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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat

Littoral Combat Ship: A Light Amphibious Warship?

Littoral Combat Ship Problems
Image: Creative Commons.

A thought experiment: suppose the U.S. Marine Corps were looking for a winsome amphibious transport—let’s call it a “light amphibious warship” (LAW)—to help marines vault from island to island to pummel hostile fleets. Suppose these warships didn’t yet exist, and Congress seemed leery of procuring them. And suppose the U.S. Navy had light vessels on hand—call them “littoral combat ships” (LCS)—that were more or less a wasting asset. Technological woes held these vessels back from performing the missions they were designed to perform. Yet they were capacious and fleet-of-foot enough to ferry troops around.

The sea services might conclude a marriage of convenience that suited both partners. The U.S. Marine Corps needs light transports to execute operational concepts that go by names like Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations and Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment. The Navy needs a mission for its littoral combat ships. A match!

Marines now envision using swarms of light craft rather than hulking yet vulnerable amphibious transports to move troops around. The fleet riding the waves would work in concert with missile-armed marine units ashore to deny an antagonist—chiefly China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN—control of the sea. American sea denial would frustrate China’s goals in wartime, all of which—occupying Taiwan, enforcing sovereignty in the South China Sea, seizing the Senkaku Islands—demand that the PLA control crucial waters.

Once the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, working with the U.S. Air Force and allied air and sea forces, denied the PLAN control of the sea, they would enjoy the leisure to amass sufficient power on the scene to wrest away control of the sea for themselves. And to do with maritime command whatever allied leaders deemed strategically and politically expedient to win.

Small craft are better suited than large “gators” to evade enemy fire during island-hopping operations. Better still, they have the advantage of being cheap and thus plentiful. Hostile air and missile strikes could take out a light transport. They probably would take out a few. But only a small percentage of the force’s overall combat power would be packed into each individual hull. The rest of the force would soldier on, having only lost that small percentage of its strength. Hence the marines’ quest for light amphibious warships.

The U.S. Navy, on the other hand, has built two classes of littoral combat ship intended to perform one mission at a time, namely anti-surface, anti-air, or anti-submarine warfare. Engineers would bolt on a “mission module” enabling an LCS to perform each function. An eminently sound concept for a flotilla of small surface combatants—except not every sound idea works out once you transpose the idea to engineering and test out the widget in practice. The LCS is one such idea.

As a gapfiller the navy is outfitting its littoral combat ships with Norwegian Naval Strike Missiles, “birds” that give these warships an over-the-horizon punch against hostile surface fleets. That’s a welcome development to say the least. But the LCS has disappointed in every other way. In part that’s because the mission modules have not yet proven out, 13 years after the first littoral combat ship, USS Freedom, joined the fleet. In part it’s because one of the LCS classes, named for Freedom, suffers from propulsion-plant troubles so severe that navy chieftains now refuse to accept new hulls from the manufacturer until a fix is identified, installed, and satisfactorily tested on shore and at sea. Testing of a proposed remedy is underway.

Littoral Combat Ship

180711-N-N0101-368.LAKE MICHIGAN (July 11, 2018) The future littoral combat ship USS Wichita (LCS 13) conducts acceptance trials, which are the last significant milestone before a ship is delivered to the Navy. LCS-13 is a fast, agile, focused-mission platform designed for operation in near-shore environments as well as the open-ocean. It is designed to defeat asymmetric threats such as mines, quiet diesel submarines and fast surface craft. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin/Released)

Assuming shipyards correct the engineering defect in the Freedom-class, the navy’s LCS fleet will swell to around 30 hulls. That’s significant, especially when you add that sum to the 35 light amphibious warships the Marine Corps leadership wants to conduct expeditionary advanced base operations. While the littoral combat ships’ mission modules have proved a major disappointment, low-tech advantages are baked into the LCS. It boasts a large flight deck, a roomy interior, and a shallow draft, meaning it could transport marines and their gear from Pacific island to Pacific island. Meanwhile the LAW remains on the drawing board—a promising but hypothetical capability.

Littoral Combat Ship

The littoral combat ship USS Coronado (LCS 4) steams ahead during a division tactics exercise in support of Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) Thailand.

Something is better than nothing when you’re trying to mold events at sea. The littoral combat ship might not excel at a mission for which it wasn’t designed, but it might satisfice. Repurposing ships is time-honored practice. Let’s experiment with reinventing the LCS as an interim light amphibious warship. And let’s do so pronto.

