WASHINGTON — The military is poised to decide whether it will use the littoral combat ship to stop illegal drug shipments from South and Central America to the United States.

The move, amid pressure from lawmakers and the military command covering the Southern Hemisphere, would signal a new intensity in combating the importing of illegal drugs amid a tidal wave of opioid deaths in the U.S. It would also mean a program that has seen near-constant churn as the Navy has struggled to integrate the ship into the fleet may see more changes ― if it does have to gear up for a new mission.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joe Dunford told lawmakers at an April 12 hearing that the Pentagon was reviewing what role the littoral combat ship could play in supporting counter-narcotics operations in U.S. Southern Command, something SOUTHCOM boss Adm. Kurt Tidd has asked for.

The Pentagon is still evaluating the right mix of Coast Guard cutters and littoral combat ships for Latin America and the Caribbean. Mattis said at the time he was awaiting Dunford’s feedback.

“Is it primarily law enforcement? Do they need to have people with badges, which would mean Coast Guard cutters were going to have to shift and go to the Department of Homeland Security? Or is it LCSs, because of the nature of an evolving threat?” Mattis said. “We don’t have the answer yet, sir, but we’re working it. We’ll have its sorted out very soon.”

The Navy has been piecing together a strategy to get at least four ships back down to SOUTHCOM to perform counter-drug ops. In a December memo from Navy Secretary Richard Spencer to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson, Spencer argued that since the Navy ceased providing ships to combat drug smugglers in 2015, the amount of drugs moved by sea has doubled, according to Defense News sister publication Navy Times.

The plan called for the LCS to be used in the operation, but the Navy has struggled during a reorganization of the program and will not deploy any of the ship in 2018, according to recent testimony prompted by a report in USNI News.

DoD might employ a new flexible deployment model to fill gaps at U.S. Southern Command, Dunford said. He emphasized, however, that the fleet and its personnel are heavily stretched.

“I don’t think either the secretary or I would disagree with the desire to increase our presence down in the United States Southern Command,” Dunford said, adding: “So we really do have a requirements-resources mismatch here.”

Sooner the better

Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., whose district includes the Austal USA facility in Mobile that builds the Independence LCS variant, supports efforts to send the LCS to SOUTHCOM and said it was necessary to combat a growing cocaine trade. Byrne recently completed a trip to Latin America, where he toured Colombia’s coca eradication efforts.

“The number of hectares that actually have coca in Colombia are way up, which means we have more cocaine coming out of Colombia — and it is causing a lot of problems in Central American countries the cocaine goes through and the Caribbean,” Byrne said. “Trying to interdict this cocaine as it comes out of Colombia and other places is a major concern for all of us.”

The international counter-drug task force in which SOUTHCOM participates disrupted 283 metric tons of cocaine, according to the command. Still, the amount of land used to cultivate cocaine has nearly doubled in Colombia, America’s largest supplier of the drug, according to the U.S. State Department’s latest report on the narcotics trade.

Byrne — a proponent of a 355-ship fleet — acknowledged competing demands on the Navy, particularly in the Middle East, Pacific and Black Sea areas. He argued that not only would smaller, less expensive ships be a fit for the mission, but the need in the western Pacific and Black Sea is better filled now by more heavily armored ships, with over-the-horizon missiles, like the Navy’s FFG(X) currently in development.

Tidd, of SOUTHCOM, told lawmakers earlier this year that the command’s resources permit it to intercept only a quarter of known narcotics shipments to the U.S., but repeated his view it could do more with littoral combat ships, packaged with rotary-wing aircraft and interceptor boats, and coupled with maritime patrol aircraft.

“My view is that the sooner we can deploy these ships in theater, the greater the impact we can have on interdicting the flow of illicit drugs into our country,” Tidd said then.

Tidd expressed support for Coast Guard efforts to recapitalize its medium endurance cutters, which support drug interdiction efforts, and said he was working closely with the Navy to field the LCS in his region. The LCS, he said, could support detection and monitoring operations and partner with local maritime forces.

“Adm. Tidd has no U.S. naval vessels under his command, zero,” Byrne said. “He has some Coast Guard ships. Unfortunately, there’s not nearly enough of them to come close to doing the job.”

To do what?

A critical question that needs to be clarified, however, is what capabilities the Navy could bring to a law-enforcement role in SOUTHCOM.

The Navy cannot, by law, fight crime directly but can play a supporting role by either hosting a Coast Guard detachment on board a ship or using their sophisticated communications and sensor suites aid in the effort.

Capt. Rick Hoffman, a retired Navy captain who as the commanding officer of the frigate De Wert deployed for counter-narcotics operations in SOUTHCOM’s area of operations, said sending Navy ships down there can help aid foreign militaries and build relationships, but that the Coast Guard was better-suited for the mission.

“What you need are smaller, agile ships that can operate near the point of origin and interdict these things as they are leaving,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman said that in the 1990s, the Navy was using its air search capabilities to track illegal drug flights and relay intelligence to assets in Latin American countries, as well as interdicting larger shipments with the Coast Guard detachments. Ultimately, if the Congress was serious about combating drugs in SOUTHCOM, he said, it should adequately fund the Coast Guard.

“What they oughta do is take a few billion from the Defense Department’s budget and give it to the Coast Guard,” Hoffman said.

“Operating Navy ships is expensive, and, at that cost, it may not be practical to send gray hulls,” he said, adding that the Coast Guard can do the job cheaper and better.

In the meantime, the Navy is sorting out a major reorganization of the LCS program that began in 2016 after CNO ordered a complete review in the wake of a series of engineering mishaps.

LCS is shifting a crewing model that had three crews rotate between two ships to two crews for each hull, similar to the gold and blue crews that man Ohio-class submarines.

Additionally, the reorg upended the signature modularity of the program, where sensors and weapons were to be quickly swapped out to support emerging missions. Instead, the program is shifting to a “one ship, one mission” model, where each ship is semi-permanently assigned a mission like anti-surface warfare, mine warfare or anti-submarine warfare.

That also means that the module crew will be permanently assigned to each ship, a step designed to improve cohesion and increase the number of sailors permanently assigned to the hull.

CNO Richardson told lawmakers on April 19 the ship had been deployed too early, before the Navy had fully worked through the details of a class of ship in service since 2008. There are 24 LCS deployments planned between 2019 and 2024.

“Starting in 2019, we’re going to start forward deploying those. They’ll be sustainable. They’ll be more lethal by virtue of the enhancements we’re putting on those littoral combat ships,” Richardson said.