In early 1984, I was walking by the Operations Office at Special Boat Unit 12 (SBU-12), when Mr. Mac (then LCDR Kurt MacAlexander) said, “Hey, Ensign, come in and take a look at this.” Mr. Mac and Lt Keith Johnson had a number of files spread out on Mr. Mac’s desk in the back of the OP’s office. Mr. Mac told me these were the contenders for the replacement for our PB’s (65 ft Sea Specter Mk –III Patrol Boats) and all of this was highly confidential. There were four designs, but the one which caught my eye was the Sea Knife.
This file like the others held all sorts of technical specifications, performance graphs, line drawings and artist’s concept paintings as well as pictures of a small Soviet speed boat with a Sea Knife hull at speed and a full sized open ocean racer with the same hull. (1) However, what really grabbed me was not so much the artist’s drawing of Sea Knife PB’s plowing through the seas, but the line drawings of a sleek boat design with Arneson surface piercing drives and domed turrets with three barreled Gatling guns. This was a boat you could immediately picture on the cover of Popular Science slicing through white capped seas firing thousands of rounds of tracer and harpoon missiles at full sized Soviet made targets, the classic David versus Goliath scenario of the mosquito fleet versus capitol ship. Additionally, the concept of a boat cutting through the waves versus planning or bouncing across the seas seemed logical to me. Secretly, I could also see my guys and me then in Combatant Crafts Division in one of these bad boys putting paid to a Russian surrogate’s patrol boats on a dark night near a distant shore or intercepting a Soviet freighter loaded with commie contraband with a squad of SEAL’s in a pre dawn raid.
I would see the folders on several occasions; particularly the Sea Knife’s, more than likely at my request and doodled the Sea Knife in now long lost note books, as I studied for my PB and the SWCL (36 foot Special Warfare Craft Light or Sea Fox) Officer in Charge (OIC) boards. The more I operated at SBU-12 with PB's and SWCL’s, the more I realized what inferior designs both the PB and SWCL really were and what great steps backward we (the Navy) had taken since WWII and Vietnam in the arena of patrol craft design. I was also learning more from the Vietnam veterans, particularly Chief Walter, at SBU-12 about their first hand experiences in riverene warfare. Later when I transferred to SBU-13, I gained even more knowledge about the Vietnam experience, from Jim Gray, Gary Hunt, Jimmy Pendegrast, Master Chief Ski and a host of others.
Needless to say, we all were very surprised months later, when we learned through the grapevine at Special Boat Squadron - 1 that the semi-surface effect craft design was chosen for the PBM contract. It not only flew in the face of my Sea Knife daydreams but of the more sage and sound predictions of Mr. Mac and Keith Johnson as well as my many other shipmates who were putting their money on the conventional deep V’s. Another fact at the time which did not register then was Rohr Marine Industries (RMI) of National City, California, a local company with no experience in patrol boat design and construction, was awarded the contract. Other red flags, which did not signify but should have included: no local fanfare for this multimillion dollar government contract (again we are talking about a design for a patrol boat not a super top secret Skunk Works’ stealth ship project, another colossal waste of tax payer dollars.). This project was also right in our back yard across the San Diego Bay, not in a less accessible yard in far off Louisiana, Florida, or Washington State (6). So why didn’t we get to see her as she was laid down and talk or interact with the engineers, builders and technicians especially now the contract had been awarded?
In the next few years, we heard that the production was behind schedule, which was no real surprise as far as government contracts were concerned. Behind schedule and over budget unfortunately was and still are the norms with government contracts. However, what really should have alerted everyone was the continued lack of contact with the Rohr engineers and technicians just across the bay to comment on, add input and improve the new designs building right across the bay (7). Things were really bad, but we did not know how bad at the time.
Our first real indication of a turn for the worse, aside from the initial design selection was the testing of the Bushmaster chain guns at SBU-12 on the PB’s, as a replacement for the power operated remotely sighted turrets of the original designs. Electric/motor driven Gatling type guns in particular the 7.62 mini gun and 20mm Vulcan cannon had really come into their own during the Vietnam War particularly as aircraft armament. Boat crews had even salvaged several mini –guns from downed helicopters and used them to significantly augment their crafts’ firepower during that conflict. In the 1970’s, the Navy had adopted the 20mm Vulcan Phalanx or CIWS (close in weapon system) primarily as an anti-missile defense system, and these were mounted or being mounted on nearly every ship in the fleet. Power operated remotely sighted gun turrets were a common feature on late model WWII aircraft such as the B-29, P-61 and A-26 and continued to be a feature on early cold war aircraft. However, here again Popular Science and Tom Swift day dreaming had gotten the better of us and the engineers. Though the salvaged mini-guns had been used effectively in a fresh water environment, we were now talking about highly corrosive salt water. Additionally, designers were adding power operated mounts and remote fire control systems. This set up might be fine for a frigate or larger vessel but added quite a lot of wiring and power, not to mention a tremendous amount of weight for a small craft. Finally, there were no armies of techs to do the maintenance back at the airbase like on the remote aircraft gun mounts described above, which were only in the air for a few hours at a time before being serviced by that army of technicians. It should have been no surprise that the remotely operated gun mounts went by the way-side (as had the Elco Thunderbolt in WWII) for a manually operated mount though with an externally powered driven gun.