Sound the wedding chimes.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation & Future Warfare, U.S. Marine Corps University. The views voiced here are his alone.

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”

14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. James Winnefeld, Jr

    October 2, 2021 at 8:10 am

    You should give then 2nd LT James Winnefeld, III, credit for this idea in his August 2019 Proceedings article entitled “Call In the Blue-Green Cavalry.”

  2. thelaine

    October 2, 2021 at 8:48 am

    Anything that would turn this white elephant a shade darker would be a welcome relief to the abused American taxpayer. Whatever its merits, this ship class has delivered horrifying return on investment and has primarily served as yet another gravy train for defense contractors and retiring military brass, who get lucrative do-nothing jobs with those same contractors. I wish the Navy wasn’t so incompetent and corrupt. It makes me sick to see all the wasted money.

    I’m all for repurposing the LCS into a useful role, even if it requires even more buckets full of cash. It reminds me of the DDG-1000. I guess we just have to keep throwing money at it until we find something useful for it to do.

    The Navy is embarrassing right now.

  3. Ben

    October 2, 2021 at 9:35 am

    So, how many Marines and what type of equipment are hypothetically possible? You really didn’t cover much about the new proposed mission. A lot of rehashing the old problems, but very little comment on the new proposed capability. It sounds interesting…

  4. PolicyWonk

    October 2, 2021 at 9:46 am

    While LCS might be able to transport Marines, it is important to remember the following:
    1. LCS has little room for growth, and cannot carry much cargo(let alone heavy weapons). Hence – whatever weapons the USMC contingent wants to bring along better not weigh much.
    2. Both LCS variants have tiny ordnance lockers and no dedicated weapons assembly stations. Hence, the usefulness of the ship and any aircraft they carry to provide fire support or armed escort is extremely limited.
    3. LCS (officer and) crew size was intended to be 40, not counting the mission package crew. High maintenance requirements and operational costs (7/8ths that of a Burke-class DDG) have caused the crew size to increase by 75%. Hence – transporting a contingent of Marines could only be for a short duration.

    Hence, using LCS to transport Marines is a stop-gap measure at best, as the poor design of both variants makes them a less-than-practical solution.

  5. lazarus

    October 2, 2021 at 12:29 pm

    actually i wrote about using LCS as a USMC transport in 2016. People before me write about it as well. It is not a new idea.

  6. Brian Foley

    October 2, 2021 at 2:17 pm

    Using the LCS class for amphibious warfare is a misnomer. The correct designation should be as a “Raider”. The LCS class is neither equipped nor capable of landing any force larger than a platoon. That being the case, unless it’s a platoon of Chuck Norris’ the best they’ll be able to accomplish is to raid a coastal facility.

  7. Tom

    October 2, 2021 at 3:22 pm

    Despite the technical problems, I like the concept of the LCS for the simplest of reasons, “it adds flexibility to a larger force and can be used to vastly extend the fleets defensive perimeter via an F-35B presence.”

    Just because the LCS wouldn’t lead the way, it doesn’t mean it wouldn’t make a difference in force projection on the flanks and rear. A mid-sized ship that’s fast with good anti-aircraft and ant-ship defenses that could put a stealth fighter in the sky linked with a helo with anti-sub capabilities that can also put Marines ashore? There’s mission flexibility in there.

    But yeah, it has to be reliable then too.

  8. Juliet7Bravo

    October 3, 2021 at 12:20 am

    IIRC, the USMC has already determined, quite some time back, that they have zero use for the LCS in an amphibious role. Completely unsuited. No way to unload, minimal carrying capacity, ect. Given the lack of growth (weight) margin in an already woefully overweight class, no way to remedy those deficiencies either.

    If you want to insert a platoon sized element in Zodiacs, far better, cheaper, safer, more reliable techniques than a honking big unstealthy ship made of recycled beer cans, with minimal offensive/defensive capabilities…that’s a fire trap looking for an ignition source.

  9. Michael Kearins

    October 3, 2021 at 8:55 am

    This author is lost. He obviously does not know what he is talking about. The LCS is barely 2500 tons. It would be lucky if it could carry two CH46 s which is about a 2 platoons of grunts. It has no rear ramp to launch boats such as LCAC or AAVs. It has no armory to store infantry weapons and ammunition. It has no troop compartments for housing the grunts. It’s not designed for that mission at all. Look at how he said they could afford a few ships lost. Maybe he should be assigned to one of them and see how it feels to be on a ship not designed for the amphibious assault mission. Then there’s no supply storage to sustain the infantry after landed. How can someone with such idiotic ideals be allowed to submit opinions for a news company? Someone who has little understanding of the armed forces. The navy has a small ship designed for that mission and it’s called the LPD. The navy can always bring back a new lighter ship design like the LST. That ship was small and capable with the ability to sail right up to the beach and use a ramp to offload vehicles in addition to launching AAVs with grunts in them from the rear ramp area. The author is not qualified to be writing for a military website based on him thinking such a small ship can launch a amphibious assault en masse. He sounds like a civilian that does not know what he’s talking about.

  10. Michael Kearins

    October 3, 2021 at 9:01 am

    The author has extensive credentials but to make this suggestion for that ships mission change is one of the most far fetched ideals I’ve ever read. He sounds like he knows that he’s talking about but he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about.

  11. James "Jamie" Thackaberry

    October 3, 2021 at 11:01 am

    In 1999, I represented the USAJFKSWCS Battle Lab for Science & Technology. I had some input with the developers of the LCS. I attempted to make sure they were compatible with SOCOM assets. The hope was to have commo, antennas, storage, berthing, and deployment of Special Operations equipment on the new ships. I’m not sure how much was accomplished after I left there and returned to my Special Forces unit.

  12. Mario DeLosa

    October 5, 2021 at 9:24 am

    Firstly, LCS is a bogus designation as these vessels are corvettes, and not very good ones at that. The designation LCS and indeed the whole concept was a ridiculous attempt by Big Navy to remain relevant during the war on terror; no land going frigates you see. The other driver behind the concept was idea during the W administration to have a “warship” that was inexpensive to build and to crew hence the mission modules; that was an epic fail. In order to achieve that, the Navy’s longstanding, and sensible, tradition of multi-mission warships was cast aside. The problem with the mission module concept is that it is hardly a simple swap of gear; major port facilities are required and the crew has to be swapped as well; not simple particularly in an unfriendly location. We all know how well mission modules, and indeed the ships, have performed so far. But please, do not take my word for it. When the Israeli Navy was contemplating purchasing the vessels they were looking at the conventional hull and they wanted a ship packed down with weapons. Which brings me to my point, what makes anyone think that these ships, that have so far failed at almost everything, could be configured to support amphibious operations? Doing something over and over again while hoping for different results is the definition of insanity!

  13. Cenebar

    October 5, 2021 at 12:10 pm

    Most of the comments on USNI regarding this topic are dead-on accurate. Someone there said that US Marines logistics is like moving a grand piano–10% purchase and 90% moving the bulky heavy darn thing where 90% is the hard part.

    Most of the comments posted here are sound. The LCS was designed (and the US Navy marketed it hyped-up) as a fast minesweeper. It wasn’t intended to be any “Streetfighter” or a Littoral Combat Ship for ASW or ASuW because now the US Navy is going back to fix and upgrade it. It was intended to be the fastest and most heavily armed Mine Countermeasures warship in the world because the LCS WILL replace the Avenger-class MCMs.

    That said, the USNI comments said that the LCS is good for a dash-transport of Marines towards a beach from say a ESB or EABO. But no Marine wants to be sleeping inside hot shipping containers inside a ship with shipping container heads, water, and kitchens for very long. The LCS doesn’t have the interior spaces to accommodate lots of Marines for long cruising patrol periods. It can be done, but it’s putting Marines as sardines in a container can. Heck, lawsuits can arise on the conditions, especially during COVID such as body order and lack of adequate HVAC.

    With just a couple of RHIBs and a CH-53K to deploy the Marines, it will just be an infantry force to set foot on some beach, not reinforced with vehicles and artillery. It’s do-able, but would one risk all those Marines without backup and support unless there are other ships in the area.

    Also, I applied to 1945 for a job and you people didn’t reply.

  14. Michael Kearins

    October 5, 2021 at 2:46 pm

    Baffling to me that someone who was in the naval war college would even propose this ship as a troop transport. Totally not designed for that. It’s only 2500 tons! Putting the weight of a ch46 on it would slow it down and two platoons in just body weight alone would add 5000 lbs or 2 1/2 tons. Then all the gear and supplies. Ammunition, fuel food etc….. the ships speed would drastically reduce and it would be way down at the water line. Some of the writers for this news site might have a military background but are not really knowledgeable about all aspects of what they write about.

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