The recent findings of the Perez Report and related coverage in Defense News enumerated significant problems with the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). It therefore seems worthwhile at this point to take a look at how the LCS was conceived and ask, “Is it up to the tasks it could soon face?”
In the mid-1990s, the Navy conducted a series of war games in which the LCS concept was born. The wargaming process was called the Joint Multi-Warfare Analytical Game (JMAG). The computer models included all areas of joint forces: command-and-control, intelligence, environment, political-military actions, land warfare, air warfare, sea warfare (including antiair, antisurface, antisubmarine, mine warfare and mine countermeasures), and special warfare. JMAG employed experienced subject-matter experts (SMEs) at the flag/general level in all the services for “Blue” and “Red” forces.
These war games were at the developmental cutting edge of of modeling, simulation, and a “decision-maker in the loop” process. Their output allowed comparison of various systems and tactics to determine the warfighting value gained from each.
Value also was derived from SME-player insights. These had high fidelity due to the discipline imposed by the process and the manner in which the computer models held the players accountable for their decisions.
JMAG results were used in the Navy’s decision-making process to select among competing systems and platforms for funding in the annual budgetary process. Among the platforms/systems evaluated by JMAG were:
• unmanned aerial vehicles
• unmanned underwater vehicles
• unmanned surface vehicles
• various surface-warfare and mine-countermeasures systems for shipborne helicopters
• antisubmarine sensors and sensor fields
• cruise missiles
• ship concepts
• aircraft concepts
• system and weapon concepts.
LCS was unique in that it did not begin as a “platform concept to be evaluated.” Rather, it was a concept that emerged from a JMAG insight, became a platform concept, was further evaluated in JMAG and other methodologies, and continued on to be funded as a new-ship program.
Scenarios employed in JMAG were derived from current hot spots where potential conflict existed. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the focus shifted to limited-war situations. The U.S. Navy, no longer having a significant rival in control of the sea, shifted its focus to “littoral control” along coastal seas and maritime choke points.
What-If War: Blue vs. Red
Blockage of the Strait of Hormuz by a hostile power was a frequent scenario. The “U.S.-supported nation” (the “Blue”-coalition nation) was in need of timely reinforcements to succeed. Red could best succeed by using its significant land forces to seize key objectives before the United States could get more troops and equipment into position. Breaking through the choke point at the Strait of Hormuz was essential to ensure the flow of logistic, amphibious, and troop ships into Blue ports. It also was essential to maintain the flow of oil from Middle East nations to the world economy.
This scenario presented the Navy with difficult problems. Here, it wasn’t fighting a Navy for control of the high seas; it was fighting an enemy with antiship missiles on the shore along the choke point, shore-based tactical aircraft, frigate-sized ships, missile-armed patrol boats, and fast inshore attack craft. This enemy also employed modern diesel-electric submarines and an array of acoustic, pressure, magnetic and contact activated mines. The enemy could structure a complex, layered defense that had to be “peeled back,” a very time-consuming process. Each layer had to be peeled under the threat of the other layers.
Retired Rear Admiral Grant Sharp played the officer in tactical command of Blue naval forces. His initial assets in the scenario included a battle group with an aircraft carrier, two Aegis destroyers, two missile frigates, two nuclear-powered submarines, an oiler, and a supply ship. The surface ships were located in the Sea of Oman leading to the Strait of Hormuz. The submarines, located at either end of the choke point, were engaged in intelligence operations and listening for Red submarines. Two Blue minesweepers were located in a nearby friendly port. P-3 patrol and antisubmarine aircraft were available in sufficient quantity to provide one on station 24 hours a day. More forces flowed in as game time proceeded.
Faced with the need to break through in a timely way, the Blue-force commander sent armed reconnaissance patrols into the waters of the defended choke point. Each patrol was conducted by an Aegis destroyer and a guided-missile frigate. The mission was to locate minefields, flush out and destroy Red submarines, and locate and destroy shore-based anti-ship missiles and radars. It was not a traditional sea-control mission in that the ships were “fighting against the shore” (enemy assets located along the coast), as well as surface, air, and subsurface threats.
Admiral Sharp was unwilling to allow Blue troop and supply ships to transit the strait until a path had been swept through the minefields and the submarine threat had been significantly reduced. Minesweepers had to be brought in later once the other threats were sufficiently neutralized to allow their operation.
