The U.S. Navy’s evolving Littoral Combat Ship fleet has been quietly and substantially growing in size and technical capacity, paving the way for emerging surface, countermine and anti-submarine capabilities.
An announcement from Naval Sea Systems Command reports that the service has completed acceptance trials in the Gulf of Mexico for the future USS Oakland, marking a key step as the ship is prepared for deployment and possible war.
Four new independent-variant ships are also now under construction at Austal USA in Mobile, Alabama, a NAVSEA statement added. During the trials, service engineers assessed key elements of the ship’s technologies to include “propulsion, auxiliaries and electrical systems.” The ship also practiced fast combat maneuvers to include “steering and quick reversal” exercises. Quick reversal is of particular relevance to the LCS, as the ship’s 40-knot speed has been developed with the specific strategic aim of better enabling the ship to attack and avoid incoming enemy fire in open ocean surface warfare. The speed attribute has long been regarded by Navy developers as a combat-protection enhancing characteristic, something of importance given the long-standing discussions about the survivability of the ship. The LCS utilizes waterjet propulsion and a combined diesel and gas turbine engine to propel its maneuvering.
Throughout its developmental trajectory, the Navy has consistently worked to upgrade the original platform to accommodate a wider range of weapons systems, such as an over-the-horizon missile. As part of this process, Navy weapons developers have explained that some of the advanced warfare technologies now being engineered for its more heavily armed emerging Frigate are being backfitted into the LCS fleet.
Some of these include advanced, integrated mission packages armed with ship-launched drones and new countermine technology such as unmanned underwater systems which find and explode enemy mines autonomously. The LCS is also being engineered with advanced ship defenses such as SeaRAM interceptor missiles, Multi-Function Towed Array Sonar systems, vertical take off drones, 57mm deck guns designed to take out small boat attacks, inflatable 11-meter Rigid Inflatable Boats and MH-60 helicopters. The LCS has also, in recent years, been armed with drone-and-helicopter-killing deck-launched HELLFIRE missiles.
The command and control system on board the LCS is also likely taking advantage of emerging networking technologies, new generations of electronic warfare and advanced, AI-enabled fire-control systems. The Variable Depth Sonar, VDS, and Multi-Function Towed Array, scan the undersea domain searching for acoustic signals and frequencies consistent with an enemy submarine; information is then related back up to an on-board LCS command center.
Adaptations to the ship are all consistent with the Navy’s multi-year strategic vision to more fully arm the entire surface fleet with additional offensive and defensive weapons, in preparation for massive, major power surface warfare. This approach, while being applied throughout the surface fleet, brings particular relevance to the LCS envelope of operations, expanding beyond the originally envisioned mission scope for the LCS from a purely littoral platform to an open, or blue-water warfare ship as well.
The Navy report said the LCS is now the “second largest U.S. Navy surface ship in production.” In 2019, three LCSs were delivered to the fleet and five will be delivered in 2020 at a pace not seen since the 1990s.
Kris Osborn is the new Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.