The Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship will be armed and operational with deck-launched HELLFIRE missiles by 2020, a key step in a sweeping strategic move to expand the attack envelope across the entire fleet of surface ships, senior service officials said.
Current HELLFIRE LCS testing and development, described as an integral part of the ship’s Surface-to-Surface Missile Module, has resulted in 20 successful hits out of 24 total attempted missile shots, Capt. Ted Zobel, Program Manager, PEO LCS, said recently at the Surface Navy Association symposium.
Testing and integration, which embarked upon LCS 5 in August of 2017, is slated to continue this year as a lead into to formal production; The complete procurement of SSMMs will complete in 2023, Zobel said.
Integrating the HELLFIRE onto the LCS is a significant strategic and tactical step for the Navy as it accelerates its combat posture transition toward the prospect of near-peer warfare.
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This kind of confrontation, naturally could span a wide envelope of mission requirements for the LCS, calling upon littoral, coastal patrol, surveillance and countermine mission technologies as well as anti-submarine operations and a fortified ability to wage “blue” or open water maritime warfare with longer-range strike weapons.
While not quite the scope of the now-in-development over-the-horizon missile currently being fast-tracked for the emerging Frigate and, quite possibly, the LCS – a HELLFIRE offers a much wider offensive attack range to include enemy aircraft, helicopters, drones, small boats and even some surface ships.
Furthermore, the HELLFIRE, drawing upon Army-Navy collaboration, is engineered with different variants to widen potential attack methods. These range from blast-frag warheads to high-explosive rounds or even missiles with an augmented metal sleeve for extra fragmentation.
While the LCS does not have Vertical Launch Systems, Navy officials tell Warrior Maven that the HELLFIRE fires from canisters beneath the surface of the ship.
Often fired from helicopters, drones and even ground-based Army Multi-Mission Launchers, the Longbow HELLFIRE can use Fire-and-Forget millimeter wave radar with inertial guidance; millimeter wave seeker technology enables adverse weather targeting. Many HELLFIREs also use semi-active laser homing targeting.
It is accurate to call it a short-to-medium-range weapon which can reach relevant combat distances beyond the most close-in threats - while stopping short of being an over-the-horizon weapon.
Its targeting options open up various airborne interoperability options, meaning an MH-60R ship-based helicopter – or even a drone – could function as a laser designator for the weapon should it seek to target enemy ships on-the-move.
The Navy has made particular efforts, in fact, to integrate HELLFIRE technology, sensors and fire control with other assets woven into the LCS. Not only could an MH-60R offer a laser spot for the ship launched weapon, but the helicopter can of course fire the HELLFIRE itself.
A ship launched variant, however, would need to further integrate with ship-based layered defense technologies to optimize its attack options against enemy aircraft and ships, particularly in a maritime combat environment potentially more difficult for helicopters to operate in.
LCS-launched HELLFIREs are engineered to operate as part of a broader ship-wide technical system connecting things like variable-depth sonar, deck guns, vertical take-off drones such as the Fire Scout and small boat mission capabilities such as 11-meter Rigid Inflatable Boats, or RIBs.
As part of this, the LCS is equipped with a 57mm gun, .50-cal Machine Guns and a defensive interceptor missile called SeaRAM.
Arming the LCS to a much greater extent is also likely to bear upon the longstanding discussion regarding the ship's survivability. While many advocates for the LCS champion its 40-knot speed and technical attributes such as its integrated mission packages, adding more substantial weapons clearly impacts the debate by massively increasing the ship's survivability and combat capability.
The anti-submarine mission package includes an MH-60 Sea Hawk helicopter, light weight towed torpedo decoy system, Multi-Function Towed Array and several kinds of submarine-hunting sonar. The LCS utilizes waterjet propulsion and a combined diesel and gas turbine engine.
Some of the features and technologies now being developed for the Navy’s new Frigate could be back-fitted onto the existing LCS fleet as well; these include an over-the-horizon offensive missile as well as a survivability-enhancing technique called “space armor,” which better allows the ship to function if it is hit by enemy firepower.
A strengthened LCS, as well as the new Frigate of course, offer a key component of the Navy’s widely discussed “distributed lethality” strategy, which aims to better arm the fleet with offensive firepower and position the force to be able to defeat technologically-advanced near-peer adversaries.
This includes an emphasis upon open or “blue” water combat and a shift from some of the key mission areas engaged in during
the last decade of ground wars such as Visit Board Search and Seizure, counter-piracy and counter-terrorism.
Many LCS are already in service, and the platform is cherished by the Navy for its 40-knot speed, maneuverability and technological versatility.