Don't Give Up on the Littoral Combat Ship
The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program has been subjected to heavy scrutiny, and much of it is justified. What is getting lost in the discourse is the real capability that LCS provides to the fleet. From my perspective as an active duty service member who may be stationed on an LCS in the future, I’m more interested in exploring how we can employ LCS to utilize its strengths, even as we seek to improve them. Regardless of the program’s setbacks, LCS is in the Fleet today, getting underway, and deploying overseas. Under the operational concept of distributed lethality, LCS both fills a void and serves as an asset to a distributed and lethal surface force in terms of capacity and capability.
Capacity, Flexibility, Lethality:
The original Concept of Operations written by Naval Warfare Development Command in February 2003 described LCS as a forward-deployed, theater-based component of a distributed force that can execute missions in anti-submarine warfare, surface warfare, and mine warfare in the littorals. This concept still reflects the Navy’s needs today. We urgently need small surface combatants to replace the aging Avenger-class mine countermeasure ships andCyclone-class patrol craft, as well as the decommissioned Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates. Capacity matters, and “sometimes, capacity is a capability” in its own right. We need gray hulls to fulfill the missions of the old frigates, minesweepers and patrol craft, and until a plan is introduced for the next small surface combatant, LCS will fill these widening gaps.
LCS was also envisioned as a platform for “mobility” related missions like support for Special Operations Forces, maritime interception operations, force protection, humanitarian assistance, logistics, medical support, and non-combatant evacuation operations. Assigning these missions to LCS frees up multimission destroyers and cruisers for high-end combat operations. We’ve already seen how LCS can support fleet objectives during the deployments of USS FREEDOM (LCS 1) and USS FORT WORTH (LCS 3). Both ships supported theater security operations and international partnerships with Pacific nations through participation in the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercise series. USS FREEDOM conducted humanitarian and disaster response operations following the typhoon in the Philippines, and USS FORT WORTH conducted search and rescue operations for AirAsia flight QZ8501. The forward deployment of the ships to Singapore allowed for rapid response to real-world events, while allowing large surface combatants in the region to remain on station for their own tasking. With an 11-meter rigid hull inflatable boat onboard, LCS is well-suited to conduct visit, board, search, and seizure missions in Southeast Asia to combat piracy and protect sea lanes.
The presence of more ships on station doesn’t just allow us to fulfill more mission objectives; capacity also enables us to execute distributed lethality for offensive sea control. One of the goals of distributed lethality is to distribute offensive capability geographically. When there are physically more targets to worry about, that complicates an enemy’s ability to target our force. It also allows us to hold the enemy’s assets at risk from more attack angles.
The other goals of distributed lethality are to increase offensive lethality and enhance defensive capability. The Fleet can make the LCS a greater offensive threat by adding an over-the-horizon missile that can use targeting data transmitted to the ship from other combatants or unmanned systems. In terms of defensive capability, LCS wasn’t designed to stand and fight through a protracted battle. Instead, the Navy can increase the survivability of LCS by reducing its vulnerability through enhancements to its electronic warfare suite and countermeasure systems.
LCS may not be as survivable as a guided missile destroyer in terms of its ability to take a missile hit and keep fighting, but it has more defensive capability than the platforms it is designed to replace. With a maximum speed of over 40 knots, LCS is more maneuverable than the mine countermeasure ships (max speed 14 kts), patrol craft (max speed 35 kts), and the frigates (30 kts) it is replacing in the fleet, as well as more protective firepower with the installation of Rolling Airframe Missile for surface-to-air point defense. Until a plan has been established for future surface combatants, we need to continue building LCS as “the original warfighting role envisioned for the LCS remains both valid and vital.”