Lethal in the Littoral: A Smaller, Meaner LCS

By Lieutenant (junior grade) Jonathan F. Solomon, U.S. Navy

The common ground of these threats is that the enemy knows his local waters better than we do. If tactically smart, he can use the region's geography and modern communications to ambush our forces in transit or when otherwise vulnerable. Imagine that an adversary distributes "spotters" on board merchant shipping or fishing boats throughout his maritime neighborhood. These scouts detect a strike group at tactically significant distances and report in via satellite phones or other secure means. Despite the enemy's inability to conduct long-range strike or maintain a near-real-time over-the-horizon picture, they position assets to lay an ambush along the strike group's most likely track. As the strike group enters the area and despite its employment of emissions control and operational deception, the scouts report its location, since it cannot hide in these confined waters. The enemy saturates the formation with ASCMs fired by fast patrol boats hiding amid dense regional shipping and from concealed positions that take advantage of coastal topography. Even with the formation's advanced air defense systems, the laws of probability suggest that some missiles will get through. If final active and passive electronic defenses or hard-kill close-in defenses fail to neutralize the threat, warships will take hits.

Fast guided-missile patrol boats and basic ASCMs are relatively inexpensive and easy to field; a missile does not need to be complex if enough are fired such that a formation's surface-to-air (SAM) missile inventories are depleted or their capabilities overwhelmed. The more threat axes the enemy fires from, the more difficult the defensive problem for a formation.

The same is true with regard to torpedo defense, especially with the limitations on evasive maneuvering in confined waters, challenges in detection, and the lack of anti-torpedo hard-kill capability. Swap submarines for the missile boats in the above scenario. The enemy's bottomed or hovering submarines fire wake-homing torpedoes into the formation-all they have to do is sit and wait for the formation to steam over them. Prior to the ambush, the submarines also could deploy minefields optimized by bottom topography, so that the torpedo and missile attacks herd the force into another trap. Combat generally favors the side that most innovatively employs existing platforms and weapons, firing effectively first and in mass using the least complex plans.

"It may be useful to think about guerrilla warfare going to sea," wrote retired Vice Admiral Joseph Metcalf on the challenges of coastal combat.

If the capacity to screen the formation is reduced, the door opens to increasingly successful second- and third-wave attacks, especially if the enemy's firing positions remain un-located. In current U.S. Navy planning, airborne anti-surface warfare-capable aircraft such as the F/A-18, S-3B, P-3C, or SH-60B figure heavily in building a common maritime picture and providing standoff "marking" or counterstrike against surface threats. However, sophisticated, highly mobile area-defense SAMs such as the Russian-exported S-300 series (SA-10/12) or S-400 (SA-20) are capable of challenging us for air supremacy over a littoral operating area. We typically neutralize SAM sites in dense air defense threat environments using standoff weapons such as Tomahawk, but an enemy fielding rapidly re-deployable SAMs, as well as mock-up launchers with emitter-emulators that decoy our strike planners and weapons, will counter our usual tactics. In fact, using numerous decoys is a wise tactic to draw down our inventories of precision weapons. We have not faced threats like these in combat over the past decade, and have grown accustomed to rapidly gaining air supremacy. In future littoral environments, we will not always be able to guarantee aircraft access for the support of maritime operations, and must develop new capabilities accordingly.

Avoiding Mission Creep

LCS was conceived to succeed in spite of these threats. Its modular design, which permits mission-oriented outfitting, and small size will allow LCS squadrons to fight where we would not risk an expensive major combatant during the first days of combat. The risk, though, is that the fast, lightweight, heavily armed, and relatively inexpensive LCS will start growing in size, displacement, and expense as pet missions and extraneous capabilities are added beyond the original concept. We could lose our opportunity to revolutionize the capabilities and balance the composition of our fleet if we find ourselves with a design that is a direct descendant of the Oliver Hazard Perry (FFG-7)-class frigate. The more we add to LCS, the more we may lose in terms of true capabilities.

LCS is about taking the fight into the enemy's home waters-the shallow waters that wreak havoc on long-range Cold War-vintage sonars; waters with dense maritime traffic that can challenge the building and maintenance of a recognized maritime picture and blur the lines between neutral and foe; tactically complex waters that provide shallow-draft warships excellent locations for scouting, attack, and concealment. LCS is not another ship for the battle group; it is not appropriate for screening carriers. It is not for area air defense of forces ashore, deep strike inland with cruise missiles such as Tomahawk, logistics transportation, or afloat medical care. It cannot house the communications suite and space required for a forward command-and-control center. Troops ashore will be best supported by extended-range naval gunfire from ships with the proposed Advanced Gun System and follow-on electromagnetic rail guns, not LCS. What LCS will do is open the door that permits putting those troops ashore. If we want a ship that can counter the many asymmetric threats we face now and expect in the future in coastal waters, LCS must be built as an advance scout and hunter-killer for a battle force in high-threat environments, and as an interdictor and raider in low/intermediate threat environments. It operates most effectively when part of a fully networked LCS squadron that masses the capabilities of its combined sensors and weapons across all threat warfare areas.

