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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

America's Littoral Combat Ships - Part I

The US Navy's Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program is easily among the most strenuously debated US Navy procurement efforts in recent years. The US Navy originally planned to purchase a total of 52 Independence and Freedom Class ships to significantly augment its ability to operate within littoral waters i.e. comparatively shallow areas of water close to land (O'Rourke, 2014). Critics argue the durability of the LCS hull and its comparatively limited armament ensure it cannot even meet its intended purpose and the need for a strong littoral presence is ultimately of little strategic significance. In support of the broader US Pivot to the Pacific, spending billions of dollars on small surface combatants specialized for littoral combat against low-end threats rather than high-end blue water capable combatants (such as the DDG-51Arleigh Burke or SSN-774 Virginia class submarines) is a waste of vital resources. Senator John McCain summarized many of the frequent critiques of the LCS program before Congress:

"In LCS, we have (1) a supposed warship that apparently can’t survive a hostile combat environment; (2) a program chosen for affordability that doubled in cost since inception and is subject to the risk of further cost growth as testing continues; (3) a ‘revolutionary’ design that somehow has managed to be inferior to what came before it on important performance measures; and (4) a system designed for flexibility that cannot successfully demonstrate its most important warfighting functions."

Years of persistent criticism from both Congress and a number of vocal Navy officials coupled with the budget cuts from sequestration have reduced the Navy's purchase to 32 ships. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel directed the newly formed Small Surface Combatant Task Force to find a suitable replacement for the LCS. The new small surface combatant (SSC) is planned to feature higher durability, more capable weapons, and is likely to serve in a more traditional role as a frigate (LaGrone, 2014). Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's decision to limit LCS orders to 32 ships and to pursue a more capable SSC adequately addresses US strategic objectives over the long term provided major upgrades to the planned LCS mission modules. The aforementioned grievances against the LCS program are only partially justified but the US Navy also requires a capable SSC for sea control in blue water environment against a capable near peer adversary. An analysis of the merits of the LCS program will follow in Part I before an examination of the most likely SSC candidates will be examined in Part II.

Image 2: DDG-51 Destroyer squadron with Ticonderoga class missile cruiser escort

It is important to recognize that the LCS was never intended to partake in large scale high intensity conflicts against large surface combatants such as destroyers. As part of its broader set of objectives in peacetime, the Navy allows the United States to both passively and actively influence regions of the world by providing training opportunities for US allies, routine maritime patrols, anti-piracy operations, and a forward deterrence capability against potential US foes. The Navy classifies these types of peacetime missions as phase 0 and phase 1 operations. These aforementioned activities can often be conducted much more cost effectively by a small $450 million dollar LCS than a $1.8 billion dollar Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. More importantly, by assigning LCS to routine peacetime duties in Africa and South America, the more capable surface combatants such as Arleigh Burke-class destroyers or Ticonderoga-class missile cruisers can transferred to the Pacific.

"These are not large surface combatants that are going to sail into the South China Sea and challenge the Chinese military; that’s not what they’re made for...Littoral Combat Ships will tend to displace amphibious ships and destroyers in Africa and South America. That will free up surface combatants, more high-end ships [for Asia]" -Adm. Jonathan Greenert, 2012

Many of the Navy's most important procurement and basing decisions either directly or indirectly affect the Pivot. The Navy will station 60% of its US based ships on the West Coast in addition to maintaining a large forward deployed presence of 67 ships in Asia (Greenert, 2014). By 2020, Pacific stationed ships will be the newest and most capable ships within the Navy and will revive priority for several of the Navy's upgrade programs. Notable examples include: all three DDG-1000 Zumwalt class destroyers will be stationed San Diego and the DDG-51 ships based in the Western Pacific are prioritized to revive the enhanced anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities via the Multifunction Towed Array (MFTA) by 2018. As important as the Pivot is, the US will continue to maintain strategic obligations toward its European and Middle-Eastern allies which is reflected by the map below detailing the future deployment of US ships worldwide in 2020 by region.  

