Littoral Combat Ship: Not built for Survivability

by Stephen Bryen

The Littoral Combat Ship, or ships because there are two of them made by two different manufacturers, is a dog that will cost taxpayers nearly $40 billion, and even more in life cycle costs. Originally billed as the Navy’s “urban street fighter” the ship is not survivable against any vessel that is equipped with a cruise or anti-ship missile with a range greater than 5 kilometers. Iran has 67 patrol boats with Chinese missiles that can easily sink the LCS.

The LCS is the first ship that was not designed against a specific threat, or even against any contemporary threat. It is only after the ship was built that the Navy started to search for missions for it.

One consequence of the LCS is that the US Navy got rid of its mine hunting ships –all of them. A combination of helicopters and the LCS could take up the slack.

Unfortunately, the LCS mine hunting system is a proven failure and cannot perform the mission, and helicopters dragging sensors in the water are no substitute for mine hunting ships, since they cover only a narrow swath, can’t detect all types of mines, and even if they find them lack any ability to destroy them.

But it is even worse. The LCS lacks a decent gun. It is equipped with a Swedish 57mm short range gun that can fire for about 7 seconds before it has to be shut down because of a too-hot barrel.  The US Navy already got rid of the 57mm on its DDG-1000’s.

Ten years ago the Mexican Navy found out the gun was no good and dropped it in favor of the Oto Melara Super Rapid 76mm gun, which has long range and is effective against sea and air threats, as well as an excellent gun to support combat missions on shore, as Israel has demonstrated on a number of occasions. Now there is talk about putting the 76mm on the LCS, but so far it is all just talk.

In March 2012 Rear Admiral Samuel Perez reported that the ship was “ill suited for combat operations against anything” but small fast boats not armed with anti-ship missiles. Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester, says the ship “is not expect to be survivable in that it is not expected to maintain mission capability after taking a significant hit in a combat environment.”

USS_Independence_LCS-2_at_pierce_(cropped)

USS Independence LCS (won’t fit in many ports as it is too wide)

In response, a decision was made to cap the current number of LCS ships at 40 vessels. Separately the Navy is sponsoring an “upgrade variant” of the LCS –in other words, another ship without a mission that is “upgraded” from what the Navy has already got. Among the ideas the Navy is playing with is to put an “over the horizon” missile on the LCS. This is the surface Navy’s equivalent of the theory of the F-35 fighter — a BVR or beyond visual range missile to destroy enemy combatants.

When you think about it, it makes almost no sense (which won’t prevent the Navy from doing it, of course). As the Iranians have been demonstrating for the past five years in the Persian Gulf, speeding around in small, fast patrol boats with anti-ship missiles,

c14-cat-class

Iranian Navy C-14 China CAT fast patrol boat.

poses a big threat to American ships, and certainly to any claimed ability to protect oil and cargo shipped through the Gulf’s relatively narrow passageways. Fast patrol boats zig zagging around can close on a US navy ship fairly quickly in constrained areas. An over the horizon missile is unlikely to solve the problem. Instead of figuring ways to counter what the Navy calls the “swarming boat” problem, it looks as if the problem continues to worsen.

Just recently the Iranians released videos of Iranian UAV’s loitering over a US Aircraft Carrier in the Persian Gulf. Instead of chasing it away, or shooting it down (the Pentagon called the Iranian buzzing of the carrier “unprofessional”), our carrier and the task force that is with it, did absolutely nothing. So when day zero comes, and the Iranian UAV’s are pinpointing targets, it should come as no surprise that one of our carriers is hit, or an LCS is sunk.

You may ask why the LCS program wasn’t trashed? Or why the US is sitting on its hands when our ships are threatened? Or why we have not come up with practical answers to evolving threats?

One partial answer is that these programs are jobs programs. Another explanation is that no one wants to take responsibility for bad decisions and wasting taxpayers money. One wonders who the sailors are who will be stuck on these ships. One hopes they will never be sent in harm’s way.

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