By Sandra I. Erwin
After years of battling naysayers, Navy leaders are confident that the much-maligned Littoral Combat Ship has left its troubles behind. They insist the ship is no longer an experiment and will become a linchpin of the Navy’s Pacific pivot.
“It’s the real deal,” said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert. The ship is no longer a “onesies and twosies” program, he said. The ships are “going to start coming at us and we’ve got to accept it and move this along.”
The first LCS, the USS Freedom, was on a 10-month deployment to Singapore, during which it experienced mechanical and logistical problems. It also gave the Navy a taste of what it could accomplish with smaller combatant vessels.
The 378-foot Littoral Combat Ship is smaller and packs less firepower than a 505-foot Arleigh-Burke destroyer, but it “really resonates” in parts of the world such as the Pacific Rim, Greenert said Jan. 14 at the Surface Navy Association annual conference in Arlington, Va.
Many Asian nations are becoming wary of China’s rise and are eager to have their navies train alongside their U.S. counterparts. The Navy’s large cruisers and destroyers are too big to dock in many Asian ports, while the LCS is more manageable. During Greenert’s recent visit to Asia, he said, naval leaders from Indonesia and Malaysia offered to host future LCS deployments.
The history of the ship since it was conceived in the late 1990s has not been smooth sailing. Critics have blasted the Navy for spending billions of dollars on a vessel that lacks the firepower and range of frigates it is supposed to replace. Others have argued that the Navy would be better served by fast-attack craft or small corvettes armed with anti-ship missiles. Pentagon testers questioned LCS's staying power in a shooting war.
Former Navy Undersecretary Robert O. Work., an LCS advocate, wrote a paper a year ago in which he called on detractors to stop living in denial about the Navy’s future and see LCS as the beginning of a new era that conforms to fiscal and political realities. One of the most serious objections has been that the Navy charged forward with LCS without having a clear idea of how it would be used.
The LCS fleet — which the Navy hopes will reach 52 ships over the next two decades — consists of two variants: a monohull and a catamaran. Each hull will be outfitted with warfare systems that can be changed out.
Greenert agreed that the Navy needs to better explain why it is standing behind LCS. “You have to talk objectively and deliberately about where we’re going with this program,” he told an audience of Navy officers and industry executives at the SNA conference.
Vice Adm. Tom Copeman, commander of naval surface forces at U.S. Pacific Command, said the next major test for LCS is to demonstrate that its “mission packages” work as intended. These are weapons and sensors designed to be swapped as needed so the same hull can be used for different missions such as combating other surface ships or submarines, and hunting underwater mines.
In response to concerns that LCS hulls were too vulnerable to enemy fire, the Navy is adding missiles to the surface warfare package, Copeman said Jan. 14 at the SNA symposium. The mine warfare systems will begin operational testing in the Gulf of Mexico this summer. “It’s going to work,” he said. “We know the sonar works, the detectors work. … It’s just a matter of going through the testing to prove it to the world.”
The Navy’s future depends on LCS because it is the only combatant vessel that the Navy can afford to buy in large numbers. At about $500 million, it is one-fourth the price of a guided-missile destroyer. Its crew of about 70 also is a bargain compared to a destroyer that requires 300 sailors.
This is an often under-appreciated benefit of LCS, said Copeman. Under the Navy’s so-called 3-2-1 concept, it requires three crews for two ships, and one of the hulls is always forward deployed. Applied to LCS, it means 26 ships will be always on deployment. “If you wanted to have 26 DDG [destroyers] deployed, you would need 120 of them,” Copeman said. The Navy could save $1 billion a year in manpower costs.
Copeman cautioned that LCS is not designed to perform the same missions as a destroyer but it can still accomplish many jobs that currently are done by larger ships. “What we learned on this deployment [to Singapore] is that this ship can do any of the phase-zero and phase-one tasks that a $2 billion DDG with 300 people can do,” he said. Phase zero is military-speak for peacetime operations in which U.S. forces seek to influence allies and prevent conflicts.
“I’m pretty excited about it,” Copeman said of LCS. “Last year, I probably wasn’t as excited about it.”
The LCS Freedom class, the monohull, is made by Lockheed Martin Corp. The Independence class, the catamaran, is made by Austal. Each company is under contract to produce 10 ships over the next five years.
“We want to be able to go out in four’s and three’s,” said Copeman.
The third LCS, USS Fort Worth, is scheduled to deploy to Asia in 2014. The Independence class has yet to deploy. The immediate plan is to use the catamaran for mission-package tests.
Congress appears to be onboard with the Navy’s LCS plans, despite past troubles. The defense appropriations bill for fiscal year 2014 expected to be signed this week approves the Navy’s request of $1.8 billion for the procurement of four LCS vessels, two of each variant.
Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin