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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat

Does the Littoral Combat Ship Really Need to Die?

Littoral Combat Ship
Littoral Combat Ship. Image Credit: U.S. Navy.

Can’t the Littoral Combat Ship Be Repurposed? Can the U.S. Navy leadership really not find a use for its flotilla of littoral combat ships (LCS) in an age of littoral combat? The navy’s fiscal 2023 budget submission proposes decommissioning nine youthful LCSs, justifying the move on the grounds that the leadership has decided to abandon the anti-submarine “mission module” that was supposed to be installed aboard these hulls. Instead, the forthcoming Constellation-class frigates will take on the sub-hunting function.

This is curious logic.

Retiring LCSs because their principal armament proved technologically unworkable would be like retiring brand-new Zumwalt-class guided-missile destroyers because their main battery, an advanced gun system, fires ammunition navy leaders rightly pronounced unaffordable. Yet they had the Zumwalts repurposed as shipkillers, eyeing them as platforms for launching hypersonic missiles alongside their complement of cruise missiles.

That makes sense. Once you have the platform, why not search out new ways to use it if its weaponry proves unsound?

In this case the quest should prove short, easy, and inexpensive. An alternative way to use the littoral combat ships already exists. Why not refit the vessels on the navy’s hatchet list for surface warfare and use them to augment the existing contingent of shipkilling LCSs? The surface-warfare mission module is evidently a mature technology, centered on long-ish-range Norwegian naval strike missiles and short-range Hellfire missiles.

Bolt anti-ship missiles onto erstwhile sub-hunting LCSs and send them to sea.

There’s a powerful rationale for keeping the full inventory of light surface combatants. Apart from the need for more hulls in the fleet—quantity has a quality all its own, after all—there are specific missions the LCS is well qualified to perform. Look at the South China Sea. China is trying to make the South China Sea into metropolitan Chinese territory in defiance of the law of the sea. It claims “indisputable sovereignty” over most of that waterway and thus the right to make the rules governing what foreign navies and coast guards may do there. Which means, not much.

Not military forces but the China Coast Guard and a maritime militia force embedded in the fishing fleet constitute the vanguard of Beijing’s “gray-zone” strategy. Coast-guard cutters and militia craft are imposing enough to intimidate fishermen or coastguardsmen plying their trade in the South China Sea. They can generally do so without gunfire—which is the point. Furthermore, China’s paramilitary fleet boasts a vast overmatch against Southeast Asian coast guards. And, backed by the People’s Liberation Army Navy, it can face down regional navies.

This is a good thing from Beijing’s vantage point. Sovereignty rests on a monopoly of physical force within national frontiers. China is approaching such a monopoly vis-à-vis its Southeast Asian neighbors. Over time, if left unopposed, its goal of indisputable sovereignty may become a reality in fact if not in law.

How to contest China’s bid for complete control? By being there to oppose Chinese aggression, and by being on scene in sufficient numbers and capability to outgun the China Coast Guard and maritime militia. U.S. maritime strategy in the South China Sea is a come-and-go affair. U.S. Navy or Coast Guard ships show up to make a legal demonstration on behalf of freedom of navigation, and then they steam away. Sometimes battle formations show up in the region, conduct exercises, and, again, vacate the scene.

That is no way to control geographic space.

Occasional maneuvers are all well and good, but look at the situation through the eyes of a Philippine or Vietnamese seafarer—the person you’re trying to embolden to do his or her job free of fear of Chinese bullying. Chinese mariners are on the scene more or less all the time to enforce Beijing’s claims, while their American opponents appear momentarily and sail away across the wine-dark sea. That leaves a domineering China holding the contested territory.

China is always there while America comes and goes. Would you take solace in such a flighty ally? I wouldn’t.

But a squadron of surface-warfare LCSs forward-deployed to Southeast Asia—preferably to the Philippine Islands, one of the chief targets for Chinese aggression and located close to disputed waters—could help firm up a strategy for pushing back. Such a flotilla would need to be numerous enough to allow a constant presence in regional seaways, preferably in the form of multi-ship wolfpacks. Nine hulls might make up such a squadron.

In other words, those nine hulls the navy wants to decommission could come in mighty handy. Apart from maintaining a steady presence, a forward-deployed LCS contingent would furnish Washington and its regional partners a desperately needed escalatory option. Chinese Communist Party poobahs strongly prefer not to swing the big stick of military force against fellow Asians; the small stick manifest in the coast guard and maritime militia is adequate unto Beijing’s purposes while avoiding the semblance of bullying.

This is its cudgel of choice.

