Focus Littoral Combat Ships on Antisurface Warfare

By Master Chief Tom Lohr, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Multi-Module Folly

Originally, each LCS was to be outfitted with one of three mission modules : surface warfare (SUW), antisubmarine warfare (ASW), and mine countermeasures (MCM). Unfortunately, the interchangeable modules have suffered numerous setbacks . Delivery dates for functional modules continue to slip, and the modules fail to meet expectations, but the one that is furthest along is the SUW module. The Navy should focus on this one mission module and permanently install it on the LCS platforms, making them all SUW platforms. Research and funding for the other mission modules should cease immediately, and those funds channeled into robust SUW packages.

Once a viable configuration is delivered, the LCS can act as a force multiplier to curb the growing influence of the Russian and Chinese fleets and keep the Iranian navy in check. Deployed LCSs could be split: half in the Pacific and half in the Atlantic. Specifically, they could operate in areas where small, fast, difficult-to-detect craft could inflict the most damage in the event of large-scale aggression: areas such as the Eastern Mediterranean, Baltic, East and South China seas, the Sea of Japan, and Persian Gulf. Ideally, the Atlantic Fleet ships could operate from bases in the Mediterranean and Bahrain, while LCSs in the Pacific Fleet could be based in Guam, Singapore, or Japan.

Return of Navy 'Hydrofoils'

During the Cold War, NATO planned to deploy fast, missile-laden hydrofoils in the North Atlantic to deter Soviet aggression. In the end, only the United States built any—six Pegasus -class PHMs.  After the Soviet Union collapsed, the PHMs were relegated to counternarcotics operations from Key West, Florida. Russia is a resurgent menace with a navy threatening freedom of navigation in the Baltic and Black seas and could in the Mediterranean as well. The rapidly expanding and belligerent Chinese fleet makes the threat twofold. While the U.S. Navy builds LCSs, China is producing a large number of Type 054 frigates , and Russia has introduced the new Admiral Gorshkov- class frigates , each bristling with long-range, potent armament.

As currently configured and armed, the LCSs are not a match for these Russian and Chinese warships in a duke-it-out style fight. Instead, the LCSs are nearly as fast as and have a longer range than the PHMs and a reportedly stealthy radar signature. The Navy should, therefore, develop tactics aligned to the LCSs’ two greatest strengths: speed and stealth. The ships also can carry MH-60 manned helicopters and Fire Scout unmanned helicopters and the sensors and weapons associated with those aircraft, providing over-the-horizon reach.

Last year, the Navy chose the Norwegian-designed Naval Strike Missile (NSM) as the ASCM of choice for the LCS. Armed with these missiles, LCSs could conduct hit-and-run tactics similar to what was planned for the PHM. When engaging enemy warships, the LCSs would use their stealth to approach before firing a volley of NSMs, and then use their speed for a hasty retreat while fending off any enemy counterbattery with their Rolling Airframe missiles. Dock, reload, repeat.

Stationing half the LCSs in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf would allow them to patrol without having to be tethered to an oiler. A squadron of LCSs in the Mediterranean would allow the U.S. Navy to keep Russian ships deployed there under a watchful eye. In the event of a conflict, several LCSs could be dispatched into the eastern Atlantic to thin out the Russian Northern Fleet, and into the Baltic to help NATO partners defend against Russia’s Baltic Sea Fleet. Persian Gulf units based in Bahrain would provide steady-state presence in a place where the LCS would be on equal footing with Iran’s corvette and patrol-sized ships. It would also play an important role in countering Iran's activities in the region.

The Fleet Must Make Do

Is this operational model a perfect solution for an LCS program with so many limitations? No, but it is a way to make these 40 ships salvageable and meaningful. Unless the Navy quickly up-guns the LCSs and gives them one role to do and do well, they will not make a meaningful contribution to a 355-ship fleet. Countering the Russian, Chinese, and Iranian navies in congested littoral waters is a mission the LCS can do.

Master Chief Lohr served 24 years as a fire control technician in the Navy, mainly on destroyers and frigates, operating and repairing surface-to-air and cruise missile systems. 

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