Conversations about the LCS, even among professional Navy officers, often seem to equate the LCS to PT boats from WWII. I don’t know about any official Navy position (I doubt they have any official position!) but many Navy leaders seem to believe that the LCS can operate like a PT boat – skulking about concealing islands and shorelines, springing forth to deliver salvoes of death and destruction, and then vanishing back into the littorals to repeat the cycle, impervious to enemy detection or retaliation.
“It can hide behind islands and in shallow waters, sniping at the enemy fleet — much like the PT boats of World War II …” (1)
Referring to operations in the
South China Sea and surrounding areas,
“With 50,000 islands for LCS to hide among, “good luck finding me,” Gabrielson said. “I know I’m going to be able find you…and I’m going to hurt you.” (1)
What an appealing and, dare I say it, romantic notion? This kind of naval guerilla warfare tugs at the heartstrings of Americans and appeals to our notion of heroic naval combat.
If we could rejoin reality for a few moments, though, let’s look at what the WWII PT boat really was, how effective it was, how it was used, and what lessons it offers us today.
What was a PT Boat? Without boring you with specifications that are easily found on the Internet, in its original form the PT boat was a very heavily armed and very fast boat that was designed to sink larger enemy ships. This is almost exactly today’s distributed lethality concept, isn’t it? The PT boats were an expedient stopgap measure that, it was hoped, could provide cheap naval firepower to some extent until we were able to ramp up actual warship production.
|Restored PT Boat|
How effective was the PT boat? Relative to its original anti-ship function, the PT boat was almost totally ineffective. As far as I know, of the several hundred PT boats that served, there were only a very small handful of successful anti-ship attacks and many/most of those were found to have been false claims after the war. I would estimate that there were perhaps a half dozen successful attacks.
As the war went on, the PT boat found other roles for which it was better suited and proved far more successful. The two notable roles were early warning and barge-busting.
Early Warning – Due to their abundant numbers, PT boats were able to be deployed in strings across possible enemy transit routes and were often able to provide valuable early warning and monitoring of enemy movements. In essence, they acted like a distributed sensor net, as we would refer to it today.
WWII was mainly an “eyeballs” sensor war. Yes, early radar was present and often played a useful role, especially towards the end of the war, but most sensing was via eye. It might be visual sightings from an aircraft, the lookout station on a ship, the periscope of a sub, or the hills of a coast watcher but the prevailing detection method was visual. Aircraft were used to extend the range of our eyeball sensors and, in this role, the PT boat excelled. It was able to extend the range of visual sensing and cover a larger area.
Barge-busting – Later in the war, PT boats were found to be ideal for interdicting resuppy barges. The PT boats were loaded with all manner of ‘gunboat’ weaponry such as 40 mm guns, 37 mm anti-tank cannons, rockets, grenade launchers, etc. Again, the boats were very heavily armed for their size.
Finally, let’s note that, as reported by Wiki, 99 of the 531 PT boats that served in WWII were lost to combat related causes – that’s 19%. Given that many of the boats didn’t really see any significant combat, that loss rate is actually much higher, probably two or three times that among boats that saw significant combat.
How Was the PT Boat Used? Early in the war, the PT boat was used as a stopgap means of applying disproportionately heavy firepower from a cheap, expendable, and inefficient/ineffective platform. It was a necessity born out of our lack of real warships. It achieved very few sinkings although it did cause a fair amount of doubt and confusion among the enemy.
Later in the war, the PT boat was used far more successfully as a remote sensor with strings of PT boats being deployed along/across suspected travel lanes and approaches of enemy shipping. The early warnings that these boats supplied were invaluable.
The barge-busting role provided interdiction of desperation supply efforts and, again, were quite effective.
The PT boats were also used for myriad transport, search and rescue, and patrol functions. The large numbers of boats allowed them to be used for a variety of purposes while still being able to fulfill their main purposes.