But a missile-armed littoral combat ship outmuscles any coast-guard cutter. Send one or a few LCSs to stare down Chinese paramilitary forces, and you put China on the horns of a dilemma. It can escalate by dispatching the big stick, namely gray-hulled warships, and expose itself as an aggressor worthy of international opprobrium. Or it can deescalate, and see its sovereign claims degraded.

Either would be an improvement on current circumstances. The United States and its allies would be competing in earnest.

Wargames exploring gray-zone operations reveal several consistent themes and takeaways. Foremost among them: you have to be on station at hotspots to compete, and you need to expand, not narrow, your range of escalatory options short of using arms. It’s a bad thing if your only options are to stand idle, let fly with missiles or guns, or nuke a gray-zone antagonist. That’s basically the menu of unpalatable options for U.S. leaders at present. It’s doubly bad if that antagonist enjoys a multitude of escalatory options—as China does.

Let’s press throwaway ships into worthwhile duty.

A 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. 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.” The views voiced here are his alone. Holmes also blogs at the Naval Diplomat

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.”

27 Comments

27 Comments

  1. Eric-ji

    May 19, 2022 at 3:33 pm

    Missile arm the LCSs, then sell them to the Philippines and let the Philippines bolster its own defense.

  2. ARC

    May 19, 2022 at 3:50 pm

    Better yet, give them to the Phillipines. Better their sailors fight and die for their territorial waters than ours.

    • Duke

      May 20, 2022 at 10:15 am

      It should not be that hard to understand that the Philippines, like Ukraine, are our front line defenses.
      Supporting them to the maximum extent possible – including equipment, ammunition and troops – is the smartest way to assert control in Europe and the Pacific.

    • LookUp

      June 8, 2022 at 11:12 pm

      We would wish their sailors to fight, not die. If it were not for cowards and villains, no one would have to fight and die.

  3. Ben Leucking

    May 19, 2022 at 4:01 pm

    Since the LCS hulls are not, in themselves, survivable, how many additional billions of dollars would it take to give these ships a reasonable chance of coming out of a PLA Navy engagement in one piece? How many of those hulls are even capable of leaving port? The Navy blew $30B procuring the LCS and another $7.6B in mission packages. It now costs more than $650M (not adjusted for inflation) just to float one and another $70M+ in yearly operating costs. At what point does Congress come to the realization that the LCS program is an ill-conceived, bottomless money pit?

    • Steven Carleton

      May 20, 2022 at 10:25 pm

      What really was the point of the LCS program? PT boats? Convoy frigates? Carrier escorts? It was ‘modular’ so it could do ‘anything’?

      • Luke A. Miller

        May 23, 2022 at 7:32 pm

        Did the author not read that the LCS variant that does NOT have the totally broken combining gear now has cracking hulls when pushed beyond something like 15 knots? And those ships can’t even defend themselves. There is no way we should be risking the lives of our sailors by deploying them on those ships. How someone whose job it is to be an expert could write this article i have no idea.

        • Jack

          June 23, 2022 at 9:45 am

          I had this same thought. The Independence hulls are cracking, and the Freedom hulls have bad combining gears. The ASW module was designed by an idiot. See Sub Brief where Aaron explains why the ASW module cannot work. Who would want the Little Crappy Ship?

    • Howard Lee Wilder

      May 25, 2022 at 8:26 am

      Thanks for the deeper level analysis, Ben… I thought I was being sage with the idea of repurposing these units for our own US Coast Guard… your post, however, revealed the oversimplification of that concept… Makes you want to know the individuals involved in the procurement chain… Who benefitted from with a major procurement deal, landing a cushy, well-paying gig with the contractor after retirement? Not as if that’s never been done before.

  4. Maurice Anderson

    May 19, 2022 at 7:26 pm

    We have recently received a vivid demo of Russia’s defective weaponry, whose components get pilfered away by bureaucrats and soldiers. Our situation is different: we spend billions developing innovative gear, and then apparently discard it during fratricidal inter- and intra-service feuds.

    This article presents a well thought out solution to a serious problem. We currently lack suitable responses to counter the massive Chinese flotillas of smaller militia craft that harass our friends and potential allies in the South Chine Sea. LCS ships have the right size, speed and armament to deter such activity. Indeed, my main suggestion would be to INCREASE the lethality of the LCS ships by converting some into modern versions of the “seaplane tenders” that were the first “aircraft carriers” (This mainly requires a simple derrick to transfer seaplanes between the “flight deck” and adjacent sea).

