A recent Pentagon war game that ran the Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ship through simulated combat in the Gulf didn’t unfold quite as expected, according to participants. The LCS is custom built with the Gulf combat environment in mind: narrow and congested waters, a wide range of low-end threats from sea mines and swarms of fast attack craft to higher-end air-breathing submarines.
The key to the LCS performing as the Swiss Army knife of the battle fleet is the ship’s interchangeable mission modules. While the “plug-and-fight” mission modules sound like a good idea by providing a range of flexibility within a single hull, the simulated Gulf exercises revealed some potential real-world shortcomings with the LCS concept.
The war game featured the trouble-making Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps navy sending out swarms of fast-attack craft to muck it up with a half dozen LCSs. The LCSs, equipped with the surface warfare mission module which includes the ship’s integral 57mm cannon, a pair of 30mm rapid fire cannons, vertically launched missiles and armed helicopters, were able to beat back the Iranian small boat attack.
Seeing their small boat swarm shot-up, the Iranians dispatched a bunch of small, air-breathing submarines to attack the LCS flotilla. The LCSs were forced to steam down to Diego Garcia to switch out the surface warfare modules with the anti-submarine warfare packages. That scenario repeated itself every time the Iranians changed up their attack and wrong-footed the LCS flotilla.
Beyond the conceptual challenges revealed by simulations, it now appears that the LCS mission modules themselves are in real trouble. The tenacious watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office tell lawmakers that the mission modules aren’t working, face serious delays and that work on the anti-submarine warfare package has been suspended: “Recent testing of mission package systems has yielded less than desirable results. To date, most LCS mission systems have not demonstrated the ability to provide required capabilities.”
The surface warfare package remains unproven, GAO says, in part because of the Army’s recent decision to cancel the Non-Line-of-Sight Launch System, which was to provide long-range strike for the LCS. The Navy is looking into alternative missile systems, the report says. There have also been problems with the mechanism designed to launch 11-meter rigid inflatable boats off the stern of the LCS. One Navy source told Defense Tech that it takes more than 45 minutes to launch a RIB boat off an LCS.
GAO said LCS testing remains in its “infancy,” with the first operational testing of a ship outfitted with a “partial” mission package pushed to 2013. A key part from the GAO report:
“Challenges developing and procuring mission packages have delayed the timely fielding of promised capabilities, limiting the ships’ utility to the fleet during initial deployments. Until these challenges are resolved, it will be difficult for the Navy to align seaframe purchases with mission package procurements and execute planned tests. Key mine countermeasures and surface warfare systems have encountered technical issues that have delayed their development and fielding.
Further, Navy analysis of LCS anti-submarine warfare systems found these capabilities did not contribute significantly to the anti-submarine warfare mission. These challenges have led to procurement delays for all three mission packages. For instance, key elements of the surface warfare package remain in development, requiring the Navy to deploy a less robust capability on LCS 1.
Mission package delays have also disrupted program test schedules—a situation exacerbated by decisions to deploy initial ships early, which limit their availability for operational testing. In addition, these delays could disrupt program plans for simultaneously acquiring seaframes and mission packages. Until mission package performance is proven, the Navy risks investing in a fleet of ships that does not deliver promised capability.”
— Greg Grant