Today, littoral combat ships of the Freedom (LCS-1) and Independence (LCS-2) classes are operating forward. They execute military diplomacy across a wide geographical range, build greater transparency, reduce the risk of miscalculation or conflict, and promote a shared maritime environment. Good, bad, and ugly articles about these ships reflect an acute interest in as well as an endemic misunderstanding of these innovative platforms. As 7th Fleet Commander, and later as Director of the Navy Staff, I followed the LCS program with great interest and listened carefully to disparagers and devotees alike. As Pacific Fleet Commander, I now see how LCS contributes to meet the Department of Defense’s Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy objectives: to safeguard the freedom of the seas, deter conflict and coercion, and promote adherence to international law and standards. Are they perfect? No, which is why I endorse the Chief of Naval Operations’ initiatives to improve the LCS classes. That said, the more we operate LCSs in the Pacific, the more clearly I see their value and the more committed I am to operating them forward.
Criticisms and Déjà Vu
As with any new venture, the LCS program has had its ups, downs, and learning moments. Things do not always go as planned. That is no surprise. What bemuses me most, however, is how some are surprised when things do not go according to plan with “early adopted” platforms. Our Navy’s history contains many examples of procurement efforts that encountered strong headwinds. In fact, the first six frigates acquired by the U.S. Navy in the late 1700s were all delivered late and over budget; Knox (FF-1052)-class frigates, in service from the late 1960s to the early ’90s, were criticized for their single gun and single screw; Spruance (DD-963)-class destroyers, long the mainstay of the surface strike fleet, were criticized for initially only having two five-inch guns and an antisubmarine rocket launcher; Oliver Hazard Perry (FFG-7)-class frigates—lauded by many LCS critics today—were criticized for lacking survivability and redundancy, a thought vanquished to the dustbin of pundit prognostications considering how the USS Stark (FFG-31) survived a direct missile hit and the Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) survived striking a mine; and Ticonderoga (CG-47)-class cruisers—flagships of today’s surface fleet—faced initial criticism for being too top-heavy and having an unreliable “double-armed bandit” missile launcher. Indeed, time—as well as iterative investments and improvements—vindicated all those programs. I am convinced the LCS/frigate program will be similarly vindicated.
This conviction is informed by my experience with what is now the backbone of tactical carrier capability, the F/A-18 Hornet. As a post-command commander, I was the F/A-18 requirements officer. We were pursuing funding and support for much-needed modernization upgrades to the F/A-18A/B/C/D while building the F/A-18E/F for development and operational testing. No one was happy. Supporters could be found only among the least unhappy. Advocates were few and discredited by the sheer volume—though not the value—of the many criticisms. But when we spin the clock ahead to when Hornets and Super Hornets performed superbly in Operations Southern Watch, Enduring Freedom, and Iraqi Freedom, we find discredited detractors and critics just move on to criticize other programs.
Much of LCS’ negative publicity stems from focusing predominantly on ship characteristics such as speed, endurance, survivability, maintenance requirements, and module availability, or on the shortcomings experienced by the Freedom, Independence, and, most recently, the USS Milwaukee (LCS-5) and Fort Worth (LCS 3) during their early trials and inaugural deployments. Although technical capabilities matter, most critics are missing the point. They fail to focus on what the LCS delivers now and on how the Pacific Fleet is exploiting these capabilities today. Often missing in our discussion is how relevant, affordable, and iterative improvements will deliver added capacities to the fleet in the near future.
Punching Above Its Weight
LCS already has delivered positive results. The bold decision to employ the Freedom as a laboratory and deploy her forward early in her development paid significant dividends. There was a zero percent chance the Freedom’s deployment would go 100 percent correctly, but the risk was worth the result. Just as the most innovative software apps launched today benefit from an agile, incremental development model, innovative maritime operations are advantaged by a similar approach. LCS proves that the iterative “early adopter” model, of “build, test, operate, and learn” represents acquisition enhancement at its best.
Our sailors have already applied LCS’ incremental development model to great effect. The Freedom’s deployment paved the way for the exceptional performance of the Fort Worth in 2015. Before an engineering casualty suspended operations, the Fort Worth’s crews deftly applied the Freedom’s hard-learned lessons to more than a year of highly successful, reliable operations while deployed to the 7th Fleet. The Fort Worth’s crews conducted meaningful operations to demonstrate U.S. resolve to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows—all core elements of the rebalance to the Pacific. They conducted impactful patrols in the South China Sea, for example, as well as cooperative exercises and exchanges throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. They have been a core participant in the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercise series and participated in Exercises Foal Eagle and Malabar. Demonstrating the geographic reach of these ships, they journeyed as far afield from Singapore as Japan and Korea to Thailand and India without missing an operational commitment in between exercises.
The LCS punches well above its weight in terms of capability and promises to play an important strategic role in safeguarding freedom of the seas, especially through presence in the vital littoral waters and sea lines of communication that connect the Indian and Pacific oceans. Beyond routine cooperation with Southeast Asian navies, LCSs are also working to address shared maritime security priorities with a growing number of South Asian navies. Late last year, the Fort Worth embarked naval officers from Sri Lanka and the Maldives on a transit from Changi, Singapore, through the Straits of Malacca to Phuket, Thailand. They stood watch with our crew while under way in one of the most important conduits for global maritime trade. These increasingly routine interactions fostered and strengthened important partnerships with navies that share an interest in safeguarding freedom of the seas.
