Littoral Warfare : Part 2 : US Navy’s Expensive Toys

ORIGINS

The US Navy realized the need to have a fleet of fast and agile vessels capable of operating in confined waters against enemy fast attack boats and diesel submarines after their long deployments in the Persian Gulf. Their fleet of large destroyers had their limitations and they had to ferry their coast guard vessels, patrol boats and minesweepers to the Persian Gulf in order to provide close protection from small enemy craft. However the bombing of the destroyer, USS Cole by a small boat filled with explosives, accelerated the development of the Littoral Combat Ship. The logic was, a slow destroyer needed time to power up and couldn’t maneuver in confined waters, whereas a fast LCS could start up and reach top speed very quickly and put itself out of danger.

OBJECTIVE

Perry class frigate

Avenger class minesweeper

File:USS-Freedom-130222-N-DR144-174-crop.jpg
Littoral Combat Ship

The LCS program aimed to develop a multi role ship which could operate in littoral waters, engage enemy submarines, clear mines, destroy fast attack boats, deploy unmanned vehicles and perform a variety of other missions by fitting them with mission modules according to situational requirements. It would also have a pumpjet propulsion which gives them a very high speed in excess of 40 knots. The program turned out to be insanely expensive and was on the verge of collapse several times due to high costs. But the US policy of pouring money into a project till it comes back on track was used and the LCS entered production. The US Navy will replace its remaining fleet of Perry class frigates and Avenger class minesweepers with this ship. Although this program has faced immense criticism, it is something which is suited only for the US Navy as they have the world’s largest fleet of destroyers and cruisers and they need a lower end and lightly armed ship to complement them.

WEAPONS AND SENSORS

There are two classes of LCS which have been ordered by the US Navy. The Independence class and the Freedom class. Both these ships have excellent designs and the Independence class is unique with its highly stable trimaran design and is the first operational warship of this kind. Both these classes of ships have been built with one main task in mind, the destruction of enemy speedboats and fast attack craft in a hostile littoral environment. These ships use a lot of ultra-high technology and are among the most advanced warships in the world. The unique mission modules are of 3 types and typically use these weapons.

  • Anti-surface : 2 x 30 mm Bushmaster cannons, Vertically launched Griffin/Hellfire missiles to engage small boats
  • Anti-Submarine : 2 triple 324 mm torpedo tubes for lightweight torpedoes, Unmanned underwater vehicles, Towed array sonar
  • Mine hunting : Remote mine detection vehicles, Mine detection Sonar

Weapons and sensors on Independence class

Mission module space on Freedom class © Seaforces.org
Surface Warfare package on Freedom class

Along with these modules, a 57 mm Bofors gun and a multirole helicopter are fixed for every mission. The sensors on these ships are also advanced and suited for littoral warfare. They have a sonar, a 3D multifunction radar and other advanced sensors. A very high degree of automation in the ships allows them to have a very small crew of around 50 whereas similar ships operated by other countries have a crew of 100-150. The extremely small crew may prove to be a handicap during damage control operations which require manpower. This has been felt by the Navy when several breakdowns had the small crew working overtime to repair it. Also the aluminum superstructure of the ship can be dangerous as aluminum burns fast and releases toxic fumes when it melts.

SHIPS

Independence class showing large helicopter deck

The beautiful trimaran design of the Independence class is what makes it stand out from all the warships in the world. This design allows enormous space inside the ship, high stability and speed and has a dual hangar with a huge helicopter deck which enables it to operate every helicopter in the US inventory. This would be immensely useful during special operations, humanitarian relief and amphibious landings. It has a large mission bay which can house cargo or mission modules depending on the requirement. It has a self-contained SeaRam missile system which has a load of 11 Short range Surface to air missiles for self-defense. This class also possesses a huge mission bay which can house a variety of boats, equipment, vehicles, weapons etc.  This design is suitable for blue water operations too and it will be deployed in the Pacific.

The Freedom class LCS uses a conventional monohull design along with a similar propulsion and sensor suite as the Independence class. It has slightly better air defense due to the presence of a 21 cell RAM Surface to Air missile launcher. It has the capability to house and operate a single helicopter from its helicopter deck. The mission module capabilities are similar to the Independence class. The USS Freedom suffered from a string of problems and breakdowns which attracted more criticism towards the program. However the Navy claims that the problems have been rectified with the upcoming ships in the class. Only an active deployment in a hostile zone filled with enemy fast attack craft and diesel submarines will show how capable these ships actually are and if they are worth the huge price tag.

CONCLUSION

The designs of both the classes are excellent and theoretically meet all the objectives of the US Navy. But the LCS has proved to be very limited in its functionality even though it has been built to perform a variety of functions. Many of the weapons which are supposed to form a major part of the mission packages haven’t been developed yet and they are using temporary stop gap solutions. 32 ultra-expensive ships, built to kill speedboats using ultra expensive short range missiles sounds like overkill. No other nation has a similar policy and prefer using medium caliber guns with guided shells instead, which is several times cheaper than and as effective as the American program. This is one of the main reason why the LCS program has come under immense criticism. The US Navy has also realized that these ships have no warfighting capabilities and are on the hunt for a new class of better armed frigates. The high tech sensors and weapons on the LCS don’t allow it to engage targets more than 10-20 km away from it. The absence of long range systems combined with its limited ASW and Air defense capabilities and insane costs, make the LCS a very expensive toy indeed. But this is a toy which is suited only for the US Navy and only they can afford to play with it.

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