Here Is Why the U.S. Navy's Littoral Combat Ships Punch below Their Weight

November 5, 2017 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: LCSLittoral Combat ShipU.S. NavyMilitaryTechnologyChina

Here Is Why the U.S. Navy's Littoral Combat Ships Punch below Their Weight

In today’s global environment, the LCS’s shortcomings are glaring.

Let’s compare the LCS to a Buyan-M–class corvette, five of which are active in the Russian Navy. Each of the boats displaces considerably less at 949 tons, and come with a hundred-millimeter gun and Kalibr sea-skimming supersonic antiship missiles in four vertical-launch cells with a range of around three hundred miles, while packing 440-pound warheads.

And keep in in mind than an LCS, with its lightweight hull—possibly built with highly flammable aluminum—and smaller crew available for damage control, would be unlikely to remain combat effective after being struck by an antiship missile.

Now, defenders of the LCS point out advantages in the vessels’ soft systems , and their ability to deploy MQ-8C drones and advanced MH-60R or S Seahawk helicopter on search, sub-hunting and even attack missions. And tackling surface combatants with long-range missiles was never their intended mission profile.

They also contend that the LCS’s predecessor is seen through rose-tinted glasses : the Oliver Hazard Perry frigates had only a single launch rail for long-range missiles that it lost in 2003 anyway, employed more primitive SH-2 helicopters, and lacked the modern computers and sensors that we take for granted today. The frigates cost slightly more to build in inflation-adjusted dollars, were atypically heavily armed and required more than twice the crew complement.

Nonetheless, the Navy is apparently growing concerned about the LCS’s shortcomings. In December 2015, it downsized the order from fifty-two to forty ships. Then in 2016 the Pentagon announced the last twelve LCSs in the order would be upgraded to serve as “fast frigates” featuring extra armor, combined antisubmarine and surface-warfare modules, and tweaked armament. However, the up-gunned and up-armored ships will likely cost as much as more capable vessels, lose much of their speed advantage, and still currently lack over-horizon antiship missiles.

Proponents of the little ships are optimistic the platform is flexible enough to adapt currently missing capabilities in long-range missiles or mine-warfare capability. Harpoon missiles were tested on an LCS in July 2017 , for example, and the Naval Strike Missile and Long-Range Anti-Ship Missiles are also to be evaluated. Eventually, and at great cost, all the bits of tech may fall into place for the LCS to perform as expected. However, the Navy is apparently looking ahead to develop tougher and more heavily armed frigates in its FFG(X) program , to succeed boats conceived in a very different threat environment.

Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring .

Image: U.S. Navy