Littoral Combat Ships: The Value of Forward Presence and Numbers

By Rear Adm. Thomas S. Rowden
Director, Surface Warfare (N96)

There is currently a lot of dialogue in professional circles, in print and in the blogosphere about our littoral combat ship class. I’d like to contribute to the discussion.

The first of class littoral combat ships USS Freedom (LCS 1), left, and USS Independence (LCS 2), maneuver together during an exercise off the coast of Southern California, May 2, 2012. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Jan Shultis/Released)

The first of class littoral combat ships USS Freedom (LCS 1), left, and USS Independence (LCS 2), maneuver together during an exercise off the coast of Southern California, May 2, 2012. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Jan Shultis/Released)

 

Last Friday, USS Freedom (LCS 1) departed Singapore to begin the next segment of her deployment in 7th Fleet. There has been a lot of attention on Freedom – justifiably so with the first deployment of this completely new ship class utilizing an entirely new operating concept. But much more is happening in the LCS program.

USS Independence (LCS 2) has completed her first post-shakedown availability and is now conducting mine warfare mission module developmental and operational tests. USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) is in post-shakedown availability. She will then conduct surface warfare mission module development and operational tests before her maiden operational deployment.

PCU Coronado (LCS 4) completed builder’s trials last week, and will now prepare for acceptance trials and delivery this summer. Littoral combat ships 5 to 16 are under construction or contract.

In a time when every indicator points to a shrinking defense budget, you really have to ask yourself, “Pound for pound, person for person, dollar for dollar, what delivers the greatest return for all these investments?” In my mind, that answer is unequivocally the littoral combat ship. She’s a 3,000-ton warship that is operated by a crew of fewer than 100 Sailors at a cost 1/3 of a destroyer, 1/4 of an attack submarine and 1/30 of an aircraft carrier, yet she carries the same American flag on her halyard as other ships that are much more expensive to build, maintain, operate or own.

The littoral combat ship USS Freedom (LCS 1) gets underway, May 17. Freedom is underway as part of the Republic of Singapore navy's western Pacific Multi-lateral Sea Exercise after participating in the International Maritime Defense Expedition and Conference in Singapore. Freedom is on an eight-month deployment to Southeast Asia. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jay C. Pugh/Released)

The littoral combat ship USS Freedom (LCS 1) gets underway, May 17. Freedom is underway as part of the Republic of Singapore navy’s western Pacific Multi-lateral Sea Exercise after participating in the International Maritime Defense Expedition and Conference in Singapore. Freedom is on an eight-month deployment to Southeast Asia. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jay C. Pugh/Released)

 

Make no mistake, our destroyers, cruisers, subs and carriers are absolutely essential to the defense of our country and they are needed in numbers that will support our defense in times of crisis and beyond. But in times of peace, in times of relative calm, we must have the ability to put credible combat power to sea across a wide spectrum of capability and do it affordably. For the acquisition and operating price of a single destroyer manned with 300 of our finest Sailors executing peacetime patrol for submarines, we will be able to deploy four littoral combat ships that are equipped with an anti-submarine warfare mission package to get four times the anti-submarine warfare coverage, four times the anti-submarine warfare capability, four times the anti-submarine warfare capacity, and four times the engagement with our friends, partners and allies. And we can execute it indefinitely, for months or perhaps years on end, by rotating crews and ships. We have to bring that single destroyer home for some crew rest and relaxation, but we don’t with a littoral combat ship – incredible capability at the same or less cost.

An informational graphic depicting the littoral combat ship USS Freedom (LCS 1). (U.S. Navy graphic by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Arif Patani/Released)

Both littoral combat ship classes are affordable. We are getting a great deal from two building yards, and both yards have invested a lot of private capital to expand their industrial capacity. The two builders are managing their transition from “stick built” research and development designs to serial production, and have shown solid learning curves in that transition process. The current program of record is 52 warships between the two classes. In the current and projected budget environment, we should ask what other missions we want and need these warships to take on, and how many more of these warships we should buy. I can easily envision twice the number of littoral combat ships in the fleet, maintaining persistence presence and relieving our more expensive ships of vital work so they can reset and refit and not have to execute expensive operations at sea.

I’ve also started to think about how to take advantage of another new platform, the joint high-speed vessel, to support littoral combat ship forward operations for maintenance, training and crew turnover.

This paired approach to employment of these innovative ships would significantly reduce the need for an ashore footprint, and much more importantly, would further expand where littoral combat ships can operate. The available space that is onboard both classes of littoral combat ships makes them excellent platforms to support special forces forward. When operating with a joint high-speed vessel, this combination will allow for additional maintenance areas for special operations forces equipment.

An informational graphic depicting the littoral combat ship USS Independence (LCS 2). (U.S. Navy graphic by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Arif Patani/Released)

The littoral combat ship mission modules must deliver the capabilities we need and I am positive that they will. The modular concept and interface design between the ships and mission modules offer the opportunity for the incremental delivery of improved capabilities.  We describe the mission modules program in terms of defined increments, and I know each validated mission module will continue to develop and deliver improvements, well beyond the current capabilities that we have in the fleet. Even more, I expect these flexible design concepts will allow us to introduce completely new, as yet undefined mission modules, as we head into our uncertain future.

Think about where we have operated surface combatants over the past several decades, and where we have taken warships for engagement with our friends and allies. Seeing a cruiser and her destroyers entering a foreign port in company with one of our carriers is without question impressive and, in times of heightened tension, can certainly be reassuring. It also is very expensive and is not necessarily essential all the time as we work to increase our forward presence; this is where littoral combat ships fit perfectly into our future engagement strategy –  focused combat capability tailored to the need at the time and affordable to the American people.

My 31 years sailing the world’s oceans have taken me from Freetown, Sierra Leone, to Freemantle, Luanda to Lisbon, Sao Tome to Sevastopol, Cape Verde to Cape Lesperance, Beirut to Bahrain and just about every place in between, several times. I have embarked and sailed in carriers, HSV Swift (HSV 2) and everything in between. Throughout all of this, the enduring constant that continues to echo in my mind is the absolute value of what gray ships with Old Glory flying bring to our engagement. My point is that there is extraordinary value in forward presence and in numbers. Littoral combat ships give the U.S. Navy both.

What do you think about littoral combat ships? Let us know by commenting below.