed copies and sent 10 of the tiny warships to Bahrain, where they were placed within quick sailing distance of the volatile ocean hotspot.

The Cyclones proved so adept at patrolling the northern Gulf that the Navy soon doubled down on them. Their hulls and equipment were refurbished and extra weapons were added to them. The upgrades, which began in 2009, should extend the vessels’ useful lives into the mid-2020s, at which point they could begin to suffer serious corrosion and other wear and tear.

The Navy will need to replace these Cyclones. It should replace them with ships equally adept at sailing in shallow water. The mission calls for a small patrol boat that needs to be inexpensive. Currently, however, the Navy plans to swap out Cyclones for much larger and costlier Littoral Combat Ships, with hulls that draw twice as deeply as the patrol boats. Meaning they can’t patrol in all the areas the Cyclones can.

The new Littoral Combat Ships — the Navy is buying as many as 52 in coming years — are products of a late-1990s military craze for high-tech, multi-mission “platforms.” That is, ships, planes and ground vehicles that can switch from one task to another with the press of a button.

The problem with that concept is that the more you ask of a particular piece of hardware, the more complex — and expensive — it tends to be.

Worse, gear that can do lots of things at once usually can’t do any particular thing especially well.

That multi-mission mindset has produced costly weapons boondoggles, including the F-35 stealth fighter (at $400 billion, history’s most expensive weapons program) and the Army’s Future Combat System ground vehicles, which the Pentagon cancelled in 2009 after spending $20 billion on development.


The Littoral Combat Ships USS Independence, left, and USS Coronado underway in the Pacific Ocean, April 23, 2014. U.S. NAVY/Chief Mass Communication Specialist Keith DeVinney

Each multi-mission Littoral Combat Ship was supposed to cost a little over $200 million, but the actual price today is more than twice that. The ship is meant to be equally adept at hunting for sea mines and fighting submarines and surface ships, but it’s too lightly armed for any one of those tasks. It is also more than twice as long as a Cyclone and 10 times heavier, yet comes equipped with only slightly more weaponry.

It just so happens that Bollinger Shipyards, the same Louisiana shipyard that built the Cyclones, is building Sentinel-class boats for the Coast Guard that are roughly the same size as the Navy vessels, far more modern and reasonably priced at just $70 million a boat.

If the Navy bought 10 fewer Littoral ships and acquired 10 new patrol boats for $70 million apiece instead, it would represent a net savings of more than $3 billion in ship construction costs while also boosting national security.

Sounds like a pretty good deal.


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The Cyclone Class Patrol Coastal (PC) is not a boat. It is a commissioned US Naval vessel and the smallest ship in the Navy’s inventory.

Posted by aoe3cheng | Report as abusive

Effective weapons = lower profit margins. Congress, defense lobbby, and military leaders not interested. Must keep revolving doors moving. Hitler thought he could win WWII with high tech weapons, too. Killing people and destroying property cheaper than your enemy is the key. It’s called cost management out here in the real world.

Posted by alowl | Report as abusive

Delivery systems should be simple, small, and relatively inexpensive. Their weapons systems and defense systems should be state of the art.

Posted by wierd | Report as abusive

Ut would appear that with the growth of China’s military, they are going to do to use what we did to USSR, let us spend on military until we are broke corrupted and economic failure.
Which does not seem the far off, if not already happening. Dare we ask about the money trail for the new ships, and how many USN procurement-related folks looking for “post-retirement jobs Dare we ask……

Posted by fwrfwr | Report as abusive

Article fails to address speed, range, and endurance.

Btw, depth of a vessel is defined as “draft”. Cyclone-class draft seems understated here.

