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LCS Alternative Weekly

March 17, 2010

From Navy News:The littoral combat ship USS Freedom (LCS 1) is moored at the Port of Colon during a maintenance availability.

Small Craft to Fight Small Threats

The future littoral battleships seem to be these large sloops and motherships, which are multimission and can do many wonderful things. The problem with battleships, is their great size and cost means you can’t afford enough of them to be many places at once, which is essential for global power projection. Because of their small numbers and highly visible bulk, motherships are also at risk from small low tech warships which can be deployed in great numbers, used as cruise missile launch platforms, or on one-way suicide missions. Here is David Eshel at Aviation Week revealing that “Small Boats Menace Littorals“:

Iran for one has practiced naval swarming for years. During the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, the Revolutionary Guard Corps (RGC) used swarming tactics against Iraq. Iranian naval forces have lately adopted dispersed harassing assaults, but this could change if Iran decides to block shipping in the strategic Strait of Hormuz.

The RGC operates at least 1,000 speedboats…

One region where swarming and suicide attacks threaten shipping is the Indian Ocean. The Sea Tigers are the naval force of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka. They conduct attacks using small boats in swarming formations and suicide missions.

A terrorist in a speedboat might not seem intimidating to a large missile frigate, but what about if you count such deadly craft armed with cruise missiles in the hundreds or a thousand in the case of Iran? Such a swarm of threats the 20-30 frigates in the Gulf (also about the size of the British and American escort fleets) can in no way manage.

During the World Wars, navies used other small warships, destroyers, escorts, frigates, and corvettes to counter small warships with big weapons like torpedo boats and submarines. But these were vessels typically under 2000 tons, more normally about 1000 tons and often smaller, which were built in many hundreds by America, Britain, and Canada combined. Today, with a destroyer or frigate typically weighing from 5000-9000 tons, they are more kin to light and heavy cruisers from the same era. Concerning cost and weaponry, the “escorts” of today might be considered the new battleships.

Milan Vego, a professor at the Joint Military Operations Dept. of the U.S. Naval War College, advocates new tactics for Western navies operating in shallow waters. He has written in various articles that the U.S. Navy is traditionally opposed to operating small surface combatants in peacetime, and warns that a force of the new Littoral Combat Ships, upon entering service in the next decade, would not significantly improve combat capabilities in littoral warfare.

As we often insist, the Navy should go back to the drawing board on LCS, especially after it was recently admitted the vessel is just another traditional frigate. It is quite underarmed, since the admirals originally wanted a small patrol boat (the role it is currently being used for in the Caribbean), except they just couldn’t get away from their Blue Water mindset born during the Cold War, when everything must be able to keep up with huge and fast nuclear aircraft carriers. The need for a larger fleet of flexible small warships has been lost to the strategists at the Pentagon, but costs and shrinking force structures are beginning to take its tole.

Vego says littoral waters are ideal for fast-attack craft armed with antiship cruise missiles, torpedoes and guns. The Navy’s smallest surface combatants comprise only eight lightly armed (2 X 25-mm. guns and two machine guns), 355-ton Cyclone-class patrol craft… The Navy continues to experiment with the highly maneuverable, 45-ton M80 Stiletto, built in 2005 by M Ship Co. of San Diego. The 88-ft.-long composite vessel has an M-shaped hull that provides a fast, stable platform for missions. A flight deck launches and retrieves unmanned aerial vehicles, and a rear ramp can recover 36-ft. rigid-hull inflatable boats or autonomous underwater vehicles.

Corvettes and patrol craft are the answer to the grave swarming threat in shallow waters. I include 1000-1500 ton corvettes in the mix because they can also self-deploy, while being excellent shallow water platforms, in contrast to frigates which weigh in at 3000 tons or larger. Many corvettes are also as well armed if not better than frigates, and can carry new light-weight versions of the American Aegis and the European Apar (Seapar) radars for tracking and shooting down guided missiles.