Such partnerships also serve to deter conflict and coercion in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. As a network of navies we are stronger when we operate together. The LCS facilitates the combined operations of that network at a whole new level. With the LCS we will go beyond operating with partners; we will integrate with them in our efforts to ensure continued, lawful access to the shared maritime domain. This access, however, is something high-end, high-cost, low-density platforms simply cannot always deliver in ways the LCS can. With their shallow draft, smaller size, and growing numbers, LCSs can go places in the region larger ships cannot and will interact more frequently and directly with regional navies than larger ships can. In 2015, the Fort Worth became the first LCS to access ports like Surabaya in Indonesia, Sandakan in Malaysia, DaNang in Vietnam, Palawan in the Philippines, and Chennai in India. As more LCSs deploy to the region, we can expect more ports to open—some of which have not been visited by U.S. Navy ships in decades, if at all.
LCS is already the pairing of choice for many regional allies, partners, and friends, and works well with a broad range of their forces during operations and exercises. For example, in 2013, the Freedom exercised amphibious assaults with U.S. Marines and Malaysian paratroopers close to shore and landed a Malaysian Super Lynx helicopter on its flight deck further out to sea. The ship also conducted maritime security exercises with Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. In 2015, the Fort Worth expanded operations with partner nations to include joining the multinational search for Indonesia Air Asia Flight 8501 in the Java Sea. The Fort Worth also landed Indonesian and Philippine helicopters and conducted unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) training with a Singaporean Scan Eagle UAV. The Fort Worth’s CARAT with the Bangladesh Navy was particularly noteworthy last year—it was the first exercise in three years that had ship-to-ship maneuvers, helicopter deck landings at night, and vertical replenishments at sea. This cooperation promotes a common understanding of safe and professional behavior at sea based on adherence with established international rule sets.
We have exercised international rule sets with other Asia-Pacific navies and coast guards during both LCS deployments. The Fort Worth, for example, employed Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) when communicating with a Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) Jiangkai II-class frigate Hengshui for the first time in February 2015. Several subsequent CUES interactions with PLAN ships and with other regional navies in 2015 strengthened the international rules-based system and reduced the risk of misunderstandings at sea. For CUES to be effective we must extend its application to coast guards as well, and our own behavior must be firm, consistent, thoughtful, and patient. Deploying LCSs to the Pacific has enhanced our presence in both quantity and quality, thus increasing the opportunities for positive and routine interactions at sea.
As we will deploy more LCSs forward, we will multiply their effectiveness through more defense cooperation and naval engagements that contribute to maintaining freedom of the seas while deterring conflict and coercion for the benefit of all. Current efforts to restrict freedom of the seas, to issue superfluous warnings around manufactured land features, and to pursue a “might makes right” approach all work against the international order that has prevailed in East Asia since the end of World War II. The LCSs, with their ability to support peacetime operations and be configured for increased lethality in war, enable us to thwart these counterproductive efforts. The LCSs are a flexible, fast, adaptable, responsive, relevant, and timely capability. With at least four expected in the region in the coming years, LCSs are powerful supplements to and enablers of the capabilities delivered by high-end warships.
I do not need guided-missile cruisers or destroyers, for instance, to accomplish every mission in the Pacific. But if that is all I have, my numbers are limited—and so are my options. Our LCS/frigate program will deliver numbers, reducing the painful tradeoffs I need to make with respect to doubling down on which missions to pursue. When CGs and DDGs will deliver more capacity and capability than called for by the mission at hand, the LCS as an alternative is a significant force multiplier that puts us on the winning side of the cost-imposition curve and enhances the sustainability of our high-end units by facilitating their focus on training for higher-end threats.
A Bright Future
As I travel through the region speaking with our allies and partners I am continually struck by their positive, forward-looking statements about the value these warships provide—today. The one consistent criticism I do hear is that there are not enough of them deployed. Our partners noticed the gap between the departure of the Freedom and the arrival of the Fort Worth. As their numbers increase, LCSs will deliver the persistent presence in the Pacific our allies desire and our security demands. The next generation of LCSs, the future frigate, will be up-armored and more capable of delivering distributed combat lethality. By using its unique capabilities and technology in synchronization with partner nations, both regional security and the readiness of our own surface fleet are enhanced. More than an experimental platform or proof of concept, the LCS is plying the Pacific seas and advancing our maritime security objectives where it matters, when it matters, with what matters, to act as force multiplier and guarantor of freedom of the seas for all.
For the skeptics, please continue to engage with us and contribute to our broader national security dialogue. Take a look at what we are doing with LCS operations here in the Pacific. I am interested in hearing and, in turn, learning from you. Your voice and skepticism are valued and will provide prized recommendations that will translate into evolutionary upgrades and modernization just as we have done for other platforms. That said, the best environment for such innovative work is forward, with the fleet, in the hands of sailors who can apply their warfighting prowess and experience to best employ this new and growing capability. That is why it is critical to get the “deploy” part right, as we have done with the Freedom and Fort Worth. If you believe differently, do not just sit on the sidelines and point to missteps, stumbles, and fumbles. Come join us on the line of scrimmage, and make the team and the playbook stronger together.