Shore Threats and Bottlenecks
The problem encountered was that the ships that could beat down the Red submarine threat and locate minefields were large surface combatants—relatively high value assets. The Aegis destroyers and missile frigates went into the choke point, drew fire, and over time located Red minefields and killed Red submarines. Blue was able to gain air superiority within a few days, and this kept the Red aircraft threat at bay. However, Red’s shore-based antiship missiles were mobile and difficult to target; they launched and moved. Suicide boats made frequent attacks. Destroyers and frigates could deal with the threats from the sea. The problem came from the littoral, shore-based threats.
The littoral-threat problem was twofold:
First, these operations took a long time (weeks, not days). This resulted in a logistical bottleneck; troop ships and supplies couldn’t get through the choke point. Large ships piled up waiting for the order to proceed. No oil was transported out of the Persian Gulf. The world economy suffered. Meanwhile, Red ground forces were moving toward their key objectives.
Second, the large Aegis destroyers and the smaller guided-missile frigates were taking heavy damage in the armed reconnaissance patrols from mines, submarines, antiship missiles, some tactical aircraft, missile-firing gunboats, and the occasional fast-boat attack. The Red-force commander tended to withhold his submarines and fast-attack boats waiting for the larger ships, the more lucrative targets.
Once a minefield was located and the other threats reduced, minesweepers were brought in under the protection of the destroyers and frigates. Choke-point threat reduction and mine sweeping became sequential operations, thus adding to the time to achieve breakthrough and littoral control.
Littoral Concerns: Birth of a Ship Concept
Some insights of the SME Players:
First, a smaller, more expendable ship was needed for littoral control. It was folly to expose the larger, higher-value Aegis destroyers in the first phases of the war to battles with the shore, where the enemy had antiship missiles, artillery and fast-attack boats hidden among islands and in protected ports.
Second, it would have been more effective if the ships that made up the armed reconnaissance patrols had been able to hunt and eliminate mines in a moderate threat environment as well as kill submarines and defend themselves against other threats from sea and shore.
Thus was born the concept of a “littoral combat ship.” The idea, of course, may have been nurtured in other places, but the mid-1990s JMAG war games were the first mention of such a ship of which I am aware.
The Littoral Combat Ship was subsequently war-gamed in the same and several other scenarios. It proved useful in all scenarios—not just for choke-point control, but also for maritime interdiction; intelligence collection; escort of larger ships along the littoral; and insertion, support, and extraction of special-warfare operators or small Marine Corps units.
The insight emerged that a “different kind of ship” was required for operating in the littorals. The LCS was envisioned as a multi-warfare-capable ship, able to survive in a low- to moderate-threat environment and in a high-threat environment when operating under the air-defense umbrella of an Aegis destroyer. It had to be networked with destroyers and other ships of a battle group to ensure that the umbrella was effective.
The LCS was conceptualized as being about the size of a World War II destroyer (in the range of 2,200–2,600 tons), but not as large as a modern Aegis destroyer such as the Arleigh Burke class (8,000–10,000 tons, fully loaded). By way of comparison, the “littoral combat ship” of World War II, the destroyer escort, displaced something between 1,400 and 2,000 tons depending on the ship class.
The LCS had to be “deployable,” that is, able to reach a forward position on its own. This meant a cruising range in excess of 3,000 miles and sea-keeping capabilities consistent with an ocean-going ship.
To operate in littoral seas, the LCS had to have a minimum draft. This dictated that it not have a hull-mounted sonar, which can add five to ten feet or more to the ship’s draft.
There was a debate over speed. Did an LCS have to be fast? Faster than the speed of a typical destroyer at 33-plus knots? The SME players agreed that speed was a desirable characteristic, but not at the expense of a complete warfighting suite.
Stealth was considered a high-priority requirement. The ship had to have a minimum radar signature to survive in littoral waters overseen by coastal and airborne radar systems.
A flight deck and hangar facilities were essential. A helicopter increases the surveillance horizon of a ship by many miles when it is airborne. Two helicopters per LCS would be preferable.
At the time, JMAG also was gaming the advantages of multiple types of air, surface, and undersea unmanned systems. This led to the insight that the LCS should employ as many unmanned systems as possible to create an offensive standoff capability, i.e., be able to send an unmanned system forward to search and attack, controlled by the LCS.
The SME players debated the nature of combat systems for the LCS. There was general agreement that it must have a gun in the 57- to 76-mm. range. It should have a medium-range air-defense missile and a medium-range antiship missile. It should have some kind of counterbattery capability to respond in real time to a shore-based missile attack. The helicopters and unmanned vehicles should also be capable of carrying weapons for standoff attack.
