The U.S. Navy's Littoral Combat Ship: A Beautiful Disaster?

James Holmes

Key point: How much and what the LCS can contribute depends on whether a likely field of combat lies in the Persian Gulf, the Black Sea, or the South China Sea.

Is it time to admit the U.S. Navy’s littoral combat ships are a failure? Yes. And no—maybe. In 2004 President George W. Bush pronounced the overthrow of Saddam Hussein a “catastrophic success,” implying the invasion was an operational triumph in the early going but gave off grave if not debilitating strategic and political fallout later on. It’s the other way around with the littoral combat ship (LCS), a program that has fulfilled little if any of its early promise yet could provide value in the future if put to creative tactical use. The reverse pattern from Iraqi Freedom could hold for the LCS: catastrophe comes first, ultimate success later. Time will tell.

So the vessels’ legion of critics can take a victory lap, and with ample reason. Meanwhile, LCS defenders can hold out hope of redemption in the future. How’s that for a Solomonic judgment?

The evidence for the prosecution is damning. Navy grandees once billed the littoral combat ship as essential for inshore naval warfare. “The future for the Navy/Marine Corps team requires our naval forces to dominate the near land battlespace and provide access for our nation’s joint warfighting team,” declared Admiral Vern Clark, the chief of naval operations, America’s top-ranked uniformed naval officer, in 2004. “LCS will deliver capabilities to enable our Navy to dominate in this critical littoral region. These ships will be a vital component of tomorrow’s carrier strike groups and expeditionary strike groups. We need this ship today.”

“The LCS,” added a Department of Defense press release, “is an entirely new breed of U.S. Navy warship. A fast, agile, and networked surface combatant, LCS’s modular, focused-mission design will provide combatant commanders the required warfighting capabilities and operational flexibility to ensure maritime dominance and access for the joint force. LCS will operate with focused-mission packages that deploy manned and unmanned vehicles to execute missions as assigned by combatant commanders.”

Fifteen-plus years hence, the hype has not panned out. Few today would argue that the LCS is a “vital component” of any oceangoing task force, as Admiral Clark prophesied it would be. Think about some of the woes that have plagued the project. For instance, the over-the-horizon anti-ship missile that constituted its “main battery” for surface warfare was canceled a decade ago. That left the ships toting only lightweight, short-range guns for dueling hostile ships. By 2018 the navy substituted Longbow Hellfire missiles onto the LCS for waging surface warfare. But the Hellfire, however lethal, sports an effective firing range of just five miles. That’s negligible reach in an age when anti-ship missiles can strike at targets scores or hundreds of miles distant. It’s possible the LCS would dominate whatever ventures within its gun or missile range, as Clark claimed; but its reach remained confined to a small patch of sea, well within the visible horizon. Savvy foes would simply blast away from beyond gun or Hellfire range—before LCS crews ever closed the distance to return fire.

Game over.

Backers also pledged that littoral combat ships would be three ships in one: surface combatant, sub hunter, and minesweeper. These fleet-of-foot ships could execute one function, put into a friendly port as battle circumstances warranted, and come out equipped with a new “mission module” empowering it to carry out another function. In effect shore technicians would plug and play the equipment needed for a primary missions, unbolting the existing kit and installing the new within a matter of hours. An LCS configured for, say, surface combat could be reconfigured with sensors and weapons designed for finding and killing submarines or sea mines. And back again if need be.

Yet Navy leaders despaired of the modular approach back in 2016, announcing that, henceforth, each hull and crew would perform one chief mission. Modularity was an excellent idea that didn’t work out in practice. The technology making up the mission packages was slow to pass field testing. Logistics proved to be a nightmare, even leaving aside technical travails. It was hard to envisage staging replacement modules—accompanied by the workers needed to install them—in harbor adjoining likely battle zones.

Another LCS selling point fell by the wayside.

And the LCS was trumpeted as a ship of war on the cheap. Its low cost would allow it to be built in bulk to disperse yet amplify the fleet’s combat punch. Yet the cost of each copy doubled and then some. Moreover, the navy’s scheme for “optimal manning” of LCS crews—the leadership’s hilarious euphemism for the more accurate phrase minimum manning—was a recipe for overworked officers and sailors. Worse, refusing to assign more than the bare minimum number of crewmen to operate the vessel in peacetime meant there was no surplus manpower allowing a crew to suffer casualties in wartime—as warships are wont to do—recover from damage, and fight on.

Belated acknowledgment of inconvenient facts prompted naval officialdom to cut back the projected inventory of littoral combat ships from 55, to 52, to the current total of 32. Now the leadership is musing about retiring the first four hulls just twelve years after the first hit the fleet. Divesting itself of newish assets scarcely marks an official vote of confidence in the program. Detractors have a solid case.

But. Naval history is replete with examples of platforms being repurposed for new missions, oftentimes to good effect. The aircraft carrier USS Midway, now a maritime museum on the San Diego waterfront, underwent constant modification during its storied service life. Spruance-class destroyers built mainly for anti-submarine warfare found new life as Tomahawk cruise-missile carriers once vertical launch silos were backfitted onto them. The LCS could follow that familiar pattern.

Navy spokesmen have gone closemouthed about the LCS mission modules in recent months and years, presumably to avoid divulging too much to watchful antagonists, so it’s hard to ascertain whether the modules have put their growing pains behind them and now provide working capability in surface, anti-submarine, and counter-mine warfare. Even so, technical wizards seem to have worked out the kinks in the ships themselves that begat a series of public and embarrassing engineering failures a few years back—prompting navy potentates to reorganize the program.

