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by Capt Ed Wiser for Coastal Angler Magazine

With apologies to Denys Rayner and Robert Mitchum, this is not about fighting kraut submarines but about another deadly killer still lurking in our waters – Vibrio bacteria. Last summer I was working on a boat at the coast and noticed the owner was missing a lot of muscle tissue in one calf. He said it was the result of an encounter with a member of the Vibrio family of bacteria. He said it lurks in the sediment in our canals and is swept into the water column by high winds and water. It entered his body through a cut received while cleaning up after a major storm and nearly killed him. Since the water is getting warmer and we are getting in it, this might be a good time to explore the topic.

Dr. Armand Cognetta, is a Tallahassee dermatologist, published author, avid sailor, and internationally known expert in dermatological oncology. Most of us who spend a lot of time on the water get to know him eventually. Prior to going into dermatology, he spent the last year of his family medicine residency in Apalachicola where he was the interim county health director. He used to have to sign oyster permits and occasionally to shut the bay down for 50 ppm coliforms whereas some neighboring states which will go unnamed still harvested them at 500ppm. Another great reason to stick with commercially harvested Apalachicola oysters and shun the imports. He weighed in with this information and advice:

The Vibrio family is what gives bacteria a bad name. Vibrio cholera is still one of the leading causes of death in the underdeveloped world where it regularly contaminates water supplies.

When I was an intern at TMH 30 years ago a young man from Franklin County came into the ER with a 12 hour history of severe diarrhea.  He had been partying with friends and when they got hungry decided to walk out on an exposed mud flat and harvest a few of what the locals called coon oysters.  In order to get his blood pressure up above barely palpable we gave him 8 liters of fluids IV in the ER.  I did a culture and tried to admit him but he left against medical advice.

The next day I got a call from pathologist David Craig wanting to know what room the patient was in so as to put the patient in isolation since he had grown out some type of what was then called non typable Vibrio. We never were able to contact the patient or get him back in.

This in retrospect was probably one of the earliest cases of Vibrio parahemoliticus. The next day the CDC came in and despite the clear history that these oysters were not from approved waters they shut down the bay from oystering for a week.

Fast forward a few years as a dermatologist.   I recall having a retired gentleman come in with a virulent cellulitis on his inner arm that rapidly spread over the course of a few hours.  He had been working at his beach house and got a puncture wound from a bayonet palm.  Within hours he was septic with high fever.  Fortunately, we admitted him quickly and stabilized him finding out a few days later that he had the first case we had seen of vibrio vulnificans.

Several years later a patient of mine who worked at FSU Research Lab at Turkey Point came into my office with a bizarre cellulitis on his left inner arm that occurred shortly after a slight abrasion from a barnacle he received while working on his boat. Four days later and after surgical debridement and antibiotics he left the hospital unable to work for several weeks.  His arm still bears severe scarring from his wrist to the axilla.

Perhaps the most dramatic case I have ever seen was when I was called into the operating room by an orthopedic who was debriding  a rapidly advancing flesh eating cellulitis in an individual with known liver disease who had ingested raw oysters during the non R months.  One could literally see the disease advance in front of one’s eyes.  Were it not for the skill of the surgeon and the entire TMH staff this person would have been on the wrong side of the 50% fatality rate.

Bottom line, know your oyster supplier, avoid uncooked oysters if you have liver disease and do not take any minor marine skin infection lightly.


By Edward Wiser
A dialogue between industry and government is producing new mounts for the riverine cavalry.

One can make the case that the new riverine forces are waterborne counterparts to 19th-century cavalry. They are being organized and trained for lightning attack, recon, patrol, and convoy—core missions for horse soldiers in the Old West. Like their mounted predecessors, the capability of their steeds is central to success. Much attention has been devoted of late to the form those mounts will take.

A close liaison between the small-craft industry and its military customers is yielding a new understanding of the realities of the brown-water environment. The Navy is struggling to determine and quantify its needs as it develops tactical doctrine following decades of neglecting riverine warfare. Experience in Iraq, South America, and with numerous allies in Africa and Asia, has served as a proving ground for what works and for where change is warranted.

The ongoing conversation has shown that in the vagaries of riverine combat one size or type vessel does not fit all requirements. How the demand for specialization will be incorporated with the institutional drive toward standardization remains to be seen. Based on military requirements and civilian ideas, three basic types of riverine craft are emerging: light, fast, and versatile recon and attack craft designed to find and fix targets; heavier, well-armored mini-gunboats and assault troop carriers designed to close with and destroy an enemy; and river transports capable of carrying heavy loads of troops or cargo in a dynamic, shallow-draft environment.

