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Challenges, close quarters and camaraderie: Inside the Navy's Coastal Patrol mission

ABOARD THE USS TYPHOON, Persian Gulf — One can walk from the bow of the ship to the stern in under a minute. Unlike most U.S. Navy warships, Coastal Patrol boats are so small they don’t even have a helicopter pad — although crewmembers jokingly say landing a helicopter might be possible, but just once.

The Navy has 13 of these vessels, whose legacy dates to World War II-era motor torpedo boats. The fact they are called Coastal Patrol ships means just that — they are not of much use in the open ocean where heavy sea swells would make them difficult to operate.

In a Navy dominated by massive warships, it’s difficult to imagine a ship with about 25 sailors having a place in the Navy’s forward presence strategy. Over the past 15 years, the PCs were gradually falling into obscurity — that is, until 5th Fleet came calling.

Now the PC platform has re-emerged as the workhorse of the Navy’s forward presence. Last year, three PCs were sent to Bahrain to augment the five already based near the U.S. 5th Fleet Headquarters. Two more are expected to arrive in the coming months. By the end of the summer 10 of the Navy’s 13 PC ship fleets will be forward deployed to Bahrain.

Navy officials describe the PC mission in the Persian Gulf as necessary to enhance theater security and to build partnerships with other Gulf nations. Officials said the ships are routinely tasked to escort other ships, provide maritime security, protect infrastructure, and frequently participate in exercises with regional allies.

“The PCs are the perfect craft for that because of our size and our look,” said Lt. Cmdr. Brian Crosby, commander of the USS Typhoon. “You can bring a DDG (guided missile destroyer) out here to do these sort of things, but a DDG is a much bigger platform and highly intimidating to some of the smaller countries,” he explained.

Crewmembers say the operational tempo is very high. “Definitely a high demand for PCs out here,” said Crosby. He says the ship is underway about 60 percent of the time undertaking a mission.

“On a PC your mission changes daily, [it] keeps you on your toes,” said Chief Petty Officer Herb Kresge who’s been in the Navy 20 years, and served on five other ships.

While crewmembers speak with incredible pride about serving on a PC, they say it can be a rough life. Although PCs in the Persian Gulf don’t deploy in seven-month stints like many other ships in the Navy, crewmembers say the days spent in port are few and leave is difficult to take.

“We are highly operational, in high demand, and always on the go,” Crosby said.

Despite the Navy recently allowing PC sailors to bring their families to Bahrain, few have done so, and some say they are hesitant too because of the high operational tempo.

“PC sailors are on the front lines of making a difference,” said Cmdr. John Howard, commodore of Patrol Coastal Squadron One. “If that kind of thing excites you, we want you to know about PCs,” said Howard.

He touts several benefits for sailors serving on PCs that include operating in a foreign country, obtaining qualifications not possible on larger ships, and going to sea with a purpose. “When they get underway to go to sea, they’re going out to actually do a mission,” said Howard.

In the Persian Gulf, with Iran a mere 110 nautical miles from the ships’ Bahrain homeport, run-ins with Iranian vessels do occur. Crewmembers speak of such incidents with heightened excitement. However, higher-ranking Navy officials stress that such encounters are always professional.

“We see them, they see us, and we are all out here in the Gulf together,” Crosby said, adding that “they have every right to be in international waters as we do.”

While political disputes between Washington and Tehran over Iran’s nuclear program create a sense of naval tension in the Gulf, the main threat to PC sailors is posed by terrorists and insurgents. A decade ago, two sailors and a Coast Guardsman from the USS Firebolt were killed by a suicide bombing while they were clearing fishing dhows from an area around an Iraqi oil terminal in the Gulf.

Regardless of the threat, PCs still pack a formidable punch despite their small size. Half of the PCs here, including the Typhoon, were recently outfitted with the lightweight Griffin Missile System to complement the existing 25mm autocannon and .50-caliber machine guns, thus significantly increasing their firepower.

The upgrades are a clear sign that the PCs are here to stay, despite all being about 20 years old, officials said.

“The Navy has made a commitment that these ships are going to remain the workhorse of 5th Fleet for the foreseeable future,” said Howard.

The Navy plans to upgrade each PC during its next yard period to extend the life of the ships, officials said. However, there are no plans yet to restructure the ship’s berthing spaces to accommodate women. All PC crewmembers must be male, with the exception of the commander — who has a separate stateroom aboard.

Life on a PC

Flexibility is a buzzword on a PC. Even the most experienced crewmembers describe PC life as being outside the Navy’s norm. “It’s different than any other ship, that’s for sure,” said Kresge.

The last time the ship’s only culinary specialist went on leave, the crew was left with a boatswain’s mate chief petty officer in charge of the cooking. A move that apparently worked out pretty well, although it’s doubtful anyone would openly criticize a fellow sailor’s cooking on a vessel with such a small crew.

In such tight quarters aboard the coastal patrol boats, crewmembers tend to know everything about each other, said Petty Officer 1st Class Jose Leon.

“Every single thing about them,” he said, adding that this allows the crew to trust and depend on one another.

Navy ratings, which identify a sailor’s job description, seem to be only a formality on board. “Not only do you have to be qualified in your rate, you have to be able to step out of your rate and get qualified in other aspects you wouldn’t see those rates do on a (larger warship),” said Crosby.

On a typical day, Petty Officer 1st Class Keevan Haynes, the ship’s culinary specialist, started the morning topside handling lines to get the ship underway, came below-decks to cook lunch, and back up topside after lunch to help drop the anchor. He’s also sometimes the conning officer on the bridge at night, and has other shipboard roles as the command fitness leader and the command financial specialist.

“You do get to see every other job in the Navy coming to a platform like this,” Haynes said.

simoes.hendrick@stripes.com
Twitter: @hendricksimoes

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