    For suitably lethal air weapons, some of the (potent but now disposable) A-10 “Warthogs” could be fitted with pontoons (like their WWII fighter-bomber ancestors) to ride on the LCS deck during patrols. This could convert small LCS flotillas into novel “Carrier Task Forces” capable of challenging even large adversaries.

  5. exordis

    May 19, 2022 at 9:21 pm

    Both classes of LCSs have a glaring weakness in their combat survivability: they are substantially constructed of aluminum. Aluminum burns under conditions where steel does not. During the Falklands War, the Royal Navy lost the destroyer HMS Sheffield to a single dud Exocet missile hit from an Argentine air attack. While the Exocet’s warhead was a dud, the disintegrating rocket motor started a burning metal fire on the Sheffield’s aluminum structure that could not be controlled by the ship’s crew and fire fighting systems. More recently, the US Navy lost the largely aluminum amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard in June 2020 when an arson fire aboard ship gutted the vessel’s aluminum structure while it was docked in San Diego, and the fire could not be controlled. A fire started by enemy weapons hits would have been even worse.

  6. Jacksonian Libertarian

    May 20, 2022 at 12:53 am

    Surface ships are obsolete because they can’t survive what is called the “mature precision strike regime”. It doesn’t matter how heavy your missile defenses are (laser defenses aren’t ready), they can still be overwhelmed by a large enough salvo of missiles (TOT) time on target. 2 missiles not enough? Send 20 or 100, taking out a $30 Billion Aircraft Carrier Battle Group is worth the price.
    What can survive you ask?
    Subs, Stealth Aircraft, Attritable cheap long range Drones, and Marines dug in on land and armed with a full range of smart missiles and drones.
    When every shot is a direct hit, the 1st shot is a strategic necessity.

  7. William Barret

    May 20, 2022 at 9:03 am

    Some commenters have focused on the known LCS shortcomings and costs.

    Others on survivability.

    Question. Where the destroyers and submarines that helped win the Pacific War “survivable”?

    When did we reach a point where a vessel must be immune to enemy fire before we will deploy it?

    If we start shooting with the Chinese, sailors and Marines are going to die.

    LCS survivability is NOT simply a factor of hull construction. It is small, less likely to be targeted, fast, and increases the total number of hulls the enemy must contend with.

    And yes, if any of them take an ASM salvo, they are going to die, along with many sailors.

    That’s war!

    But if we have enough of them in the first place, it REDUCES the enemies proclivity to resort to war in the first place.

    I must partially disagree with one aspect of Mr. Holmes argument, which is the LCS squadron approach.

    I agree with the proposition to up-arm the LCS with as many ASM/ASCM as can be fit on the hull, but I would humbly suggest that a better employment of these hulls is the reinforce existing Carrier Battle Groups and Amphibious Groups.

    NOT replace other hulls, reinforce the groups, so that each group gains 2 – 3 hulls, and significant additional surface warfare capability, while also forcing the enemy to shoot at more hulls when attempting to engage that group.

    As for cost, the ships already exist, the taxpayer money spent. Why burn it while the hulls have life?

  8. siempre

    May 20, 2022 at 11:10 am

    The LCS like the Zumwalt were designed backwards. Warships are designed as weapons first with the hull designed to carry the weapons. These ships were designed as gee- wiz cool hulls with weapons to be shoehorned in later and exotic , needless engines abd hull shapes.
    The really sad irony is the hulls and propulsion are flawed so these are mostly useless.
    As Ukraine is showing, any functioning platform can have missles attached. No need to create expensive, high tech hulls as weapons carriers.
    The Navy could buy commercial small freighters and arm them. Small freighters work every day as they are designed to do.
    But, the LCS is a failed hull and propulsion…so, no use can be made of them.

  9. Kevin Andrew Hall

    May 20, 2022 at 11:28 am

    Yes, the LCS needs to die. With all the future money that is need to repair, maintain and correct the problems, it’s clearly not worth keeping. Also they do not have NEAR the offense punch that is needed in todays environment. The America class combining gear fix alone will be outrageous. And the Independence class front hulls are cracking. They have made 14 sorties!!!lol Its a no brainer.
    Spend the future money on new Frigates.

  10. Mike

    May 20, 2022 at 11:33 am

    No mention of the glaring engineering flaws in the entire Freedom Class? Flaws that outright prevent them from operating or limit them to the point that all they can do is limp back to port? Flaws that would take years and likely more $billions to fully remedy across the class?

    It’s a reality that can’t be ignored, and the costs saved by retaining the hulls would be negated by the costs(in tied-up manpower and money) of the fix. imo.