A Dichotomy in Design, Function, and Construction

While the domestic trend is toward higher technology and innovation, this philosophy is self-defeating in many of the areas where the river craft will deploy. The new boats are being marketed to foreign navies as well as our own, and therein lies a conflict. Rear Admiral Donald Bullard, former Commander, Navy Expeditionary Combat Command, recently noted that advanced technology cannot be supported in some regions. Technicians in many locales can rebuild a standard carburetor but are helpless when confronted by the need to use a laptop to tune a modern fuel-efficient outboard. Yet, the Navy is quick to call for commonality of engines, weapons, electronics, and drive trains in an ongoing effort to reduce the logistics tail. The solution may lie in identical hulls being offered with two or more suites of systems and weapons.

Admiral Bullard stated the Navy’s needs succinctly. First, speed is critical to survival. The boats must be both fast and maneuverable. Force protection, i.e., armor, is another vital element in survivability of crew and craft. Riverine warfare takes place in constricted battle zones, the closest any modern Sailor is likely to come to the muzzle-to-muzzle ranges of the age of fighting sail. Armor must be strong enough to protect the crew and the vessel while remaining light enough to not reduce speed. The crew must be able to return fire accurately and in volume, a challenging requirement from a small boat bouncing along at 40+ knots. This supports the tendency toward stabilized weaponry. Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, sensors, and the ability to employ unmanned aerial vehicles round out Bullard’s guidelines.

Joshua Iverson, riverine veteran and currently Riverine Functional Team Leader for the Navy’s Center for Security Forces, is quick to supply specifics. Iverson’s experience in Iraq and the tropical estuaries of Colombia have led him to conclude that different geographical and environmental conditions demand variations in craft and equipment. The conflict with the drive to standardization is obvious, but Iverson makes a good case for differentiation. While some conditions call for a variation in power plants and armament, sometimes a simple change in camouflage scheme can adapt a boat to a new locale or season.

He notes that boats in Iraq are generally stored on trailers in secure compounds and towed to launching sites. The convoy, launch, and recovery operations expose operators to ambush at a time when they have either restricted road speed or are stationary. A limited number of launching sites makes for easier targeting by enemy forces and sites may need to be graded to carry the load. Such launching operations are also extremely difficult at night. Ease of transport on land remains a desirable element, with rugged trailers that can launch from primitive sites, provide hull protection against improvised explosive devices while in transit, and help to recover a damaged vessel.

Iverson states unequivocally that hulls must be strong and durable enough to withstand frequent groundings on rocky bottoms, possess armor proof against small arms, and have a bow door for personnel, self-cleaning intake strainers, and back-flushing capability. He insists that speed is critical to survival and that the highly maneuverable jet drives fill this role well as long as their impellers and turbine blades can withstand the rigors of the combat environment.

Low-lying cables and bridges limit access, and the former are extremely dangerous, especially for bow gunners. Water levels are subject to constant, sometimes hourly change, often controlled by the locals through dams and spillways. These aspects reinforce the need for low-profile craft. The highest points on the boats are the ones most likely to be hit by small arms fire, as verified by a study of casualty figures from Vietnam and the World War II PT boat experience in the Pacific. This is one reason why law enforcement vessels are at risk in combat—they tend to be tall and top-heavy. A glance at the successful PT boats and those of the post-war era, including the Nasty -class fast patrol torpedo boats of the 1960s, shows that designers and selection boards consistently appreciate the importance of low superstructures and weaponry.

What is Industry Offering?

Captain Evin H. Thompson, Commodore, Naval Special Warfare Group Four, has called the riverine force a direct descendent of the torpedo boats of World War II. While the lineage claim has validity, the form their offspring has taken would amaze PT veterans. Small combatant craft have evolved remarkably since even the invasion of Iraq. A few years ago rigid inflatable boats dominated this market. These boats, open craft of limited capabilities, were previously a staple of riverine warfare due to the absence of other alternatives. Thanks to recent developments they have largely been relegated to security, police, and low-intensity patrol functions. Innovative newcomers are steadily usurping their combat role.