LCS to Mayport, Eventually

A whole squadron of the littoral combat ships will be based south in Mayport, Florida. However it may take some time before they actually get there. Here is Timothy J Gibbons of

Mayport Naval Station will be the primary homeport on the East Coast for the Navy’s newest class of ships, the service’s highest ranking officer said Wednesday, meaning the base would not suffer the personnel losses expected as its older ships are retired.

By 2020, Mayport could be home to 17 littoral combat ships, with the first one arriving six years from now. By the time it arrives, the base is slated to have lost the 13 frigates that make up the bulk of its fleet, shedding thousands of sailors in the process.

The Navy seems in no hurry, despite the fast pace of change. Consider for instance what can happen in 6 years time when the first LCS is sent south:

  • America changed from a devoted colony in 1770 to a Declaration of Independence from Great Britain by 1776.
  • World War 2 was fought and won in 6 years, changing the world for ever.
  • America went from having never lost a war in 1965 to well on its way of exiting Vietnam for good by 1971.
  • In constant fear of nuclear war with between the 2 superpowers for 40 years in 1985, to the disappearance of the Soviet Union by 1991.
  • From the worse terrorist attacks on US soil in 2001, to 2007 when the military finally seemed to get a grip on the new counter-insurgency warfare.


Sparking Corvette Envy

The world’s most expensive patrol boat continues to be the scourge of speedboats everywhere, at least in range of its helicopter. Navy News reports that “Freedom Achieves Third Caribbean Drug Seizure“:

The littoral combat ship USS Freedom (LCS 1) achieved its third drug seizure March 11, disrupting a high-speed “go-fast” vessel and recovering 2 1/4 tons of cocaine during counter-illicit trafficking (CIT) operations in U.S. 4th Fleet’s Area of Responsibility.

While patrolling with embarked Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 22, the Littoral Combat Ship Surface Warfare Mission Package and U.S. Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment, Freedom detected a suspected drug vessel and began pursuit at high speed. Freedom deployed a response team of Sailors and Coast Guardsmen to intercept the vessel, which jettisoned its illicit cargo in the southern Caribbean Sea.

An MH-60S Sea Hawk from Freedom forced the go-fast to beach itself. Local officials later confiscated the vessel. The Navy-Coast Guard response team recovered 72 bales of cocaine, weighing 2,127 kilos (4,680 pounds), from the water.

LCS Freedom continues to steal the thunder of cheap, off the shelf patrol vessels, cutters, and corvettes everywhere, for doing their job, at likely 10-times the cost!


Gold-Plate Police Boat

LCS was a good idea that failed to go far enough. Given the chance to construct a small, fast attack corvette, the Navy settled on a large and short range frigate (as we found out officially last week). Greg Grant at DoD Buzz reports on a recent paper by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment’s Martin Murphy, who expounds further on the LCS mission:

Murphy provides a good deal of data on the often “tortuous” development history of the LCS that was supposed to produce an inexpensive vessel, but did not, and led to the construction of two competing ship designs: a conventional hull built by Lockheed Martin and an aluminum trimaran hull from General Dynamics. The two ships are functionally similar, or at least similar enough…

The real potential of the LCS lies in its “copious internal space,” the multi-mission modules and its large flight deck (one-and-a-half the size of current combatant flight decks), writes Murphy. Its shallow draft of 15 feet opens up much of the world’s waterways and expands the number of accessible ports from 362 to 1,111. LCS’ speed also gives it the ability to avoid submarines and gain maneuver room when confronting small boat swarms. The vessels could also be deployed on the periphery of large surface groups to extend its operational umbrella.

Murphy highlights a significant weapons limitation: the lack of vertical launch system (VLS) cells that not only limits its long-range attack potential and its ability to defend itself from air attack. He also sees as “worrisome” the ship’s lack of torpedo detection capability; he notes that the Navy is working to redress that one.

