LCS: Passing on the ASW Mission

The American people have grown accustomed to the status of its military as the strongest force the world has ever known, and despite recent budget cuts, that the United States Navy (USN) remains the finest Navy ever put to sea. The people also expect that in every battle our forces will not just prevail, but sustain minimal losses. The military exhibits this culture as well, focusing on the protection of it personnel with programs ranging from anti-ballistic missile technology to sexual assault prevention training.

                         LCS: How much is enough?

This shift in public expectations, that ships should prevail in all environments against all enemies, has forced requirements for surface vessels to continually expand.  When it became clear that this cannot be accomplished on a single small vessel, modularity, as expressed by ADM Greenert’s “Payloads over Platforms” article, came to the fore. However, it is time that the USN gives up attempts to build naval vessels that are jacks-of-all-trades and masters-of-none.

This article is not a discussion of this cultural shift, but rather a discussion of how this shift has impacted USN’s ability to build appropriate vessels for the major threats at hand and an attempt to balance this culture with the needs of the American people with respect to the Navy.
Sun Tzu tells us that “those skilled in war bring the enemy to the field of battle and are not brought there by him.” We say that 90% of the world’s trade travels by sea, so a major strategy of the USN ought to be the protection of friendly shipping; and any foe worth their salt will bring the fight to our shipping lanes. The proliferation of diesel and Air-Independent Propulsion (AIP) submarines has placed a dangerous tool in the hand of these potential foes. If we are going to bring the enemy to the field of battle, our ability to destroy enemy submarines must be offensive.

It is not intelligent to expect that destroyers which are already tasked with air defense, land attack, and surface warfare will also be able to proficiently conduct Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW). This is not because the venerable Arleigh Burke class or its crews are incapable, but rather because they will be stretched thin by so many requirements. War is simply not the time to figure out how to properly conduct ASW What is truly needed is a dedicated undersea warfare dominance vessel with a secondary focus on the ability to perform long, forward deployed patrols and protect itself from surface and air attack.

Anyone with an interest in naval affairs will find the blogosphere and professional forums full of anti- Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) rhetoric with discussion ranging from the need to “up-gun” LCS to calls to scrap the program completely. The USN hoped LCS could dominate small-boat swarms, mines, and enemy submarines in the littorals. Despite what many will find on the blogosphere, LCS can and will be used as effectively as it can be by fantastic crews, it can and will be used to a positive effect in future wars. But in this business, “positive effect” is not enough, the American people demand domination and frankly, LCS doesn’t deliver.

A new ASW vessel cannot just be thrown together with existing technology and current business practices. As much as I talk about creating a dedicated ASW vessel, it must retain some other capabilities: it should be able to patrol waters distant from American ports, it should be able to protect itself from limited air attack, it should be affordable and easy to maintain and it should be able to attack surface threats. These requirements can feed into its primary warfare area, but we need to think long and hard about what is excess and what is actually required without giving into the shift that requires a vessel good at everything. It has been said that the best platform to destroy a submarine is another submarine, but the goal of this program would be to challenge this paradigm.

The advancement of several technologies could make this vessel a world-class submarine-killer. The use of the electric-drive technology from DDG-1000, innovative ways of detecting undersea threats (like new-generation sonars and USV’s), new air-based ASW technologies and even anti-torpedo technology will put the USN in a place to win this undersea battle. Research into the use of bubbles to increase efficiency and reduce noise similar to the Prairie and Masker Systems could provide an added foot up. It should also field current technologies which are proven to be effective like towed array sonars, the Mark 32 SVTT, and a combination of SH-60s and UAV’s.

In order to dominate undersea warfare, the vessel must protect itself from air and sea threats. The small SPY-1K, a single DART-capable 76mm naval gun, quad-packed ESSM or VLA ASROC in an 8 cell tactical length Mark 41 VLS, 4 Harpoon or new ASuW missiles, Block 1B CIWS and several 25 mm and .50 caliber weapons will provide strong protection against a variety of threats ranging from enemy surface combatants to ASCMs and swarms. An effective Combat Information Center near the bridge and using the newest computer systems will provide this vessel to best protect itself from enemy assets trying to interrupt its main function, finding and destroying submarines.

However, there must be a point where the proverbial line in the sand is drawn. This vessel does not provide area air defense, it does not perform land attack missions, and it does not seek out surface combatants. The Navy requires flexible warships which can take the fight to the enemy. It is not a jack of all trades; it destroys enemy submarines.

William Thibault is a Midshipman at Boston University majoring in Mechanical Engineering.  The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity.  They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

14 thoughts on “LCS: Passing on the ASW Mission”

  1. Good concerns, but LCS is still not the ship you want. The suite you’re describing will severely undermine structural integrity and operation. The weapon systems will all require more CS processors (adding weight), increased power consumption (requiring more fuel weight or lesser stay time), magazine depth (more ammo weight, or just insufficient magazine depth), the mounts themselves (more weight), added techs to maintain all these weapons (more food/weight or less stay time+more weight), and more ASW detection equipment (more weight). Extra weight effects available speed, hull stress under a full load. Remember space is also at a premium onboard these ships. Perhaps you should concentrate, as the Chinese do, on the one necessary weapon (as the Houbei class does) to complete your mission, and perhaps a single self-defense/response weapon (like a 20mm with a robust counter-measure system added on). Perhaps ASROC and a millenium gun of the flak variety?

    1. I apologize if it wasn’t clear that I was suggesting a different vessel was needed.

      I would completely agree that LCS is not the ship I’m asking for here, however, a dedicated ASW vessel will require many systems to dominate the undersea warfare area. I don’t pretend to be an expert on ASW, so my suggestions with respect to onboard systems are simply suggestions.

