(Washington, D.C.) The Navy is continuing to massively fast-track production for its growing fleet of Independence variant Littoral Combat Ships, while also continuing to upgun the ships with cutting-edge, long-range precision weaponry .. perhaps in a deliberate and visible effort to counter, outgun and out-range the large and growing fleet of Russian Corvettes.
The Navy christened its LCS 30, an Independence variant of the ship built by Austal USA, the future USS Canberra, shortly after LCS 28 completed acceptance trials. The acceptance trials for its LCS 28 in the Gulf of Mexico included a series of combat-preparation steps which includes testing the ship’s propulsion, electrical systems, maneuverability and “combat system detect-to-engage sequence,” according to a Navy report.
As it maintains a high-tempo of production for its Independence variants of the LCS, the service continues to upgrade and fire off improved variants of its Naval Strike Missile, an over-the-horizon offensive weapon able to deck-mount and fire from the ship, without needing to rely upon a Vertical Launch System tube.
U.S. Navy & Raytheon Battle Test LCS
As part of these warfare preparations aimed at continuously ensuring the LCS is engineered with the best offensive weapons, the U.S. Navy and Raytheon have been test firing upgraded variants of the NSM, to refine its ability to track and destroy moving targets from long ranges.
“In November of last year, we fired the NSM warhead and we prosecuted moving maritime targets. We recently did very similar tests with the Navy and LCS,” Randy Kempton, Tomahawk Program Director, told Warrior in an interview. “As threats evolve we are looking to ensure that the capabilities we provide to the warfighters keep up with the threat.”
This is quite significant for the LCS which is, by design, intended to reach high-risk areas closer to enemy shores due to its shallow draft. It is able to reach and operate in areas less accessible to deeper draft large warships, so arming it with a long-range over-the-horizon missile, particularly when precision-guided and able to hit moving targets, could give LCS commanders a tactical edge in littoral areas where it might need to destroy inland or ocean targets from safer standoff ranges before the ship itself enters the range of enemy fire.
Naval Strike Missile (NSM)
The NSM maturation is all part of the Navy’s ongoing surge to arm its surface fleet with upgunned mine-hunting, submarine-attacking Littoral Combat Ships armed with guns, drones, mini-sub-hunting undersea drones and missile, something which continues to quitely surge along beneath the radar of a large variety of pressing Navy topics at the moment.
Engineers specifically configured the NSM for offensive attack by building in an programmable fuze with the ability to penetrate prior to detonation for fixed targets, bunkers or of course enemy ship hulls. Much like Raytheon’s Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile Block II, the NSM can operate in sea-skimming mode parallel to the surface of the water to fly beneath enemy radar. It is 156-inches, able to travel as far as 100 nautical miles and relies upon a solid propellant rocket motor booster and JP-10 turbo-jet engine. The NSM was deployed on LCS 10just one year after the initial contract award.
“It climbs and descends with the terrain and performs evasive maneuvers to counter the world’s most capable defense systems. NSM possesses the capability to identify targets down to ship class — a feature that is vitally important to warfighters who must strike only specific, selected targets in congested, contested and denied environments,” a Raytheon essay said.
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Of course the Navy’s ambition to deploy a larger surface fleet is certainly established, so a high-tempo for LCS production is not a surprise persay, yet there is another interesting element to the equation which might easily be overlooked. Russian Corvettes. A larger and well-armed surface fleet of Navy LCS ships, able to drop sonar, launch drones to hunt submarines, shoot deck-mounted guns and even fire Raytheon’s over-the-horizon longer range Naval Strike Missile, can introduce previously unavailable tactical options for Maritime Commanders in high-risk coastal areas.
A quick look at Globalfirepower.com reveals that Russia operates as many as 85 Corvettes, compared with only 21 for the U.S. These kinds of faster, armed, shallow-water attack boats can conduct coastal patrols and reach strategically vital areas for submarine hunting and mine sweeping less accessible to deeper draft ships. They can also transport special ops, conduct reconnaissance missions and even perform certain kinds of land-attack or small-boat hit and run operations. Added to this equation is the fact that Russia is test-firing its new Corvettes in the Pacific, an area filled with islands, extended areas of coastline, ports and shallow water flashpoints.
A report last year published by Russia’s TASS news agency cites a live-fire exercise in the Pacific with its latest Project 20380 Corvette, by firing artillery and launching a Uran cruise missile against targets 40km away. By contrast, Russia operates eighty-five corvettes, and the United States is listed as only having twenty-one.
“The cruise missile successfully struck the surface target at a distance of about 40 kilometers from the warship at the designated time. Up to 10 ships and vessels, and also aircraft of the Pacific Fleet’s naval aviation were involved in the test-fire to provide security in the area and exercise control of the results of accomplishing the combat assignment,” the Russian Pacific Fleet press office said in a statement quoted by TASS.
The Project 20380 third corvette is designed to accomplish green-water missions, fight enemy surface ships and submarines and provide artillery support for amphibious assault operations. In addition, they are armed with multi-purpose artillery guns, surface-to-air missile/artillery systems, supersonic missiles and automatic artillery launchers; they carry a Ka-27 helicopter, displace 2,200 tonnes and have a crew of 99, TASS reported. The new corvette also tested its air defense weapons during Sea Trials in the Sea of Japan as part of the effort to fire off artillery at coastal targets.
Also interestingly, the Russian TASS report makes reference to the stealth properties of the corvette, stating that its construction is incorporating “radio absorption materials and specially designing the ship’s hull and superstructure.” A quick look at the ship’s configuration confirms this as it appears to have a rounded bow and smooth, curved exterior, part of an apparent effort to minimize the return signal generated back to radar systems seeking to locate or target the ship.
However, based upon the attributes for Russian Corvettes specified in the TASS essay, it does not appear that the Project 20380 ship or other Russian Corvettes are armed with an over-the-horizon offensive weapon like the NSM, a circumstance potentially giving the Independence variant of the LCS an overmatch capability against its Russian rivals. The TASS report says the Russian Corvette fired artillery more than 40km away, that is much less than one half of the Navy’s NSM firing range from an LCS deck. Should an LCS, for example, use its helicopter-like Fire Scout drone to launch up and discover Russian Corvettes, ship commanders could destroy the Russian ships with several NSMs before their ship was in range of being hit.
Having a fast-growing fleet of well-armed, high-tech maneuverable LCS ships able to hit over-the-horizon targets with NSM as far as 100 miles away, reach speeds of 40-knots, change course, launch surveillance drones, find enemy submarines attack shore locations in shallow waters does appear to indicate the Navy’s growing interest in countering Russia’s Navy to a larger extent than what have previously been necessary.
The Navy’s NSM-armed LCS is now the Navy’s second-largest surface ship class in production, behind the DDG-51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyer program. Deliveries in recent years seem to affirm this pace, as three LCS ships were delivered in 2019, four in 2020 and the Navy is on track to deliver four this year as well.
Kris Osborn is 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 Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.