“Small ships generally require extensive logistic support,” writes Murphy, and LCS is no different, and when deployed, “consideration needs to be given to providing a “mother ship” or tender in support.” LCS crew size is deliberately small, which may put more demands on work shop access.

Except if your mothership needs mothership support, then who will do the actual fighting? But here is another job laid out for this “swiss army knife” vessel:

Operationally, “the primary use of the LCS is increasingly considered to be as a naval constabulary vessel,” which includes a range of tasks included in the Navy’s new “Cooperative Strategy for the 21st-Century.” These include: fishery protection, counter-narcotics and counter-piracy operations, evacuation of non-combatants, and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief operations.

In other words, a very costly offshore patrol vessel, lacking the range to operate as far as its 3000 tons should reasonably carry her, and without adequate armament to defend herself. Recently we discovered her primary defense against swarming attack, the NLOS missile failed in numerous tests. Why do we keep thinking of the truncated DDG-1000 destroyer, itself originally intended as a low cost “arsenal ship”, but instead became a costly greyhound, which was extremely over-sized for its intended littoral mission, and too poorly armed to defend itself when it got there?

On its own, LCS is well suited to the low-end tasks, such as counter-piracy, naval diplomacy and counternarcotics, writes Murphy. However, to effectively operate at the higher end, particularly where the threat of air attack is higher, an LCS or three would need to operate alongside an Arleigh Burke class destroyer.

Instead of being an asset to the fleet then, the LCS becomes yet another chore for the over-worked Burke and Ticonderoga missile escorts.


17 Comments leave one →
  1. Chuck Hill permalink
    March 18, 2010 6:06 pm

    Does the Navy still lay down smoke screens?

    Haven’t seen smoke generators on ships, other than pictures from WWII. Then they were cylinders on the fan tail. Armies still use smoke generators, so the technology is still out there.

  2. B. Walthrop permalink
    March 18, 2010 9:56 am


    HMS Clyde as well as the river class have either a 30mm or 20mm main gun. They both have a helicopter deck, but no ability to store or service said helicopters. How is this a more robust capability than even the baseline LCS without any mission modules?
    Knud Rasmussen also has the same limitations vis a vis helicopter operations. While it is outfitted with a (wait for it) MODULAR 76mm main gun, this is not listed as the ship’s organic armament. With a top speed of 17 knots and a range of just 3000nm and a crew of 18, I fail to see how this ship matches the capability of even the baseline LCS.

    Port of Spain class vessels have similar armament and lack of organic helicopter support. Hell, even the BAE systems press release states that the cost of these two ships is $150M, so your cost figures are apparently not accurate for these ships, or they’ve experienced ~50% cost growth.

    M80 Stilleto — Are you serious?

    All of these ships have a questionable ability to self deploy to the constabulary duties that you envision. I also question their ability to defend themselves in all but the most benign environments (with the British ships being the possible exceptions).

    I suppose we will have to agree to disagree. You seem to want the Navy to be a marginally capable Coast Guard, and I think the Navy should continue to pursue power projection. There are more responsible ways to pursue cost reduction. The low hanging fruit probably really lies within the operations and support costs in order to free up funding for procurement. Commonality of HM&E systems across classes is my prescription, but that is delving into the mundane technical and logistics problems that are tougher and not as flashy to address.

    For those interested in looking at some history regarding apparent acquisition disasters (that ultimately turned out alright) of major weapons systems, I encourage you to pursue the history of the development of the B-29, the Ticonderoga Class Cruisers, and even the vaunted Arleigh Burke Class Destroyers. Information about the cruisers and destroyers can be accessed through the archive of GAO reports available online. Go read some of the early history. Many of the problems facing the newest round of USN ship acquisitions are not too dissimilar.

    Purchasing a Coast Guard instead of a Navy is not the solution IMHO.


  3. Hudson permalink
    March 18, 2010 1:24 am

    Chuck Hill,

    Interesting idea, smoke. Does the Navy still lay down smoke screens? Does it have the right equipment/engines to lay smoke? Or has this capacity gone the way of the bayonet?