The next rumor we heard through the Squadron grapevine was that the boat was over weight and the weapon systems and major electronics had not yet been installed. What we did not realize until months after the initial weight rumors floated out was only the boat’s hull had been completed and no engines or other significant equipment had been installed. We later learned that the weight of the hull alone far exceeded the total fully outfitted design weight (8).
Then we saw her during a drill weekend training operation down in South Bay on a sunny afternoon. Forlorn, pier side, almost hidden in a backwater at the 32nd Street Naval Station, we were shocked to see how incomplete the large, ugly, dull, aluminum hulk was. We (officers and enlisted men) were all under the impression much more construction had been completed. We recognized immediately she was cursed and gave her the cruel but apt nick name of “Sea Brick” in stark contrast to her semi-official name of “Sea Viking.” Though the Sea Brick held a perverse fascination for us in the boat units (12 and 13), we had no strong desire to leap aboard and explore this sorry shell. While we in SBU-13 would take little side trips during our South Bay training ops to view her, I don’t recall anyone taking pictures or going on board, which would not have been hard on a Saturday or Sunday. This was fairly surprising knowing what an adventurous lot most of us were in the Boat Units with all the shutter bugs in our ranks including myself. It was readily apparent a lot of money had been squandered. With no powerful triumvirate of congressional, military and industrial support like that behind the V-22 Osprey who would spend even more obscene amounts of the nation’s treasure to try to make an elephant fly or even get behind a new functional design. We could all see we were going to be stuck with the PB’s for some time to come. Again, it was the SBU crews who accomplished their missions in the Persian Gulf during Earnest Will and Operation Praying Mantis and later in the first Gulf War despite the woeful and old PB’s.
It is interesting to compare the SBR-1 grapevine versus what was reported in Jane’s Fighting Ships. The first mention of a patrol craft is in the 1985-86 edition where they list a planned series of 18 “SES” patrol craft able to be transported in the well deck of an LSD or similar amphibious ship and be built by RMI in National City based on a contract awarded in mid 1984. Mid 1984 seems like a pretty wide period, again there was not a lot of fanfare within SBR-1’s units over this contract which was extremely significant, as there were only about 6 PB’s in the Pacific at the time. In the 1986-87 edition of Jane’s, they list the patrol boat as the “Special Warfare Craft Medium” with $19 million dollars to be spent on the project in Fiscal Year (FY) 1987. The 1988-89 edition again lists the Special Warfare Craft, Medium with an anticipated 18 craft, no boats completed and none laid down. The entry for this year states:
In the 1989-90 Edition, there is no mention of the SWCM, PBX or some other replacement design. It is not until later that the Coast Guard influenced Patrol Craft (PC) or Cyclone Class appears, essentially out of no where. Exactly where did all this money go? We never saw this PBX in the boat units and what about the industry briefing? Who was invited? Who went? What did they do?
We finally heard the Sea Brick hulk was eventually towed up to Point Hueneme and used as a target. I think one or a few of the guys actually saw her up there dockside waiting to be towed out on a missile range. However, her cursed legacy had even farther reaching effects, than denying our generation a new patrol craft. When the Navy eventually got around to replacing her, the pendulum had swung to the complete opposite end of the spectrum design wise. Far from selecting another unconventional design such as a hydrofoil or even reviving the tried and true PT/PTF, the Navy selected a dowdy Coast Guard cutter with less armament than the old PB and no great increase in speed, stealth or capabilities aside from some range and accommodation. However, the Navy did know that this one would float. The legacy of the Sea Brick was a design ill suited to the Coastal Patrol and Interdiction and SEAL support missions to begin with, not only failing miserably at the time (9) but saddling sailors with inferior designs for over three decades.
(1) You have to remember this was in the days of the television show Miami Vice which featured sleek powerboats smuggling drugs and the resurgence of open ocean powerboat racing led by Don Aronow’s many designs but particularly the Cigarette boat. Arnow not only pioneered Cigarette, but also Formula, Donzi and Magnum Marine. These inspired other designs such as the Wellcraft Scarab which were not only popular as racing boats and high end muscle boats for pleasure, but were also used by drug dealers as well as the Fountain powerboats which would be used by then SEAL Team-6 and by Special Boat Squadron One for SEAL support missions in the future.
(2) Special Boat Squadron One (SBR-1) was the headquarters element for small boat operations of the Pacific Fleet and was located at the Naval Amphibious Base in Coronado, California. SBR-1 ‘s subordinate commands consisted of Special Boat Unit 12 in Coronado with a working detachment forward based in the Philippines as well as boats and crews detached to Amphibious Ready Groups (ARG’s), SBU-13 was a reserve unit also based at NAB, Coronado, and SBU-11 was a reserve riverine unit based in Vallejo, California.
