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Defense Secretary Ash Carter has directed the Navy to reduce its planned fleet of Littoral Combat Ships from 52 down to 40 in a memo to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, Pentagon officials confirmed.

First reported by Chris Cavas of Defense News, the reduction also includes a directive from Carter to decrease the number of LCS ships built per year from three down to one.

Carter also said the Navy needs to change its current fleet of two separate LCS variants down to one, in order to consolidate or streamline purchases and improve fleet consistency.

The LCS is a shallow-water, multi-mission ship and performs a range of missions from surface warfare to mine countermeasures and anti-submarine missions. The large number of planned LCS ships was a contributing element to the Navy’s plans to reach a fleet of 306 ships in coming years. Today’s Navy operates 272 ships. Six LCS ships are already in service and as many as 14 are under construction.

This memo, however, could very well complicate the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan and require the service to re-examine its fleet size.

Navy officials acknowledged the memo to Scout Warrior but declined to comment on its ramifications.

"Shipbuilding has always been a priority for the Navy, and we will continue to balance capability with capacity in our shipbuilding programs as we have always done. We are aware of the memo, however budget discussions are pre-decisional. It would be inappropriate to discuss anything further until the FY 17 budget is finalized,” Navy spokeswoman Lt. Kara Yingling told Scout Warrior in a statement.

The size of the current Navy fleet has been the subject of considerable discussion and debate. Some proponents of a larger fleet, many Republicans in Congress in particular, point out that the Navy operated nearly 600 ships in the Reagan era and should be funded to maintain a much larger fleet than is currently the case – given the operational demands placed upon today’s Navy and the fast-changing global threat environment.

Proponents of a smaller fleet emphasize that today’s Navy ships are far more technologically advanced than they were decades ago and that fleet size should be determined by capability and not quantity.

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The current fleet includes both flat-bottomed Freedom variant ships and Independence variant ships with a trimaran hull. The Freedom variant ships are made by Lockheed Martin, and the Independence variant ships are made by Austal USA.

The money saved from the decrease in LCS acquisitions will support funding for more F-18s, F-35s, SM-6 missiles and a technology called Virginia Payload Modules, which arm Virginia-class submarines with more Tomahawk missiles, according to the memo cited by Defense News.

Many LCS are already in service, and the platform is cherished by the Navy for its 40-knot speed, maneuverability and technological versatility. The ship’s shallow draft allows it to reach shallow-water ports in areas where larger ships cannot operate, and its “mission packages” include different groups of technologies which can be swapped on and off the LCS.

Depending on its mission package, which include surface warfare, mine countermeasures or anti-submarine warfare, the LCS can be configured with MH-60R helicopters with Hellfire missiles, variable-depth sonar, helicopter-like vertical take-off drones such as the Fire Scout and small boat mission capabilities such as 11-meter Rigid Inflatable Boats, or RIBs. The ship is also equipped with a 57mm gun, .50-cal Machine Guns and a defensive interceptor missile called SeaRAM.

The anti-submarine mission package includes an MH-60 Sea Hawk helicopter, light weight towed torpedo decoy system, Multi-Function Towed Array and several kinds of submarine-hunting sonar. The LCS utilizes waterjet propulsion and a combined diesel and gas turbine engine.

Also, at the direction of former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the Navy has embarked upon a mission to engineer a new, more lethal and survivable LCS variant called a Frigate.  While the specifics of this new ship are still being determined, Navy officials have said that it will be designed with more fire-power, armor and protective technologies than existing LCS ships.

Some of the particulars of the new ship will include an over-the-horizon offensive missile as well as a survivability-enhancing technique called “space armor,” which better allows the ship to function if it is hit by enemy firepower.  The strengthened LCS variant is a component of the Navy’s “distributed lethality” strategy, which aims to better arm the fleet with offensive firepower and position the force to be able to defeat technologically-advanced near-peer adversaries. This includes an emphasis upon open or “blue” water combat and a shift from some of the key mission areas engaged in during the last decade of ground wars such as Visit Board Search and Seizure, counter-piracy and counter-terrorism.

Navy officials emphasize that these missions will remain important but that the existing and future fleet will be engineered with increased offensive and defensive weapons capability to strengthen its overall capability in a modern threat environment.

The Navy plan is to have the last 20 LCS ships converted into this new Frigate variant, however the implications of this Carter memo may not yet be fully known. The reduction in LCS fleet overall is likely to impact the number of planned Frigates as well.