  4. Chuck Hill permalink
    March 17, 2010 6:23 pm

    Perhaps an effective counter to the swarm we may have forgotten is smoke. The swarm of small boats will have no or perhaps only rudimentary radar, no CIC and no radar controlled guns or missiles. A smoke screen would prevent a coordinated attack. A CIC equipped vessel could pick them out and destroy them before they make it through the smoke.

  5. Hudson permalink
    March 17, 2010 5:31 pm

    With Mike and others on NWs, I have advocated for more ships at the smaller end of the order of battle. If you look on the official Navy website, the smallest surface vessel they list is the Perry frigate, and that is wrong.

    One hundred meter hulls have always been useful in naval affairs, going back at least to the age of sail. In a 100 meter hull I would expect a complete warship like the WWII DDs and DEs Mike mentions, that can take on any threat: air, surface, sub-surface, even giant BBs such as the Taffy Force faced in the Pacific, and d**n if they didn’t make the Japanese turn tail!

    And none of this modules business either. Modules are for travelers who have plenty of time to pack their sea trunks and hat boxes. One carry-on is what you grab when you rush out the door to catch a flight–you know you have the essentials.

    So yes, we need non-mythical corvettes and OPVs such as other navies produce and we already have in our Coast Guard. However, as a matter of strategy–and cost–the Navy will not embark on a massive pt boat building program. The Islamic Republic of Iran has laid down its marker with its grotesque fleet of speed boats. It also knows–at least, I think it knows–that if it plays that hand in a serious way, we will not play footsie with them, play tit-for-tat. If we have real leadership in the White House and Pentagon, we will stomp them.

    And while I’m at it, Happy St. Paddy’s Day!

  6. xbradtc permalink
    March 17, 2010 4:58 pm

    This is a classic case of a power projection vs. sea control navy.

    History tells us the the power projection navy wins. Always.

    The proper way to defeat the Iranian swarms isn’t through swarm v. swarm tactics. We can stand off and destroy the bases where they operate from. Even if the Iranians disperse boats, they still have to operate from shore, and that makes them fixed targets. And that makes them easy to kill.

    Totally reshaping our fleet constitution to take out speedboats is idiocy.

  7. Mike Burleson permalink*
    March 17, 2010 4:20 pm

    Defense Tech comments on the Murphy article and repeats the Vego quote “The best solution for fighting small boat swarms is a small boat swarm”.

  8. Mike Burleson permalink*
    March 17, 2010 3:59 pm

    “What it can’t fight, it can run away from”.

    Does that description of the old battle cruisers sound familiar here? Except the LCS isn’t running from something bigger than her but something smaller!

  9. Chuck Hill permalink
    March 17, 2010 3:50 pm

    “LCS’ speed also gives it the ability to … gain maneuver room when confronting small boat swarms.”

    This is something that has never made sense to me. I know they mean they can draw the swarm into a long stern chase, but such a confrontation is not likely to develop unless the LCS is escorting a merchant ship, typically a less than 20 knot oil tanker plying the Gulf. Is the LCS going to leave the tanker and run away?.

  10. Mike Burleson permalink*
    March 17, 2010 3:38 pm

    Part of the problem of using large warships exclusively to counter small boat swarms is this:
    Certainly an aircraft like a helo armed with missiles can take care of fast attack craft, especially those of Third World navies not armed with surface to air missiles, but if the mothership is disabled or sunk then your anti-small boat weapon is made non-effective.

    As an example, remember the use of large cruisers in the Guadalcanal campaign, with Allied ships decimated by Japanese Long Lance torpedoes. Only when the Navy began preceding their forces with torpedo armed destroyers did the Allies get a handle on the Japanese surface superiorly in that campaign.