Image 3: US Navy ship deployment by region

From a conceptual planning perspective, a low cost flexible surface combatant that allows the US Navy to send its more capable destroyers and missile cruisers to the Pacific while simultaneously still maintaining a sizable presence in other areas of the would prove to be a great asset. In order to be successful in displacing a variety of larger surface combatants in the aforementioned peacetime duties, the LCS has to be flexible and able to undertake several types of missions. The solution was to create the mission modules/packages system in which each LCS could be easily given a new set of equipment to meet three common mission types: surface warfare (SuW), anti-submarine warfare (ASW), and mine countermeasure (MCM) missions. 

The mission module concept is a conceptually innovative approach that, in theory, would allow a limited fleet of LCS to undertake a disproportionately larger number of missions when compared to a more conventional alternatives such as patrol boats, missile corvettes, coast guard cutters, etc. However, the mission module concept has been plagued with numerous design difficulties in recent years. Many of the originally planned weapon and electronic systems within the mission packages have been canceled or delayed by several years. For example, the SuW mission package originally included a navalized variant of the Army's Non Line-of-Sight – Launch System (NLOS-LS) which would have granted the LCS a capable anti-patrol boat swarm capability out to 24 nautical miles (Defense Industry Daily, 2014). Many nations such as Iran and North Korea field large numbers of fast missile craft and patrol boats in swarms as a cost effective means to engage larger surface combatants. Without a capable medium range missile system, the LCS' longest range weapon system is its 57mm cannon which is has a maximum range of 3.5 nautical miles. 

Image 4: The Navy has chosen the radar guided AGM-114L Hellfire to replace the NLOS-LS in the SuW module. While, the AGM-144L is a salvo capable fire and forget missile, its limited by a maximum range of just 3.5 nautical miles (Defense Industry Daily, 2014).

The need for a longer range SuW weapon system on board the LCS is critical to the future deterrence capability of the 5th fleet. The LCS will comprise a significant portion of the number of planned US Navy ships forward deployed within the Persian Gulf under the command of the 5th Fleet. The Navy is in the midst of a $580 million dollar construction effort to expand its 5th Fleet headquarters, Naval Support Activity Bahrain (Defense News, 2014). A total of eight LCS ships will be forward deployed to Bahrain alongside ten upgraded Cyclone-class patrol craft. As capable as the Cyclone and LCS are at short range combat against small surface combatants, they lack the range of Iran's increasingly capable fast attack craft armed with long range anti-ship missiles such as the Chinese supplied Type-021 missile boats. Previous naval engagements between the US and Iranian navies have underscored the importance of long-range over the horizon missile capabilities: 

"Operation Praying Mantis, the last major surface engagement in the Persian Gulf, took place on April 18, 1988; this event also marked the surface Navy’s first exchange of long distance anti-ship missiles fired over the horizon and without a line of sight...In one day, the US Navy crippled or destroyed three of Iran’s principal fighting ships because they could fight ‘over the horizon’ and coordinate with lethal air power." - Luke Tarbi, 2014

In a similar manner to the SuW module, both the planned ASW and MCM modules have experienced numerous development issues which will limit their operational effectiveness, the following is from Defense Industry Daily

ASW Module: 

"So far, the ability to carry a pair of MH-60R anti-submarine helicopters is the only thing that distinguishes an ASW-equipped LCS from a small corvette, and even there, LCS performance is likely to suffer by comparison. The towed sonars have depth limitations that may prevent their use in shallow water, and the LCS waterjets are so noisy that unlike an ASW corvette, a bow sonar isn’t really an option." - Defense Industry Daily, 2014

MCM Module: 

"A number of current and previous MIW systems have failed outright or performed poorly in tests. Despite more than 6 years of development, the US Navy is still fielding older minesweeping systems and ad-hoc UUV/USV options like Seafox and Remus 600/ Kingfish  to confront a serious mine threat around the Strait of Hormuz." - Defense Industry Daily, 2014