One of the most novel concepts comes from a partnership between Lockheed Martin and Gibbs Technologies. Claiming that high-speed amphibious vehicles are the next generation of combat craft, they are offering three types and sizes of road-worthy, wheeled amphibs designed as both transports and assault craft and carrying up to 20 people. Such craft are not new, having been pioneered by the German Wehrmacht in 1939. But until recently they had water speeds of less than seven knots. Lockheed claims their combat craft can deliver 50-80 mph on land and 35-50 knots on flat water.

If the prototypes prove successful they could be a tremendous breakthrough in assault and transport craft, allowing immediate transit from water to land and vice versa. The ability to dispense with trailers, launching sites, and towing vehicles would reduce troop and crew exposure and reduce or eliminate the need for waterside support facilities. This is asking a lot from any system, and the realization of these goals and the ability of the amphibians to stand up to the rigors of combat cause the future of the type to remain in question.

The merger of proven ideas with modern materials and technology is apparent in the prototype Joint Multi-Mission Expeditionary Craft (JMEC). With hull design and construction by Aluminum Chambered Boats of Bellingham, Washington, twin jet drives, turbocharged diesels, and systems by Northrop-Grumman, JMEC is a clear example of private joint ventures capitalizing on various corporate strengths. The same aluminum hull is offered in five configurations that fulfill each of the three basic riverine tasks. In the hands of a skilled coxswain the slab-sided, bluff-bowed boat is remarkably fast and maneuverable. With modular adaptability to changing missions, the JMEC offers a preview of the type of craft that can address the Navy’s institutional mandates.

Coastal and riverine capabilities have long been a focal point in allied navies more concerned with homeland security than projection of power abroad. Thus, it is not surprising that some U.S. firms are looking overseas for suitable shoal-draft combatant craft. SAFE Boats International recently obtained license to produce the Swedish CB90 at its Washington state facility. This multi-mission craft can be used as a mini-gunboat, but it is especially suited as an attack troop transport. It can be armed with mortars, missiles, and a variety of automatic weapons, all of them stabilized and remotely operated. The CB90 is a proven design already in service in several NATO nations as well as Mexico, Malaysia, and Russia. Why go abroad for an assault boat? SAFE Boats President Scott Peterson said “SBI knew the Navy needed something in a short amount of time . . . there was not the time to develop a boat from scratch. Then we started doing our homework on the most evolved riverine craft around the world and the CB90 continued to come up.”

Out of the Past

Some of the new shallow-water warriors may look familiar. Virginia Electronic Systems (VES) has teamed with Associated Naval Architects to breathe new life into the Mini armored troop carrier (ATC), a late-1970s vintage boat. This barge-like 36-foot-long vessel was designed around lessons learned from Vietnam and is powered by twin commercial turbocharged diesels coupled to water jets. Its bow ramp design was heavily influenced by SEAL operations. The aluminum hull carries high-tech armor and is reported to draw only a foot of water when planing at high speed. Draft at rest is 2.5 feet, and the craft features a low-profile hull extending a mere 6 feet off the water. Capable of carrying 15 troops at speeds of 28 knots, the ATC has found a new role through an ongoing U.S. initiative to use riverine forces to aid Colombia’s counter narcotics efforts. Unlike some of the craft described previously, the ATC is a completed weapon-in-being, its design and development having been paid for decades ago, and thus far less expensive to revamp and put into active service.

Other current and vintage vessels offer less potential. The Patrol Boat, River (PBR) and the Patrol Craft, Fast (PCF), also known as Swift boats, of Vietnam were compromise craft acquired as a matter of expediency and are no longer in service. The PBR was largely a Hatteras design but built by a firm in Washington state. That company went out of business decades ago, and the molds are long since gone. No great loss though, since both types had problems. Neither was exceptionally seaworthy. The PBR had some engine and drive problems, and the Swift boat was far too tall and slow for modern operations.

It has been suggested that the Coast Guard’s recently completed Response Boat, Medium (RBM) might be modified for riverine combat but savings are problematic. Law enforcement and small combatant craft face radically different missions and to convert the RBM for the latter task would mandate a complete change of superstructure, deck, equipment, and weaponry. The addition of this gear plus armor would probably throw the boat far off her design lines and ruin performance. At any rate, the cost savings of using an available hull would be small since the hull accounts for 20 percent or less of the cost of a combat-ready boat.

