Navy Rushes To Get Littoral Combat Ships Anti-Ship Missiles They Desperately Need (Updated)

The service is accelerating plans to give the ships more firepower, but serious questions remain about the ships' capabilities.

Raytheon

The U.S. Navy is hoping to have the first of its Littoral Combat Ships armed with its new Naval Strike Missile months ahead of schedule. This would mean USS Detroit would have the added firepower available during her upcoming deployment in 2019. Still, there are other challenges to getting these ships ready for actual missions and there are still questions about their ability to operate in even a mid-level threat environment, with or without the added missiles.

A Raytheon executive provided the update on the Navy’s acquisition of the Naval Strike Missile (NSM) in an interview with Defense News on the sidelines of the Euronaval exposition in Paris, France, which began on Oct. 23, 2018. The Massachusetts headquartered defense contractor, in cooperation with Norwegian firm Kongsberg, won the service’s competition to provide an Over-The-Horizon Weapon System (OHWS) for both the Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) and its future frigates in May 2018.

“In that initial over-the-horizon award for LCS, the installation timeline was on a two-year delivery cycle,” Octavio Babuca, in charge of business development for the NSM, told Defense News. “But we are now working with the Navy to support an accelerated timeline to the deploying to littoral combat ships. That is mid-to-late 2019 time window.”

The Freedom-class LCS Detroit is slated to be the first ship to receive the new missiles. At present, the plan is to install two four-round deck-mounted launchers on the ship’s bow in front of the main superstructure. A similar arrangement will be available for the Independence-class types. Earlier proposals for both classes had included the possibility of adding two retractable six-round launchers on the top of the ship’s superstructure.

Raytheon

Raytheon concept art showing the planned bow-mounted launchers for the NSM on both Independence-class LCSs, at left, and Freedom-class variants, at right.

The NSMs will be a welcome addition to the LCSs, which remain woefully under-armed. The main onboard weapons on both classes at present are a 57mm rapid-fire gun and a launcher able to fire RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM). The ships can accommodate armed MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopters and unarmed MQ-8B drones to provide additional firepower and situational awareness.

Since July 2018, Detroit has also served as the testbed for the Surface-to-Surface Missile Module (SSMM), a part of the planned add-on Surface Warfare (SUW) mission package, which gives the ship the ability to fire AGM-114L Longbow Hellfire missiles. This system, however, is again primarily for close-in defense against swarms of small boats or similar threats. All told, both Freedom- and Independence-class ships in their present configuration lack the ability to operate in anything but lower threat environments.

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The Freedom-class LCS USS Detroit.

The NSMs would give the ships a real, over-the-horizon strike capability that they desperately need. The missiles, which you can read about in more detail here, also have a limited secondary land-attack capability. This will allow LCSs to engage both hostile ships and targets ashore without having to carry two separate types of weapons.

It’s a capability that’s been a long time coming, as well. In 2014, the Navy actually test fired NSMs for the flight deck on the stern of the Independence-class USS Coronado. That same ship served as a testbed for a proposed RGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missile installation two years later.

Unfortunately, the Navy still faces hurdles in getting truly useful combat capability out of the ships. Maintenance issues, manning and readiness problems, and the decision to relegate the first four examples to training and research and development roles exclusively, combined to force the service to give up any hope of deploying any of the dozen LCSs its has on an operational mission in 2018.

There had been plans to send two Independence-class ships to Singapore and one Freedom-class LCS to Bahrain. The latter deployment would have seen the LCS’s debut in the Middle East, where littoral threats abound. The stated logic of the program from the very beginning was to offer the ability forward deploy the vessels for regional missions to help reduce the strain on larger surface combatants and help free them up for other, higher priority operations.

“We are on track with the 2016 [chief of naval operations] review of the LCS … and I think we will see the first deployments next year and then happening continuously after that,” U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Richard Brown, in charge of Naval Surface Force Pacific, told Defense News in August 2018. “I will have the ships through their maintenance, and the blue crews and gold crews through their basic phase to support deployments next year. So, that’s really exciting – something we’ve been driving towards for a long time.”

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The Independence-class USS Coronado after recieving launchers for the RGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missile as a part of a test.

