US Navy planners leave the field open to Iran

The US Navy is proposing a controversial plan to decommission its 25 shallow-water fighters. It’s the natural consequence of strategic groupthink, according to an expert.

According to current planning, on the 13 Cyclone-class and 12 Mk. VI patrol boats will begin leaving the fleet next month. Some of the 179 feet long Cyclones could remain in service for a few years, but the Navy wants to retire all 85-foot Mk. VIs by this fall.

The Navy took an entire day to answer several questions about its plans for the patrol boats. He answered each question identically. The budget options are “pre-decisional”, a spokesperson said. “We will not comment on future budget decisions until the budget request is submitted to Congress later this year.”

The decommissioning frenzy could leave the fleet without any small combatants capable of plying the shallower waters of the Persian Gulf, where Iran deploys dozens of speedboats equipped with rockets and cannons.

Navy chiefs have launched the struggling Littoral gunship as a possible replacement for the Cyclones and Mc. VI. But where a Mk. VI has a draft of only four feet and a Cyclone draws 7.5 feet of water, an LCS has a draft of 14 feet, which means it is at risk of running aground in the shallower areas of the Persian Gulf.

With their small size, heavy armament, and low operating costs compared to a half-billion-dollar LCS, the Patrol Craft keep busy. The Navy keeps 10 of the $39 million Cyclones and three of the $8 million Mk. VI to Bahrain for daily patrols in the Persian Gulf.

Despite their usefulness, the tiny fighters don’t have many champions within the Navy bureaucracy. “Great power competition” with China and Russia is the concept of the day.

Beating the Chinese and Russian fleets requires bigger ships, and lots of them. No one is interested in fighting for small ships, even if they represent a rounding error in the Navy’s $200 billion annual budget.

At the Pentagon, “funding is sometimes a bit like a kid’s football game,” said Eric Wertheim, author of world battle fleets. “Wherever the ball goes on the pitch, the kids will follow and huddle around the ball, ignoring the rest of the pitch and their positions.”

“They don’t stay in their positions and instead form a mass of legs and kids around the ball, leaving large parts of the pitch – often where the ball was a few moments ago – unattended.”

At the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan more than a decade ago, the Navy’s big ships “got neglected,” Wertheim said. “Now that high-end threats from Russia and China are where the ball is, unconventional and low-end missions risk being overlooked.”

The problem is that reality does not pander to Pentagon groupthink. While the US military was busy in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia and China were rearming. The myopic focus on the former helped create today’s bureaucratic panic over the latter. Planners are scrambling to restore high-end abilities they overlooked when those abilities were internally unpopular.

Now that great powers are all anyone in the US Department of Defense can think of, bureaucrats risk overlooking the threat that lesser powers such as Iran continue to pose. Tehran is not going to cancel its foreign affairs just because deterring Tehran becomes inconvenient for the US Navy.

In fact, American preoccupation with China and Russia represents an opportunity for Iran. Beijing and Moscow took advantage of Washington’s war on terror to modernize and deploy their forces where the Americans patrolled.

Expect Tehran to do the same as great power reprogramming sucks cash from Washington’s naval garrison in the Persian Gulf.

As patrol boats head for the breaking waves and less suitable vessels replace them or, worse, nothing replaces them – Iran’s own gunboats will have the shallow waters of the Persian Gulf mostly to themselves.

“That’s one of the dangers that defense watchers often see in budget trends,” Wertheim said. “All funding seems to flow to key priorities, while less exciting mission areas are often overlooked, often leaving a void that can be tapped.”

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