Key West ‘foils
In my post Monday about the USS Key West‘s pending decommissioning, and the fact that the city island she is named in honor of is set to celebrate the commissioning next month of a new destroyer (whose namesake doesn’t have any ties to Key West as far as I can tell) I stated there hasn’t been an active duty Navy ship homeported there since the sub base closed in 1974.
Long-time reader Big Marcus quickly pointed out that statement was an error.
Somehow, for reasons I cannot explain, I forgot about Patrol Combatant Missile Hydrofoil Squadron (PHMRON) TWO, which called Key West home from 1980 to 1993.
A pet project of ADM Elmo Zumwalt, the U.S. Navy was the point man for a NATO hydrofoil program– spurred by boats such as the Soviet Sarancha type-– in the early 1970s that, between West Germany, Italy, and the U.S., aimed to produce swarms of these potent little fast attack craft that would be particularly useful in the confined waters of the Persian Gulf, Baltic, and Meddeterrian.
They were crafted with 15 years of lessons learned by the Navy with the one-off hydrofoils USS High Point (PCH-1), USS Plainview (AGEH-1), and USS Tucumcari (PGH-2).
Well, after Zumwalt left the Navy in 1974, the PHM program dropped from a planned 30 vessels to just six, then the Germans dropped out of the program (electing to go with the more traditional S-143 class schnellboot) and the Italians elected instead to go with the smaller (60 ton, 75 foot) Sparviero class boats of which the Japanese also built three copies (the 1-go class).
The new Pegasus class PHMs were built by Boeing, with a big gap between the lead unit’s 1977 commissioning and the follow-on five vessels entering service in 1981-82.
In 1980, PHM-1 was homeported in Key West where PHMRON 2 would slowly be stood up, to lend their muscle to USNAVSO’s (now Fourth Fleet’s) counterdrug efforts in conjunction with the USCG. Of course, they also did a lot of “orange force” battle group workups for ships in training out of GTMO and Rosey Roads, helped develop the Navy’s fast ship tactics at a time when the Iranians were really sowing their oats, and contributed to Operation Urgent Fury — the 1983 liberation of Grenada– with the latter being the type’s first and last combat use.
They were a core asset of Joint Task Force FOUR (CJTF-4), now JIATF South, when that group was stood up in 1989 at Key West.
Plus, if things ever got squirrely with the Cubans, the 48 Harpoons and six 75mm guns of PHMRON 2 could likely take out the cream of Castro’s navy in a surface action without having to detail anything more than some F-16s out of Homestead to keep the MiGs away.
In all, the squadron required just 154 shoreside maintenance and support personnel in addition to the vessels’ crews. All told, about 300 men.
Although they garnered something like a third of the Navy’s drug busts in the decade they were active, and only cost about a third the cost of an FFG to operate, the entire squadron was sidelined in June 1993 and then shipped to Little Creek for mass decommissioning, with the newer PHMs only having been in service 11 years.
For more on the class, the National Archives has a ton of images, see the presentation by the International Hydrofoil Society, and visit the USS Aries (PHM-5) museum ship in Missouri.