Image 5: MQ-8B & MQ-8C Fire Scout. Image Credit: US Navy

Despite the many problems with the base LCS hull and the development of its mission modules, the ship has the potential to meet its originally envisioned goals provided upgrades are made to the mission modules. Furthermore, not all of the developments relating to LCS are negative. For example, the ability both the Freedom and Independence-class LCS to carry either two MH-60R or three MQ-8B Fire Scout or two of the much more capable MQ-8C Fire Scout UAVs will provide the Navy with invaluable ISR and targeting capabilities (Freedberg, 2014). Initially the LCS' mission modules will be limited but the design of the mission module system inherently makes any future modernization program easier to implement. The SuW module will receive an upgrade after 2019 which will likely include a longer range missile than the AGM-114L (Defense Industry Daily, 2014).

In summary, the concept of for the LCS is well founded but the implementation of the concept has been hampered by numerous technical issues. After 2020, it is likely that the upgrades to the LCS' mission modules will allow it to preform as originally intended. The Navy's decision to cap LCS buys at 32 ships is justified given that the service still requires a more durable surface combatant to support blue water operations in the Pacific. The Small Surface Combatant task force has been assigned with reviewing upgraded LCS designs, foreign frigate designs, and entirely new US made frigate designs to succeed the LCS (LaGrone, 2014). The task force will submit their findings to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on July 31st 2014. The next part of this series will examine the most probable candidates for the 20 ship buy and the relative merits of the contenders.


  1. Statement of  Adm. Jonathan Greenert Chief of Naval Operations, Jonathan Greenert, 2013. 
  2. Statement of  Adm. Jonathan Greenert Chief of Naval Operations, Jonathan Greenert, 2014.
  3. After 32 Ships, Future of LCS Program Unclear, Christopher Cavas, 2014.
  4. It’s All in the Package: the Littoral Combat Ship’s Mission Modules, Defense Industry Daily, 2014. 
  5. USN memo directs task force to study LCS alternatives, Grace Jean, 2014.
  6. Some Unsolicited Input on the Small Surface Combatant, Bryan McGrath, 2014.
  7. What’s Next After LCS?, Sam LaGrone, 2014.                         
  8. LCS Mission Packages: The Basics, Sam LaGrone, 2013.           
  9. Expansion of 5th Fleet base underscores long-term gulf presence, By Awad Mustafa and Christopher P. Cavas, 2014.                                                            
  10. Navy Moves Smaller Coastal Craft To Persian Gulf As We Pull Big Ships, Sydney Freedberg, 2013. 
  11. Iran's Doctrine of Asymmetric Naval Warfare, Fariborz Haghshenass, 2006. 
  12. Iran's fast attack craft fleet: behind the hyperbole, Berenice Baker, 2013.                
  13. EXCLUSIVE: Navy Still Thrashing Out LCS Tactics, Design, Top Admiral Acknowledges, Sydney Freedberg, 2012.                                                     
  14. Littoral Combat Ship Cut Plan Reopens Navy Rift: Build ‘Em Fast Or Rugged, Sydney Freedberg, 2014.                                                                                
  15. LCS Lives! Mabus, Hamre Argue Littoral Combat Ship Will Survive Cuts, Sydney Freedberg, 2014.
  16. Marine Official To Helm Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship Panel, Sydney Freedberg, 2014.
  17. U.S. Navy Weighs Halving LCS Order, Christopher Cavas, 2013.
  18. LCS Couldn’t Survive War With China, But It Could Help Prevent It: CNO, Sydney Freedberg, 2012.                                                                                                                                        
  19. CNO Greenert: ‘We’re Not Downsizing, We’re Growing’ – Especially In Pacific, Sydney Freedberg, 2012.                                                                                                                                        
  20. Pentagon Caps LCS at 32 Hulls, Hagel Directs Navy to Evaluate ‘Capable and Lethal’ Frigate Designs, Sam LaGrone, 2014.                                          
  21. Opinion: Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship Challenges the Status Quo, Dale Heinken, 2013. 
  22. The Littoral Combat Ship: Give it time, Rear Admiral John F. Kirby, 2013.
  23. Navy Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) Program:   Background and Issues for Congress, Ronald O'Rourke, 2014.                                                                                                                     


