The Navy’s troubled Littoral Combat Ship or LCS has perhaps been the most criticized surface platform in Naval history, as the vessel received strong, high-level criticism at its inception and was subsequently derided and partially replaced for not being survivable enough.
Littoral Combat Ship (LCS): Initial Order Cut
Years ago former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel cut the planned fleet size by roughly a third, in large measure due to a chorus of concern that the ship simply was not “survivable” enough to support the kind of “blue-water” maritime warfare challenges envisioned by the Navy facing great power threats. This was the reasoning for why the Pentagon and Navy launched the FFG Frigate program, described as a specific effort to engineer a more “survivable” kind of LCS engineered with space armor, longer-range weapons, over-the-horizon missiles and a larger, more strongly reinforced hull.
As recently as last year, the Navy took its hesitation about the LCS so seriously that Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro told the House Appropriations Committee – Defense that a large number of LCS ships need to be retired because they simply cannot hold up against an increasingly advanced Chinese threat in the Pacific.
“The particular problem we are facing on the eight we plan to decommission is the problems with the new ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) modules on these ships. The ship’s were designed to meet a different threat and it will be challenging for these ships to contribute to the high-end fight,” Del Toro told Congress last year.
Del Toro’s comments were quite significant as they pertain directly to the Navy’s overall conceptual and strategic shift away from counter-terrorism, counter-piracy, Visit Board Search and Seizure kinds of missions to massive preparations for a great power war againsts advanced adversaries on the open seas.
Key elements of a threat-driven mission and readiness shift were supported as far back as 2015 when the Navy revved up its “distributed lethality” concept. This effort was designed to massively upgun the entire surface fleet for great-power warfare on the open ocean. Ships such as the LCS received new generations of weapons, drones and anti-submarine technology as part of a strategic fleet-wide initiative to make the surface fleet much more lethal and capable of contributing with key relevance to great power warfare.
Not long after the FFG(X) program was launched, Navy weapons developers sought to plan the ship as more than simply a stronger kind of LCS but rather a more heavily armed kind of ship able to be relevant in large-scale “open water” maritime warfare. Therefore the U.S. Navy frigate now under construction has air and cruise missile defenses and other weapons not anticipated as part of initial LCS concepts of operation.
The End Came Too Early?
However, the grim reaper may have arrived too early for the LCS, at least to some extent, as the ship has not only been made more lethal and survivable but able to meet certain key requirements for surveillance, countermine measures, manned-unmanned teaming and coastal or closer-in reconnaissance, patrol, drone operations, and mine-clearing.
Regarding coastal surveillance, the LCS has had the ability to reach critical, high-risk waters impossible for deeper draft ships to operate in.
This can bring the ability to find and destroy mines, access ports unreachable by deep-draft ship, launch drones and perform littoral reconnaissance closer to enemy coastline.
The Littoral Combat Ship has also been able to launch and recover drones and helicopters all while still launching anti-submarine, surface warfare and countermine mission packets, or suites of technology specifically engineered to integrate with ship-based command and control.
LCS mission packages have also shown promise as they integrate otherwise disparate systems in a networked and coordinated way for submarine hunting, coastal enemy engagement and shoreline reconnaissance.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.