May as well stock plenty of both classes of vessels…

Posted by wasguy | Report as abusive

One of the MAJOR reasons the PC’s were rejected by the Navy was the absolutely PUNISHING ride in open ocean because of, among other things, the shallow draft. Having ridden one myself, I can tell you that the most seasoned crew members and riders were GULPING tablets of Meclizine and suffered such mind-numbing pounding once we cleared the sea wall (in only about Sea State 3)that we had to turn back and disembark the team of engineering evaluators. I’m glad they found a new mission in the Gulf guarding things in shallow water, but to jump to a conclusion that the Navy should build more PC’s at the expense of other ships would be foolhardy. In shallow water and light seas they might make a whole lot of sense, but in blue water, on open-ocean missions such as interdictions and ASW, a PC is WOEFULLY inadequate.

Posted by tompf | Report as abusive

Doesn’t the whole idea of “patrol” boats seem a bit old fashioned in this era of spy satellites, spy planes, underwater listening devices that can be stationed in one spot, spy drones, long range radar systems, etc?

So the point is what? Not only to spy on a potential enemy, but also to let them see that you are spying on them? You have to be able to intercept a potential enemy’s boat (the equivalent of giving them a traffic ticket) rather than just sinking their boat with very long range weapons?

Posted by nose2066 | Report as abusive

Government small enough to police the world forever. The next Iraq awaits. GOP in action.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

It has been known for years that the LCS program is an underwhelming money sink plagued with technical problem, defects and cost overruns. Just like the JSF program actually. Yet the Pentagon can’t stop pouring money into these projects because Congress will take their cash away without expensive toys to justify that bloated budget. Sure they could just shift the money towards more paying the soldiers more and low-tech solutions to match today’s assymetrical environment but those options certainly do not make for sexy headlines. Essentially everyone is just fighting for their piece of the budget pie, cost, accountability and efficiency be damned.

On the flip side of the coin, the defense private sector is all too happy to oblige since this recklessness has allowed them to rake in steady profits. Capitalism baby! Wonderful vicious cycle that has started the US down the path of economic ruin. US is the new Roman Empire.

Posted by blah77 | Report as abusive

Once congress tried to outlaw profit on defense industry…unsuccessfully.

Posted by Jingan | Report as abusive

It won’t be quite the savings the author projects. The 70 million price tag for the Sentinel-class cutter doesn’t include any missile armaments at all. It’s going to eat up some money making them equivalent to the Cyclones.

Which is not an argument in favor of the LCS, which is indeed a ship that tries to do too many things and ends up being too big for the littoral mission, draws too much water, and does nothing well at all.

Posted by Urgelt | Report as abusive

As in most things, the rule is “Follow the money.” What companies stand to benefit? How much did they contribute to the election campaign? Do their CEOs belong to any political organization designed to benefit a particular party?
Has the company ever been indicted for financial finagling? Do any politicians have close connections to any of their officers?
Our history is tragically littered with the bodies of those who died in order to enrich corporate coffers. Our politicians have excelled at sending people off to die while never having put themselves at risk. As long as money can be made – BY ANYONE – from American blood, we will never be able to be proud of who we are.

Posted by Boguseconomist | Report as abusive

The Sherman tank was a death trap but swarms of them with cheap life tankers available made them a successful viable option. That cheap life option no longer exists. Since military lives are no longer cheap expensive technology combat multipliers will continue.

Posted by MarcMc | Report as abusive

Saving $3 Billion may seem like a good deal to you and to the average American citizen,
BUT, what about the poor military provider, and the politicians that have to deliver the pork? What about them?

Posted by ckd1358 | Report as abusive

Urgelt: That’s true, but there’s also an argument that the littoral screening and patrol force should be a mix of corvettes and patrol boats, and the MK VI can be brought to station on any of the well deck ships that can haul an LCAC. At $450m-$600m fully equipped for an LCS-1, you could have two $200m corvettes and 3-8 Mk VI patrol boats.

nose2066: none of those … “spy satellites, spy planes, underwater listening devices that can be stationed in one spot, spy drones, long range radar systems” … can provide forward targeting and attack of the kind of swarm of small missile boats that the large ships of a carrier task force are vulnerable to if they operate too close to shore. “Patrol” is not just “being there to find out”, its also “being there to take action if need be”.

Posted by BruceMcF | Report as abusive