Two quick videos from Al-Jazeera English (which this week was kicked out of China) portraying two of the most important motivators in the scramble for territory in the South China Sea, oil and food. In the first, China is demonstrating increased deep-sea drilling know-how, which may mean a near-to-medium-term increase in unilateral oil exploration and drilling in contested waters.
The second video shows the impact of the stand-off at the Scarborough Shoal on Filipino fishing villages in the area.
My esteemed colleagues Kurt Albaugh and Matt Hipple made some interesting arguments about the U.S. Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) in the past two days, although I disagree with each in different ways. At the risk of drowning our readers in the LCS debate, I’m going to make some brief remarks of my own and defer my own full analysis until I’m conflict-of-interest free, just so we can get it out of our system.
Mr. Albaugh highlighted a lot of good points about LCS. LCS is not meant to be the concept vessel formerly known as streetfighter and does a good job fulfilling a lot of low-intensity missions and niche combat roles. A less-threatening platform makes it easier to operate with partners in places like Africa, where cooperative engagement is more law-enforcement focused. And, as the Chinese and Philippine navies demonstrated by pulling out in favor of civilian vessels in the Scarborough Shoal, low-end ships can help ease tense stand-offs and prevent misunderstandings from escalating into conflicts. Few would like to see the U.S. and China in a dust-up, so there are benefits to be gained from the U.S. demonstrating to its partners a commitment to peacefully resolving maritime incidents.
However, I disagree with the argument that forward deploying only weak vessels will prevent China from hostility. As commentor Chuck Hill noted, being inoffensive does not always prevent aggression. In dealing with state actors like China with a “Realist, zero-sum view of the world,” more capability is likely a greater deterrent of aggression than a perception of weakness. While deploying only low capability ships in sensitive areas would limit China’s ability to claim a menacing U.S. naval presence as pretext for action, it would not prevent China from taking that action.
In addition to soft power missions like Pacific Partnership and America’s commitment to its value system, the influence the U.S. maintains in the Asia-Pacific region is in large part derived from its partners’ perceptions of defense assistance credibility. In a region with a rising power with uncertain intentions, purposefully choosing weakness lessens the United States’ influence with friends and potential foes alike.
The good news is I continue to disagree with Mr. Albaugh. LCS can actually be used as an offensive asset, clearing the way for power projection. And I disagree with Mr. Hipple that the ship was designed without a purpose or strategy in mind. The very example of China’s focus on anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities are what drove LCS’ design. The three official mission packages – anti-submarine warfare, surface warfare, and mine-countermeasures – are all meant to fill counter-A2/AD capability gaps. And the ship itself, with its shallow draft, is meant to open access to U.S. forces in precisely that area of congested waters, the littorals, where most hostilities are expected to take place. This is the reason just purchasing multiple HSVs, as Juramentado and Mr. Hipple suggested, would not work. It is the same reason the National Security Cutter would not work.
This is not to say LCS can perform every mission of a destroyer or frigate – but that’s okay, that’s not what the Navy meant it or needs it to do. Nor is LCS perfect. Rather than risk-averse organization Mr. Hipple portrays, if anything, the Navy took too much risk on immature technologies for LCS’ mission packages, as Juramentado suggested. Budgets and politics also played a role in the program’s history. And sure, I would love to see a better anti-ship cruise missile, but this is a failing across the entire U.S. Navy, not confined to LCS. Learning from experience, capitalizing on feedback, and tweaking things like manning and mission package equipment will help.
There are still wrinkles in the LCS program, but a question of the role of LCS within the U.S. fleet remains only if the technologies that enable the originally intended missions do not come to fruition. That is no small wrinkle, but it is a different one than finding a strategy.
A good measure of a military’s intellectual health is it’s dedication to firmly connect present procurement to future purpose. In discussions with peers in the American Navy, I often find myself a lonely voice of pessimism about our future and capabilities. However, LT Albaugh’s article about LCS inadvertently highlights how our procurement vision has managed to stray so far from the path. The U.S. Navy does force-planning through a bureaucratic balancing act of risk aversion rather than making the hard decisions necessary to handle outside threats.
LCS is the perfect example of this inability to commit. When viewed alone, it is a vessel with relatively even capabilities across the board. However, having no relative weakness is not the same as having any strengths. LCS represents an unwillingness to take risks. It is too big to truly be a littoral/riverine boat (PCs would be better). It is too slow to make up for its weak hull and poor weaponry (European corvettes would be better). It is not fast or strong enough to penetrate areas under enemy control, nor advanced enough to perform high-end ISR in those areas(submarines and aircraft would be better). Its real purpose today is clearly as confused as it was 8 years ago. It almost seems like the sole justification for the project really is, as Mr. Albaugh indirectly implies, that it exists. This tepidness is indicative of the Navy’s overall strategic planning. LCS’s attempt to be everything has made it nothing, and is now designed specifically to not risk a weakness for a particular strength.