Each “seaframe”—better known as “the ship”—now boasts some reliable surface-warfare capabilities. Littoral combat ships can embark helicopters. They can operate a variety of unmanned vehicles. And in one of the more heartwarming developments of recent years, their armament is much improved through the addition of the Norwegian-built Naval Strike Missile, an over-the-horizon anti-ship munition that went to sea onboard USS Gabrielle Giffords last year. The class, in short, packs its first serious wallop.

And, with it, a glimmer of hope for the future. What functions could littoral combat ships perform if astutely deployed? Constabulary duty, first of all. Littoral combat ships are fit for peacetime constabulary operations, and indeed were built, in part, to liberate capital ships from missions that don’t demand a warship bristling with missiles and elaborate sensor suites. Just as gunboats once acted as police and diplomatic implements, deluding few into thinking they were battleworthy platforms, an LCS can help apprehend pirates, traffickers in arms and illicit goods, and other seafaring ne’er-do-wells. Indeed, the vessels have fought the narcotics trade for a couple of years already. One deployed to the Caribbean basin for just that purpose last year.

Second, diplomatic work. Working alongside foreign partners helps the U.S. Navy build coalitions and alliances, advancing a central mandate from the last two U.S. Maritime Strategy documents—both titled A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, and both predicated on founding partnerships to police the sea. Gabrielle Giffords is plying the South China Sea at present, as is sister ship USS Montgomery. LCSs have worked with regional navies and coast guards in the past, conducting annual exercises and helping local governments build capacity to enforce their rights under the law of the sea. Through routine, workmanlike enterprises of this sort, the United States fortifies its reputation as a trustworthy partner—bolstering its chances of rallying multinational support during stressful times.

And third, combat. For obvious reasons, battle and its peacetime twins, deterrence and coercion—displays of martial capability meant to cow an opponent into submission without a fight—have attracted the most scorn during the littoral combat ships’ lifespan. It’s worth pointing out, however, that the late Captain Wayne Hughes, the master tactician of his day, never lost faith in the littoral combat ship’s potential in naval warfare. In the latest edition of his series on Fleet Tactics, which appeared just last year, Hughes exhorts maritime strategists to make guaranteeing access to the “marginal seas”—geopolitics guru Nicholas Spykman’s term—adjoining the Eurasian supercontinent the focus of U.S. Navy endeavors. After all, American mariners can accomplish little in Eurasia without nautical access. He specifically cites the LCS as a platform that can help bring that about.

These are waters that make headlines, including the Mediterranean Sea, Persian Gulf, and the seas shoreward of Asia’s first island chain. Hughes was a great proponent of dispersing sensors, firepower, and command-and-control among as many platforms as possible. A fragmented navy task force might lose an individual unit in action, but it would lose just a small percentage of its aggregate combat power. Heaping multi-mission capability onto a single hull like a cruiser or destroyer, by contrast, risks forfeiting all of that capability in a single firefight with the enemy. Declares the tactics sage: in an age when hostile naval capability resides in large part in shore-based aircraft and missiles, and in small seagoing craft, it’s better for the U.S. Navy “to fight fire with fire, using expendable, missile-carrying aircraft or small surface craft” of its own to prosecute the fight for littoral access. It’s “taboo” to send capital ships into contested near-shore expanses.

Hughes lauds the LCS precisely because it sports the capacity to operate in company with a family of unmanned surface, aerial, or subsurface vehicles, as well as with fellow manned ships. Commanders can fan out capability among many nodes while retaining the ability to concentrate firepower at points of impact, employing “network-optional” communications to obscure the force’s whereabouts. Was the LCS his implement of choice for inshore combat? No. It was too big and obtrusive for his taste. He favored coastal corvettes. Around the turn of the century Hughes formulated the “Streetfighter” concept, which would have fielded surface craft far lighter than the LCS’s 3,000-odd tons. Streetfighter vessels would have displaced about 1,000 tons, making them affordable in swarms. But since the U.S. Navy opted for frigate-sized littoral combat ships, Hughes was determined to make use of them. Which is a praiseworthy attitude.

A couple of points in closing. One, the setting matters. How much and what the LCS can contribute depends on whether a likely field of combat lies in the Persian Gulf, the Black Sea, or the South China Sea. Operations must be tailored to the theater; this is Strategy 101. And two, it’s wrong and misleading to fixate on the technical characteristics of individual ships, warplanes, or ordnance, as military folk have a habit of doing. A fleet is an organism whose elements must interact with and mutually reinforce one another to achieve victory at sea. The goal of strategy is to amass superior firepower at decisive places and times. The force as a whole, not a single component of it, is what concentrates strength for action. It is the proper focal point and unit of measure for tacticians. Finding ways a littoral combat ship, its aircraft, and its unmanned vehicles can help the fleet win the fight for access to marginal seas is the task before surface-warfare commanders. If they do, the program can shed its taint of failure.

There’s no escaping the fact that, in many ways, the LCS program is an example of how not to conceive of, experiment with, and field naval combatants. But take it from the ghost of Wayne Hughes: with a little ingenuity we may yet wrest a measure of success from catastrophe.

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and the author of A Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy, published last year.

Image: Flickr.

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