ARLINGTON, Va. — Surface navy leaders are turning to fleet commanders for ideas about how they want to use littoral combat ships, as the U.S. Navy tries to refine its operational concepts for these ships.
Development on the LCS mission packages began in the early 2000s and centered around three warfare areas: surface warfare, mine countermeasures and anti-submarine warfare.
So far, only the surface warfare mission package has been fully fielded and used in overseas deployments. Half of the MCM package — the three components operated from helicopters, as opposed to the other three deployed from in-water unmanned vehicles — has been used by LCSs in the Indo-Pacific, with the remaining systems still pending final testing and approval for deployment later this fiscal year.
The ASW package, which appeared almost ready for primetime in 2016 and again in 2019, is still not ready after testing last year turned up new technology issues.
Now, as the surface navy tries to make the case for these LCS ships, even as budget pressure mounts, services leaders are considering how fleet commanders could use LCSs in emerging operating concepts.
“We weren’t sure LCS was executing the missions it was designed for. And so we ... went out to the number fleet commanders and said, ‘Alright, what do you want it to do? And what missions do you want it to execute based on the environment we’re in now?’” Commander of Naval Surface Forces Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener told reporters in a Jan. 7 media roundtable.
Based on fleet commander feedback, Naval Surface Forces identified surface warfare and MCM as continuing priorities, but also found that counter-trafficking and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions were of great importance. For these missions, LCS could launch manned or unmanned vehicles into the air or water using its large mission bay and flight deck.
Kitchener said the service has changed the way it prepares and certifies ships ahead of deployments to match these desired mission sets.
He said the LCS is also a “very potent hull” to use alongside Marines operating in small units under their new expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO) concept.
Kitchener said he envisions a scenario where Marines might be moving about the First Island Chain in the Pacific in their future light amphibious warships (LAW), a platform still in the concept design phase, using their organic sensors and Naval Strike Missiles to take out enemy targets and then hurrying to a new location before they can be found.
The LCS, with its own Naval Strike Missile launchers onboard, could be nearby, launching its own strikes or hosting unmanned systems that could collect targeting data for the Marines ashore.
Citing last month’s Steel Knight exercise, conducted by the 1st Marine Division and Expeditionary Strike Group 3 in California, Kitchener said the exercise included some experimentation “where we’re passing data from Marines to ships, ships to Marines — that focus on controlling [sea lines of communication]” and looking for ways to use LCS and its payloads.
“LAW is going to help the Marines move their gear around. LCS is going to give them a little bit of a punch working alongside them,” he said.
Still, Kitchener noted the importance of the original mission packages, particularly the MCM package, which will be the fleet’s primary MCM tool as the legacy Avenger-class MCM ships retire.
Meanwhile, fiscal 2022 will be a key year for that MCM mission package, LCS Mission Modules Program Manager Capt. Gus Weekes said Jan. 11 at a presentation at the Surface Navy Association annual conference.
Of the three in-water systems that have not been fielded yet, one — the Knifefish mine-hunting unmanned underwater vehicle — has already reached initial operational capability (IOC) for its Block 0 capability and is already in development for a Block 1 upgrade.
The remaining two use the same platform — the MCM Unmanned Surface Vehicle — to carry two different payloads: the Unmanned Influence Sweep System (UISS) towed minesweep, and the AN/AQS-20C towed minehunting sonar.
Weekes said in his presentation UISS has already completed its initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E) and is near a formal IOC declaration. The remote minehunting system will start developmental and operational test in February.
In addition to these in-water systems, the mission package also includes the Airborne Laser Mine Detection System and the Airborne Mine Neutralization System that deploy via the MH-60 helicopter and the Coastal Battlefield Reconnaissance and Analysis system that deploys from the MQ-8 Fire Scout drone.
By the second half of this year, he said, the entire mission package — all six systems working together from an LCS to clear a minefield — will go through IOT&E and reach initial operating capability. By FY24, he added, the service must have four complete mission packages delivered to ships, with sailors trained up and ready to go on deployment.
The timeline for testing and fielding the anti-submarine warfare package, though, remains less certain. In 2016, the program office was confident enough in its ASW mission package it planned an early deployment to get the fleet familiar with the new capability, but Congress stepped in and barred the early operations. In 2019, the program office had accepted the final test kits and believed it was ready for developmental testing and an IOC declaration by FY20.
But Weekes said the mission package still faces technological challenges.
In September, the program office and Dual-mode Array Transmitter (DART) builder Raytheon Technologies paused testing after several attempts to address hydrodynamic stability challenges failed. Weekes said they were looking for a passive control solution to the problem, but finally realized they’d need to develop an active control system for the DART, which includes a tow body that tails behind the ship on a long cable.
The captain said the DART system is now being studied at a cavitation channel at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division in Maryland, and that testing to understand the forces on the tow body should be completed by the end of this month. The Navy and Raytheon will then take that information and develop an active control solution, which should be ready to resume developmental testing on DART by May.
Once a solution is approved, Weekes said it could be quickly rolled into the production line at no extra cost to the Navy. He noted that, once this issue is behind it, the program office can resume its focus on ensuring the DART can properly find and characterize its undersea targets.
Though the surface warfare mission package was the first fielded, Weekes said the Navy continues to evolve the capability. In addition to the 30mm guns and the small boat included in the mission package, the Surface-to-Surface Missile Module — or the Longbow Hellfire missile meant to go after incoming small boats — is in production and will be ready for deployment around June, according to Weekes.
During last fall’s Jaded Thunder exercise, the Navy tested the SSMM against a stationary land target to see if the LCS with the surface warfare mission package could support operations ashore as a new potential mission. Weekes said an additional effort, the Coalition Warfare Program with South Korea, is exploring additional anti-small boat capabilities that could be added to the LCS arsenal.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.