The U.S. Navy is close to receiving its 21st Littoral Combat Ship. Now the sailing branch needs to figure out exactly what to do with the long-delayed, much-maligned warships.
The Navy has ordered 35 LCSs of both variants. Lockheed Martin builds the monohull Freedom variant. Austal makes the trimaran Independence variant.
The roughly 3,000-ton vessels were supposed to help the Navy quickly to grow its front-line fleet. But costs rose until each ship set back taxpayers more than $500 million. Their engines and other systems proved to be unreliable, forcing the Navy to suspend LCS deployments for 18 months ending in early 2019.
The ships’ 40-knot top speed came at the cost of high fuel-consumption. The Navy’s decision to fit the LCSs with bulky technology modules for different missions meant less space for built-in weapons.
The recent addition of ship-killing Naval Strike Missiles on newer LCSs somewhat mitigates the dearth of weaponry, but the LCSs still will be alone among American surface combatants in not having vertical-launch cells for anti-air and cruise missiles.
The Pentagon’s disappointment with the ships contributed to the 2014 decision to halt acquisition of the type at just 35 out of the planned 53 ships, with savings going toward a new program to build a conventional missile frigate.
But those 35 LCSs eventually could account for more than 10 percent of the Navy’s battle force. The sailing branch must figure out some way to make use of the speedy vessels.
Bryan Clark, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C., told Defense News reporter David Larter the LCSs despite their lack of endurance and heavy weaponry might work well as motherships for flotillas of robotic ships. The Navy has begun the budgeting and testing processes to acquire potentially scores of missile-armed unmanned corvettes.
“I think the Navy needs to mitigate those limitations by shifting the use of the LCS to much more of a command-and-control node and an unmanned vehicle support node,” Clark said.