    Then there is the problem that large warships are often needed elsewhere to watch other large warships. For instance, if our ASW frigates and guided missiles destroyers are in the Gulf or the Caribbean chasing pirates and smugglers, who will watch potential peer enemies with first world weapons like China or Russia, or defend the carriers in an emergency? Will we concede the Third World and its vital supplies of oil to anarchy? So you need small ships to watch other small ships.

    It makes no sense to build battleships which almost exclusively are used to fight in low tech conflicts, and see the consistent dismantling of Western navies, who cry for more money except it is never enough. But some battleships are needed, and because they are so capable, should be decreasing in number, not increasing, as with HMS Sceptre currently in the Falklands, proving that giant aircraft carriers aren’t the only vessels able to do gunboat duty!

    B. Walthrop, here are a few LCS alternatives whose thunder the $700 million warship is stealing, to the detriment of fleet numbers:

    HMS Clyde (Britain)-$47 million
    Knud Rasmussen (Denmark)-$50 million
    Otago (New Zealand)-$62.6 million
    Port of Spain class (Trinidad and Tobago)-$50 million
    River class (Britain)-$31,400,000
    M80 Stiletto-$6 million

    Likely scores of others, patrol craft, OPVs, cutters, etc. Meaning it doesn’t take a revolution in warfare for every threat, just hulls in the water and plenty of them, ships being the life of a Navy like boots on the ground for the Army. A fact the admirals have long forgotten.

  11. johnski permalink
    March 17, 2010 3:09 pm

    i say the iranians could launch a single missle at one of our ships, whether it hit our ship or not ,
    we would not respond with rapid overwelming force. R.O.E. and risk adverse leadership lose everytime.

  12. leesea permalink
    March 17, 2010 2:53 pm

    I would recommend the reading of Martin Murphy’s actual paper VICE the news reports about it. While there are many good points to it, Mr. Murphy has made some assumptions about logistics which are questionable.

    What concerns me more is that we have NOT seen a more cogent CONOPS from the USN. That type document should have already be submitted to fleet cdrs for review.

    Regardless of how faulty we see the LCS as, there WILL be two in service next year and some plans need to be confirmed. Not to mention that two more may be commissioned late next year or early2012 AND the USN is suppose to do a down-select this year~? So many more details need to be cast in stone sooner rather than later.

  13. B.Smitty permalink
    March 17, 2010 12:31 pm

    Trying to go swarm vs swarm may not make much sense as a primary counter, but having at least some level of counter-swarm capability seems like a good idea, IMHO. At least to be able to pick off stragglers that make it through the primary airpower and missile screen.

    Plus there are many “less than shooting war” scenarios where lots of smaller vessels could be of use to prevent harassment of shipping and keep an eye on the other guy’s swarm.

  14. Polaris permalink
    March 17, 2010 11:52 am

    Notice how the black “boot topping” on the hull is almost completely submerged – presumably with a ship that’s not fully loaded. How serious a weight problem do we have here ?

  15. Byron permalink
    March 17, 2010 11:36 am

    Ben, we have disagreed in the past but on this we are in complete agreement. I could not have said it better.

  16. Hudson permalink
    March 17, 2010 10:56 am

    Re: Swarms vs. Swarms

    By all accounts, Iran has built an impressive fleet of variously armed speedboats that pose a serious threat to larger and better armed naval vessels in the Persian Gulf. Presumably these boats can be deployed quickly and in force along the length of the Gulf. This makes these small boat flotillas, manned by the Revolutionary Guard, more dangerous than the Iranian fleet proper. They are an intelligent, cost-effective solution for Iran.

    The Navy does not have, nor will it build, a mirror force of small boats to fight one-on-one with the Iranians. That would not be a practical solution for us. Instead, The USN and its allies would meet such swarms with swarms of missiles and shells. Two examples:

    One Sea Cobra can mount 8 TOWs, 70 70mm rockets and 750 rounds of 20mm for its gatling gun. The rockets can be fired individually with laser seekers, making them guided missiles. A one second burst of 20mm would sink or cripple any of these speedboats. That’s an awful lot of firepower.