The question of interchangeable “modules” specialized for different missions became a subject for discussion. For example, modules for antisubmarine warfare and mine countermeasures were considered that could be added to a basic self-defense capability that existed on all hulls. The idea was that you couldn’t pack everything needed into one hull, but you could build a hull that was “mission-adaptable.” This was not a new concept; it had been considered and discarded for the Spruance-class destroyer. This configuration was war-gamed, and several insights were gained.
First, the infrastructure to support “modularization” as an in-theater capability was difficult and likely very costly. Planning for deployment and positioning of modules was difficult. The Red force always targeted the port in which the modules were stored using special forces or indigenous forces. This Red action, usually occurring before the war started, was at least partially successful. This limited the effectiveness of the modularized LCS.
Second, the time to change out a module was gamed at 24 hours, which was probably optimistic (the Perez Report says it would take several weeks). This change-out time did not include the transit time to the port where the change-out could occur. In the war game, ships were typically “off line” for three to six days for a module change-out, a time unacceptable to the operational commander. If it would actually be two weeks or more, it becomes an unusable concept from an operational perspective.
Third, the missions for which the LCS was most needed tended to change as the conflict proceeded. No mix of embarked modules seemed to satisfy the ever-changing mission requirement. In the period immediately prior to conflict, LCSs with mine-countermeasures modules (MCM) were in high demand, as were LCS configured for antisubmarine warfare (ASW) and special forces. When the conflict began, these ships were pulled back and an LCS with a strong self-defense capability was required to go on armed reconnaissance patrols and draw out the shore-based missiles, artillery, and tactical aircraft. Once control of the littoral shore was achieved, the LCSs with MCM and ASW capability were required again to neutralize minefields and Red submarines. In the ASW mission, the LCS had to work closely with Blue submarines.
Once the mine and submarine threats were reduced to acceptable levels, LCSs capable of escorting large supply, troop, and amphibious ships were needed. The primary threat at that time was from fast-attack craft and suicide boats. Once Blue land forces were well established, LCSs were needed to keep the supply lines through the choke point open. The LCS with the MCM module was used to counter random Red mining using indigenous craft.
The operational commander preferred a single, multi-warfare-capable LCS, smaller than a modern destroyer or frigate, that had ASW, surface-warfare, and counterbattery capabilities as well as a forceful self-defense capability that made it reasonably survivable in moderate- to high-threat situations. The area in which a highly specialized LCS seemed most justifiable was in mine countermeasures; an LCS thus equipped could replace the aging wooden-hull minesweeper fleet with a ship that was more survivable.
In a high-threat environment, all of the LCS types would have to operate in pairs (to maximize capability and survivability) under the umbrella of Aegis destroyers and the carrier battle group.
The role of the LCS in special warfare is destined to grow. The ship designed for this mission, the Cyclone-class patrol craft, did not successfully fill the need. An LCS with a special-warfare load-out seems to fit the bill for SEAL command-and-control, insertion, support, and extraction. The large flight deck is essential for this type of mission.
The SME players recorded eight additional important insights:
First, the bridge and combat-information center of the LCS should be integrated to provide for rapid decision-making and computer-supported navigation and combat-systems control. Lessons could be learned from human-factors engineering used in the design of aircraft cockpits.
Second, the “no topside spaces” culture of the submarine force should be applied to achieve maximum stealth capability. The lifelines, stanchions, and hull fittings of current surface combatants should be minimized as they are all contribute to the radar return signal.
Third, modern composite materials should be used in the superstructure to save weight. Aluminum should not be used. The Navy learned what happens to aluminum superstructures in the fire on board the USS Belknap (CG-26) after the cruiser’s 1975 collision with the carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67)—aluminum burns quickly and fiercely.
Fourth, ship manning can be somewhat reduced using automation, but should not be reduced to levels that do not support sufficient watch-standers for extended periods at high conditions of readiness, or for the performance of several missions simultaneously, including damage control. Crew fatigue becomes an important limiting factor in capability for the kind of extended operations envisioned for the LCS.
Fifth, maintenance must not suffer due to reduced manning concepts. The LCS crew should be of sufficient size to perform most routine maintenance while also manning warfighting watch stations.
Sixth, new hull forms such as twin- or tri-hulls should be explored to achieve increased stability for launching and recovering helicopters and/or unmanned aerial vehicles. Traditional mono-hull small ships tend to be less stable in more severe weather.
