On March 1st, the U.S. Navy’s USS Freedom warship began its deployment towards Asia. This is one of the new Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), a new generation of multi-role warships conceived for special operations, anti-piracy and other missions that fit well with the postmodern wars framework. But what came as an idea that I initially found most interesting, became a great little disaster that reveals the state of affairs in the American military-industrial complex, and the Pentagon’s discomfort with anything other than large conventional wars.
The idea of developing the Littoral Combat Ship came from Gordon R. England, then Secretary of the Navy, who set the goal of creating “a family of small boats, fast, maneuverable and relatively inexpensive”. During the last twenty years, the U.S. Navy has been withdrawing its lighter warships, Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates (4,200 tons), to stay only with Ticonderoga-class cruisers (9,800 tonnes) and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers (8,315 tons initially). In fact, the U.S. Navy has been introducing successive variants of increasingly heavy Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. The latest, called Flight III, has a displacement of 10,000 tons. And the next generation of destroyers of the U.S. Navy, the Zumwalt-class, displaces over 14,000 tons, and it’s so expensive that only three will be built. So as the U.S. Navy was requiring ever larger vessels, it found itself without a relevant role in post-9/11 conflicts because there were no Soviet fleets to fight against in the Atlantic Ocean.
The Littoral Combat Ship project was an attempt to adapt to a new era of insurgencies, terrorism, piracy and drug trafficking in an increasingly complex world where the timely infiltration of small special operations units in hostile shores was paramount. Building a “small” boat for this sort of operations didn’t seem difficult. Unlike the U.S. Navy, most navies combine large marine units with smaller ships like offshore patrol vessels, or fast attack crafts. For example, France has an aircraft carrier and nuclear submarines, but also has lighter and cheaper, yet well armed boats to patrol its overseas territories. But it’s as if the United States could only “think big”.
The LCS were born large, with more than 2,000 tons of displacement. They were required to be extremely fast. And therefore the estimated cost started to skyrocket. They were given a very poor weaponry: A not very powerful cannon and a short-range anti-aircraft missile launcher. The idea was to have a modular design. “Packages” of equipment and weaponry would be added according to each mission. Also, the LCS would be highly connected to the rest of the fleet with data links, so that one could take advantage of the sensors of other ships and aircraft. But achieving seamless integration of all such additional systems was complicated. Costs continued to soar. The program of the NLOS-LS missile with which the LCS would be provided was canceled in 2011, leaving as an alternative a light short-range missile. For such an expensive and large boat, the LCS lacked ‘punch’. It became a joke. The New Wars blog asked its readers to nominate alternative meanings for the acronym LCS. They suggested things like “Little Crappy Ship” or “Lack of Common Sense”. It was as if too many people had influenced the design, requiring the ship to do too many different things, resulting in a mediocre boat in all its facets. On top of this, shipyards competing with two different prototypes were not without problems with the actual construction of the boat, and the prototypes had many failures when tested at sea. In the end, the U.S. government took a Solomonic decision. Instead of picking a winner, it decided to buy a few of each design. So the U.S. Navy might even not be able to take advantage of economies of scale with a long production run.
I’m sure that someone somewhere in the Pentagon must have said “I told you so”. And surely all the problems of the LCS program will be used as an argument that small boats prepared for unconventional wars have no place in the U.S. Navy. I almost dare to speculate whether the LCS program encountered very powerful internal enemies. At the end of the day, Navy Secretary England, father of the project, left office before it got started.
The USS Freedom became functional in 2008 and has finally begun its first deployment away from home. It will be sent to Singapore for several months as a test for a subsequent deployment of four LCS to that port. Singapore is at the mouth of the Straits of Malacca, one of the world’s toughest piracy regions. Recently, there was a military confrontation between Malaysian soldiers and Filipino rebels there. Perhaps the choice of port is a clue that those within the U.S. Navy who think about unconventional wars still have the last word against those who “think big” and dream of a war against China.