How do you build a ship without a mission? The littoral combat ship (LCS) is how.
It could not carry out its original mission because the ship is not survivable in combat. The billions wasted on the US Navy’s so-called “urban street fighter” ship could have been used to build additional missile defense AEGIS destroyers or give the Navy more firepower or finance a new generation of robotic surface and subsurface vessels.
Instead, the Navy chose to build ships it did not need and could not use. Even when they were deployed, they often broke down, deeply embarrassing the Navy and harming US prestige. Worse yet, the Navy worked hard to salvage the ships – to no avail – by improving their firepower without making them more reliable.
Neither version of the littoral combat ship (one of them is a steel-hulled ship with an aluminum superstructure; the other is an all-aluminum trimaran design) can perform the original mission, which was “envisioned to be a networked, agile, stealthy surface combatant capable of defeating anti-access and asymmetric threats in the littorals.”
Achieving a stealthy design on a big, high-speed ship is a non-trivial idea, particularly where the ship is supposed to operate in littoral areas that is close to harbors and close to enemy bases and infrastructure. Any half-competent lookout station can see them coming with the naked eye.
Along the coast, LCS ships would be vulnerable to enemy anti-ship missiles – such as old Chinese models including the C-802 (now rebadged as the YJ-82), which struck the Israeli Sa’ar V-class corvette INS Hanit, killing four sailors and partially disabling the ship. The Hanit was operating 10 nautical miles from Beirut.
The Hanit was a victim of a slow missile fired by the terrorist group Hezbollah. But against China or Russia, with supersonic and hypersonic missiles, the LCS would not survive. The Pentagon said the LCS was “not survivable in a combat environment” – although the Navy disagreed.
China and Russia both have developed highly effective anti-ship missiles that can be launched from land or sea.
As designed, neither version of the LCS has much in the way of combat power. Each version has a rapid-fire 57mm gun and is equipped with the RIM-116 rolling airframe missile (RAM).
The range of the 57mm gun is limited and its performance in combat has never been tested.
It is reported that the 57mm, which is manufactured by Bofors in Sweden, is not effective against aircraft, helicopters or drones. That job, on the LCS, is left to the Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM).
RAM was designed in the mid-1970s and has been deployed from 1985 until today. It uses an infrared seeker. Because missiles often are flying on kinetic energy without engine burn as they approach their targets, relying on infrared signatures for target acquisition and destruction does not assure an intercept and kill.
Defying notices of the platform’s impending death, the Navy has sought to salvage the LCS by adding firepower to the platform. The Navy proposed to add SeaRAM to the ship’s aerial defenses and new rapid-fire CIWS gun if SeaRAM failed to kill the target. SeaRAM is an 11-cell launcher for RAM that uses some features of the Phalanx CIWS gun.
These upgrades are far from satisfactory when dealing with a modern enemy that possesses a plethora of anti-ship missiles that can be launched from land, from the sea and the air.
Israel’s much smaller Sa’ar-V corvettes have the Barak air defense system which has been improved with active electronically scanned radars (AESA). Barak (now Barak 8) is a medium-range surface-to-air system that can defeat a variety of threats including enemy ballistic missiles.
It was co-developed by Israel and India. Israel is now supplementing the Barak system by adding an at-sea version of its Iron Dome called C-Dome. This gives its Sa’ar-V platforms a better capability against cruise missiles and drones.
C-Dome is now operational on one of Israel’s newest corvettes, the INS-Oz. One of Israel’s concerns has been the protection of its offshore drilling platforms and emerging projects to build oil and gas pipelines that ultimately will support southern Europe.
Because the US Navy upgrades for the LCS were not funded, the existing defensive onboard systems on LCS are comparatively poor and dated compared with the defensive systems (missiles and guns) on the European FREMM frigates and the much smaller Israeli Sa’ar V corvettes.
For comparison, the oversized Freedom class LCS is 3,500 tons in weight; the smaller Independence Class LCS is 2,543 tons. The Sa’ar-V is only 1,065 tons.
France and Italy jointly developed the FREMM class of new frigates. These frigates are loaded with defensive and offensive systems. Air defense is primarily provided by the Aster 15.
It is designed to intercept and destroy the full spectrum of air threats ranging from high-performance combat aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles and helicopters to cruise, anti-radiation and even sea-skimming supersonic anti-ship missiles.
The Italian FREMM will also feature the TESEO anti-ship and land attack missiles. Both ships will include 76mm super rapid-fire gun systems and probably Italy will include its DART guided ammunition, which is fired by the 76mm gun system augmented with new radars. DART can be used against air and naval threats as well as shore targets.
Constellation-class frigates will replace the LCS and also the old Oliver Hazard Perry-class FFG-7 frigates that have either been sold off or scrapped.
Constellation will carry Tomahawk cruise missiles, for long-distance land attack; evolved Sea Sparrow, designed to deal with maneuvering enemy missiles; and possibly SM-2 missiles, combining air defenses and long-range strike capability. It will retain the 57mm gun rather than using the longer-range and more versatile 76mm super rapid.
Constellation is expected to be equipped with the Norwegian Naval Strike Missile, which is a long-range cruise missile that can be used against sea and land targets. The naval strike Missile is said to be stealthy and is capable of maneuvering as it approaches a target.
It is rocket-assisted launched and is powered by a small turbojet engine, much like older Russian cruise missiles and variants including Iranian cruise missiles such as the Quds-2 that attacked Saudi Arabian oil installations.
A big question hanging over all naval solutions is their viability against many threats that may be combined in attacking them. This includes everything from torpedoes and sea mines to drones, cruise missiles and conventional and hypersonic missiles, all of which can be launched from land, sea and air.
On September 8, the US Navy decommissioned the USS Milwaukee, LCS-5. The Milwaukee entered service in 2015 meaning that it was in use for only eight years. It was used primarily for intercepting drug traffickers.
The 2023 fiscal year budget calls for decommissioning nine Freedom-class LCS ships. Fourteen of the 16 completed Independence-class ships, along with the remaining Freedom class, remain in service. For how long is anyone’s guess.
Why the Navy keeps pouring money and manpower into these ships remains an open question.
Stephen Bryen is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy and the Yorktown Institute.