The Reality Of The US Navy’s LCS Problems, What Options Remain, And Where We Go From Here
To explain the US Navy’s problems with the Littoral Combat Ship, we have to go back to the beginning of the program. The LCS program began in the early 2000s, as an idea for a small and cheap surface warfare ship to tackle lower end taskings, freeing up the US Navy’s larger Arleigh Burkes and Ticonderogas for the tasks they were designed for. The LCS would use interchangable mission modules for ASW (anti-submarine warfare), MCM (mine countermeasures), SuW surface warfare), and ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance), allowing the fleet to replace a myriad of aging ships in the fleet. That as we know, did not happen.
The original concept for the LCS was flawed from the beginning; a fast ship that rushes out to a conflict region, heads to a nearby friendly port, where a mission module was already pre-positioned for it to use. The issue with that is, it requires the Navy to already know what’s going to happen before it does, so the modules can be deployed ahead of time. Was the Navy aware of an impending dramatic increased threat of mines towards commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf in the summer of 2019? Then the MCM module, if it even worked (which is a completely different issue), wouldn’t even be deployed and available to the LCS. To compound the issue even more, the Navy decided to buy two different hulls for the LCS, exacerbating the issue, as space and weight limits differ quite a lot between the two.
Fast forward to today, and the Navy is still hellbent on getting the mission modules to work, even if all evidence points to their failure. While the mission modules, and the entire original vision for the LCS as whole, appears to be failing, the LCS can be redeemed and can become one of the most important hulls in the US Navy’s arsenal. As we speak, the Navy is implementing the Naval Strike Missile to the LCS platforms, giving them a much needed standoff SuW weapon. However, more can be done with the platforms. For starters, end the mission modules concept, and make the hulls simple fast corvettes.
On the Independence Class, they should be ran as dedicated ASW corvettes. Their massive aviation capacity would allow for dual MH-60Rs to operate off them. Give the platform a dedicated towed sonar array as well, and they would instantly be an extremely fast ASW asset that could act independently, or scout ahead of a CSG (carrier strike group) to hunt out any subsurface threats.
While the Freedom Class doesn’t have the same aviation capacity as its sister hull, it can still be an extremely effective SuW asset. Freedoms are already receiving their 8 NSMs, but they’ve also properly tested and certified the ability to carry 24 Longbow Hellfire missiles, along with their twin 30mm secondaries and 57mm main cannon. All of those combined make the Freedom class an incredibly powerful asset for SuW, against anything from a fast attack craft to destroyers and cruisers. Not only would the Freedom be able to run escort duty for commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf, but it could go straight to the South China Sea and pick up combat operations, should a worst case scenario there ever occur.
However, the Navy seems hellbent on ignoring the potential for either of these options, and appears to be opting for an early retirement of them, with a recent push to retire the first 4 hulls nearly 15 years early. On first look, you would think the US Navy made a mistake and is trying to kill it off, but the UK is creating their budget-friendly Type 31, Italy is creating their PPA Light and Light+, France is creating their FTI, etcetera, all of which are near identical in size, cost, and capabilities as the LCS, showcasing there’s a serious need for a lower end warship that can free up the larger and more expensive ships from doing low end taskings. Do you really need a $2B DDG or $1B FFG to patrol off the coast of Somalia for pirates, if a $350M LCS can do the job just as effectively? According to the US Navy, that answer is yes, even though the answer from virtually every other Navy today is a resounding “NO”. So instead, we appear to be exacerbating the current issue of not enough hulls for the missions, by completely ignoring and ostracizing a cheap hull that can do a majority of the missions.