Any difficulties in accelerating the schedule of adding the NSMs onto Detroit, which originally wasn’t supposed to occur until sometime in 2020, could prompt the Navy to either scrub her deployment or send her out with the same limited arsenal as before. There’s also no clear timeline for when any of the other 10 LCSs will receive the missiles, which means other Freedom or Independence class ships could be headed out on sorties in their existing configurations with limited combat capabilities.

Even with the added weaponry, it’s not clear how useful the LCS would be in an even mid-level threat environment and whether they could conduct operations under those conditions independent of a larger surface task force. The LCSs lack any sort of robust organic area air defense capability and have limited close-in defenses, relying primarily on the lone RAM launcher to provide a defense against air- and surface-launched anti-ship missiles. Freedom-class and Independence-class ships both also have electronic support measures systems and launchers for anti-missile decoys to help spot potential threats and defeat them, as well.

The video below shows the Danish firm Term's C-Guard decoy system, which is found on Freedom-class LCS variants.

“Survivability testing and preliminary analyses on both LCS variants continue to demonstrate that neither LCS variant is survivable in high intensity combat,” the Pentagon’s Office of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation noted in its review of the program’s activities in 2017. “As designed, the LCS lacks redundancy and the vertical and longitudinal separation of vital equipment found in other combatants. These features are required to reduce the likelihood that a single hit will result in loss of propulsion, combat capability, and the ability to control damage and restore system operation.”

All of this has left the Navy itself often doubting what jobs the LCSs are actually suited for after all this time. In April 2018, the Pentagon said it was looking into the possibility of using the ships to support counter-narcotics operations in Latin American, a low-risk mission set that does not require stand-off weapons such as the NSMs.

There have also been persistent problems with the plans for modular mission modules, such as the aforementioned SSMM, which were supposed to allow the ships to rapidly transition from one mission set to another, as necessary. Now, the Navy has decided to effectively permanently install certain modules on individual ships, eliminating this flexibility.

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An official infographic that shows, at left, the added capabilities that are supposed to come along with the long-awaited surface warfare, mine countermeasures, and anti-submarine warfare mission modules.

The Navy’s requirements for the forthcoming FFG(X) frigates include the ability to fire NSMs, as well as a surface-to-air missile capability, added sensors, and more, which you can read about in depth here. The survivability and shipbuilding standards are also higher for these future ships, which will further improve their combat capability over the LCS. 

Especially notable, Lockheed Martin, which builds the Freedom-class LCS, is pitching a derivative of that ship for the FFG(X) program. However, at Euronaval, the American defense contractor revealed plans to entirely revise the propulsion system to give the ship added speed and power generation capacity, as well as add in redundancy to address survivability issues such as those the Pentagon has raised with regards to both LCS variants.

These demands are specifically to address the perpetual shortcomings of the LCS design, which the service still plans to buy more than 30 of in the coming years. Congress has actually increased the total planned purchases to 35, despite the ever increasingly clear limitations of both LCS designs.

Stuck with the LCSs it already has, and with dozens more on the way, it’s not wrong for the Navy to want to give the ships added firepower to improve their potential utility in actual combat. Unfortunately, even with the addition of the NSMs, it’s still unclear how close the ships are to meeting any of the service’s often wildly ambitious expectations for the ships even a decade after USS Freedom's commissioning.

Update: 10/26/2018—

After we published this piece, Lockheed Martin, who manufactures the Freedom-class LCS variant, reached out to us with the following statement:

Regarding the mission set required for the LCS, it is designed for three core missions – mine countermeasures, surface warfare and anti-submarine warfare (replacing three ships – MCM, PC, FFG-7), and the features and capabilities are in place today for these mission sets.  Starting with LCS 5 (LCS Block Buy Ships), Lockheed Martin updated the ship design incorporating structural improvements for survivability and extended service life. We are also continuing to evolve and add new capabilities. For example, we are updating the COMBATSS-21 combat management system derived from Aegis Baseline 9 for currently fielded ships and future ones. In addition, LCS 17 testing this year includes enhanced solid state 3D radar and SeaRAM, which will increase lethality against evolving threats.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com