The Need for Speed

Speed and rapid acceleration are vital to survivability in the close quarters of riverine combat. Vietnam river transports and monitors typically had speeds of no more than 15 knots, and 10 knots or less was not uncommon. Today any vessel that cannot continuously exceed 30 knots will not make it off the drawing board. A loaded speed of 40-50 knots is the new norm. Jet drives have become the drive train of choice in most riverine craft, and they are almost exclusive in combatants. Their ability to operate at high speeds in very shallow water has resulted in a new generation of boats whose draft is measured in inches instead of feet. They accelerate quickly, have the potential to maneuver faster and tighter than conventional drive trains, and can often run at high speed in less than a foot of water.

There are drawbacks, however. Inducted rocks and other forms of solid debris routinely damage impellers, blades, and fans, reducing speed and destroying drive trains. Jet drives lack the hydrodynamic “bite” on the water of propeller systems, and this impacts their maneuverability. To compensate they need to be paired with hulls possessing bluff bows with slight deadrise forward and deeper V sections aft—exactly the opposite of the characteristics sought in a good sea boat.

Outboards continue to be much in evidence and are often found paired with rigid inflatable boats. The powerhead and much of the drive train is exposed to gunfire so this engine type is most frequently seen in the law enforcement and security role. The majority are four-stroke models, already successful in commercial and recreational applications for their quiet, fuel-efficient operation. Despite their exposure to hostile fire, outboards afford quick and easy exchange of worn or damaged engines so they may retain a combat presence in remote or primitive areas where tech support is limited. The Department of Defense is seeking to reduce the multiplicity of fuels in use, and outboards will need to adapt to this while remaining lightweight and user-friendly if they are to remain with combatant forces. Inboard/outboards are rare, and conventional inboard drive trains involving shaft, struts, and propellers have been discarded in brown-water prototypes.

The Human Factor

Any craft is only as good as its crew, and the boats and men of the riverine force operate in a harsh and challenging environment. High-speed craft are subject to repetitive impact loads, and even the fittest Sailors will experience decreased efficiency and effectiveness as a result. Continued exposure to impact, high-speed maneuvers, lifting, and leaping often has long-term negative repercussions and can result in permanent disability. In recognition of this, boat designers are making shock-absorbing design and construction an integral part of the production process.

Spring-, hydraulic-, or pneumatic-loaded seats are increasingly common, and the same technology is being employed to alleviate adverse impacts to sensitive onboard equipment. On some craft it is primarily the crew that benefits, but in others advanced ergonomics are being harnessed to reduce fatigue on troops being transported to battle. This is the case with the CB90. Deck cushioning consisting of interlocking plates reminiscent of top-flight athletic shoes is common in most new designs.

Aluminum is increasingly the material of choice in these boats. Noise while under way is a common drawback of aluminum hulls, and manufacturers seek to lessen this with a variety of coverings and insulation materials. Current capabilities are being advanced by sound deadening coatings that can be applied to almost any metallic or composite surface. The resultant noise reduction is not only an aid to covert operations but makes for a friendlier work environment for crewmen. Taxpayers and Sailors will appreciate the consequent reduction in hearing loss and disability claims.

Even air conditioning has become a common component in the new prototypes, and why not? When operating in temperatures of 120 degrees it is an important feature for efficiency of crew and equipment.

Systems Development

A small combatant is much more than hull and power plant. It is a complex amalgam of mechanical, electrical, and weapon systems designed to keep its occupants alive while maximizing effectiveness and lethality. Modern combatants feature multiple computerized systems including steering, navigation, communications, target acquisition, and engagement.

Compared to the boats they operated in the 1960s, Vietnam-era vets would be amazed at the proliferation of laptops and computer-guided weaponry and systems management that is considered both d’rigueur and essential on board the next generation of small naval combatants. Night vision devices integrated with optically controlled heavy caliber direct fire weapons are widespread. Automatic fire tends to draw an opponent’s attention and return fire. Therefore, increased use of remote-controlled weaponry helps remove the gunner from the field of fire and allows him to concentrate on killing the enemy instead of dodging incoming rounds. Not every weapon is a gun, however. Installation of non-lethal acoustic weaponry for security and law enforcement craft is gaining wide acceptance.

State-of-the-art navigation gear occupies much of the cockpit panel in many new offerings to include GPS, depth finders, and cameras integrated with screens to pinpoint an opponent’s position. Thermal imagers are becoming standard equipment, interfaced with optical cameras to show both the forest and the hostile elements it can conceal. Compact equipment for internal and external communications has long been a feature of land and riverine vehicles and continues to be in evidence but in a refined, miniaturized incarnation.