      The Houbei class and similar other Chinese vessels can be made so simply because it is expected that they will operate under air cover close to shore (within the 1st/2nd Island Chains), whereas my suggested vessel wouldn’t necessarily have those luxuries. My overall point is that the vessel I suggest would be entirely new and focused on ASW, with bare minimum capabilities in other warfare areas.

      1. I see; My mis-read on your intentions.

        In terms of the Houbei, I think the concept of “combined arms” or Mike Vikers’ “symphony of weapons” would greatly help your cause. You want to think in terms of the whole deployed suite rather than the individual platform.

  2. Your quote from Sun Tzu got me thinking, surface ASW is predominantly defensive and a reaction to the enemy submarines. Perhaps we should consider a more offensive defense, much like how US Navy defend its shores by fighting overseas rather than deploying coastal defense forces.

    How long can submarines remain operational if their bases have been destroyed by bombers or their communications taken down by cyber attacks? The US excels in projecting offensive power and already has large stocks of the necessary weapon. So finding and destroying the key supports behind a submarine campaign would be a vastly more efficient strategy than designing a new class of ASW escort and attempting to defend all the world’s oceans.

  3. Very impressive article. I wonder if a more “network centric” approach would be better. I worry (perhaps examining the opposite side of ‘exclusivity of mission’) of total capability fall out in the instance that any dedicated asset is rendered inop. For instance, our CSG dedicated USW (ASW? Apologies, I am not a sub-hunter guy) asset goes down….can the destroyer effectively pick up the mission? CAN they under a new strategic rubric?

    The nice thing about network centric warfare (everyone doing a little of something) is the diversity and redundancy built into the system. Still, you have made me think you are on to something. I say throw more maned aircraft at the problem (obviously I have to tow the company line)!


  4. LCS was a soup sandwich from the start. What the Navy needed was a new FFG with an equal balance of AAW & ASW capability for it’s size and even that would have had to have been bigger than LCS. Instead, we ended up with a ‘Lemon’ serving no purpose other than making a lot of money for the company that built it and designed by people who have never seen one day in a row boat, much less in a navy uniform on a combat vessel. It should tell anyone all they need to know, that at a time when the Navy is being gutted of powerful warships by President Oquester, this floating abortion continues to be fully funded.

  5. First off, Congratulations to the MIDN for a well thought out article. In the Fleet, you will learn that modern ASW is not something that can be accomplished with one ship, or even one class of ships. It takes more than a single SQQ-89AV13. It requires aviation, ships, and other submarines to do it effectively, and a well exercised team. Systems capability and capacity is one thing, but technical competency is another. The LCS has not been a success story, which is why the Navy is struggling to find other missions for them such as ferrying USMC gear (like the Hawaiian Super Ferry).

  6. I’m normally not a big proponent of LCS (a ship that tries to do too many things in close succession, if not all at once), but I think ASW might turn out to be one of the few things it does well. It’s capable of towing advanced passive and active sonars and of operating ASW helos. It’s got enough armament to defend itself against light attacks, or run away. Endurance is certainly an issue. But a few LCS’s with the ASW mission module could be as effective an ASW platform as surface ships get. If they’re in a high threat environment, they’ll need protection, but that’s true of any ASW platform. As a submariner, I still question the effectiveness of surface ships as ASW platforms, but that’s a knock against physics more than against LCS.

    (standard caveat, these are my views, not those of the DoD or any component therof)

  7. Perhaps we might all keep in mind that LCS is built to the official requirements that USN, DoD, and CJCS approved. Arguably, it meets them. All the things you ask of an ASW vessel may well be reasonable (to demand), but they were not necessarily approved requirements for LCS. To assume that they are is inaccurate. LCS is what LCS is, a ship designed to add heretofore absent capabilities (ie small boat SUW, more effective MCM, and specialized ASW) to a more robust fleet that would have been, IF financial and political climates had persisted. Now we find a fleet that is different, and we must temper our desires to shore up capabilities with a ship that was never meant to fill those roles.

    1. This is a fantastic point, as much as some people complain about LCS, it is here to stay ( I believe that we can and will do great things with LCS, but it will take everyone pushing together to make it work.

      The take away point of this article was to recognize the mindset that can trap people in compromising situations with respect to the budget and shipbuilding, there aren’t many chances in shipbuilding, you fight with the fleet you have not the one you could build with unlimited resources. It was also a fun piece to write as I was able to think about what could be done with that unlimited money and resources. Thank you again for your great response!

  8. I like your main point, we continue to cram too many systems into multi-warfare area capable ships. The scenario you are describing is akin to WWII’s Battle of the Atlantic, which was won by the Allies through decisive air power. Any good ASW tactician will tell you the best way to conduct ASW is to not be on the surface at all, and I say that as a SWO. A future ASW dedicated surface combatant would better serve as a lillipad for multiple UAVs and UUVs. Having shore, or even air, based command and control for the unmanned vehicles would keep the cost of the vessel down and, as suggested, a simple 8-cell VLS with ASROCs would serve as a means to go kinetic. Anything more than that and some simple self-defense capabilities would make the cost skyrocket.

  9. This is why the US navy needs Multi Role frigates that can do ASW, ASUW and Land attack. The FREMM Frigate, the F-125 Frigate and even the Spanish Navy’s F-100 Frigate can do a better job than the LCS. Even the Danish Navy’s Iver Huitfeldt class Frigate does a better job than the LCS. Which is why the LCS is a disaster and the US Navy should have bailed out on the LCS when it became problematic.

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