Over at The National Interest last month, the Naval Diplomat reviewed the debate over the U.S. Navy's new Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). My goal was less to rehash the ship's design than to puzzle out why the LCS debate — a debate, after all, over a mere hunk of machinery — is not just fiercely contested on the merits but often venomous.
I traced the confusion in part to Sir Julian Corbett, who a century ago bemoaned the technological revolution that rendered the old vocabulary for discussing the components of fleets suspect if not entirely moot. With the advent of the torpedo and the sea mine, small, unsexy craft like submarines and patrol craft could land heavy blows against the battle fleet, the mistress of the seas. Tacticians found themselves inhabiting a bizarro world where battleships had to go to elaborate lengths to shield themselves from vessels they were accustomed to swatting aside.
Perversely, then, technological progress impoverished our vocabulary for designing and wielding fleets. With no common lexicon for shaping tactics, doctrine, and operations, the LCS debate quickly degenerates into claims and counter-claims about whether newfangled bits of hardware will perform as advertised. It takes on the "uh-uh!" and "uh-huh!" quality familiar to all ex-schoolboys.
Yet such craft are joining the fleet. Fitting them into U.S. maritime strategy is imperative. In passing I portrayed the LCS as a "skirmisher" for U.S. Navy fleets operating off enemy coastlines. It acts as an advance guard for the main force, venturing into coastal waters to clear mines, detect and target submarines, and pummel speedboats and other small craft fielded by the likes of Iran and China. Once the littoral combatants do their work, the battle fleet can approach enemy shores to project power ashore, evacuate noncombatants, or what have you.
There's little new under the sun. The skirmisher concept is a throwback to land warfare. It dates at least to classical antiquity; it's probably as old as warfare itself. We might define skirmishing loosely as the practice of dispatching bodies of independent, lightly armed troops around the army's periphery for such purposes as concealing the main force's whereabouts, finding and harrying the enemy main force, or chasing off enemy skirmishers. Scattered across the battlefield or beyond, skirmishers were largely on their own. If not outright expendable, they could expect little succor from the main army if they found themselves in trouble. What general would risk his victory to rescue an auxiliary force?
Light combatants have accomplished great things over the centuries. Sometimes they've contributed the margin of superiority in a close-fought contest. Occasionally they've scored decisive results in their own right. Think about Athenian skirmishers armed with rudimentary missile weapons overwhelming vaunted Spartan infantrymen on the island of Sphacteria during the Peloponnesian War. The Athenian force turned the world upside down, prompting one of the superpowers of the Greek world to sue for peace.
Depicting the LCS as a latter-day skirmisher in the brown water, then, in no way denigrates its value to American naval operations. Trouble is, the skirmishing concept makes an awkward fit with the U.S. Navy's big-ship traditions of sea combat. Nor is the LCS an exceptionally promising candidate for this function.
Expendability is one of the chief reasons why. The idea that ships and crews might be earmarked for one-way missions cuts against the grain of U.S. Navy culture, and perhaps against American strategic culture writ large. That's why the grand old man of naval tactics, Captain Wayne Hughes has made little headway over the years with proposals to disperse firepower among large numbers of smaller combatants rather than nestle all of its eggs in a few vulnerable baskets.
But what if these vessels aren't considered expendable? Skirmishers that have to be defended from air or missile assault while executing their functions would put the main fleet in danger. Sending carriers, cruisers, or destroyers into harm's way for the sake of supposedly low-value units like the LCS would upend the logic of naval warfare, by which picket ships protect the high-value unit — the carrier, amphibious assault ship, or Tomahawk shooter — from attack.
Expense is another reason behind the navy's aversion to declaring ships expendable. An ideal maritime skirmisher would be small, cheap, and numerous, and crewed by devil-may-care officers and sailors. The LCS, by contrast, is a 3,000-ton man-of-war whose price tag will exceed half a billion dollars per copy, factoring in both the hull and its mission modules. (The latter are interchangeable armaments packages that allow the ship to shift from surface to antisubmarine to mine-clearance operations.) How prepared naval leaders will be to hazard such a vessel in independent combat remains to be seen.
If history is any guide, navy culture will bias commanders toward attaching the LCS contingent to the task force as a fleet auxiliary rather than turning it loose. Both the aircraft carrier and the submarine underwent such an interval before tacticians figured out how to unlock their full potential. They ultimately placed the flattop, the repository of a modern blue-water navy's striking power, at the heart of the fleet. They set the submarine free to prey on enemy shipping, a mission at which the silent service excels.
The habit of making new platforms an adjunct to familiar formations and methods is worth fighting as the navy experiments with its new craft. Let's make that mental leap. A true force of skirmishers could prove invaluable.