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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Why The U.S. Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship Failed

Littoral Combat Ship
SOUTH CHINA SEA (June 30, 2020) The Independence-variant littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS 10) conducts routine operations in the South China Sea, June 30, 2020. Gabrielle Giffords, part of Destroyer Squadron Seven, is on a rotational deployment, operating in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations to enhance interoperability with partners and serve as a ready-response force. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Brenton Poyser/Released)

The U.S. Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) was supposed to transform naval warfare. 15 years ago, strategists were itching to make changes after threat assessments identified areas that the U.S. Navy needed to address, such as terrorism, piracy, and maritime transnational crime. The thinking went that the navy would be better served with a small, fast, and agile ship that could operate near shore. But the LCS has not lived up to its original billing. There have been numerous mechanical problems and failures – leading to two ships being decommissioned altogether.

The LCS still has a lot of potential when lining up against China. Earlier 1945 analysis has illustrated Chinese fears of the LCS – that its speed and use of anti-ship missiles could be a difference-maker in East Asia. The ship could also conduct minesweeping and anti-submarine warfare. The LCS looks nice in photos and the specs are great on paper, but the reality has been anything but smooth sailing.

Why the U.S. Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship Failed

It has been a rough 13 years since the navy commissioned the U.S.S. Independence, the first LCS. After years of underwhelming performance and corrosion issues in 2011 that were making the ship’s hull disintegrate, the navy decided to moth-ball the Independence in July. It had endured numerous cost overruns and delays. Another LCS, the Freedom, was decommissioned at the end of September. As more Littoral Combat Ships came online, more problems cropped up. In 2015, one had to be towed back to port after mechanical issues. In the same year, yet another had to be sent back to port. There were engine and propulsion concerns that lead to mounting frustration. The navy had enough by January 2021 and stopped all new deliveries.

More Designs More Problems

To make the acquisition program more confusing, the LCS has two different designs from two different defense contractors. The Freedom-class has a monohull design and the Independence-class has an aluminum trimaran layout. They cost about $360 million each. Both classes of ships had maintenance problems. Critics doubted their survivability in a shooting war. The engines did not work right.

One of the unique selling points of the ships was that different missions, such as anti-piracy and counter-terror, could be systematically swapped out. But that feature was ended after a myriad of difficulties. Then the navy tried adding the Naval Strike Missile to some LCS models. That looked to have potential, but the main issue was still keeping the LCS at sea rather than in port for repairs.

Oh For What Could Have Been

There was a time during the first decade of the global war on terror that the LCS made sense. Naval ships needed a fast craft that could deal with offshore problems. Pirates were ravaging shipping off the coast of the Horn of Africa. Cartels were starting to ship more narcotics with crude submarines. So, the LCS seemed to have all the answers.

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.

Littoral Combat Ship

Image: Creative Commons.

The biggest problem was the two designs. The ships had different problems depending on who manufactured them. Maintenance costs went up. The navy figured out that missile frigates could do the same missions. The war on terror ended with the fall of Afghanistan. The navy and some Members of Congress simply think the LCS was a mistake. What if it broke down near one of the contested islands in the South China Sea? What if it shot all eight of its strike missiles and then had to defend itself from a Chinese anti-ship missile? These are questions that have to be answered or more Littoral Combat Ships will be de-commissioned.

1945’s new Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Timothy Harrison

    April 23, 2022 at 10:46 am

    Very good article. I feel like the navy got dazzled by this idea for a warship – and perhaps in its search for an austere weapons platform that required less manning- went in spectacularly half assed and further embraced complicating the deal by going with two different designs. One of the nice thing about the Burkes is the relative homogeneous factor of the flights – especially when it comes down to maintaining them.
    And as this article cites – there’s the whole survivability aspect. Ships in wartime must face enemy fire. These wreak too much of the battle cruiser doctrine – speed as protection. That only gets you so far, if at all.

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