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Debating the Pros and Cons of LCS

The Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ship, USS Freedom, netted a pair of cocaine seizures on its first operational deployment to the Caribbean, even running down a “go fast” boat with its embarked MH-60 helicopter. “This is a perfect demonstration of what the LCS was designed for,” LCS builder Lockheed Martin’s Paul Lemmo tells Ares defense blog.

Yet, acting as naval constabulary is only one of the missions the Navy has in mind for LCS. The real test will come when the LCS must fight a swarm of small boats in the littorals, according to some analysts. As the Navy’s attention has shifted from the blue waters to the strategically vital inshore waters, it has sought out the right vessel for a more flowing style of fighting against swarms of fast attack boats, a threat that the traditional surface warfare group is ill-suited to combat.

When it comes to small boat swarms, Iran invariably comes to mind. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps operates hundreds of speedboats armed with machine guns and rockets (Iran is thought to have around 1,000 small armed craft) that ply Gulf waters and it regularly war games swarming tactics to shut the strategically vital and really narrow Straits of Hormuz. Iran is also indigenously producing a number of different anti-ship missile armed fast attack craft.

Milan Vego, a professor at the Naval War College, says the Navy went with the LCS design without adequately assessing the fights it was likely to get in, which will be in confining waters against small boat swarms, where the LCS won’t do much to boost the Navy’s fighting abilities. The LCS is too lightly armed, “too large and insufficiently agile to engage such threats,” he writes in the September Proceedings.

An overemphasis on LCS speed led to sacrifices in onboard weapons and hull space for augmentation packages, he argues. Writing in a 2008 Armed Forces Journal piece titled “Think Small,” Vego says:

“The LCS is not really a littoral vessel but, rather, an ocean-going platform. Its draft of 20 feet is too large for maneuverability in the confined waters of a typical narrow sea such as the Persian Gulf. Its sprint speed is generally of little use around islands/islets and in shallow water. It is highly doubtful that a ship of 3,500 tons, no matter how well-armed and -equipped, could match the agility of hostile small boats, and suicide boats in particular. Another shortcoming of the LCS is that it has to move outside the littoral for refueling and rearming.”

The best solution for fighting small boat swarms is a small boat swarm, he says, and recommends the Navy truncate the LCS buy and instead acquire a “modest” number (some 44) of 1,200 to 1,500 ton multi-purpose corvettes and 400 to 500 ton missile craft. They would be cheaper, better suited to fighting small boat swarms and would be good ships for counternarcotics and counter piracy missions. For corvettes, he recommends something along the lines of the German 1,685-ton MEKO A-100, the Swedish 620-ton Visby, or the Italian 1,285-ton Minerva.

Coming out swinging in favor of the LCS is an emerging heavyweight in naval operations, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment’s Martin Murphy, who has recently written some good stuff on piracy, and has a new paper out on the LCS. Its a ship particularly well suited to naval irregular warfare, including fighting fast attack craft and a range of naval “constabulary” missions. He sees the LCS acting as a defensive “tripwire,” or the “light cavalry” for the surface Navy, performing the roles of scouting, screening and exploitation.

While recognizing LCS limitations in onboard armament, particularly air-defenses, Murphy sees its speed as a distinct advantage and says its shallow draft of 15 feet opens up huge chunks of previously inaccessible ocean. The real LCS value added comes from its “lilypad” functionality, that is, its large flight deck, able to operate two MH-60 helicopters or an assortment of drones.

Yet, to realize their true operational potential, commanders must employ them in “significant” numbers. Operating independently, the ships lack of onboard weapons and long distance legs will prove limiting. A group of LCSs operating together, while not quite a swarm in fast-attack craft terms, would create a “web of rapidly moveable lilypads,” Murphy writes, allowing drones and helicopters to range over a very large area.

As Navy undersecretary Bob Work often points out, the Navy’s true counter to the small boat swarm is the MH-60 helicopter, faster than any small boat and, when armed with Hellfire missiles and mini-guns, a very lethal aircraft. High speed lilypads and fast, lethal helicopters, make for a very potent fighting force in littoral waters.

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