Blueprint for Success

A successful coastal warship is small enough to hide wherever opportunity presents. It has an incredibly small radar cross-section (RCS) and vastly minimized acoustic, magnetic, and infrared signatures. It uses camouflage concepts tailored for the projected operating environment to reduce the risk of visual detection. It is extremely fast and maneuverable. It achieves nearly full "true" emissions control thanks to engineered reductions in shipboard electronic interference created by even the most narrow-beam communications paths. It has advanced passive sensing and high-bandwidth data-sharing capabilities to minimize its reliance on stealth-limiting active sensors and maximize battle-space awareness within its formation. All the same, it carries powerful and accurate active sensors with direct integration to the fire control system. Most important, it has an offensive capability disproportionate to its size.

For anti-surface warfare, this means a coastal combatant is best armed when it has sufficient anti-ship missiles to saturate and achieve firepower kill against threat warships. Harpoon canisters could be enclosed within a low RCS box launcher outside the ship's skin that conforms to the ship's overall physical profile. Additional Harpoons for high-threat or long-range situations could be carried within the ship's mission module and exposed using retractable "gunwales" when ready to fire. With eight or more Harpoons, LCS would achieve a vastly disproportionate striking power against multiple medium-sized enemy combatants-in their own waters.

However, Harpoon is not appropriate for all threats and is overkill against small vessels. The NATO Sea Sparrow has an excellent anti-surface capability, and with the upcoming introduction of the Evolved Sea Sparrow missile (ESSM), we will have the ability to arm LCS with a weapon ideal for line-of-sight use for firepower kill against other small warships as well as a superb point-defense anti-air weapon. Another advantage of ESSM is that it was engineered for the vastly differing combat systems of multiple nations' warships-it is built to be adaptable. It can load into a quad-pack built for a single vertical launch system (VLS) cell. If there was space for even one VLS module of eight cells, LCS immediately could have 32 advanced dual-purpose missiles for self- or formation protection. ESSM or a comparable missile must form the main battery of LCS.

For self-defense, LCS should carry a small VLS module of some kind for its advanced, point-defense, dual-purpose SAM, and have the capability to install a larger VLS armed with more such missiles in the mission module. To back up the missile systems and add close-in firepower, LCS should have a medium-caliber main gun, perhaps in the 3-inch range. Thus armed, LCS will be highly effective, especially when part of a networked LCS formation massing and coordinating its firepower.

Designers must assume that LCS will not be operating under the protective umbrella of an Aegis ship, given the proximity and positioning required for effective Aegis area air defense. Nor is LCS suited for the area air defense mission, which by definition requires a long-range, large volume search, high scan rate, automatic-tracking radar and an associated SAM with the speed and range to defend airspace greater than 10-15 miles from the ship. Considering the complexity and severity of the present and projected air threat, a true area air defense ship would require electronically steered arrays. Even with a reduced-sized array such as SPY-IF and its related support equipment, a frigate-sized warship is required.

As Aegis is too big and excessive for the LCS mission, LCS requires a search radar with the ability to auto-track many low-RCS contacts at all altitudes, particularly those at low elevations. It also must be fully integrated with the LCS combat system and capable of auto-detecting and engaging threats at ranges that permit reengagement if the first defensive salvo fails. The Israelis' EL/M-2228S air/surface-search radar for the Sa'ar V corvette may be a good concept to consider. This intermediate-range track-while-scan system in its 3-D variant can maintain track on up to 100 high-speed air or surface contacts at once and auto-designate engagements to the weapon system. The parameters of this or any other contemporary radar may not fully suit LCS, but LCS needs a radar designed specifically for a small warship's limitations that still provides the ability to detect and kill modern threats at tactically significant ranges. This radar should be augmented by an electro-optical sensor, providing passive search for short-range air or surface targets. It also could provide the combat system with a coherent fire control capability, since ASCMs increasingly are equipped with internal electronic countermeasure capabilities. A large inventory of standoff active electronic countermeasures, such as the NULKA decoy system, and traditional passive countermeasures such as chaff and flares will round out LCS's shield against advanced ASCMs.

