The U.S. Navy is proposing to purchase a fleet of 55 Littoral Combat Ships (LCSs) for a total cost of more than $25 billion, setting the course for fleet development to meet future challenges. Are we moving forward with the right vessels to fight the changing types of conflicts we now anticipate?
It was also concluded that such conflicts called for a different kind of combat vessel, originally referred to as a "Street Fighter." Later, it was given a more dignified name, the Littoral Combat Ship. It was to be fast, agile, shallow-draft, radar-stealthy and low-cost to allow multicraft swarming attacks on coastal enemy positions.
The net result of this joint Navy/industry effort, the LCS, is a costly, reduced-size frigate with amazing new technological systems - an important advance for conflicts in the blue water.
However, to achieve this, the original mission capabilities for brown-water conflicts have been sacrificed.
While the LCS is faster than our current destroyers and frigates, excessive power is required to push past the inherent hull speed limit of about 40 knots for these displacement vessels. This results in a voracious appetite for fuel with unsustainable operating costs at high speed, thereby partially negating its speed advantgage.
This also limits its ability to counter asymmetric threats such as piracy, drug submarines and terrorists in small boats. In addition, it is not sufficiently shallow-draft to support our forces near and on shore, and is vulnerable to radar-controlled enemy weaponry.
The cost of the LCS is $500 million to $700 million, depending on how the figures are manipulated.
We simply cannot afford to send the LCS out to chase down small drug boats or piracy craft. For these missions and for coastal mine clearance and defense against irregular terrorist boat attacks near shore, we should revisit the original Street Fighter concept.
This called for many small, fast craft capable of sustainable speeds of well over 40 knots with reasonable fuel costs. This requires a planing hull. The Street Fighter should be truly shallow-draft (under 5 feet) to operate in the shoaled water used by fast drug boats. It also requires a low superstructure to be radar-stealthy, so as not to alert enemy craft and to avoid shore-based enemy fire control.
Street Fighter's Limitations
The brown-water Street Fighter cannot also be designed for effective performance in blue water, nor can it be sustained independently for extended periods in the target area.
To counter these limitations, we urge testing of a littoral mission unit (LMU) by activating a military transport, the Cape Mendocino, which, with minor modifications, could transport four or more Street Fighters to areas of threat.
This vessel would also serve as their mother ship.
These Street Fighters would search the suspect area with range extended by surveillance drones to discover potential enemies. They would have the sustainable speed to intercept suspicious craft and the weaponry to capture identified enemies.
There are several small planing naval craft in operation in the U.S., which, with modification, if necessary, could meet the design and performance requirements of the Street Fighter. Thus, there would be no new design effort required and the LMU project could be completed promptly.
In summary, we still face two basic questions. Have we been right in believing that future naval conflicts will be largely in the brown-water littoral? If so, what are the most cost-effective vessels that we can use to assure successful combat in this environment?
It is clear that we don't yet know how to best protect our security interests in the littoral with appropriate concern for U.S. taxpayer dollars. Thus, we urge launching of the LMU project to provide the basis for a fully informed decision.
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