LCS Alternative Weekly
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 Jacksonville.com:
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.