Naval News asked the U.S. Navy’s Chief of Information Department (CHINFO) on August 2021 for an update on the possible early divestment, decommission, and the fate of the twelve Mark VI Patrol Boats (PB) that are serving the U.S. Navy with distinction. While the U.S. Navy is contemplating the MK VIs’ divestment, Ukraine on the other hand, has an interest in acquiring up to sixteen Mark VIs with upgraded weapons and equipment for their own navy.
As the U.S. Navy shifts towards peer nation challenges, the Mark VIs are not seen as a required player for open ocean deterrence or for combat. At the Surface Navy Association 2021, Major General Tracy King, USMC, Director, Expeditionary Warfare (N95) did state that the twelve MK VIs “Were very expensive to maintain.” (The MK VI uses two diesel engines to power waterjets instead of shafts and propellers). Major General King also mentioned that in wargaming scenarios against peer nations, the MK VIs were deemed not really needed (given their small size and limited missile firepower). Repeated inquiries by Naval News to the U.S. Navy asking why the Mark VIs are slated for early retirement (questions related to possible issues regarding their mechanical and engineering, design flaws, upkeep, extensive maintenance, poor reliability, or degrading role and purpose) have not been answered or confirmed.
If the U.S. Navy does decide to prematurely retire the twelve Mark VI Patrol Boats, the U.S. Navy does have a preliminary fate for them. Lt. Lewis Aldridge, a U.S. Navy spokesperson said:
“The MK VIs will be returned to the Boat Inventory Manager in the continental U.S. for final disposition. The Navy continues to assess options for final disposition, including the potential transition to another service or another U.S. government agency, nomination for Foreign Military Sales, or placement into long-term storage.”
Thus, the 12 PBs will not be scuttled or scrapped (the U.S. Navy originally planned to acquire 48 Mark VI Patrol Boats).
Naval News comments
For purely speculative analytical purposes, the live-fire exercise photos in this story appear to contradict what USMC Major General Tracy King stated at SNA 2021 about the Mark VIs not having a role and purpose in a conflict with peer nations and with USMC General David H. Berger’s Force Design 2030’s philosophies. While far from the size of fleet warships, the twelve small MK VIs might be able to hide better in radar and sea clutter so as not to present such a large threatening target, and through Distributed Maritime Operations and Distributed Lethality, the MK VIs could prove to be a “Mosquito Fleet” for the U.S. Navy through the incorporation of guided missiles such as Stinger Short-range Air Defense Systems (SHORADS), Javelin Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGMs). SPIKE Non-Line-of-Sight (NLOS) ATGMs, 2.75-inch APKWS laser-guided rockets, and/or JQL/JAGM quad-cell launchers. Those guided rockets and missiles have a range of three to seventeen miles (4.8 to 25 kilometers). Furthermore, the MK VIs can be modified to carry miniature or micro-torpedoes for added sting.
While the U.S. Navy would not confirm on if the MK VI PBs have any critical “Showstopping issues” that affect their missions, Readiness, deployments, or duties, the U.S. Navy did state that it doesn’t intend to replace the Cyclone-class Patrol Coastals (PC) or invest in a future small Patrol Boat replacement platform, preferring to field the much larger Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) and also use small U.S. Coast Guard boats for the soon-to-be-deactivated U.S. Navy PC and PB roles. Naval News provided analysis on this approach.
The concept of using many small patrol boats as a “Mosquito Fleet” for the U.S. Marines does have merit as the U.S. Navy stated that it has lost a wargame against China here and here because the concentration of large U.S. Navy warships forming Carrier Strike Groups and Amphibious Ready Groups invited adversary anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles into a tight “Kill Zone” whereas much smaller boats spread vastly apart may not attract as much attention from enemy anti-ship missiles.
This does raise the question on if Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs) such as the MARTAC’s Devil Ray and the Saildrone can be used instead of small manned patrol boats to constitute any “Mosquito Fleet” and thus enhance Force Design 2030 and the U.S. Navy’s distributed operations beliefs. Nonetheless, this photo below shows the value of having small manned patrol boats that can launch USVs and Unmanned Underwater Vessels (UUVs) that require a crew of sailors to launch and retrieve, making the small patrol boat a mini-LCS in its own right, respectively.
Having inexpensive small boats perform missions that affect the battlespace, multitask, and carry customizable “undisclosed payloads” does spike interest with adversaries and peer nations in the U.S Navy’s tactical unpredictability as described in this article by USNI regarding the LCS’s Mission Modules and Payload Bay’s cargo attracting more attention and monitoring from a peer nation’s navy than from a regular AEGIS Arleigh Burke-class destroyer transiting the same area.
The United States possesses a robust industry in designing and constructing (new) small patrol boats along with USVs and UUVs of all shapes and sizes if the U.S. Navy decides to replace the MK VIs with a vessel of similar size. How the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps intends to employ a distributed strategy, and with what types or new vessels and resources, remains to be seen, but don’t dismiss the future of having the small patrol boat from the U.S. Navy’s and U.S. Marine Corp’s boat inventories just yet.