Steering wheels are rapidly losing out to joysticks, and spring-loaded, electrically activated toggle controls are much in evidence. They eliminate the wear and corrosion found in shift and throttle cables with welcome weight reductions and easier maintenance. The new controls also occupy less space in cockpits already packed with electronics and are ergonomically friendly to the operators.

Capability Gap

High-speed boats, sophisticated electronics, jet drives, and high rev engines generally have a single thread in common: expense. When these items are placed in combat the harsh usage and environment decrease useful life dramatically. The result is a budgetary strain that can reduce or eliminate even the best systems. Iraq and the war on terrorism have led to an infusion of money into a hitherto cash-impoverished realm of U.S. naval endeavor. But “infusion” can be relative. As Admiral Bullard candidly noted, “Fiscal realities are there and are going to come crashing down, in my opinion.” Therefore, reliability and ease of maintenance in the field remains critical for reasons of combat dependability, readiness, and to meet budgetary realities.

Regardless of cost, administration officials will eventually have to make tough choices between maintaining the status quo or spending a lot more on new boats. Since the military is the only segment of government and society making sacrifices for the misnamed Global War on Terror, precedent does not paint an optimistic picture.

Another disturbing factor is apparent. A review of these specialized craft and the current blue-water inventory reveals a dangerous shortcoming in the Fleet mix. The U.S. Navy has enjoyed a dominant presence on the high seas for a century. Limited power is slowly being produced for the riverine component. Yet, there exists a clear gap between these two capabilities. Where are the gunboats, missile patrol boats, and assault craft of greater seaworthiness than their brown-water cousins and of less draft and expense than the blue-water ships? Where are the platforms needed for waters at once open and confined such as the Philippine and Indonesia archipelagoes, the shoal near coastal waters of southeast Asia where pirates proliferate, and similar shallow seas? The Littoral Combat Ship is too large and far too costly to fill this role. The Navy still lacks a compact, seaworthy, potent, and efficient vessel for control of the green-water battlespace. Bridging the green-water gap may be industry’s and the Navy’s next challenge.

Mr. Wiser is a boat systems technician with over 25 years experience operating, maintaining and repairing small craft. A former artillery officer, he is completing his Ph.D. dissertation at Florida State University and is an adjunct professor of strategy and policy at the Naval War College.


By Edward Wiser. Published in United States Naval Institute Proceedings, February 2006.

Millions of dollars have been poured into the too-large and too-slow Sea Fighter (FSF-1), below undergoing  flight deck certification, but the Navy can find the answer to its riverine warfare needs in its storied brown-water past. It’s time to …


Where is the Navy? That is the question I asked myself repeatedly nearly three years ago as I watched the invasion of Iraq played out on nightly television. What are we getting for the billions in national treasure we have invested in our surface fleet? Of course, there was the very real and valuable participation of the air wing and the occasional ship-launched cruise missile. But the logical conclusion could not be avoided. The Navy’s contribution was simply ancillary to that of the Air Force. Our large, expensive weapons platforms were not doing anything the sister service was not already capable of doing at lower cost. Every night I turned on the tube hoping to see a squadron of fast attack craft roaring up the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, lending gunfire, logistic, and communications support to the ground troops. My hopes were never realized, of course. Our Navy is by far the world’s largest, most powerful, and clearly the most expensive. Ironically though, it lacks the simple capability of sending a gunboat up a river. That may be about to change.

In a recent letter from the Director, Navy Staff, implementing directives from the Chief of Naval Operations, the essence of which was reported in the Navy Times issue of 18 July 2005, the Office of the CNO  was directed to provide a plan not later than 24 August 2005 for establish of an active component riverine squadron in Fiscal Year 2005/2006 followed by the  establishment of  two reserve riverine squadrons in Fiscal Year 2007/2008.[1] For the third time in 70 years, the U.S. Navy finds itself scrambling to build a riverine/coastal warfare capability and doctrine, quickly and from scratch.

Why No Riverine Capability

The Navy has faced this challenge before. During World War II, the torpedo patrol (PT) boats were originally built to combat larger ships along the littoral or in confined waters. Within a year after the battle of Midway, however, the PTs cast off this mission. Instead, they became a key element in providing direct fire support to ground troops and transporting small landing forces, especially in raids that destroyed Japanese shore installations and decimated enemy supply craft. These missions should sound familiar to the veterans of river and coastal warfare in Vietnam. The hard and costly lessons learned were largely forgotten after both conflicts as the Navy’s leadership rushed to return to a world of large and expensive high seas ships and relegate the brown-water Navy to the archives. The end of the Cold War has made the utility of the billion-dollar weapons platforms more questionable than ever. Meanwhile our effort to interdict hostile parties and secure domestic and foreign coastal areas suffers because of our ongoing fascination with ships incapable of operating on inshore and inland waters.