    One Burke class destroyer has 90 VLS tubes. Heavily weighted with TLAM and ESSM, one Burke could practically destroy the entire Iranian fleet of larger vessels and take out some of the small boat bases and air bases. ESSM can attack ships as well as aerial targets.

    The Navy wants clear fields of fire for its shooters, so there will be no swirling tank-like battles of our swarms vs. their swarms with copious opportunities for friendly fire accidents.

    Certainly, we would take our losses in such a scenario, especially depending on who got off the first salvo. But whatever our initial losses, Iran would be crushed by retaliatory strikes. Its air force, navy and key industries would become burning wreckage, and the mullahs would be gone. The smaller Gulf states, that we have been beefing up lately, would get in their licks too, along with the Brits, Aussies, the civilized world.

    So while Iran might appear clever and formidable flexing its small boat muscles, it is a fox nipping at the heels of a wolf pack.

  17. B. Walthrop permalink
    March 17, 2010 9:31 am


    A couple of potential technical inconsistencies that I would appreciate if you would address directly:

    You said: A terrorist in a speedboat might not seem intimidating to a large missile frigate, but what about if you count such deadly craft armed with cruise missiles in the hundreds or a thousand in the case of Iran? Such a swarm of threats the 20-30 frigates in the Gulf (also about the size of the British and American escort fleets) can in no way manage.

    1. How does this work? Is there an example of a speedboat capable of mounting “cruise missiles?” What missiles are you speaking of in particular? I’m not suggesting that this can’t be done, but as far as I know we have not seen this threat materialize yet.

    You said: LCS Freedom continues to steal the thunder of cheap, off the shelf patrol vessels, cutters, and corvettes everywhere, for doing their job, at likely 10-times the cost!

    2. Great rhetoric, but complete hyperbole on the cost front. You are suggesting that your mythical corvette, patrol vessel, or cutter can be procured for ~$70M. This position is completely un-defendable, but I would love to hear you suggest solutions. Keep in mind the constraints of the potential requirement to self deploy, the cost of keeping the industrial infrastructure to build ships in the US in tact, and carefully outline real capabilities in terms of the entire detect to engage sequence. I’ve not seen any potential “LCS Alternative” suggested in these pages that is any less vulnerable to the threats of mines, swarming boat attacks, DE littoral submarines, or other “asymmetrical” threats as of yet.

    You said: Why do we keep thinking of the truncated DDG-1000 destroyer, itself originally intended as a low cost “arsenal ship”, but instead became a costly greyhound, which was extremely over-sized for its intended littoral mission, and too poorly armed to defend itself when it got there?

    3. While your initial assertion regarding the “arsenal ship” is technically correct, this argument ignores 12 years of context. That context is important, and has recently changed with the USMC agreeing that the current NGFS provided by the USN is adequate. This smacks of an unpublicized deal within DON between the USMC and USN where the NGFS requirement was “traded” for a more robust amphibious assault capability. I take no position on whether this “trade” was appropriate or not, and I don’t have any inside information to prove that is what actually happened, but it seems logical given the relatively late breaking change in USMC requirements.

    By what technical standard do you use to suggest that the DDG-1000 is extremely oversized for operations in the littoral? Draft doesn’t seem to be an issue because the open source documentation that I’ve seen suggests a loaded draft of ~18 ft. Is it because it has been sized appropriately to house the VLS and the AGS X 2 to project power ashore in support of ground forces (to a great range, great accuracy, and unsurpassed NGFS) as it was designed to do? As far as not being able to defend itself, I believe you have missed the mark here as well. If not, please provide some supporting arguments rather than relying solely upon your own bold assertion. How do the ship’s stealth characteristics (both RCS and acoustic) change your assumptions or have you considered those factors?

    It is all well and good to call for change, but if you are going to convince any serious practitioners of naval warfare that your prescribed direction is sound, you are going to have to make a much more robust technically grounded argument IMHO.


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