The U.S. Navy has a global mission to project power and protect the sea lines of communication that help keep our economy, and the world’s, running smoothly. That’s a tall order for a Fleet with a dwindling number of vessels. While all ship types and communities are important to this task, a large share of the burden falls on the cruisers, destroyers, and going forward, littoral combat ships (LCSs) of the surface Navy. Those assets are often spread pretty thin. Many voices have advocated in these pages for more ships, most recently with retired Captain Gordan Van Hook calling for an expeditionary frigate in the November issue. There seemed to be consensus that the Navy needed another surface combatant, but what kind of ship should it be?
Just as we were going to press, outgoing Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel ended the suspense by announcing that an “up-gunned” version of the LCS would be the next small surface combatant for the Fleet, replacing the last 20 ships of the original buy. Some observers may have been underwhelmed with this news, but Hagel defended the decision, saying that “By avoiding a new class of ships and new system design costs, it also represents the most responsible use of our industrial base investment while expanding commonality in the fleet.” Like it or not, these vessels are here to stay and will be required to play an important role for the Fleet in the coming years.
How might these upgraded LCSs be used? Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden, Commander of Naval Surface Forces; Rear Admiral Peter Gumataotao, Commander of Naval Surface Force Atlantic; and Rear Admiral Peter Fanta, Director of Surface Warfare (N96) weigh in with a consummate overview of current surface-fleet thinking. The CNO’s “Warfighting First” call-to-arms has been fully embraced by the surface force as the sole guiding principle, and the authors present a blueprint for the creation of “hunter-killer” surface action groups, maximizing the community’s potential and maintaining the United States’ global position as the dominant naval power. These groups would provide “distributed lethality” and feature a versatile, interchangeable mix of cruisers, destroyers, and LCSs.
Secretary Hagel’s December announcement that the Navy would up-gun the LCS may have been welcome news to some, but according to longtime Proceedings author retired Rear Admiral William J. Holland Jr., “those actions unfortunately do not reflect the vision or the necessary planning for the next generation of warships.” Tomorrow’s Fleet will require successors to the Arleigh Burke–class guided-missile destroyer and the Virginia attack submarine, and the designers of that force should be getting to work now to identify what the vessels might look like ten years down the road. Admiral Holland spells out in careful detail the process the Navy must follow to ensure it gets the Fleet it needs.
Gregory Cox takes a closer look at the LCS to determine what lessons can be learned when developing future small surface combatants. He believes that “the Navy writ large lacked a coherent vision for LCS, or perhaps more accurately, different elements within the Navy had (at least) three distinct visions that conflicted with each other.” Performance issues aside, Cox considers these differing visions to have stymied the LCS’s acceptance—both in and out of the Navy. In the pursuit of its next surface combatant, the Navy needs to clearly articulate exactly what that ship is expected to do.
As the Navy plans its future Fleet, it must consider two important trends: the escalating cost of new vessels as well as the return of a combined-arms threat. Retired Commander Jim Griffin thinks the Navy must develop a platform that is both adaptable and economical to stay competitive at sea—and within its budget. While he discounts the LCS for its questionable survivability, ballooning price tag, and limiting single-mission modules, he believes that the newly commissioned mobile landing platform could provide a template for the type of vessel to fill this role. “Designed from the outset to be rapidly reconfigurable for a range of missions, she epitomizes the idea of payload over platform and leverages an existing design that could be rapidly built with a modular capability to accept new missions,” he argues. “A variant could provide the Navy with a . . . cost-efficient, flexible platform capable of supporting all of [its] missions.”
Paul Merzlak, Editor-in-Chief