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Navy Wants to Weave LCS, Unmanned Systems, Subs into New Battle Network

USS Coronado (LCS-4), an Independence-variant littoral combat ship, launches the first over-the-horizon missile engagement using a Harpoon Block 1C missile. US Navy Photo

USS Coronado (LCS-4), an Independence-variant littoral combat ship, launches the first over-the-horizon missile engagement using a Harpoon Block 1C missile. US Navy Photo

The Navy is looked to expand the web of connections currently linking its ships, planes and weapons to include submarines, smaller ships and unmanned systems to create a warfighting network that would be challenging for an adversary to bring down, the Navy’s surface warfare director (OPNAV N96) said.

Rear Adm. Ronald Boxall said that the Navy is comfortable with its Aegis Combat System and the Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) construct built around it, but that the service would have to expand this idea to keep up with global threats.

“Unfortunately we’ve had a little bit of a glass ceiling at the ship level, and until we get to the system level and get that across all platforms, that’s the challenge,” he said of Aegis, while speaking at the American Society of Naval Engineer’s annual Combat System Symposium.
“We’ve got to continue what I think we have been the lead on in surface warfare: connecting sensors to those firing platforms. But again, that’s got to proliferate, and that’s got to proliferate amongst all the platforms that we have and all the different networks that we have.”

The ultimate goal, Boxall said, is to create a fleet where “more platforms – again, many of those being armed, hopefully – will create a network of armed nodes that the adversary has to deal with the entire system: not just that ship, not just that strike group or not just that submarine. That’s the future we’re getting into.”

This means bringing in submarines, small ships like the Littoral Combat Ship or even the Mk VI patrol boat, and unmanned boats, along with new aircraft and sensors. NIFC-CA traditionally connects a ship with the Aegis Combat System, an E-2D Advanced Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft and weapons like the Standard Missile (SM) family of weapons.

Boxall told USNI News after his presentation that the addition of the over-the-horizon missile to the LCS is exciting because it helps extend the reach of the LCS ships individually and helps them take a more aggressive offensive posture, but it also fits in with this idea of a more netted Navy.

With the addition of over-the-horizon firing, “now you have that capability on a small ship, we’ve got to be able to make sure we can command and control and stay with it, so the network becomes part of that. So a sensor which can support that ship and that weapon needs to be good enough to keep that network robust, and so if we lose one sensor we have a way to back it up,” he said. One way to add redundancy and increase the robustness of this capability is to net the LCS, its MH-60R helicopter as the sensor, and the missile itself into other naval networks.

“Right now LCS is not a NIFC-CA-capable platform, but the concept that we use for NIFC-CA could be, whether we look at future unmanned air or even using existing helicopters that we have,” Boxall said.
“We have helicopters that are on LCS right now – our most capable MH-60R helicopter, and that’s got a very good over the horizon capability. So do we complement that, or is that the long-term answer?”

Additionally, Boxall said in his speech that the LCS’s upcoming anti-submarine warfare mission package, with its highly capable variable-depth sonar and multi-function towed array acoustic receiver, could be a great asset for submarines and aircraft like the P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance plane to leverage if they could all pass information between platforms run by different program offices, paid for by different resource sponsors and employed by different commanders.

Boxall stressed that the Navy is moving towards a cross-domain warfare approach that would remove some stovepipes that separate these platforms, with the idea that a netted Navy is a stronger Navy against any adversary that would seek to disrupt one node in the network.

During his speech he said that budget constraints mean the Navy needs to determine what jobs can be done by smaller and less expensive ships, and which jobs are reserved for larger and more high-end ships, and conduct these missions in the most cost-effective manner possible.

“I know that I get better the more nodes that I have out there,” he said, and making the case for the largest fleet possible will require being able to state “what things can I have done at the lowest level and what can I have done at the highest level. What do I need bigger ships to do and what do I need smaller unmanned organic things to do?”