The reasons for these recurring lapses of institutional memory are arguable, but two factors seem to prevail. First, the evidence from Vietnam is that involvement in riverine operations is not only very hazardous but is usually detrimental to an officer’s career. Brown water operations are seen as taking a surface warfare officer off the preferred career track, and it is held against him at promotion time. Second, few multimillionaires are produced by the small craft industry. The firms that produce boats for this type of warfare are tiny compared to major defense contractors like Northrop-Grumman, Raytheon, and General Dynamics with their facilities employing thousands. The small players lack the political war chests and corporate-funded political action committees that command attention at all levels of government.

In short, the inability of small-craft firms to financially reward political allies condemns them to remain on the periphery of government contracting. Small craft construction is a risky, highly competitive, relatively low-margin business. This means that only the smart and the strong survive. But their very efficiency makes them invisible to politicians, bureaucrats, and officers in search of juicy contracts to hand out to political bedfellows. Former CNO Admiral Vern Clark said as much in April 2005 when he tactfully chided Congress for funding ships the Navy does not want, while ignoring very real needs. [2]

Whatever the reasons for this deficiency in armament, the need for fast, heavily-armed shallow-draft gunboats recurs often enough so that it should become a permanent part of the naval establishment.  In Vietnam, the Navy was forced to go on a boat-buying mission and had to rapidly acquire and adapt civilian hulls. The result was conversion of an offshore oil supply vessel into the high-profile, relatively slow Swift boat, the unarmored river patrol boat (PBR) of moderate seaworthiness, and numerous makeshift landing craft conversions. These performed their missions well but could have done even better had there been time and interest to tailor them to combat conditions.

A generation after the fall of Saigon we find ourselves relearning the lessons of the past. This time the effort need not be as lengthy, painful, or expensive as it was for our fathers and grandfathers. Records show how civilian designers and manufacturers were used to development the PT boats and landing craft of World War II and the numerous coastal and river gunboats, recon vessels, and transports used in Vietnam.

It might be wise to call on civilian small-craft experts, designers, builders, and operators, from the very beginning. If you want to know how a boat is going to perform, ask the civilian captains who drive then every day. Talk to the men who design and build them by the thousands if you wish to avoid costly mistakes. These firms have existed in a low-margin, highly competitive environment in which they have had to excel or fail. It is time to recall the lessons of prior conflicts and tap this wealth of knowledge and expertise to adapt civilian hulls for military needs.

Learning from Experience

The historical record shows how these vessels should be configured. Unlike the Navy’s current pet projects, they must be of shallow draft; no more than two meters and less if practical. Supported transoceanic capability should not be a feature since these boats will normally not make such passages on their own bottoms.  Therefore, they should be short enough to be readily shipped aboard a variety of transports. This suggests a length over all of not more than 90 feet. Selection of hull type should be the simplest question of all. The hard-chined planning hull of the 80-foot Elco and 78-foor Higgins PTs proved themselves in World War II. They shared basic characteristics with the fast river patrol vessels of Vietnam and those qualities continue to dominate the commercial and recreational market today. It is a hull form that incorporates speed, seaworthiness, and simplicity of construction. With a suitably deep V section forward, it can pierce the seas and avoid excessive pounding. The hull should feature considerable flair from the waterline to the gunwale along its entire length. This will deflect spray for a drier, more cushioned ride and expand the usable deck space. The latter feature would be especially welcome not only for combat, but for routine maintenance as well. In short, many of the traits so desirable in a coastal/riverine gunboat are already found in excellent hulls readily at hand in a number of civilian designs and products. The Navy’s Mark V also shows potential for being a starting point in the development process.

Materials such as Kevlar should be incorporated into the laminate for armor protection. Experience in the Pacific and Vietnam shows that the higher personnel are off the water the better their chances of being shot, so a low profile commensurate with seaworthiness is desirable. Modern armament systems make it possible to install a variety of direct and area fire area weapons that would be effective and of comparatively light weight.

