Let the Navy Retire LCS and Build a U.S. Maritime Constabulary Instead

By Bryan Clark and Craig Hooper

News recently leaked that the Navy’s Independence-class Littoral Combat Ships suffer from hull cracking, a long-rumored problem that constrains the ships to slow speeds and low sea states to prevent further damage. Along with the need for an expensive class-wide fix to Freedom-class LCS combining gears, these new disclosures suggest the Biden Administration’s proposal to send nine LCS to the scrapyard in FY2023 is likely only the first salvo in the Navy’s effort to eventually retire the entire 32-ship LCS fleet. The Congress should let the Navy do so and shift small-ship missions to services committed to doing them.

After initial shock at the Navy’s plans to retire the nine LCS and 15 other ships during the coming year, some in Congress are coming around to the potential wisdom of the move. After all, each LCS costs more than $60 million a year to operate and support, compared to about $80 million for a much larger and more capable destroyer. And the design problems with both LCS classes will constrain their operations, making them undependable contributors in conflict. 

The Navy spent nearly $30 billion developing and building LCS, on top of more than $25 billion for the three Zumwalt-class destroyers that were envisioned as LCS’ high-end counterpart when the new family of surface ships was conceived during the late 1990s. For this investment, taxpayers have received about a dozen overseas LCS deployments.

But the LCS debacle reveals a deeper issue that should drive action by Congressional and Pentagon leadership the Navy, after operating more than 100 small combatants at the height of the Cold War, is clearly no longer committed to the role of small surface combatants like LCS. At the same time the service is seeking to begin cashiering LCS, it is also retiring the minesweepers and patrol boats LCS was intended to replace and is stopping construction of amphibious transport docks that support peacetime crisis response and humanitarian assistance. Meanwhile, the Constellation-class frigate that was originally envisioned as a small combatant counterpart to LCS has grown from the 4,000-ton Perry-class of the Cold War to be a nearly 8,000-ton warship only 20 percent smaller than the Navy’s Burke-class destroyers.

Historically, small surface combatants patrolled waterways for pirates and traffickers, trained smaller partner navies, or escorted commercial shipping. Today, missions like protecting merchant vessels from missile attack and searching for submarines are, in general, beyond the capability of small warships or are better done by unmanned systems. But maritime security, training, surveillance, and presence are increasingly important to build alliances and counter Beijing’s “gray-zone” aggression across the East and South China Seas.

The Congress and DoD leadership should embrace the Navy’s focus on high-end warfare by shifting security and training missions to ships operated by other services, specifically the Coast Guard and Military Sealift Command. Congressional leaders have expressed interest in adding defense-related spending to the White House FY2023 budget proposal, which could build more of the existing ships the Coast Guard and MSC would use. And to operate them, the up to $2 billion in annual LCS sustainment, basing costs, and manpower funding could be moved to these new mission owners. If the Navy sheds the small boat mission, the costs should be taken out of the Navy’s budget.

The Coast Guard has an improving track record of building and fielding a family of new cutters that are well-suited to the missions associated with protecting sea lanes from criminals or China’s maritime militia. The 4,500-ton National Security Cutter is reaching the end of its production run and can be extended by several ships to support an increased South China Sea presence and advance a rules-based order in the maritime domain instead of LCS. They could be joined by the handful of Independence-class LCS that are able to continue operating, albeit at slow speeds and in calm seas, with Coast Guard crews. Congress should also expand production of the Coast Guard’s new 4,000-ton Offshore Patrol Cutters, which could be forward-stationed in Japan and Guam or deploy from Hawaii to the Western Pacific.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf participates in Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC), July 29, 2018. (U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 2nd Class David Weydert)

After taking over the Navy’s sealift and prepositioning fleets following the Cold War, MSC now operates with military detachments the Navy’s expeditionary staging bases and expeditionary support docks that host maritime security and counter-terrorism missions around the world. Civilian mariners also operate the more than a dozen expeditionary fast transports, or EPFs, that support Navy and joint assistance and training missions across Africa, Asia, and South America. Congress could continue construction of EPFs to enable MSC and its uniformed teammates to assume the Navy’s engagement mission. Since fewer civilian mariners are needed to crew a ship compared to Navy sailors, MSC vessels cost a fraction to operate compared to LCS. And the added demand for mariners would help bolster the ailing U.S. Merchant Marine.

