The Littoral Combat Ships, or LCSs, are to form the core of the United States Navy’s future small combatants fleet, with 55 of them set to be constructed. Lightly armed and armoured, many retired naval officers remain skeptical about the LCSs’ utility. Intended to replace, in a sense, the current fleet of FFG 7 Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates, the LCSs are even less capable in terms of traditional combat capability. In their original configurations, the Perry frigates were equipped with a missile launcher that gave them medium-range anti-air and anti-ship capabilities. The LCSs, however, are not so well equipped.
The reason for this is that they are “modular” vessels, meaning that they can exchange equipment and systems as needed in order to fulfill their missions. The three major “mission packages”, as these exchange modules are called, are Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW), and Mine Countermeasures (MCM). Note that there is no “Anti-Air Warfare” package that would give the LCSs something akin to the Perrys. This stems from a strategic perspective – one might even say expectation – that the LCSs are meant to be stationed around the globe conducting primarily partnership engagement activities: visiting other countries’ ports, assisting smaller navies with training, and increasing local maritime security (by tackling threats such as trafficking, terrorism, etc.). None of these require an LCS to have the ability to shoot down supersonic fighters dozens of miles away.
This is not to say the LCSs are only ever going to be used against nothing more dangerous than AK-47-toting pirates. In my view, their most important capability will be an effective and reliable MCM mission package. With all the noise Iran has been making about “closing” the Strait of Hormuz and its oil traffic, I am nearly certain that the best and easiest means for Iran to do so would be via deploying hundreds of naval mines in the Strait. To make a long story short, America’s current MCM assets are slow, dangerous, and unreliable and thus presents itself as a major weakness that the Iranians have the best chance of exploiting. Mines have been responsible for some 70% of American naval ship casualties since the Korean War. They are a real threat (perhaps the most real threat, if historical empirics are to be the measure) and the USN is in desperate need for something better.
Thus, then, the LCS MCM mission package. To keep from boring the reader, I’ll dispense with the details. It suffices to say that this new package will focus on aerial and unmanned systems for finding and disposing mines, increasing both the speed and safety of the operation. Yet, as with many military programs, setbacks have made it a little less speedy than desired – the helicopter-mounted cannon that was supposed to allow the USN to quickly blow up mines from the air was too difficult to target, forcing the program to reduce to using little air-dropped torpedoes that swim slowly to the mines before exploding. Nonetheless, the mission package promises to be a drastic improvement over current methods.
Of course, the Iranians are unlikely to just sit there and let the LCSs do their mine-clearing “in peace.” Just as the Ottomans in World War One shot up the Allied minesweepers to prevent them from clearing the Dardanelles mines, so too can Iran be expected to do so against the American ships. And here, the critics of the LCS and its light defensive capability may have the most traction. Certainly, sinking an LCS on its own would not take anywhere near as much effort as attacking something like an Arleigh Burke destroyer with its high level of survivability and plethora of missiles. But this assumes the LCS will be operating on its own, which would be a terribly inappropriate assumption. It is highly unlikely that the Americans will conduct military operations, even if it is “just” mine-clearing, against a country like Iran with one hand tied behind their back. That is, any mine-clearing assets will be deployed only under the watchful umbrella of the rest of the US fleet and its considerable anti-air, anti-ship, and anti-submarine capabilities.
The bottom line is that the LCSs themselves do not need to have a comprehensive defence suite. The modes under which they are to be employed do not see them needing to fend off a concentrated attack by a powerful enemy on their own. It is thus strategically unnecessary for them to be more combat capable than they are. Certainly, an ideal world for the USN would be to have them capable of doing everything under the sun, but economic realities dictate otherwise. Furthermore, the true potential of the LCSs is not in what they can do now, but in what they may be able to do in the future. Their weapons are the empty spaces in which the mission packages are placed, not current missiles and guns that will be made obsolete by the never-ending arms race. As some of the more optimistic observers have noted, the Littoral Combat Ships are the early aircraft carriers of the 21st century: in the 1920s – no one knew how to use carriers effectively or quite what they were capable of either.