Seventh, the air arm of the LCS is one of its most important capabilities. In fact, the flight deck and the air (manned and unmanned) capability may well be the main armament of the LCS.
Eighth, to “control the littoral,” one must not only control the shallow seas, lakes, and rivers near land, but also anything on the adjacent land that threatens ships in the littoral zone. The LCS cannot do this alone, but it was the vision of the war-game players that it should have the tactical capability to itself react quickly to threats emerging from the littoral land areas; such as a quick-reaction weapon that would deter shore-based, mobile antiship missiles from firing at the LCS, or could destroy them before they moved.
From One Concept, Two Prototypes
The Navy proceeded with the LCS concept and it was decided to produce two prototypes—one mono-hull, the USS Freedom (LCS-1), launched on 23 September 2006, and one trimaran, the Independence (LCS-2), launched 30 April 2008. Instead of declaring one of the two competing designs a winner, the Navy in November 2010 asked the Congress to allow for the order of ten of each design. This seems to be a politically driven decision and is likely not practical from a procurement and lifetime-cost aspect.
It is planned that the ships be manned by two crews, a Blue crew and a Gold crew, as is done in the submarine force. Critical to this decision is increased reliability/maintainability with the additional associated cost. One reason the Blue/Gold crew system works in the submarine world is because of the money invested in reliability/maintainability up front. Will this be matched for the LCS?
A new minimum-manning concept is employed. This requires significant investment in crew training. The ship depends on a very high experience level of a small crew. Whether or not the Navy actually can support this high experience level for the LCS remains to be seen. It makes LCS service a unique and highly specialized tour of duty. Initial looks at crew size indicate that there are insufficient personnel to sustain long periods of operations, conduct more than one mission simultaneously, conduct damage control, or conduct routine maintenance. Crew size should be revaluated and berthing installed to support a larger crew (as was done in the case of the Perry-class frigate when a similar, though lesser, problem occurred).
A concept of maintenance and logistic support from a computer-linked shore-based staff was developed for the LCS. This system is subject to failure at its weakest node, the link, and would not likely provide reliable repair support under combat conditions. It does not make up for the lack of personnel available on board to perform routine maintenance and repair.
Moving Beyond Modular
As the LCS evolves, it is likely that the module concept will prove to be unsupportable from both a financial and operational point of view. What may evolve are two ship types; one with a mine-countermeasures capability to replace the wooden-hull minesweepers (perhaps the mono-hull, if we must buy both types to satisfy the politics of ship acquisition), and a second one with antisubmarine- and surface-warfare capabilities (perhaps the tri-hull, though that hull has limitations in upsizing the weapons suite, and has an aluminum hull and superstructure that increases its vulnerability). A wiser course of action would be to employ one hull, abandon the exchangeable modular concept, and build two versions on the same hull; a multi-warfare-capable ship of about 3,000 tons, and a ship specialized in mine hunting.
The baseline LCS (without mission modules) mounts a 57-mm gun and rolling-airframe missiles, and carries a mix of helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles. Many of the systems intended for the various modules are still under development. In some cases, the program was canceled and no replacement has been selected.
Potential weapons for the multi-warfare version of the LCS include a larger-caliber gun, a capable antiship missile, ASW torpedo tubes, and a counterbattery missile (a missile capable of striking land targets, particularly mobile antiship missile sites, before they can fire and move). Proven systems should be selected. Systems under development can be backfitted once tested and proven.
It has taken 17-plus years since the LCS concept was born to come up with a flawed ship. What must go to accommodate the systems needed to make it relevant to its tasks? The LCS is, after all, a 3,000-ton ship (much larger than a World War II destroyer escort, and three-fourths the size of a Perry- or Knox-class frigate). The space for needed capability can be found.
As currently configured (weapons, manning, concept), is the LCS up to the tasks it could soon face (in the Strait of Hormuz and elsewhere)? The answer is regretfully “no.”
Is the LCS fit to be “the most numerous ship in the U.S. Navy?” Same answer.
Remember the example of the guided-missile frigate, originally conceived as an escort for convoys and amphibious groups. Once in the Fleet, it was counted as a ship available for battle-group operations. Let’s not repeat that mistake with the LCS.
The U.S. Navy must always be built around multi-capable ships that can control the seas. Can a rethought LCS contribute to national security in the still important area of littoral control? Yes. Let us not forget, however, that new threats to control of the high seas are emerging in the 21st century, and we must be ready with sufficient numbers of the right ships to preserve our freedom.