The U.S. Navy’s twelfth Expeditionary Fast Transport (EPF) vessel, USNS Newport (EPF 12), successfully competed Integrated Sea Trials, July 30. (Austral USA photo)

Another benefit of using EPFs to take over the Navy’s small ship mission-set relates to the Navy’s conceptual challenges with the planned Large Unmanned Surface Vehicle program. Plagued by Congressional concerns about its ability to operate independently and carry a magazine of missiles, LUSV has a rocky path to fielding. As an interim step, the Navy could replace the LUSV with an EPF equipped with a vertical launch system magazine, as recently proposed by Representative Elaine Luria. With the crew aboard, the EPF could conduct maritime security and training missions. In high-risk situations, however, EPFs can offload their crews and revert to Navy control, operating autonomously for a day or more to launch missiles remotely.

The Navy and DoD leadership seem perfectly happy to abandon the constabulary missions that are a global fleet’s bread and butter. But as Russia’s war in Ukraine and China’s adventures in the Pacific remind us, gray-zone operations can result in real gains on the ground or water and provide a jumping-off point for a larger conflict. Congress should step in to ensure the United States confronts low-level aggression at sea with an appropriate force that is committed to the mission.

Bryan Clark is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute.

Dr. Craig Hooper, PhD is a defense analyst and Founder and CEO of the Themistocles Advisory Group.

Featured Image: PHILIPPINE SEA (Oct. 18, 2021) The Independence-variant littoral combat ship USS Jackson (LCS 6) and embarked MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter assigned to the Wildcards of Helicopter Sea Combat (HSC) Squadron 23, operate with the German navy frigate FGS Bayern (F 217) and embarked Super Lynx Mk88A helicopter in the Philippine Sea. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of the German navy)

18 thoughts on “Let the Navy Retire LCS and Build a U.S. Maritime Constabulary Instead”

  1. Excellent article. I’ve wondered later whether today’s Navy is too large — for the budget available to train and operate it, to maintain material condition and general readiness, to modernize as fighting concepts evolve, and to generate replacements for an aging force. Under this condition the force size, especially the surface force, will continue to shrink even as force structure goals grow.
    Authors Clark and Hooper outline a path to decrease the surface force by cutting mission drivers, an approach that might create resources sufficient to correct “too large for the budget” problem. The question is whether the remaining high end mission set will sustain a navy in the long run and whether the low end force will be capable contributors to combat when it comes.

  2. This nails it. Give to others that which the navy has failed to do. Make use of existing maritime teams within government to field “Small Navy,” separate and distinct from “big Navy.”

  3. The sad news about the Navy’s Independence-class Littoral Combat Ships suffering from hull cracking, makes me wonder if it is because they did not incorporate my invention at the time of construction, as proposed, and if now, the Upgrade of my invented Flexible PowerFINS can help the ships as it adds longitudinal strength to the halls in addition to the tested more than 10 commercial and defense advantages of the invention as listed in some of my websites.
    One of which is at http://flying-boats.com
    At the time, there was interest in incorporating the invention, but it was dismissed somehow by someone in administration.

  4. Great article. I can’t think of 2 organizations (Coast Guard and MCS) better suited to the role that’s laid out. Focusing on the rules-based enforcement of laws concerning protecting a country’s EEZ’s is primarily a law enforcement activity. The presence of the very highly regarded U.S. Coast Guard serving in a presence mission is matches their mission to what and how they operate. Maritime law enforcement is in the CG’s DNA. A fantastic opportunity for cooperative training and reinforcement of best practices using the CG. Give the mission to the professionals who exist to do the job that the Navy doesn’t seem terribly interested in doing. As for the MSC? Yes, yes… most definitely yes.

  5. I am a layman outside the domain. IMHO the LCS is trying to do too many different things on one platform. Patrolling the Gulf of Mexico against drug smuggler is different from patrolling the coast from illegal immigrants is different from patrolling in the Red Sea against pirates is different from protecting friendly marine from hostile country with competing navy capabilities in South China Sea.
    The navy needs smaller combatants that still can go far, 4000-ton ships are needed. Patrolling friendly coast probably can be done with 1000-ton ships backed up by a few existing 2000/4000 ton ships. Escorting civilian marine in narrow sea lane can be done in boats as small as 500-ton (if we have near by base) or 2000-ton class ship (modular design, can be configured to go into deep blue water if the Navy is willing).
    The common problem in US armed forces is to get the newest, biggest, baddest, fanciest, and certainly the most expensive weapons, no matter it is sea, air, or land. Quite often, simply deploying a simpler and cheaper solution for a subrange of missions is a better approach to begin with.

