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Opinion: Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship Challenges the Status Quo

USS Freedom (LCS 1) gets underway. Freedom is underway as part of the Republic of Singapore Navy's Western Pacific Multi-lateral Sea Exercise (WMSX). US Navy Photo

USS Freedom (LCS 1) gets underway. Freedom is underway as part of the Republic of Singapore Navy’s Western Pacific Multi-lateral Sea Exercise (WMSX). US Navy Photo

The world is a dynamic and uncertain place where threats can come from anywhere. Accordingly, the U.S. Navy’s missions have evolved to include defeating terrorists, pirates and illegal traffickers; preparing to counter mines and armed small boats; providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief; and building partnerships to take on maritime-security missions.

These missions have two things in common. They are conducted in the littorals, or near the shores, and the U.S. Navy cannot always deal with them alone.

The littoral combat ship Freedom, on its maiden deployment to the Western Pacific, is out to prove that the LCS is the right ship to address these missions.

Recognizing the need for a warship that could operate in the littorals and easily partner with other naval forces, the Navy announced that it would begin development of the LCS in November 2001.

The two versions developed became known as the Freedom and Independence. The Freedom, produced by Lockheed Martin, is a semi-planing, steel monohull with an aluminum superstructure. Its draft is 13.5 feet with a displacement of approximately 3,000 metric tons. The Independence, produced by General Dynamics and Austal USA, is a slender, trimaran all-aluminum ship. Its draft is 14 feet with a similar displacement as the Freedom.

Both versions can exceed speeds of 40 knots and have a cruising range of greater than 3,000 nautical miles at 14-16 knots. Each has self-defense capabilities tailored for their littoral operating areas and can embark an MH-60S/R helicopter along with two MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned aerial vehicles.

Freedom, Independence and Fort Worth have been delivered to the Navy, with Coronado on track for delivery in late September. The fifth ship will launch this winter, and an additional seven are under construction.

One of the warship’s most transformational features is “plug-and-play” modularity using mission packages. The initial three mission packages are surface warfare, mine countermeasures and anti-submarine warfare. These three were selected to facilitate the Navy’s plan to replace frigates, coastal patrol craft and mine countermeasure ships with a single ship class.

Already installed aboard Freedom, the surface warfare mission package contains two 11-meter boats, two 30 mm gun systems and a 19-person detachment. The mine countermeasures mission package, with an unmanned undersea vehicle, an airborne mine neutralization system, an airborne laser mine detection system, airborne sonar and a 19-person detachment, will continue to be tested onboard Independence.

Looking forward, the anti-submarine warfare mission package continues under development, and the Navy is considering an expeditionary warfare mission package that could expand the ability of the LCS to operate with Marine Corps teams, Naval Special Warfare personnel (SEALs), and Naval Expeditionary Combat Command personnel such as Seabees and Explosive Ordnance Disposal.

LCS’s high speed, shallow draft and large flight deck make it an ideal naval platform for these missions and varied threats. Using its speed, stealthy design and stern-launched boat, the LCS could insert special operations forces or Marine units into areas inaccessible to other ships. When outfitted with the surface warfare mission package, the LCS is well-equipped for counter piracy and maritime interdiction operations.

One of the most vexing threats today is the use of multiple small, fast, maneuverable and relatively cheap boats to saturate a ship’s defenses in a “swarm” attack. Unfortunately, this is a threat where we have to be right every time and the enemy has to be right only once: if one explosive-laden boat penetrates a ship’s defenses, the results could be devastating. Fortunately, LCS is well-suited to this challenge. Its organic 57 mm gun can fire up to 220 rounds per minute and the 30 mm guns of the surface warfare mission package can fire up to 200 rounds per minute. This lethality, combined with the LCS’s speed and the reach of its embarked helicopter, makes the LCS an ideal platform for engaging small boats in a swarm attack. Additionally, the ship’s war-fighting team can control the battle by using the ship’s exceptional speed to close for engagement or remain out of range of an adversary’s weapons as the tactical situation dictates.

As mission packages mature, LCS will be able to make an even larger contribution to our fleet. When integrated with a carrier strike group or an expeditionary strike group, the LCS complements the strike group’s capabilities in addition to being able to scout and patrol coastal and confined waters in advance of the fleet. When not with a strike group, LCS could operate together in a pack with a combination of mission packages, simultaneously neutralizing mines, attacking enemy surface combatants and, in the near future, hunting submarines. When integrated with an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer or Ticonderoga-class cruiser, this pack would be able to perform all of these missions even in the face of a high-saturation antiship cruise missile environment.

As more people crowd coastal areas amid less stable global weather patterns, the need for humanitarian and disaster relief operations is increasing, especially in Southeast Asia. Ships rotationally deployed in Singapore will be poised to use their speed and proximity to respond during the initial stages of a disaster when assistance is desperately needed. Quite simply, LCS’s shallow draft allows it to go places other ships can’t. With its large reconfigurable spaces, large flight deck and 11-meter boats with the surface warfare mission package embarked, the LCS can store and transport a significant quantity of humanitarian aid via helicopters and small boats, providing a versatility that is well-suited for these types of contingency operations.

Innovative by its very nature, LCS certainly has attracted its critics. The ships possess new hull designs, a speed requirement of 40-plus knots, “plug-and-play” modularity, minimal manning, crew swap, new shipbuilders and a contractor-supported maintenance program. Some of these have been attempted before, but the true innovation comes in combining them.

This ship has challenged the status quo and the lead ships in the class have not been without their challenges. Yet, what first-in-class ship hasn’t had its problems that warrant improvement in later models? In fact, the Navy bought the first two ships with research and development money and used them to do just that. There are now approximately 200 design improvements between the first and third ships and a similar number of improvements between the second and fourth.

Change is hard, but Freedom is already proving its capabilities on deployment. Every year, the United States participates in a nine-country bilateral naval exercise called Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training. It is designed to enhance maritime security skills and operational cohesiveness among participating forces. Since deploying, Freedom has successfully conducted this exercise with Malaysia and Singapore and is scheduled to conduct it with Cambodia and Brunei.

Additionally, Freedom recently participated in the Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training exercise that incorporated maritime forces from Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and the United States. This exercise highlights the value of information sharing and multilateral cooperation to track, board and search vessels of interest such as illegal traffickers.

These exercises provide multiple, intangible benefits to the United States, and the LCS is the right ship for them because it is able to operate where these navies operate. By strengthening ties and improving collaboration during these exercises, the United States is better positioned to partner with these nations to address these evolved and complex missions as they arise.

LCS is the naval platform that will close our littoral shortfalls and bridge the gap from conventional naval tactics to future conflict. Whether operating as a pack or within a strike group, the LCS’s speed, versatility, and the numbers in which it will be produced will serve our Navy well from the shallows to the deep oceans.

This post originally ran on Sunday in the San Diego Union-Tribune in cooperation with the U.S. Naval Institute.