“On the low end, I just talked about MDUSV (the Sea Hunter medium displacement unmanned surface vehicle), that type of vessel – maybe it’s Mk IVs, maybe it’s LCS. What we’re doing with different sized platforms, I want them to be as small as they can be but do everything they need to do,” he continued, adding that the surface warfare community is even looking at making some small boats unmanned to further reduce their cost.
“We do some things at the high level, things that carry weapons, that will have big radars, that will ensure we can keep up with the threats of the future.”

Boxall said during his speech that the increasing range of potential adversaries’ weapons have forced the U.S. Navy into a more defensive posture, and the efforts to field longer-range missiles and create this netted Navy are an effort to regain an offensive posture.

NIFC-CA continues to grow more capable, achieving its longest-range intercept ever this year with the guided-missile cruiser USS Princeton (CG-59) firing an SM-6. On the SM-6, Boxall said “I’m happy to report that as of this moment, right now, we have got dual-capable SM-6 in theater capable of operating today, in less than two years from inception,” as an anti-air and anti-ship weapon. The Tomahawk land-attack missile will also get an anti-ship capability as the missiles are refurbished and upgraded.

Overall, “it gives us two types of missiles in one cell. So as you get out there and you have VLS (Vertical Launching System) capability out there, we can put SM-6 with dual capability, surface-to-air and surface-to-surface, and same with Tomahawk, land attack and also anti-ship. That type of synergy, that dual-tasking is a force multiplier for us,” Boxall said.

  • Lazarus

    This is the sort of role LCS was anticipated to fill. It’s interfaces are unique in the fleet and ready to support the missions that RADM Boxall suggests.

    • airider

      Being unique is counter to being commonly connected. We’ve got lots of unique systems out there that can only talk to themselves.

    • PolicyWonk

      If this is the kind of role what LCS was supposedly going to fill, they would’ve built it with a better sea-frame than one that can be taken out of commission via a determined assault with a can opener. This represents nothing more than opportunistic use of an available, yet dubious, asset for which a justification for its existence still needs to be found.

      LCS is uniquely unsuitable as its value as a sea frame is diminished via its notorious unreliability, lack of room for growth, and staggering cost. The so-called frigate version is now projected to exceed $1B per unit, and is said to strongly mimic the variant the Saudis have contracted to have built at a better price point. This is an improvement of sorts, though it seems that the navy needs to learn negotiating from the Saudis, who appear to be getting a far better deal for the dollar spent. We’d have been better off piggybacking off the design work the Saudis are already paying for.

      The taxpayers are still taking a beating.

      • BubbaLama

        The crews will take the ultimate beating. Reef-ex the LCS or turn them into unmanned drone hives with racks of swarm drones. They can sail unmanned monitored from another ship with the network with servicing by inserting crew solely tasked to maintain the drones then returning to survivable platforms. Other than basic maintenance, crew would only board for docking, unrep, and the inevitable tow due to propulsion casualties.

        • Lazarus

          Small crews do just fine once they are trained and become accustomed to having less people on watch at any one time. I had no trouble filling multiple section Condition III watch bills on both the MCM and the PC. Big ship people in six section watches or just idling might see this as hard, but it is not.

          • BubbaLama

            You missed the point. Perhaps I should have posted the crews will make the ultimate sacrifice vs beating.
            My point was the danger of the LCS is focused on the crews that sail these tubs. Chances of survival is limited when you are unable to maneuver due to catastrophic engine/propulsion failure.

      • Lazarus

        No one projects the LCS frigate variant to cost $1b.

        • PolicyWonk

          I just read that cost projection over the past week (Defense Industry Daily, or similar site).

          Given the cost increases and poor planning on the part of the LCS program office (past performance being a fundamental indicator), if it didn’t hit $1B I’d be astonished. The current LCS costs about $475M, not counting any mission package (which can add upwards of $175M to $300M, depending on which one is being discussed). So we’re already in the realm of $775M, and we haven’t gotten to the additional requirements and gear.