These boats would probably be deployed in squadrons or divisions and operate from shore bases. They need not operate independently for more than a day or two so living facilities could be kept to a minimum. The space and weight saved could accommodate bigger engines, more electronic detection and communication equipment, and more ammunition. Using turbocharged diesel engines already in mass production would reduce costs, insure a reliable power plant and make for easy acquisition of parts, support, and training. These should drive well-protected conventional propellers, avoiding the fragility and complexity of exotic systems. Engines should be rigged to offer a choice of unrestricted exhaust for high speed or being well muffled to facilitate stealthy operations. This function should be readily controlled from the helm. Strength, simplicity, and efficiency should be the motto of this program

Do the Homework

It is unfortunate, but in both ship and small craft development our Navy often repeats past mistakes and makes errors in judgment that are easily avoidable. The design, construction, and purchase of the new Sea Fighter catamaran is a case in point. Though it is supposedly intended for shallow water operations, it carries a draft of more than 12 feet. The rule of thumb for retaining stability in loaded blue water catamarans calls for a length to beam ratio of 2:1, although carefully loaded multihulls used in moderate seas can be narrower. With a relatively slender beam of 72 feet and a length overall of 262 feet just how stable will this ship be, especially after being loaded with armament, crew, munitions, and supplies and with much of this being carried high as a deck load? Its height, length, and draft make it useless for riverine ops and of limited utility for coastwise patrol.

Though supposedly fast, it is actually a large, slab sided target – a juicy invitation to the rocket systems so readily available in most of Asia and Africa. The ship must be tall of necessity since a lowered profile means a concurrent reduction in the clearance between the surface of the water and the bottom of the bridge deck spanning the hulls. If this clearance is inadequate, the underside of the deck crashes into waves instead of passing over them and the bone-jarring ride that results will exhaust the best of crews and destroy fragile electronic equipment. [3]

Ironically, we have produced a ship that is too large to operate effectively in shoal, confined waters and yet it is only in calm to moderate seas that its virtues of large deck area and stability can be utilized. Catamaran performance, both in maneuverability and speed, is severely impacted by weight. A useful combat load will inevitably reduce the performance of this vessel. Though the Navy and the contractor, Titan Corp of San Diego, boast that the ship will top out at 50 knots in calm water, it remains doubtful if such speed will be possible when carrying a full load and rigged for sea. Why should this particular speed be lauded as so magical anyway? After all, the 70-foot Higgins Hellcat torpedo boat routinely achieved similar speeds as long ago as 1943 with more inshore utility and at far lower cost.[4]

It can hardly be intelligently argued that this is the Navy’s answer for the Global War on Terror, yet in an era of unprecedented national debt, we are scheduled to fork over $80 million each for these high profile boxes. We could have fielded an entire squadron of fast, efficient gunboats for the same amount thus far squandered on this project. To make this situation even more deplorable, Titan received a non-competitive bid contract to build the prototype and has been officially recognized as the sole-source contractor. The Navy says that the need for this ship is so urgent that there was no time for the competitive bidding process.

The point is that the cost of a coastal/riverine gunboat program is miniscule, especially compared to many wasteful programs of dubious utility. Yet its potential for effective combat and interdiction in the war on terror is far greater than that of our megalithic weapons platforms. In the December 2005 issue of Proceedings, Captain James Pelkofski observed that “speedboats are emerging as the weapon of choice” for maritime terrorist operations. Speedboat can be defined in this context as a fast (over 40 knots), low profile, shallow-draft, fiberglass craft with an extremely small radar signature.

Unfortunately, a review of vessels in the Navy’s inventory shows that we possess nothing capably of intercepting, meeting, and defeating these craft in the estuaries and along the littoral where they are bound to proliferate. The current generation of patrol craft is far too slow to be considered as interceptors and their numbers are too few at any rate. The open rigid-bottom inflatable boats (RHIB) of which the Navy and Coast Guard are so fond are in fact rough-riding, wet open boats of use only in settled conditions. They can carry a lot of weight but their speeds are ridiculously slow compared to that of a fiberglass, gas-engined high-speed powerboat. These boats are stable in settled conditions but in a seaway they bounce, rock, and roll (but generally do not flip) in such a manner that the ability to use weapons is almost totally compromised. Thus, a boarding party is dependent upon supporting cover and fire from another vessel and is denied its own close firepower at the time it needs it most. Additionally, these boats are full of air. It does not take many bullets to render one hors-d-combat. The continued reliance upon RHIBs simply serves to underscore the absence of suitable high-speed patrol vessels.