  11. Bill

    May 20, 2022 at 8:48 pm

    I’m just a retired medical corps guy who never deployed on a ship, mainly with Marines in unpleasant desert places. Thus I’m not qualified to make recommendations about ships. But here goes anyway. Isn’t there some way to tie these littoral ships into the reconfiguration of the Marine Corps?

    • Ashli Babbitt deserved that bullet

      May 22, 2022 at 5:49 am

      That would a no. It lacks the space for riflemen to carry their gear. V22s can’t land on them.

  12. Steven Carleton

    May 20, 2022 at 10:13 pm

    Your arguments are sound, but the Pentagon doesn’t think like that. Huge, grandiose projects rule the day there. This is how you excite Congress and get the defense contractors on board. Nobody gives a flip about sensible upgrades and evolutionary improvements. Somehow cost overruns, schedule slips, and field test failures are taken in stride. I pity those who may have to fight a full-on military force.

  13. Tony Silber

    May 20, 2022 at 11:57 pm

    This is the smartest strategic look at the LCSs that I’ve read. These ships have a niche. It’s all about distributed force. As the author notes, they supply a much-needed presence in many littoral areas. Organized as speedy Wolfpacks of a half dozen or more, they patrol vital choke points like the Strait of Hormuz, Bab el Mandel, the Strait of Malacca, South China Sea, Sea of Japan. They operate independently of the carrier strike groups. Or in concert, but detached up to hundreds of miles away. They vastly complicate an adversary’s planning. They have enough punch to be a long-distance surface-to-surface threat. They totally overpower lesser vessels from lesser navies. They free up the frigates and destroyers for higher-threat environments, or they team up with one destroyer or frigate in an independent group. Distributed force.

  14. Mickofreo

    May 21, 2022 at 6:19 pm

    Gday, Freedom of navigation in the Vietnam/Philippines sea should be within ONE kilometer of every built on reef. As staying 7ks away effectively states that the contested ownership jurisdiction is actually respected. Pullup drop in a line do some fishing inside those 7k zones . stay there for weeks. Help the Philippines get help to their “ship reef base”.and others that are blockaded by China. As they have invaded other countries effectively already with impunity. Of course countries further south get fearful and spend up to defend themselves. China only has itself to blame for creating that fear and loosing business .so China does like to complain about things when countries make defensive decisions of an internal nature .shut up and don’t interfere. Get out of the Vietnam/Philippines sea. Respect others, you are not at the moment , have been disrespectful and full of deceipt for a long long time.isn’t it time you grew up from this childishness and respected ,law of the sea U.N. rulings. Don’t demand respect when you arnt willing do do the same and give respect TA

  15. martyn bamber

    May 22, 2022 at 6:25 am

    The LCS is based on a passenger ferry design used in the Canary Islands, never was suitable as a warship.

  16. Viansag

    May 22, 2022 at 9:59 am

    Flawed system pushed through. We were forced similar with replacing older, reliable lighterage with the “Improved” Navy Lighterage System.

    Much less versatile, weaker, harder to repair in most situations.

    While it did have a few good aspects it killed key features needed, and survivability dramatically decreased. This is similar, but at a much larger scale.

    These ships while has some positive aspects, the “unit” as a whole features more critical failures that positive.
    It’s better to cut losses earlier than place frontline in conflict.

    One solution I could find that would be ideal for these, is USCG. This would be great for their AOR, and the modules could adapt more readily for thier standard operations, being defensive, rescue, or other support roles.

  17. Patrick Wastella

    May 23, 2022 at 9:29 am

    It appears that the problems with this platform go well beyond the ASW mission module, In fact they are legion.

  18. Jacob

    May 26, 2022 at 1:43 pm

    It’s not just this. Why send an expensive and “valuable elsewhere” destroyer to assist with counter narcotics or counter piracy missions when an LCS can do it for a whole lot cheaper

  19. Quartermaster

    May 30, 2022 at 10:46 am

    There are serious problems with the LCS hulls themselves. That’s why they are going to be retired.

  20. Brown Logee

    June 11, 2022 at 9:30 pm

    There should be large posters of LCS’ fatal defects in every Navy supplier, Pentagon and Naval Academy meeting room from cracked hulls to engine problems.  Minimize GOLD BRICKING; design a simple sturdy low cost hull; arm it to the hilt with missiles, comms and detection.   Order a significant number now and then improve on subsequent batches.  Stop spending trillions with nothing to show for it.

    Also deploy this batch in the South China Sea and demonstrate what a reliable ally looks like.

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