What Lessons Does the PT Boat Offer Today? History is always willing to educate us if we’re willing to learn. Here’s what WWII’s PT boat experience can teach us today.
- The PT Boat was the distributed lethality of its day and, as far as sinkings of enemy ships, was a failure. The failure was due mainly to the lack of sensor range. PT boats were limited to visual sensing and, typically, night visual sensing. Thus, their sensor range was on the order of hundreds of feet. Unsurprisingly, then, they were unable to find targets even when they had pretty good intel on target movements and timing. The PT boat’s weapons far outranged their sensors.
We’ve noted the same problem today where we may have weapons with hundreds or thousands of miles range but our sensors are more on the order of tens of miles. That distributed lethality LCS with an over the horizon anti-ship missile is going to be limited by a sensor with a radar horizon range. The Navy hopes to solve this by using a vast, magical “system of systems”, all-encompassing sensor net of non-survivable platforms linked by a vast network that is assumed to be impervious to enemy electronic and cyber attack. We’ll see how well that works. If the sensor limitation can’t be solved, today’s distributed lethality platforms will be no more successful than yesterday’s PT boats.
We should also note that sensors work both ways. If the LCS is going to use its radar to find targets then it is giving away its position and the enemy’s radar can find it.
We should also note that the islands that are hoped to provide concealment for the LCS by allowing it to blend into the radar clutter of the shoreline will also significantly degrade the performance of the LCS’ radar as the surrounding hills and elevations block large sectors of the radar picture. The Navy seems to note all the advantages while ignoring the disadvantages. I have yet to hear anyone elucidate how the LCS will find targets without itself being found.
In short, history and today’s parallels with that history, strongly suggest that the LCS will be every bit as ineffective in the distributed lethality role as were the PT-boats.
- Size matters. In the barge-busting role, the PT boat’s small size and disproportionately heavy weaponry proved advantageous. The boats were able to blend in with the surrounding island shorelines and were difficult to detect. Navy Admirals who are envisioning the LCS as today’s PT boat may be overlooking the discrepancy in size between the 80 ft PT boat and the 400 ft LCS!
- Numbers matter. PT boats were very successful as remote sensors and were able to extend the situational awareness of the fleet. Of course, many boats were lost during the course of that performance. That was an acceptable trade because the cheapness of the PT boat allowed us to deploy large numbers and accept the inevitable losses. Can we afford to treat a $600M+ LCS, for example, as an expendable remote sensor? What’s more, we certainly don’t have sufficient numbers of LCSs to deploy an effective network of ships as remote sensors. We had hundreds of PT boats and we have only 20 or so deployable LCSs.
- Support matters. The PT-boats had very limited endurance at sea and depended on crude forward bases and motherships for resupply and maintenance. Today’s LCS also has very limited endurance and, by design, cannot support itself with even basic maintenance. Among the 50,000 islands that Adm. Gabrielson references, how many have forward operating bases? None. How many could support a forward base? Few. How many of the forward bases would be survivable given today’s thousand mile cruise and ballistic missiles? None. How many LCS motherships do we have? None. So, where is the support for the distributed, PT-boat-ish LCS going to come from? I have yet to hear the Navy explain that.
One final thought about PT boats. In WWII, they were safe from attack from anything that they couldn't see and, given their heavy weaponry relative to their size, they at least had a chance of fighting back. WWII was basically a visual range war. Today, a "PT boat" is subject to attack from dozens/hundreds of miles away, far beyond its own sensors. They're not survivable in combat for long and will likely never know where the attack that sank them came from and will, therefore, be unable to fight back.
On a related note, a much better equivalent to the PT-boat is the Chinese Type 22 missile boat which is stealthy, 35% the size of the LCS, and heavily armed with 8 C-80x type anti-ship missiles. It also suffers from the same weakness as the PT-boat – limited sensor range.
|Type 022 Missile Boat|
(1)Breaking Defense website, “LCS In Pacific: Run Silent, Run Shallow”, Sydney J. Freedberg Jr.,