          Hence – I see little reason for optimism.

          If I stumble on it again, I’ll post the link.

        • Ctrot
      • Curtis Conway

        If we want a frigate’s worth of capability, we will have to pay for it. One gets what one pays for. What we have is a Ferrari trying to do a Draft Horses job. Technology cost money, and weapons take up space and require operators and maintainers, excluding addressing damage control on the platform.

        • PolicyWonk


          Indeed, there is no such thing as a free lunch. And I believe we agree LCS represents a dubious foundation for development of a frigate.

          It sure seems, however, that the USN is determined to go down this path, despite the blatant lack of success of the program.

          • Curtis Conway

            A classic example of “good money after bad”. The US Navy may have fixed the crew rotation manpower problem, now I’m waiting to see if they continue to treat the crews as interchangeable machines (without a rating!). This whole program has been an excellent example of who should never be involved in this type of development, and how never to build a US Navy Surface Combat Ship . . . and all to save money . . . at the expense of our sailors. Do unto other as you would have them do unto you, for it sums up the Law and the Prophets. This bunch in the LCS Program are burning up personnel and equipment like cord wood in combat . . . if the LCS ever goes into combat.

          • PolicyWonk

            As I believe we’ve both pointed out in previous postings: an asset that cannot operate alone and/or protect itself isn’t much of an asset. This renders whatever it cost all but a complete waste of taxpayer funds.

    • Guest

      It is the role LCS was PowerPointed to fill.

      In reality, our Navy’s “first purpose-designed, network enabled surface combatant” is the surface combatant with by far the least capable C4 suite.

      It is nonstop IT gymnastics just to maintain a comm plan when in company with other ships. It can’t even begin to do that when it dedicates half its radios to controlling one unmanned vehicle.

      Now it’s the ideal experimentation platform for the next comms-intensive FOBI?

      • Curtis Conway

        I would have thought that comms planning, set-up, and execution would have come a long way since our ON-201/SA-2112 days. This should be either solved by training or exercise. If the equipment is the problem, then WE DO HAVE A PROBLEM in our new comms (data/voice) environment.

        • Guest

          “We” (capable surface combatants) don’t; just the few (LCS) with miniscule radio shacks.

      • Lazarus

        Perhaps that suggests that the USN has too many comm circuits going at any one time and is liable to jamming/spoofing. You can’t have everything on one platform.

        • Guest

          No, you can’t; you have to prioritize. A platform optimized for network-centric, comms-intensive operations would omit things it doesn’t need, like Aegis, in order to make room for basic requirements, like an adequate comms suite. This is hardly an unrealistic requirement for a 3400-ton ship in an era when half the US population carry clear, reliable $400 radiotelephone sets in their wristwatches.

          So now you’re claiming that a broad, diverse comm plan is somehow MORE vulnerable to jamming?

          Sometimes people here, even those who disagree with your opinions (there are things I like about LCS, BTW) defend you because they see the overwhelming tide of LCS opposition as personal attacks against you, but I disagree. You’ve made it abundantly clear that there is nothing you wouldn’t rationalize in support of your pet platform. If a news outlet discovered documents proving that the reduction gears were made of dog shit, you would produce a study purporting to demonstrate dog shit’s superior tensile strength over carbon steel.

        • Guest

          I agree with your last sentence. A design team needs to prioritize, and omit unnecessary features (like Aegis) to leave SWPC for bare essentials (like an adequate comms suite). This is hardly an impossible dream in an era when half the US population carry clear, reliable $400 radiotelephone sets in their wristwatches.

          Are you actually claiming now that a broader, more diverse multifrequency comm plan is MORE vulnerable to jamming?

          Some decent folks interpret the overwhelming tide of disagreement with your positions as “personal attacks”, and defend you despite their opposition. I disagree; I honestly think there is nothing you wouldn’t rationalize to support your foregone conclusions. If USNI proved LCS had reduction gears made of dogdoo, you would surely produce a study “proving” feces’ tensile strength superior to carbon steel’s.

