Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee charged with oversight of the United States’ armed forces, opened a recent hearing on capability and procurement problems with the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) by calling the class an “alleged warship.” The slight references longstanding concerns with the ships’ combat lethality – the damage it can inflict on an enemy – and survivability – the damage it can receive and continue to fight. The Navy is also moving ahead with a more-heavily armed version of the LCS that will be designated as a frigate, and is intended to address that lethality shortfall, but it isn’t clear that even these improved designs meet the Navy’s future combat needs. So far, seven of the ships have been delivered, 19 are in various stages of construction, and the Navy plans to build at least 24 more despite persistent questions about its ability to perform in combat.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported in June that the Navy’s improved “frigate” upgrades to the LCS do not provide substantial combat improvements over the current LCS design and that the Navy did not rigorously consider alternative solutions. Citing cost overruns, poor program management, and persistent concerns about the design, construction, and crewing issues, the GAO recommended to the Senate that Congress halt funding for the program until capability requirements are better defined and design improvements completed.
The Pentagon office responsible for testing new weapons and platforms told the Senate that the ships cannot sustain battle damage that other ships would be expected to recover from, likely necessitating their eventual abandonment in sustained high-intensity combat. It also found widespread reliability problems, (something a string of high-profile engineering failures this year highlighted), construction quality problems, and inability to meet stated combat requirements. The conclusion was that “LCS does not provide a lethal capability in the primary missions it was built for, and given the change in [their operating concept], its design is not survivable in those missions either.”
One Ship, Two Designs, Neither for Intense Combat
The LCS is nominally a single class of warship, but it is made up of two completely different ships, the trimaran-hull Independence variant and the mono-hull Freedom variant, whose systems, weapons, and crews are not interchangeable. The ships were designed to be high-speed (over 40 knots) and highly maneuverable, with the ability to swap out modules to provide mission-specific capabilities like anti-submarine, anti-surface, and mine-clearing. But only a limited-capability version of the anti-surface module has been delivered so far, and that is only suitable for dealing with small, lightly armed threats at short ranges.
Some of the LCS’s problems trace to the U.S. Navy’s operational priorities when it was designed. The LCS was conceived in the late 1990s and the early contracts were awarded in 2004, during the tail end of the “peace dividend” that followed the Cold War. With no more Soviet threat and the Chinese Navy badly outdated at the time, the U.S. Navy faced no serious challenge to its operational freedom and deemphasized sea combat functions as land-strike and maritime security/anti-piracy appeared to be growing mission areas. Consequently, new destroyers were built with no anti-ship missiles, and the LCS designs did not envision a need to either inflict or survive significant combat damage.
Evolving Needs in Western Pacific
The Chinese Navy’s rapid modernization, Asia’s changing geopolitical landscape, and the ships’ mission module delays forced changes to the LCS role. In 2012, then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert explained that the LCS was not intended to perform high-end combat missions against a peer adversary like the Chinese Navy. Instead, the LCS would perform regional presence and security operations, thereby freeing up more capable ships like destroyers and cruisers to perform high-end missions.
However, the LCS’s missions and capabilities never received thorough analysis in the context of the Navy’s actual requirements, a decision that the Congressional Research Service, the GAO, and Senate oversight committees have repeatedly criticized. In his 2012 remarks, Admiral Greenert specifically proscribed a meaningful combat role for the LCS in Asia; “These are not large surface combatants that are going to sail into the South China Sea and challenge the Chinese military; that’s not what they’re made for.”
Those remarks preceded China’s accelerated buildup of artificial islands and dual-use airfields and surveillance facilities on disputed features in the South China Sea, and three years later, the LCS USS Fort Worth was conducting patrols there. Fort Worth was also reported to have been shadowed by a Chinese frigate for much of that patrol. While the interactions between the two navies was reported as professional, the Fort Worth was subsequently paired with a much more capable destroyer, the USS Lassen during its next patrol the following month.
Built to Punch Under its Weight
The director of testing and evaluation for the Pentagon told the Senate hearing that the LCS “was bought to ‘punch below its weight class’” and the design appears to succeed in that respect. While nominally a frigate-sized warship, the 3,000-ton LCS does not carry armament commensurate with that ship-type.
The Chinese Navy’s 4,000-ton Type 054A frigates carry eight anti-ship missiles, a multitude of both rocket-launched and conventional anti-submarine torpedoes, a helicopter, a 76mm main gun, and a 32-cell missile launcher to conduct both self- and area air-defense. The Chinese Navy also has a corvette, the 1500-ton Type 056, that is less than half the size of the LCS but whose combat capabilities nonetheless compares well against the larger U.S. ships, with four long range anti-ship missiles, torpedo launchers, and a 76mm gun, and self-defense anti-air missiles. China has built 40 of the compact warships in just the last three to four years, and the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence estimates China may build up to 20 more.
In contrast to those Chinese warships, even the more heavily armed frigate versions of the LCS lack similar torpedoes to launch against submarines (though its helicopter can drop them), its eleven-cell missile launcher can provide for self-defense but not area-air defense, and it has a smaller 57mm main gun. The upgraded LCSs are planned to receive anti-ship missiles; the Harpoon (tested semi-successfully on USS Coronado this summer) for the Independence-hulls, and the Norwegian-designed Naval Strike Missile for the Freedom-hulls, which has range closer to the missiles carried by equivalent Chinese warships, but has been stalled for lack of funding.
Current Navy leadership has gone a long way towards correcting or mitigating many of the LCS program’s original sins, with costs largely stabilized, mission modules more confidently on track (though now a decade late), and early manning and maintenance issues improved, if still challenging. While new numbers are expected when the Navy releases its updated Force Structure Assessment in early 2017, an expanded requirement for “Small Surface Combatants” is likely to make up a major share of a larger future fleet. LCS and its frigate cousins are the designs poised to fill that requirement, even if questions remain whether the ships are up to the task.