The story of the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) is marked by numerous twists and turns over the course of many years.
Despite its struggles, the vessel is adding unique value to the Navy.
Littoral Combat Ship: Time to Dump This Warship?
Following years of controversy, acquisition adjustments, modifications, developmental problems with the Freedom variants, and low combatant commander demand, some experts suggest the Navy should divest its remaining fleet of LCS ships.
The LCS program was questioned at its very outset, and the intended fleet size was massively truncated in favor of a heavier, more survivable frigate alternative.
At the time, the principal concern was that the lightly armored, flat-bottomed LCS boat was far too vulnerable to enemy attacks. Its relevance to a maritime engagement with a great power was questioned.
Not long after the FFG(X) frigate program was launched, Navy developers saw that ship as more than simply a stronger kind of LCS. Rather, they sought a more heavily armed ship that could be relevant in large-scale, open-water maritime warfare.
Therefore, the U.S. Navy Constellation-class Frigate has air and cruise missile defenses, as well as other weapons not anticipated as part of initial LCS concepts of operation.
When the Navy began its surface-fleet-wide Distributed Lethality effort, the idea was to much more heavily and effectively arm the Navy’s surface fleet. At the time, the concept was to ensure the entire surface fleet was sufficiently armed with offensive and defensive weaponry to succeed in open-water combat against a rival great power.
This shift drove the need to modify the LCS, a design that largely came into existence in the years when the U.S. military was engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As part of this, beginning around 2014 and 2015, the Navy added over-the-horizon long-range deck-fired missiles, advanced guns, and other lethality-improving enhancements to the LCS. But even when equipped with cutting-edge anti-submarine and surface-war mission packages, many simply deemed the LCS not survivable enough.
Nonetheless, many LCS boats were still built and significantly up-gunned in many respects.
LCS: What Happens Next?
The Navy was thus looking to pivot from years of counterinsurgency, counterpiracy and maritime security efforts that aimed to secure waterways through use of techniques such as Visit, Board, Search, and Seizure operations. The U.S. military services transitioned fundamentally to emphasize the threat of great power war. In a great power threat environment, Navy surface ships needed to be able to succeed in massive, open-ocean “blue” water warfare against a major adversary.
Therefore, even with weapons and survivability enhancements to the LCS, Pentagon and Navy planners determined that more survivable surface combatants should be built to address the current threat environment. Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel reduced the planned LCS fleet size to nearly half of the original plan and also called for the design and construction of what has evolved into the fast-arriving Constellation-class Frigate.
Since that time, the ship has spent recent years in somewhat of a liminal zone. It has not been survivable enough for higher-risk operations in contested environments, and it has also struggled to maintain relevance in other mission areas.
Given this, several years ago Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro told Congress the service would divest a number of LCS from the fleet and strengthen investments in more survivable surface ships. Del Toro was clear and specific in his remarks to lawmakers, as he said the LCS simply could not survive in the Pacific theater in any kind of maritime engagement with China. The Navy’s 2023 budget called for the divestiture of as many as eight Freedom-variant LCS ships, in large measure due to its questionable survivability.
But before the LCS is entirely cast off, there are credible arguments for why the ship deserves an enduring place within the Navy fleet. There are a number of distinguishing technical features, weapons, and combat functions that make the LCS greatly relevant.
As a shallow-draft ship, the LCS can, of course access ports, coastal areas of interest, island chains, and other locations that are difficult if not impossible for deeper-draft ships to reach. Also, with its speed of 40 knots, its advanced, integrated surface-warfare mission packages, and its mine-hunting drones, the LCS brings unique attributes to the fleet. For example, the ship could be key to coastal surveillance, as it can access otherwise hard to reach areas and launch drones. The LCS is also quite relevant for mine and submarine detection missions.
The ship is also not altogether useless when it comes to maritime combat — its deck-mounted guns have proved very effective in testing against small-boat surface threats. The LCS can also launch and recover surveillance drones such as the MQ-8B Fire Scout, and including surface and undersea platforms able to conduct forward surveillance, test enemy coastline defenses, and find mines and submarines.
Not only will there be a continued operational need for the Littoral Combat Ship in maritime combat engagements, but the ship can function more prominently as a forward-node attack and surveillance vessel in areas considered less contested.
Given the current global threat environment, it seems reasonable that there will be dangerous coastal areas where the Navy will need to clear mines, search for an enemy perimeter, or attack and destroy small swarming boats. Some of these missions sets are not things a deeper-draft, larger warship can always or even often do. Therefore, while clearly not optimal for heavy maritime warfare in the open ocean against a great-power adversary, the LCS does occupy a unique and important niche in the U.S. Navy.
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.