As many as ten littoral combat ships (LCSs) may be in the market for retirement jobs soon.1 The ships have a few great points to put on their resumes for a new employer: They are representative of a class that is still in service (and will be for years to come). They have good aviation facilities. They can move equipment into and out of the water. They are compact but still have some open space in the hull.
Here are a few jobs for the Navy to consider:
Officer Candidate School (OCS) trains unrestricted line officers, who will go on to operate ships, aircraft, and submarines. OCS officers will not see a Navy ship until they arrive at the Basic Division Officer Course.
Officer Development School (ODS)trains direct commission officers (DCO), such as public relations or medical officers, who could be called on to support ships or shipboard crews. None of them will see a Navy ship during their initial training. In fact, some DCOs can become fully qualified in their fields without ever even visiting a ship.
A retired LCS could be used to familiarize these officers with some basics of ship operations, key systems, safety protocols, and shipboard vocabulary. The LCS shares enough systems with other Navy ships to provide this instruction, and the large mission bay can be used as a classroom. Even if the ship never leaves the pier, it gives officers context for the work they support.
Naval Surface Warfare Center Testing
The naval surface warfare centers (NSWCs) manage the transition of weapons, sensors, machinery, and other equipment from research and prototypes to use in the fleet. They have numerous facilities to support this testing and even have a couple of ships, including Sea Fighter and the Self-Defense Test Ship. One thing they lack is access to a vessel representative of a class in current service.
Providing a decommissioned LCS for this role would give engineers and scientists an opportunity to shipcheck different component and system designs. Many LCS components are used widely in the fleet: The gas turbines, for example, are used on board destroyers and cruisers, and the Mk 110 cannon is planned for the new Constellation-class frigates. The expeditionary fast transport employs similar water jet propulsion, and the Independence variant’s stern ramp is like the system on the DDG-1000. The LCS also has options to deploy and recover both airborne and waterborne unmanned assets.
The Coast Guard could benefit as well. The LCS (depending on the variant) shares many components with the national security cutter (NSC), including the Mk 110 cannon, MH-60R helicopter accommodations, LM-2500 gas turbines, MTU engines, stern-launched rigid hull inflatable boats, and combat system components.2 Having access to an LCS for testing could be valuable as the NSC matures.
Helicopter Landing Training
The Navy operated a helicopter landing ship to train new pilots, but it was stricken in 2011 and has not been replaced.3 Providing a dedicated ship for helicopter landing training would be valuable for training Navy and Coast Guard helicopter pilots, but it also could be used for other tasks. Training Army and Air Force pilots to land on Navy ships could be valuable. In fact, this capability was recently exercised in the Middle East.4 A dedicated pilot training ship could also help with flight qualifications, removing a burden from in-service ships.
The LCS is well-suited for this task. It already has the required aviation facilities, and it could be outfitted with a control station for the Fire Scout unmanned helicopters, allowing it to accommodate unmanned landing training as well.5
Self-Defense Test Ship
The Self-Defense Test Ship (SDTS) tests shipboard defensive systems, and NSWC Port Hueneme manages the vessel. Details about the ship are classified, but two key traits are public knowledge:.
• The SDTS is the ex-USS Paul F. Foster, a Spruance-class destroyer built more than 40 years ago.
• The SDTS can be remotely piloted.6
LCS already is heavily automated, so conversion to a remotely piloted vessel should be relatively easy. And it will have the COMBATSS-21 combat management system, so testing should translate from this ship to others in the fleet.7
Determining the costs and benefits associated with using decommissioned LCSs in various roles can be complicated and requires a holistic assessment.
The Navy already has committed to keep these LCSs in reserve at minimum. It pays about $500,000 a year in operation and maintenance funds per combatant in the inactive reserve.8 It sends the Maritime Administration (MarAd) about $10 million per ship per year for sealift vessels in the Ready Reserve Fleet.9
MarAd learned that manning ships in reserve status pays dividends when it is time to mobilize. When mobilizing for Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm, the Navy activated 78 ships from MarAd to transport equipment to the Persian Gulf, but more than 60 percent of the ships could not meet the required schedule because of material condition. MarAd subsequently instituted a policy that placed ten-person crews on board some of the sealift ships to maintain readiness. When called on again to provide ships to transport equipment to the Middle East in 2002 and 2003, it achieved a 90 percent success rate.10
Using the retired LCSs in the aforementioned roles will keep them in better condition to mobilize if necessary. By some estimates, an in-service LCS accounts for about $70 million in operational costs per year, but depending on the role, a retired LCS might cost closer to the $10 million the Navy pays for a sealift ship in reserve.11 Maintenance costs could be lowered by reducing or eliminating the combat system, gas turbines, refrigeration system, aviation facilities, and galley equipment. Further cuts could be made on the operations side by manning only navigation and engineering positions or using one retired LCS to fill multiple roles.
An alternative to using a retired LCS is to task an in-service vessel, such as a DDG. But DDGs are more expensive to operate, and while they are more capable than an LCS, most of those capabilities are not necessary in these four roles.12 Using an in-service ship also reduces its ability to support combatant commanders, train the crew, or maintain the vessel.
The early retirement of up to ten LCS hulls presents several possible opportunities for the Navy. Thinking creatively could help the service maximize the effectiveness of these individual ships and the fleet overall.
1. Sam LaGrone, “All Freedom Littoral Combat Ships in Commission Tapped for Early Disposal,” USNI News, 29 March 2022.
2. Norman Polmar, The Naval Institute Guide to the Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet, 19th ed. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013), 155, 157, 318, 324, 583.
3. “Helicopter Landing Trainer (HLT) Baylander (IX-514),” NavSource Online.
4. Peter Suciu, “Question: Why Are U.S. Army Helicopters Landing on U.S. Navy Warships?” The National Interest, 3 March 2021.
5. Rick Burgess, “Navy’s MQ-8C Fire Scout Operating in Westpac; MQ-8Bs to Be Retired,” SeaPower, 23 May 2022.
6. Polmar, Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet.
7. Lockheed Martin, “Integrating the Aegis Derived COMBATSS-21 with the Littoral Combat Ship,” news release, 2016.
8. Department of the Navy, Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 Budget Estimates, Justification of Estimates, Operations and Maintenance, Navy (May 2021).
9. John Frittelli, Maritime Administration’s Ready Reserve Sealift Fleet (Congressional Research Service, 4 June 2020).
10. Edward Keating, A Historical Survey of Ship Reactivations (Congressional Budget Office, May 2018).
11. David Larter, “High Operating Costs Cloud the Future of Littoral Combat Ships, Budget Data Reveals,” Navy Times, 12 April 2021.
12. Larter, “High Operating Costs.”