  • airider

    If there’s going to be a robust and high performance network that can do what the Admiral envisions, they’ll need to avoid making it IP based, or at least not plugged into the NIPR/SIPRnets aboard ships. NIFC-CA works because the network used is highly integrated with the Aegis system and uses formats and comms that are not easily hackable or intercepted. Also, with all due respect to the Admiral, this concept isn’t really new…it’s been around for decades. However it wasn’t until the Navy got the SM-6 that the ranges really opened up.

    If LCS is going to play in this world, it’ll need better sensors and weapons than currently envisioned to include the FF Mods….otherwise it will mainly be a data consumer without much to add.

    • The Plague

      Finally somebody has made this essential point, the world of difference between a purpose-built network and a general-purpose gunkwork.

  • PolicyWonk

    We could put a few boxes of Harpoons, or NSM’s on tramp steamers, and it would be a lot less expensive and more effective than Any LCS variant.

    • BubbaLama

      Purchase some of the idled state of the art OSV platforms. A brief refit and you have a vessel with a huge cargo deck optimal for modular systems. That plus stronger hulls, and overall better engine rooms bring a valuable cost effective option to the table.
      Lastly, OSV’s are rigged for towing making them a perfect team player to tow the LCS during their regular catastrophic engine tantrums.

      • El_Sid

        Do a search for ThinkDefence’s “A Ship that Still Isn’t a Frigate” series – I think the message is that platforms like OSVs have a lot to offer, as long as you don’t try to make them too fighty. The big disadvantage they have is a relative lack of speed, which is really handy for the Pueblo/China-harassing-Cowpens kind of stuff where you’re trying not to start a war by shooting first.

    • Lazarus

      Obviously you have never been in the Navy or you would not make such comments.

      • PolicyWonk

        Sarcasm not understood here?

        If every ship can be a shooter, and we can link our ships together, then the platform becomes a lot less relevant. Heck, even LCS can become useful as a missile carrier.

        • Refguy

          Arsenal ship?

          • PolicyWonk

            Heh –

            Lets not get carried away. LCS can’t carry enough to be strategically significant. The arsenal plane (either the 747 or B52 variants) would carry far more ordnance. A real arsenal ship, based on the LPD-17 sea-frame would be *very* significant.

          • Refguy

            True; maybe I should have said magazine ship (but I don’t think anyone would have caught the reference). At least, if it tagged along with the fleet, it might get some protection; or put some signature enhancers on it and let it be an ASCM magnet.

  • old guy

    At what lobbyist-funded cocktail party did these social flags come up with this cockamamiie scheme?

  • Curtis Conway

    I congratulate the US Navy and Rear Adm. Ronald Boxall for getting NIFC-CA up and running. It has been our dream since the ’80s. An stealthier F-14 with an AESA radar and a load of AMRAAM with this connectivity would have come in real handy about now.

    “…the Navy is comfortable with its Aegis Combat System and the Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) construct built around it, but that the service would have to expand this idea to keep up with global threats.”

    Aegis ushered in a whole new era in the naval combat realm in every arena+ (e.g., Aegis Ashore).

    “Right now LCS is not a NIFC-CA-capable platform but the concept that we use for NIFC-CA could be, whether we look at future unmanned air or even using existing helicopters that we have…”

    In order to do that one must have detection, tracking and fire control data to provide to the network. Where is the non-rotating 3D AESA radar? In future combat ‘going active’ will be the invitation to ‘shoot me’, and shoot they will. Where are the defensive weapons? There may be a lot of passive ESM/ECM on board, but where is the kinetic kill capability? The 57 mm gun and SeaRAM with its 25lb blast fragmentation warhead?

