The Navy’s plan to decommission eight to 10 Littoral Combat Ships in its 2023 budget request is generating Congressional debate, given that many of the ships are merely a few years old with decades of remaining service life potential and an ability to meet certain key mission needs in specific parts of the globe.
Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro told House Appropriations Committee - Defense that a large number of LCS ships need to be retired because they simply cannot hold up against an increasingly advanced Chinese threat in the Pacific.
Littoral Combat Ship
“The particular problem we are facing on the eight we plan to decommission is the problems with the new ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) modules on these ships. The ship’s were designed to meet a different threat and it will be challenging for these ships to contribute to the high-end fight,” Del Toro said.
While the Secretary did add that the service still plans to deploy 21 LCS ships, some members of Congress expressed skepticism and concern in what they referred to as an abrupt shift in the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan over the course of just a year or two. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Texas, Chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee - Defense, pointed out that even if the LCS were insufficient to perform high-risk combat missions in a war against China, there are still many critical missions around the world for which they would be very well suited.
“Some of the LCS ships are only two years old. Now we look at another 30-year shipbuilding plan. A Navy commission has asked the Navy to modify these ships for combat command missions. We also have a need to have a presence and project power for other mission such as those in Africa,” McCollum said.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday added to Del Toro’s explanation by saying that extensive ASW testing was done on LCS 3, saying the “system would not pan out against high end Chinese and Russian threats. We made tough decisions to decommission ship that would not have value in a high-end fight.”
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Alongside McCollum, other members of HAC-D were equally skeptical about the Navy’s seemingly sudden shift in large scale reductions of the LCS fleet, given that there appear to still be many missions which the LCS may be well suited to perform.
“You are asking to decommission ships with significant service life yet. Just a few years ago, the Navy advocated for LCS funding,” Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, ranking member of the entire House Appropriations Committee.
Gilday sought to fortify his argument by explaining that the funds saved from the LCS program can be directed toward readiness and modernization efforts such as upgrades to key weapons systems such as the LRASM, (Long Range Anti-Ship Missile) and the Maritime Tactical Tomahawk cruise missile which can change course in flight to destroy moving targets at sea.
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The lightly armored LCS, designed for surface warfare, mine countermeasures and anti-submarine missions was envisioned years ago as a largely coastal and littoral platform to destroy swarming small boat attacks, find and destroy mines, deploy sonar and sub-hunting drones and provide land attack. Years ago, during the Navy’s Distributed Lethality program implemented in 2015, the service recognized survivability challenges with the LCS and upgunned the ship with over the horizon missiles and a new class of upgraded weapons and ship-defenses.
However the ship was still deemed not survivable enough for many missions, especially the deep or “blue-water” maritime combat missions on the open ocean. These concerns, expressed by many senior Pentagon and Congressional decision makers, led to the creation of the Frigate program, a platform initially conceived of as a more survivable variant of the LCS. The Frigate has evolved considerably since this time and become an even more substantial, multi-dimensional warship, however its inception points to the long-standing recognition that the LCS does have survivability problems in an evolving threat environment.
However, the point McCollum and others make is that there may indeed still be extremely impactful uses for the ship, particularly in lower-threat areas such as US Southern Command, Africa or coastal areas where countermine, island patrol and securing waterways from piracy and small boat attacks may be critical missions for the Navy. Also, even when thinking about the Pacific, there may be coastal areas of island chains with shallow waters which deeper draft ships simply cannot access, a circumstance which places the LCS in a unique position to perform missions.
Finally, as McCollum mentioned, there seems to be little reason why the LCS would not also perform command and control missions as well and be upgraded or modified for specific high-value functions. Essentially, there may still be a key role for the LCS, even in areas such as the Pacific, so it remains to be seen if there is any possibility that the Navy might get an expanded budget or seek to rethink its plans for the LCS.
Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization and the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.