(3) At the time we (those in SBU-12 and SBU-13 as well as the command element at SBR-1) used the term PBM for patrol boat multi –mission though it was also used for patrol boat medium and patrol boat modular. Norman Friedman used the label Special Warfare Craft Medium (SWCM) in his book U.S. Small Combatants as did Jane’s Fighting Ships. Multi mission was much more accurate as the designs were much more modular: either being able to accommodate and launch/recover Swimmer Delivery Vehicles (SDV’s), miniature submarines used by the SEAL’s for subsurface infiltration or limpeteer attacks as well as house a SEAL squad or platoon and their small craft (combat rubber raiding craft), or fit a module of surface to surface weapons such as the Harpoon or Penguin surface to surface missiles for anti-ship missions, classic PT type missions. Just a few years before in the Falkland’s campaign, the Argentine Navy with their Exocet attacks reinforced how deadly this type of weapon was. The Soviet bloc and their clients had scores of Osa and Komar missile boats armed with somewhat similar surface to surface weapons as well as traditional patrol boats armed with guns and torpedoes such as the P-4 and P-6 classes which were not much further evolved than their WWII predecessors than our PTF’s.
(4) At the time, I was fairly new to SBU-12 and did not have a high opinion of the PTF’s which mostly sat idle in our sister reserve unit’s (SBU-13) dock. Personally, I did not consider them much of an improvement over the WWII Elco and Higgins designs. They were little more than 80 foot Elco’s with an aluminum hull and diesel engines and still no match for the WWII German S-Boat which was faster with better sea keeping ability not to mention a much larger payload. The PTF actually did trace her history back to a Norwegian copy of the Elco, which we in turn copied as the Nasty class in wood and later as the Osprey class in aluminium. Additionally, I did not rightly consider the age of these once mighty craft and the difficulty of marinating these big boats which had been ridden hard and put away wet for two decades with the exotic foreign Napier Deltic diesels, which were long out of production. I would gain a much better appreciation of the PTF’s as I spoke with more experienced boat guys and gained more sea time with a number of lesser craft from PCF’s, PB’s and Sea Foxes (Special Warfare Craft Light) which I erroneously considered state of the art. The Mini-ATC (armored troop carrier) and PBR were far superior in their environments than our boats were in the littoral.
(5) For the real situation in Naval Special Warfare during the time between Vietnam and the First Gulf War, when the Navy and the Military in general was preparing for a Eurocentric, Tom Clancyesque clash with the Soviets and the Warsaw pact see the author’s “Sparks in the Wilderness.”
(6) Historically most patrol boats were constructed at ELCO on the East Coast or Higgins Industries in Louisiana. Many of the Vietnam era boats were constructed by yards in Louisiana. The SWCL’s and PB’s were built in Washington State. This is not to grant a perpetual license to the older yards at the expense of start ups, but you have to wonder about awarding a contract to a yard that has no track record.
(7) I was on a “tiger team” to get SBU-13’s PB’s back in the water after frames in their hull were bent. We made many trips to the yard in Point Loma where the work was being done to repair the hulls and re-align the engines and shafts, before they were even put back in the water for tests.
(8) Norman Friedman reported that the hull alone was more than 9 tons over the design weight in his book US Small Combatants.
(9) Neither Naval command nor Rohr had any sense of history or how patrol craft were actually employed when selecting the SWCM or PBM. Surface effect and semi surface effect craft had been around since WWI (see Herald Fock’s magnificent Fast Fighting Boats 1870-1945, Naval Institute Press, 1978- which ought to be reprinted). Though successfully used as landing craft, the surface effect or semi-surface effect craft (think hover craft) failed in WWI and Vietnam in the patrol role. They were not only too noisy, but overly conspicuous with startling profiles unlike anything else on the water, not to mention too lightly armed. Aside from a few daring torpedo raids in WWI and just after against capitol ships, the classic patrol boat mission profile is almost idling in the operational area or lying in wait with a crash start to get away from larger targets or surprise their prey. High speed travel draws too much attention visually, sound wise and paints a big picture on the radar screen no matter how radar invisible the hull might be. The same goes for clandestine insertion and extraction of special forces’ operators, slow stealthy approaches and withdrawals, only relying on speed if the mission is compromised. The old adage, being able to out run what you can’t outfight, applies. Also as conflicts continue, the skimmers invariably become gunboats with more machine guns, automatic cannons, mortars, rockets and recoilless rifles replacing torpedoes and depth charges (see WWII, Korea and Vietnam). What was everyone thinking selecting a craft which looked so unique with such an incredibly high profile, was no where near radar invisible, with not only propulsive machinery but engines and fans for lift? Added to this were heavy complex fast firing weapons and sighting systems, this was and is clearly a recipe for disaster.
Fock, Herald : Fast Fighting Boats , Naval Institute Press
Friedman, Norman: US Small Combatants, Naval Institute Press
Jane’s Fighting Ships Editions 1977-78 through 1990-91.