In the not-too-distant future, advances in particle beam technology may permit the development of small high-energy close-in weapon systems. As these weapons would benefit from the integrated power system of an LCS, the ship should be built with the ability to field such systems someday. For now, LCS needs at least two small close-in, rapid-firing guns for defense against small boats and ASCMs. The electro-optically equipped Phalanx close-in weapon system (CIWS) Block 1B may be good for the near term, but its bulk makes it only an interim solution. Building on CIWS Block 1B, a new dual-purpose CIWS built with the size and physical profile of LCS in mind should be developed with a larger magazine. It also must be capable of defeating a highly maneuverable target, whether a small boat or ASCM using high G-force terminal maneuvers. This new CIWS should be mostly internal to the skin of LCS, and receive targeting information from the main air/surface-search radar or electro-optical sensors as processed by the LCS combat system. If the Rolling Airframe Missile is more effective than a CIWS gun for terminal ASCM defense then it should be modified and incorporated into LCS, but that does not negate the need for rapid-firing anti-small-boat guns.

LCS should carry one or more small, low-RCS, long loiter time unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). These would be used for scouting and building a maritime picture with a surface-search radar, sono-buoys, and electro-optical sensors, receiving commands and linking data back to the mother LCS using a narrow-beam, low probability of intercept system similar to Hawklink. It might even carry small missiles similar to Hellfire for standoff anti-small-boat attack and torpedoes for antisubmarine warfare. It could carry electronic countermeasures for assisting with ASCM defense. There are challenges associated with defending a small UAV in a dense maritime air threat environment, but compared to a manned helicopter, its loss would be more tolerable, and a single LCS would be able to carry more of them, for greater coverage and redundancy.

Undersea threats present the greatest challenge to LCS. The shallow water column, high ambient noise, and amount of debris near a coastline complicate the acoustic problem for littoral antisubmarine warfare. Lower frequency active sonars, such as the legacy AN/SQS-53 series, suffer from reverberation in waters like these. LCS needs a small hull-mounted high-frequency active sonar for mine avoidance. This sonar also should have a passive broadband capability to assist with anti-surface detections exploiting direct path and surface duct propagation paths. For standoff-range submarine search and tracking in shallow water, a variable-depth passive/medium-frequency active sonar can be installed along with its processing equipment in an LCS mission module.

Another possibility for a mission module is unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) with similar sensing capabilities tethered to LCS. If the tether is cut, the vehicles should have a "swim-home" capability. LCS can expect to escort current mine hunters while operating in a high-threat environment, but it could augment the mine hunters' search efforts if the UUVs also carried appropriate synthetic aperture sonar, doubling them as organic bottom-influence mine detection sensors. With either option, an anti-submarine warfare-outfitted LCS should be able to deploy fixed tactical passive sonar arrays in the seabed-ideal for barriers or choke points. These do not necessarily have to be monitored aboard LCS, and in fact, a dedicated reach-back cell or Integrated Underwater Surveillance System team ashore could do the job, relaying information via satellite data links.

For antisubmarine warfare weaponry, LCS should be capable of carrying vertical launch antisubmarine rockets in its regular VLS cell, and also should have at least one surface vessel torpedo tube mount for firing over-the-side torpedoes, ideally the hybrid MK-54 under development. Torpedo defense can be achieved in the near term using launchable expendable acoustic countermeasure devices, and in the long term using super-cavitating anti-torpedo torpedoes. The total LCS antisubmarine warfare suite, combined with automated torpedo-detection processing, should provide the cuing to defend against that threat. The sonar shack normally should be manned to support the hull-mounted sonar and underwater fire control system, and a personnel augmentation detachment should come on board if an antisubmarine mission module is installed.

As a hunter-killer, LCS's independent endurance should be limited to no more than three weeks. It should rely on a tender stationed with the battle force in the rear, possibly a converted amphibious ship, for installation of mission modules, replenishment, and maintenance. The U.S. Navy has decades of experience in screening high-value units. Such a tender would be no less a part of LCS operations than is a contemporary fleet replenishment ship.

Accepting Change

Today's surface warfare community was raised on Cold War battle-group tactics and platforms. For us to best fight LCS, we must accept that with current and near-term weapon systems combined with innovative tactics and deception, the enemy can deny us dominance in the littoral. We must accept that our present fleet lacks the ability to fight in confined, contested seas without risking disproportional damage to tonnage employed. We have had ships filling LCS's role in our past, and we grew resourceful at using them after significant losses among our larger ships. We must look back to how we once fought under similar coastal conditions, apply the lessons of our contemporary allies who operate small warships in these environments, and synthesize these into innovative guerrilla tactics that will keep us lethal in the littoral well into the future.

 

 
 

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