Of course, building and equipping the boats is only part of the task. We must develop a doctrine for tactical employment identifying suitable missions and how the boats will be organized and employed. Training, logistical support, and difficulties in transoceanic transport are all factors to be examined. The officers charged with fulfilling the CNO’s directives and writing the draft Riverine Force plan could save time, money, and grief by dusting off Frank A. Tredennick and Harrison L. Bennett’s An Administrative History of PTs in World War II, Robert Bulkley’s At Close Quarters, and Brown Water, Black Berets, Tom Cutler’s account of shallow water warfare in Vietnam, to avoid repeating past mistakes and learn what has worked for their predecessors.

See How the Coasties Do It

Lessons can be learned from the Coast Guard as well. When it tried to produce in-house designs in the past they were often too heavy and cursed with a high center of gravity. In obtaining its new Response Boat – Medium, the Guard outlined its needs in a publicly issued request for proposals from private contractors. Eight firms responded with design proposals and of these, three firms, Kvichak of Seattle, Textron of New Orleans, and Ocean Technical Services of Harvey, Louisiana responded by each building a 45-foot prototype and providing it to the Coast Guard for testing. The builders were compensated for their design and construction work and were motivated to be both effective and efficient by the opportunity to land a contract to build 180 of these boats.

The Coast Guard comes out as the big winner, though, since it can tap into decades of boat-building expertise garnered in a highly competitive, low-margin industry and do so at minimal expense. The Coast Guard gets to test each boat extensively, gain on-the-water experience with each, and further refine its requirements. The hopeful boat builders take the results of the comparative sea trials and surveys and reengineer their entrees to better meet Coast Guard requirements and reduce construction expenditures.[5]

Our Navy’s institutional amnesia need not be a permanent disability. The frequency with which the United States has sought a brown water combat capability demonstrates that coastal and riverine forces should be permanently integrated into our fleet. There are some who might claim otherwise – insisting that shallow water combatants can be procured as the tactical situation demands. Yet, we all know there is no substitute for the years of specialized training, systems development, and experience that make these forces so cost effective.

Past leaders have failed to learn that there is an ongoing need for the ability to penetrate inland and on coastal waterways to interdict our enemies and deliver close fires in support of our troops. We must curb the impulse to hand out big ship contracts for vessels of dubious utility. Bigger, more complex vessels are always more expensive, but they are not always more effective for a given mission. Sometimes, a small inexpensive vessel is more appropriate and successful. To secure the littoral and afford an inland combat capability, bring the boats back now, and employ the workboat and recreational boating industries to provide them.

[1]  “Surging still deeper into war on terrorism.” Navy Times. 18 July 2005, p. 12.

[2][2]  “The Navy’s Fleet of Tomorrow Is Mired in Politics of Yesterday.” New York Times. 19 April 2005. pp. C-1, C-3. Norman Polmar, The Naval Institute Guide to the Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press), 2005, p. 214-215.

[3]  Robert J. Bulkley, Jr. At Close Quarters: PT Boats in the United States Navy. )Annapolis: Naval Institute Press), 2003. p. 76. Even higher speeds are quoted by some sources. For a better understanding of the pros and cons of catamarans see William D. O’Neill. “If it Can’t be Big, It Needs to be Novel.” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, December 2003, pp. 47-51.

[4]  “Sleek, Agile Sea Fighter Launches Debate Over Future of Navy Ships,” Virginian Pilot, 7 August 2005, p. A20.

[5]  Dan Spurr. “Kvichak.” Professional Boatbuilder, No. 96. (August/September 2005), pp. 52-71. Phone conversation with Keith Whittemore of Kvichak Marine Industries, 15 August 2005. The Response Boat – Medium (RB-M) will replace the 41-foot utility boat that has been a Coast Guard mainstay since the early 1970s. The 41’ is a Coast Guard design that many Coasties have long considered to be too top heavy for its intended mission. It’s big sister, the 82-footer, has an extremely high profile that may be suitable for law-enforcement missions but is an invitation to hostile fire in combat.

Biographical data

Mr. Wiser, former Army artillery officer, is a boat systems technician who has spent more than 20 years  operating small craft up to 120-feet in length, power and sail, in a variety of conditions throughout the Caribbean, the Bahamas, and the offshore and inland waterways of the east coast. He is also an adjunct professor of strategy and policy for the Naval War College.

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