The Navy’s first Littoral Combat Ship (LCS 1) has been quick out of the slips to score some major public relations points by seizing a few tons of cocaine on its first operational deployment in the Caribbean. The fast, maneuverable LCS will excel at such "naval constabulary" operations, writes the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment’s Martin Murphy, in a new white paper (.pdf).
Murphy has done some impressive work on the policy challenges of piracy and insurgents operating in littoral waters. In this paper, he turns his analytical focus towards one of the Navy’s highest profile programs.
LCS had its origins in Cebrowski’s “distributed network” battle fleet idea and the Navy’s realization that larger multi-role ships were too costly. In the face of proliferating land-based, long-range precision missiles, the 1990s idea of maintaining a “sea-base,” a floating defensive bastion off an enemy’s shores, was losing support, at least among some naval analysts, in favor of “a more dispersed and flowing style of war fighting,” Murphy writes.
The speedy and maneuverable LCS appeared to fit just such a concept, particularly in light of Hezbollah’s surprise hit on an Israeli patrol boat with a Chinese built C-802 cruise missile; LCS’s multi-mission, or “plug-and-fight,” modular construction packaging was also appealing.
A sizable chunk of the world’s populace lives on or near inshore waters, making littoral waters a de facto strategically important operating environment. Yet, Hezbollah’s clever employment of today’s equivalent of coastal artillery represents but one of the many complexities found in the littorals, Murphy explains. Small suicide craft, stealthy electric diesel boats, a very messy and cluttered electro-magnetic environment and picking out hostile craft from the mass of commercial craft that ply coastal waters are others.
Murphy provides a good deal of data on the often “tortuous” development history of the LCS that was supposed to produce an inexpensive vessel, but did not, and led to the construction of two competing ship designs: a conventional hull built by Lockheed Martin and an aluminum trimaran hull from General Dynamics. The two ships are functionally similar, or at least similar enough.
The Navy said it will select a single design some time this year with a contract for up to ten ships by 2014. A second contract in 2012 for five more will go to a second shipyard for defense industrial base concerns. The Navy’s planned LCS purchase is 55 with up to 64 “mission packages” which include helos, drones and various weapons.
The real potential of the LCS lies in its “copious internal space,” the multi-mission modules and its large flight deck (one-and-a-half the size of current combatant flight decks), writes Murphy. Its shallow draft of 15 feet opens up much of the world’s waterways and expands the number of accessible ports from 362 to 1,111. LCS’ speed also gives it the ability to avoid submarines and gain maneuver room when confronting small boat swarms. The vessels could also be deployed on the periphery of large surface groups to extend its operational umbrella.
Murphy highlights a significant weapons limitation: the lack of vertical launch system (VLS) cells that not only limits its long-range attack potential and its ability to defend itself from air attack. He also sees as “worrisome” the ship’s lack of torpedo detection capability; he notes that the Navy is working to redress that one.
“Small ships generally require extensive logistic support,” writes Murphy, and LCS is no different, and when deployed, “consideration needs to be given to providing a “mother ship” or tender in support.” LCS crew size is deliberately small, which may put more demands on work shop access.
Operationally, “the primary use of the LCS is increasingly considered to be as a naval constabulary vessel,” which includes a range of tasks included in the Navy’s new “Cooperative Strategy for the 21st-Century.” These include: fishery protection, counter-narcotics and counter-piracy operations, evacuation of non-combatants, and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief operations. Navy undersecretary Bob Work described the LCS as a highly flexible naval “Swiss Army knife.”
When operating in conjunction with surface action groups, LCS’s primary mission is to protect larger ships from swarms of small boats, and act as a defensive “tripwire.” Murphy sees LCS acting as the “light cavalry” for the surface Navy, performing the roles of scouting, screening and exploitation.
On its own, LCS is well suited to the low-end tasks, such as counter-piracy, naval diplomacy and counternarcotics, writes Murphy. However, to effectively operate at the higher end, particularly where the threat of air attack is higher, an LCS or three would need to operate alongside an Arleigh Burke class destroyer.
“The LCS can undertake many of the missions and tasks that have often been assigned to frigates in the past but it can do more than traditional frigates can. It has the potential to be the “cavalry of the feet,” serving as a bridge or hinge between Phase 0 operations and larger-scale contingencies, freeing the Navy’s larger multi-mission combatants from the need to undertake Phase 0 operations, thereby releasing them to accomplish the missions for which they were designed.”