WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy is considering alternatives to deploying littoral combat ships to the Middle East for a mandatory mine countermeasures mission, hoping to instead maintain LCS deployments to the Western Pacific.
The Navy is required by law to replace the four aging Avenger-class mine countermeasures ships stationed at the U.S. 5th Fleet headquarters in Bahrain. The plan, according to Commander of Naval Surface Forces Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener, is to deploy Independence-class LCSs from San Diego with the mine countermeasures mission package.
That, however, would tie up a number of LCSs at a time when fleet commanders are seeing success using the LCSs for surface warfare missions throughout the Pacific.
The Navy has a dozen Independence-variant LCSs in San Diego. The Navy has endeavored to keep three of these LCSs forward in the Western Pacific at any given time, Kitchener told reporters in a call ahead of this week’s Surface Navy Association annual conference.
Now his team is weighing other options for the MCM mission in 5th Fleet.
“One is to forward-deploy ships out there,” he said, which requires fewer hulls than a traditional rotational deployment to and from the West Coast. “We’re looking at what would it take to actually leave those ships out there, kind of like we have the Avengers out there now.”
Kitchener said the Navy’s explosive ordnance disposal community deploys expeditionary MCM companies, which can now employ a “very robust” capability from the shore or from vessels of opportunity.
“We’re trying to leverage that as much as we can and see how that fits into the mix,” he said. “There’s several different things going on, but right now I think the plan of record as it stands would be an Independence-variant MCM capability out there — but ... we are working on several other options to see how we can fill that, and I personally think the answer is going to be something that is forward-deployed to Bahrain.”
Successful WESTPAC deployments
The Navy’s reluctance to lose Independence LCSs to the Middle East is based on the ships’ recent successes in the Western Pacific.
Kitchener and other leaders have repeatedly said the ships are proving their worth there. Though homeported in San Diego, the ships deploy for 18 months or more at a time, operating out of Singapore and swapping crews periodically during the deployment.
LCS Jackson, for example, deployed in July 2021 and returned home in October 2022 after conducting counter-trafficking and counter-illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing missions, among others, throughout the South China Sea and Oceania. The ship visited ports inaccessible to larger U.S. Navy ships and was the first to deploy with the MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned aerial vehicle.
Kitchener said the Navy will continue to experiment with new capabilities for the ships’ surface warfare mission package.
Using San Diego-based LCSs to conduct the mine countermeasures mission in Bahrain would consume the greatest number of LCS hulls. It typically takes three ships to keep one forward continuously — while one is operating, another is training and a third is in maintenance. Trying to keep one LCS constantly operating out of Bahrain, then, would take up a quarter of the current LCS fleet in San Diego; trying to replace the four Avenger-class MCMs with multiple LCSs would challenge the ability to also keep three deployed to the Western Pacific.
Kitchener’s idea to forward-station the LCSs in Bahrain would mean the ships back in San Diego could focus solely on surface warfare in the Pacific. Relying on the land-based ExMCM companies would reduce or eliminate pressure on the LCS community.
A shakeup in the LCS program
A year or two ago, the Freedom-variant ships out of Florida were expected to do some or all of the mine countermeasures mission.
But in early 2022, the Navy nixed a third mission package, an anti-submarine warfare mission package, and proposed decommissioning the bulk of the Freedom LCSs. As part of this decision, the Navy determined any remaining LCSs in Mayport would focus on surface warfare, and the MCM mission would be consolidated to San Diego.
Congress is not allowing all nine LCS decommissionings the Navy requested, but appears poised to let the Navy decommission four LCSs in Mayport. The remaining ships there will conduct surface warfare missions in Central and South America, in Europe and in the Middle East.
Commander of Naval Surface Force Atlantic Rear Adm. Brendan McLane told reporters during the same media roundtable he’d deploy three LCSs from Mayport this year, including two to Latin America and one to 5th Fleet.
Though the ships will use the surface warfare mission package, McLane said there’s potential to expand the mission in the Middle East.
The LCS Sioux City, which conducted the first-ever LCS deployment to Bahrain in 2022, experimented with an ExMCM detachment there, McLane said. In this way, the LCS is supporting mine countermeasures even while not directly conducting the mission with its own gear. McLane said future deployments could make this pairing again.
Additionally, McLane said, the LCS may be able to play a “supporting role” for Task Force 59, which oversees a fleet of unmanned surface and aerial systems in the Middle East
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.