Tuesday, March 26, 2013

On LCS: What's Really Bothering You, Blackshoes?

The Littoral Combat Ship has engendered a considerable amount of discussion since it was announced as part of the 21st Century Family of Ships in the Fall of 2001.  Since then, the debates have often been heated, with the interlocutors on both sides among the smartest folks writing and thinking about naval issues.  It is hard for anyone—let alone someone with a deep background in fleet design and naval architecture (which I don't) —to grind things down to ground truth. 

Yesterday, I got to thinking that maybe, just maybe, many of us are having a collective case of what some of you may recognize in the day-to-day business of child-rearing.  That is, the great likelihood that when your child is acting out, the cause is often not what the child articulates, and it takes a bit of calm talk and good parenting to eventually get to the “real issue”. 

Please, I am not trying to ascribe parent/child roles here, only to raise a point.  What if the strength and emotion of the objections to LCS are only partially a reflection of the merits of those ships?  What if a good bit of the anxiety is due to something else?  If so, what could that be?  I think I have an idea.

I believe that there is growing anxiety within (primarily) the Surface Navy, that when it comes to ship on ship warfare, we are dramatically “out-sticked”, and the problem will only get worse in the future.  We see the combatants currently being built and note that none have a surface to surface missile (SSM) capable of killing another ship beyond the radar horizon.  Let’s face it, LCS is not the only “outsticked” ship we are building.  It has been 14 years since the United States built a ship capable of engaging enemy surface forces over the horizon—USS PORTER (DDG 78).  All TICONDEROGA Class Cruisers and ARLEIGH BURKE Destroyers 51-78 were equipped to fire the Harpoon Missile.  Not one of the DDG’s built since PORTER was so equipped (and this includes the DDG 1000’s under construction).  I would hazard a guess that there are many readers of this blog who cannot fathom the fact that our modern, sophisticated “Destroyers” cannot destroy another ship.  But this fact is never far from the hearts and minds of those serving in our surface forces.  The fact that our “pacing threat”—China’s PLA-Navy—continues to field ships capable of long range over the horizon engagements—is also not lost on the surface force. 
Graphics by Delex Systems, Inc.  Data from Jane's Missiles and Rockets.  SM2 range is radar-horizon limited.
But it gets worse—not only are we are not building ships equipped with OTH surface to surface missiles, but every CG and DDG that is decommissioned between now and when USS PORTER decommissions (roughly 2034) will take with it the capability to employ the Harpoon, meaning an ever-increasing percentage of our fleet will lack OTH SSM capability. The Navy is studying this issue, and a new ASUW weapon is working its way through myriad acquisition hoops, with one authoritative briefing from N96 projecting IOC in 2024.  Should this new weapon meet this IOC date, it would likely at best represent holding the line on the diminishing fleet ASUW capability.  We need to move faster to arrest and reverse this decline, and we need to stop thinking the Carrier Air-Wing is going to be there to save our bacon when it comes time for a fight.

First, in the spirit of the much ballyhooed “Copeman” memo that Chris Cavas wrote aboutlast week, LCS must be improved if it is to be built in the numbers suggested.  No fewer than half of all LCS built should be altered to fire the Harpoon missile; if this means some trade-off with respect to other capabilities, so be it.  The rest of the world is lousy with crappy little boats with significant SSM capabilities, while LCS waits on future iterations of the LCS SUW Mission Module.  This is unacceptable. 

Second, the Navy should immediately begin a program to enable vertical launch of the Harpoon Missile, with a goal of not more than one year from program announcement to test firing.  In order to guarantee the most “bang for the buck”, the newest DDG’s in the fleet should be altered first, working backward to DDG 79. 

This is not a manhood issue, this is a fleet design issue.  Solve the “out-sticked” problem for the fleet, and LCS will not stick out like the sore thumb some see it as.  

Bryan McGrath

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