Compare LCS to the Chinese Houbei-class missile boat. While American defense planners are unable to commit to overly generic systems that are already on the factory floor (F-35), the Chinese navy has committed to a vessel perfectly suited to its area-denial mission. Smaller and of the same hull material and speed of the LCS, the Houbei is weak in many areas by design. However, it is specifically created as part of a particular strategy. With the ability to stealthily approach and then quickly deploy 8 C-803s into an enemy ship, this little mosquito packs a greater ASCM threat than any brawler American ship-of-the-line. When under the aegis of home-turf, the Houbei is an invaluable piece of a very recognizable operational concept. The firm direction of the Chinese investment outclasses by far the strategic waffling behind LCS.
While our competitors learn from and move past their mistakes, we fret over and defend ours. In the past, defense planners forgot that as in the commercial world one can only choose two of the following: cheap, fast, or good. Now, we have forgotten to decide what we actually want before we choose, ending up with: expensive, drawn-out, and poor. There are incredible ideas that the American Navy is capable of executing in the future: unmanned aviation, surface drone motherships, long-range rocket gunnery, REAL patrol boats, SSGNs that create strike opportunities in environments where enemies deny us the surface and air. However, our constant attempts to re-shape ourselves for a single weapon system we “like” or have sunk too much cost into is creating a force-planning disaster; it is becoming less writing on the wall, and more a wall itself.
USS Fort Worth (LCS-3) just completed her acceptance trials today. Though a small step in itself, it is yet another reminder that this class is coming soon to a fleet near you. Just considering the Freedom-class variant, LCS-5 and -7 are under construction and funding for LCS-9 and -11 was approved in March. Though any fresh news about this class roils the waters of debate in the naval blogosphere, let’s step back and examine where the class has been, and where it is going.
LCS is not streetfighter. This much is true. Critics point to the ship’s fitness to defeat anti-ship cruise missiles and other anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) threats, small crew size and its resulting effect on damage control, lack of proven mission modules, and a host of other design and cost factors as reasons to reduce or discontinue the LCS program.
These critics rightly identify tactical weaknesses inherent in the LCS platform. Why do we need to reconsider their analysis?
One good reason is that strategy should drive tactics. LCS is a poor power-projection platform, but is that the strategic role we want or need to ask of it?
The fact that states are often unsure about the intentions of others drives foreign policy and strategy-making. The same tools we produce to defend our interests could also be used to attack. Manysmartpeople think this uncertainty is the reason why wars occur. Whether this is actually the case or not, it’s clear that China believes in a Realist, zero-sum view of the world. So, you ask, what does this have to do with LCS?
The persistent uncertainty that things-that-go-boom produce can be resolved in part if military technologies can be clearly identified as either offensive or defensive. A rifle is a pretty poor example of this principle: it is equally suited to attack enemy forces as it is to defend friendly forces. A tomahawk missile, on the other hand, is designed primarily to attack. So it is with many missile systems. It makes me think back to The Hunt for Red October: “Would you characterize this as a first strike weapon, Dr. Ryan?” Think of it another way: if I drove the pickup truck I recently bought (used, of course) down your street, would you believe that it’s only for self-defense?
LCS is a defensive technology – it is defensively useful by allowing the United States to secure the seas from lawlessness and engage with allies and partners to help prevent China from expanding their influence through “soft power” means. Months ago, Rear Admiral Rowden called this idea “flags on halyards.“ LCS is therefore the ideal platform to park near China – it allows us to maintain influence in the region while preventing China from claiming that the US Navy is a menace to their security. LCS would indeed be a poor choice if the US strategy against China was one of power projection. However, it’s not immediately clear to this humble blogger that’s true. Other strategies have been proposed which rely less on our ability to “kick down the door” and fight China a la WWII. This latter strategy would incur huge costs in lives and treasure. LCS represents an alternative strategic vision – one that paradoxically transmutes tactical weakness into strategic strength.
Streetfighter was designed to aid the Navy in it’s power projection role – a role that dominated strategic and force planning in the late 1990s. Rather than compare LCS to an idea designed for a different strategic era, the first consideration should compare it to the strategic requirements of today. LCS fills a niché for a forward-deployed vessel that can advance American interests and influence without undue provocation. The United States can and should provide naval forces for sea control and power projection, but LCS may help ensure that we don’t need to place the entire battle force in harm’s way.
The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or any other agency.