  1. "In LCS, we have (1) a supposed warship that apparently can’t survive a hostile combat environment; (2) a program chosen for affordability that doubled in cost since inception and is subject to the risk of further cost growth as testing continues; (3) a ‘revolutionary’ design that somehow has managed to be inferior to what came before it on important performance measures; and (4) a system designed for flexibility that cannot successfully demonstrate its most important warfighting functions."

    Sounds a lot like F-35.

  2. Just a couple of comments in no particular order.

    - You make a good point about the LCS being able to be used to allow more expensive and complex ships to be deployed elsewhere, instead of hunting pirates.
    - I think the biggest problem is it's zero capacity to project force. If they'd given it the 76mm OTO rapid fire instead of the 57mm popgun this would be far less of an issue. 20km vs 8kn is a vast difference.
    - Having said that, once they start using x2-3 helicopters with missiles, the number of scenarios it might have some use will increase. Eg, x3 LCS can have x6 helos...a spotter, 1 or 2 to insert marines, 3-4 tp provide air cover. The LCS can stay quite far from shore to avoid fire (kind of defeats the purpose of being a littoral ship though)
    - I read it might be possible they Norweigian JSM might be adapted to the LCS. If so, the LCS will suddenly become a very potent warship killer, or possibly able to target inland targets 100-200km inland. Imagine a stealthed warship which can travel at 40 knots (80kmh - sorry I'm not naval- I always convert to km and kmh ;-) ) hide in some shore like a fishing boat, then launch a semi cruise missile., then move somewhere else at 40 knots and do it again.
    - The maneouverability of the Independence class is amazing and it's untested how this can be used.
    - The Independence class looks awesome ^_^

    Can't wait for Part 2 Matt


    1. Thanks! I'd agree with your 2nd point. Frankly I think that while its important to develop and field new technologies beyond incremental improvements, some older but proven systems should remain to serve as a "back-up" in a pinch e.g. harpoon anti-ship missiles or a 76 mm gun in the case of the base LCS configuration.

      I've also read about possibly integrating the JSM into the LCS but its unlikely for the US would purchase a foreign system even if its effective for political reasons. I certainly think it would be worthwhile to add harpoon anti-ship missiles at least on a few LCS ships. Most of the proposals for the follow-on frigate offer both a set of 8 Harpoons and VLS cells. Adding a few LRASM's in VLS cells on board and LCS would give it a significant punch.

  3. Hay Matt, another great article.

    Just some news, on the F35 for Australia.

    THE Abbott government has committed Australia to its biggest defence purchase, ordering 58 more Joint Strike Fighters for the Royal Australian Air Force at a cost of $12.4 billion.

    ost includes $1.6bn in new facilities and infrastructure to be built for the new aircraft at RAAF Base Williamtown in NSW and RAAF Base Tindal in the Northern Territory.

    if you can not view it, just do the google search, it gets around the pay wall, so do put this in google box
    "$12.4bn fighter deal sets defence record"

    You want to do some seniors on it, like will they be able to go to Indonisa without having to refuel in mid air, and are they the right aircraft for Australia, for the large sea distance, with have with our neighbors.

    thanks matt.

    1. Hey Stone, good to hear from you! I was glad to hear the Australian Gov. made a significant commitment to the F-35. Those aircraft will significantly augment the RAAF's EA-18s and F/A-18Fs. I think a combination of the EA-18 and F-35 will be particularly potent.