It can travel more than 100 nautical miles, passively detect an enemy through imaging stored in its computer brain and can kill a target so precisely that an operator can tell it to aim for a specific point on a ship — the engine room or the bridge, for example.
And it’s heading to China’s backyard.
The US Navy littoral combat ship Gabrielle Giffords deployed recently from San Diego, California, packing the service’s new Naval Strike Missile, transforming the LCS from an under-gunned concept ship gone awry to a legitimate threat to Chinese warships at significant ranges, Defense News reported.
Giffords is the second LCS to deploy this year. The LCS Montgomery also deployed from San Diego in June after a 19-month lapse in LCS deployments as the Navy reworked the way it mans and trains crews for the ships.
Pacific Fleet spokesman Capt. John Gay confirmed Giffords’ deployment, saying the ship got underway Sept. 3, equipped with the Naval Strike Missile and the newly mission-capable MQ-8C Fire Scout drone. The Fire Scout, an over-the-horizon surveillance and targeting platform, achieved its initial operational capability in June.
A Navy official speaking on condition of anonymity said the ship was deploying to the Indo-Pacific theater. Giffords’ sister ship, the Montgomery, is currently operating in the Gulf of Thailand, according to a Navy website.
When equipped with the subsonic, sea-skimming Raytheon/Kongsberg-made Naval Strike Missile, or NSM, and Northrop Grumman’s Fire Scout for surveillance over the horizon, an LCS can hit a target about 100 nautical miles away. That’s more than 30 miles further than the published range of the current anti-ship missile, the Harpoon.
According to TheDrive.com, the NSM navigates to the general target area using a combination of GPS, inertial navigation system (INS), and terrain recognition, and can either fly over or around islands and other land masses. The INS offers an effective backup in the increasingly likely event that an opponent disrupts the GPS connectivity
In its terminal stage of flight, the missile switches to an infrared imaging seeker to home in on the target. Using a built-in database of representative ship types, the weapon can automatically discriminate between the intended target and other objects, which gives it a high degree of accuracy and makes it much less susceptible to electronic warfare tactics and countermeasures.
The missile’s guidance system also gives it a secondary land-attack capability. With its range, though, this is hardly a comparable capability to long-range land attack cruise missiles, such as the Tomahawk.
The NSM also makes random movements in its terminal stage of flight to help avoid enemy close-in defense systems and has low-observable or “stealthy” characteristics to make it more difficult for adversaries to spot in advance.
According to Naval Technology, the Fire Scout is a Schweitzer 333 helicopter based on the proven design of the Schweitzer 330 commercial lightweight manned utility helicopter.
It has a folded length of just less than 23 ft.and has a gross weight of 2,550 lbs. The vehicle has an endurance greater than six hours, providing a loiter time of more than four hours at a combat radius of 110 nm.
The Schweitzer 330 uses a Rolls-Royce Allison C250 engine generating 480 hp. The engine provides a maximum speed of more than 125 knots and a flight ceiling of 20,000 ft.
Fire Scout has the ability to autonomously take-off from and land on any aviation-capable warship and also at unprepared landing zones close to the forward edge of the battle area. It can carry out surveillance, find tactical targets, track and designate targets and provide accurate targeting data to strike platforms such as strike aircraft, helicopters and ships, and also carry weapons.
Meanwhile, the deployment is the latest sign that the US Navy is gradually upping its game in the Pacific, which during the past decade has seen rising tension over Chinese maritime claims, Defense News reported.
Under the Trump administration, the Navy has stepped up its freedom-of-navigation patrols of Chinese claims in the South China Sea, a type of patrol where Navy ships sail within 12 nautical miles of a Chinese-claimed features to demonstrate that the US has the right to pass peacefully and freely without any preconditions in waters China claims as its territory.
The US Navy has made a dedicated push to improve the ranges of its systems, from its missiles and sensors, to its air wing with the development of the MQ-25 Stingray unmanned aerial refueling drone and new conformal fuel tanks for the F/A-18 Super Hornets that increase speed and range of the service’s mainstay aircraft, the report said.
But it’s also a sign that despite a steady drumbeat inside the Pentagon to “move faster” to get new capabilities to the fleet, the Navy’s process is still moving painfully slow.
“It’s great that the Navy is doing these improvements, but it’s very incremental,” said Bryan Clark, a retired submarine officer and analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “It has been a decade since the Navy said: ‘Hey, we need to start an unmanned aircraft program of some kind, and we need put better anti-ship missiles on our ships.’ ”
“And here we are, 10 years later, and the MQ-25 is still making its way toward fielding, which won’t happen for several years, and we’re finally deploying a ship with a better anti-ship cruise missile,” Clark added. “So kudos to the Navy for doing it, but this is emblematic of the problem the [Department of Defense] has in making the shift toward new ways of fighting. It just can’t get out of its own way to field a new capability in under a decade.”
The Navy is on track to take delivery of 35 littoral combat ships total, a major chunk of the surface fleet.