LCS: Beyond the Modules
The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) has attracted considerable controversy in recent years, including concerns about delays in the development of modular mission packages. But the ship itself, in both the Marinette and Austal variants, is entering the fleet in respectable numbers. Ten LCSs have already been commissioned, and another 11 are in various stages of construction or final preparation. While the LCS cannot accomplish some of its intended missions such as mine countermeasures until those modules are ready, the ships themselves — known as sea frames, since they are a basic hull upon which modular systems are added — had turned out to have significant potential for missions not envisioned when the class was conceived.
LCS’s open architecture, a modular weight capacity of 180 tons, large rotary-wing aviation facilities and internal bays could support multiple roles. Even without forthcoming mine warfare and antisubmarine warfare modules, the LCS could function as a low-end patrol and presence unit, 21st-century fast transport (APD) or a drone-and-network tender similar to the seaplane tenders of the mid-20th century. Former Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work predicted that LCS would adapt to operational requirements. These potential missions represent that continuing evolution of the LCS platform.
LCS makes an ideal patrol platform for counternarcotics and counterpiracy missions because of its shallow draft, high speed, and large helicopter, unmanned aircraft and boat facilities. Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer recently suggested LCS as a potential platform for Caribbean counternarcotics operations. While LCS lacks the operational endurance of the U.S. Coast Guard National Security Cutter (NSC) class, the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific Ocean — where most U.S. counternarcotics efforts at sea take place — offer numerous ports from which LCS units could operate. LCS can also operate from a larger number of harbors than other comparable classes of Coast Guard and naval vessels due to its shallow draft: 14 feet for the LCS 1 variant and 17 feet for the LCS 2, versus 22.5 feet for the NSC.
LCS would be a good choice for counterpiracy missions in a variety of locations, with its high speed, aviation and boat capabilities, and the multiple-gun armament of the currently available interim surface warfare module. The International Maritime Organization credited Somali pirate skiffs with speeds upwards of 25 knots. This is close to the maximum speed of the conventional frigates assigned to counterpiracy missions by many navies. LCS, with a top speed of 40 knots, is much better suited to overtake fleeing pirate vessels or at least close the distance necessary to launch a helicopter or unmanned aerial vehicle capable of intercepting them. While often derided by critics as an unnecessary, costly feature that takes space and weight from weapons and sensors, LCS’s higher speed appears tailor-made for the counterpiracy mission.
A third potential LCS mission harkens back to a World War II concept and could fill a current void in U.S. Marine Corps littoral warfare capabilities. The U.S. Navy was often short of dedicated amphibious and inshore warfare vessels from 1938 through 1944. One solution to this shortage was the conversion of older destroyers into High-Speed Transports (APDs) that could deliver small teams of Marines, Underwater Demolition units and Army Rangers to hostile territory. These ships often carried up to a company-sized unit and had enough onboard weaponry to provide limited fire support to their embarked units.
LCS, with its large internal spaces and extensive boat and helicopter facilities, could fill a similar role in the emerging U.S. Marine Corps Littoral Warfare Group concept. An APD-configured LCS with additional guns, attack helicopters, and small craft might be employed in conjunction with an Expeditionary Fast Transport (EFT) to execute littoral combat missions involving the insertion and support of company-size ground units. Not all amphibious efforts require larger, dedicated ships, and LCS/EFT combinations could provide a less costly and more distributed capability to insert and support forces ashore. This mission was considered for LCS almost a decade ago and should get another look as a capability for a new strategic environment.
A final, new LCS mission is that of tender to the growing number of unmanned and network support platforms expected to enter the fleet in coming years. Battle networks based on vulnerable satellites may be the first casualties in a new war and require replacement via short-term, more limited systems. LCS, with its large flight deck and hangar spaces, might serve as a network support unit, deploying high altitude blimps and unmanned air vehicles capable of providing limited network coverage to actively engaged forces. LCS can also be a support vessel for combat-capable unmanned surface and subsurface vehicles vital to gaining and retaining sea control in future contested areas.
Assignment of LCS to any of these missions avoids the need to assign larger and more capable naval vessels to those tasks or to recommission units of the aging and worn-out Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates, the last of which left active duty in mid-2016. The Perrys were useful combatants, with warfare capabilities exceeding those of many foreign destroyers in the first two decades of their service — the 1970s and 1980s — but were obsolete when finally retired. Past, successful Navy recommissioning efforts, such as the 1950s-era Fleet Rehabilitation and Modernization (FRAM) program and the 1980s Iowa battleship reactivation, used either relatively new ships or ones with little active service time. By contrast, the pool of recently retired U.S. Navy ships for possible reactivation consists of older units with decades of hard deployment service.
The delay in the fielding of LCS mission modules has disappointed many, but that frustration need not extend to the sea frames. The Littoral Combat Ship was always expected to fulfill roles beyond those envisioned when its module designs were first being populated with capabilities. Already, new roles for the class are emerging that were unimagined when it was designed in the first years of the 21st century. The patrol, fast transport and network tender missions require little in the way of modification to the class and can contribute to needed requirements in the present. LCS was never a conventional warship concept, and that feature will likely support further, new missions in the coming decades.
Steven Wills is an analyst at CNA, a research organization in Arlington, VA, and an expert in U.S. Navy strategy and policy. A retired surface warfare officer, Wills holds a doctorate in military history from Ohio University.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CNA or any of its sponsors.