  6. I wonder what the real savings will be? I keep reading in these articles but I’d love to see “real” numbers. Not gonna happen.
    The new ships they build, whatever they are, are gonna be 2023 + dollars and will need to be maintained, and a sailor is NOT cheap. After all, that’s how this mess began. No one asked how much. Would it be a first if the Navy actually saved $$$$$?

    We know the future is unmanned, use what we have now, until they fall apart and build all unmanned going forward seems perfectly plausible. Of course, that means less billets, less navy leadership, oooohhhh, now I see.

  7. The LCS program didn’t “pan out”, there was “no gold in them thar hulls”. As a taxpayer it is maddening, but routine failures in military procurements being predictable, it doesn’t come as a complete surprise either…so you learn to move on and hope for a better outcome with a later project. But just like Lucy and Charlie Brown (the cartoon characters) it’s inevitable that Lucy will pull the football away at the last second once again fooling Charlie Brown who ends on flat on his back….again. The idea of a “Maritime Constabulary” is already “a thing”, we call it the Coast Guard. I am completely and wholeheartedly in favor of giving the “Coasties” more money and more ships…just not LCS’s.

  8. EPF has much more serious crack issues than LCS-2, so adding additional weapon systems not a good choice. Making CIVMARS do any “combat-related” activity would require a major lawfare lift and based on what has been done for MT WHITNEY so far I would saw this will not happen.
    As SECNAV Braithwaite said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The surface navy is a DDG 51 centric force. It is organized around the DDG 51 in terms of manning and organization. FFG-62 fits with that template. Smaller ships (PC, MCM, LCS) just don’t and have always had trouble fitting. The DDG inspection guide, for example says that it takes a PO2 to be a Lube Oil Quality manager and I have a PO3 because that is all I have, so the inspector gives me a downcheck.
    NSC could work but by the time its a “frigate” (add VLS, other weapons and sensors) its cost approaches that of the FFG-62.

    So CIVMARS will likely not engage in combat and the Navy will stay wedded to its larger, more globally operational ships like DDG 51 and FFG 62. I just do not see EPF ever being a combatant. It might be the interim LAW or an LCS tender (as it has been employed on several occasions) but that’s it.

    1. MSC nee USNS ship are not allowed to conduct offensive operations. However The USS commissioned ships are. Such as the tenders and ESBs.

  9. I know I hate and despise the LCS, but if they properly fix them as low end corvettes ships and give them to low end SWO officers such as LT’s to ENS. It would give them a shot at command later down the road and it would be a good tool for the US Navy to evaluate SWO officers for future command of a DDG, CG and ultimately an Amphibious assault ship. As far as fixing the LCS, I would scrap the Modules and hire captains who are experienced in Corvettes to help redesign the LCS into a Corvette and not a frigate for Low end work.

  10. Hopefully the Navy will pull out of its’ disarray in time. The only thing keeping the Chinese from taking Taiwan right now is about half a dozen Los Angeles/ Virginia mix of subs. Can’t imagine a debacle worse than the LCS program.

  11. With all due respect, you need to talk to a Master – any Master – of any EPF in the military Sealift Command. The idea that you could add any kind of weapon system to the EPF that are, in fact, built to commercial standards rather than warship standards is simply preposterous. The LCS program was supposed to provide a warship with three variants: ASW, ASUW, and AAW. The Coast Guard vessels simply do not have capabilities to match. The only capabilities that the Coast Guard vessels could assume would be search and rescue and anti-piracy, End the expensive LCS program and use the money for the frigate program. And realize that MSC is made up of CIVILIAN Mariners, not warfighters. You cannot assign them to combat roles in accordance with Maritime Law.

    1. This much is accurate, MSC ships are not allowed by Navy lawyers to conduct offensive operations. There are installations on MSC ships for defensive weapons but those are normally not mounted. MSC ships which are commissioned USS do have weapons and can conduct a range of missions

  12. I started proposing MSC ships to HA/DR back when Clark was at CSBA. So this is not a new idea. But there are other issues. First off the Navy has been reducing MSC’s roles for several years now. I seriously doubt that the Navy would want an “engagement” role. The Navy is already questioned its Forward Presence. MSC ships are funded much differently the Navy ships. LCS would need multiple sources of funding to operate ins a NEW force. Corrections needed: MSC now does not operate ESB which are hybrid crewed. MSC operates expeditionary support docks with MILDETs.”

    Besides there already exists a US constabulary force and that is the US Coast Guard. LCS have worked with the USCG cutters but dont have the essential endurance needed especially in the Pacific.

    This idea needs a lot of work with chain of command and CONOPS to be considered further

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