    “This means bringing in submarines, small ships like the Littoral Combat Ship or even the Mk VI patrol boat, and unmanned boats, along with new aircraft and sensors. NIFC-CA traditionally connects a ship with the Aegis Combat System, an E-2D Advanced Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft and weapons like the Standard Missile (SM) family of weapons.”

    This paragraph is paramount because it (and others) shows the over-watch (E-2C/D Hawkeye & MH-60R Seahawk), and the LCS connectivity, but it doesn’t address the LCS’s ability to take on those who respond. Remember where the LCS will operate, and many times that will be in waters too shallow for the Cruisers and Destroyers to go (in the littorals near the beach). There is the little thing called ‘time of flight’. That is the clock you must beat to survive in a supersonic ASCM environment. An E-2D shooting SM-6 off of a donor platform is the name of the game. With respect to LCS, even an ESSM would help in the ‘depth of engagement’ equation. However, an SM-6 without a booster would be better. If both were present, then this LCS platform is starting to look like a US Navy Surface Combatant.

    When the USS Ticonderoga (CG-47) with it Aegis Combat System was fielded, it was designed specifically to address a submerged Charlie Class submarine launching SSN-9 Siren ASCMs blowing out of the water at 10 miles or so, and the platform can detect and engage that threat reliably. How about that LCS, now living in an environment where the new weapons for adversarial submarines are more capable than ever before, and they carry little surprises for the MH-60R Seahawk? AND, what is coming off the beach is even deadlier, and the LCS will be the first one to encounter (or succumb) to that threat.

  • Michael D. Woods

    I hope they’re also practicing for operations when a ship’s node goes down, or the whole network fails.

    • Aubrey

      No enemy would ever be so rude as to interfere with our network!!

    • Curtis Conway

      EMCON and Mode 3 Ops. Gotta do it.

  • Aubrey

    And how does this system help us when the satellites are hobbled or just plain gone, when the EM spectrum is denied us, and/or when EMCON becomes a matter of survival?

    • airider

      There are ways to have signals only directed at the friendlies and away (nulled) from the enemy.

  • Ed L

    Maybe the Brass should consider relegating the LCS to Caribbean, Mexico in the west coast of the United States

    • old guy

      After the Navy uploaded CV41 USS Midway from 45,000 tons to 92,000 tons they added sponsons to lower the waterline. This also lowered the roll period to 12 seconds, making it impossible to handle A/C underway. I got the job of salvaging it. We put on huge bilge keels and relegated it to the Med. Maybe they will do this to Ol’ Flopover and the Hunk-A-Junks.

  • Refguy

    Does anyone remember NTDS and TADIL-J? Yes, too low a data rate, easy to jam and easy to exploit, but the concept is hardly new. What happens if we lose the satellites (comm or GPS)?

    • airider

      TADIL-J is part of the NIFC-CA effort. Can’t use it for all threats based on its update rates but it’s useful and appropriate for some missions, threats and platforms. Useful data rates are low because of its AJ capabilities (JTIDS/MIDS is a 5Mbps raw data rate “radio”), but the data size is also small to minimize the impact. If the Navy were serious about leveraging it more (since it has the largest installed base across all services), they’d incorporate some directional antennas to minimize the intercept and exploit threat.

      • Refguy

        Good point about leveraging what already works. The Navy is also the dominant player in TTNT (an enabler for UCAS?). I don’t know how subs are going to be linked into any of the tactical RF links, but the rest of the force could play in a JTIDS-based net as long as there was an airborne node. I’m still concerned about loss of satellites (hard kill or jamming/spoofing); JTIDS provides good relative position within the net which is fine for defending the force but isn’t adequate for precision strike.

  • BudgetGeek

    This smells a bit too much like the Army’s Future Combat System and the Coast Guard’s Deepwater. I hope the Navy staff has read and re-read the lessons learned from those attempts to great the next great network.

  • Donald Carey

    Weaving a net with defective cord is a waste.

  • SolidBro

    LCS are subs, just subs with positive buoyancy currently. Once combat starts, then they go deep.