The Navy recently conducted war games involving the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) that showed the ship-class may have a greater capability operating in a blue water open seas and as part of a larger aircraft carrier battle group than previously anticipated, the Navy’s top admiral for surface warfare said this week.

The Independence variant (above) of the LCS was deployed in the war game along with the Freedom variant. Photo: U.S. Navy
The Independence variant (above) of the LCS was deployed in the war game along with the Freedom variant. Photo: U.S. Navy

The war gaming took place last week and was designed to examine the capabilities of both Freedom and Independence variants of the LCS class in the open seas, beyond the littoral waters that have been thought of as its primary warfighting domain, Rear Adm. Thomas Rowden, the Navy’s director for surface warfare, said.

“My initial impressions are that it’s going to play much more significantly in the open water than we have previously opined,” Rowden told a small group of reporters on a conference call Tuesday.

The gaming was envisioned in the mid-2020s and consisted of about 125 strategists and tacticians to operate the U.S. and notional enemy forces, he said. It also included systems, such as for mine countermeasures or surface warfare, still in development and not yet deployed, but expected to be ready in the years ahead.

During one operation the Navy combined the anti-submarine warfare capabilities of an LCS and Arleigh-Burke-class destroyers, and generated a “significant return,” Rowden said. Simultaneously, the Aegis guided-missile destroyer was able to provide air theater defense to protect the smaller and less air-capable LCS.

The LCS program has been under criticism over questions of survivability. Last month Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reduced the total buys of the ship from 52 to 32, instructing the Navy to explore possible alternatives to meet the service’s small surface combatant requirement. Hagel said that could include a modified version of the LCS vessels to give them increased survivability and lethality.

The Navy subsequently established a task force to evaluate a follow-on small surface combatant or next flight LCS. The process is still in the early stages and expected to be completed by mid-summer, so it remains to be seen whether the Navy will pursue a small surface combatant or modified LCS with an augmented air defense capability.

Rowden, emphasizing the evaluation was just beginning, said a key question will be price. He also noted that the coupling of the LCS with a guided-missile destroyer to increase anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities as shown in the war gaming, along with the added benefit of air defense  provided by the destroyer, may be a more cost-effective approach.

“When I would start to see the higher end threat, I would move toward the coupling with the guided missile destroyer simply because (a) I was significantly worried about the undersea threat and (b) I can get kind of the twofer if you will by pairing it up with the guided missile destroyers,” Rowden said.

“Certainly affordability of the ships that we build in the future is going to be part of the calculus as we go forward, and if I can…make a ship survivable with a modification of the concept of operations, especially when I consider the fact that when I coupled the ASW system on it with an LCS or the ASW system on a guided missile destroyer, I got a significant increase in my ability to go hunt submarines,” Rowden said. “It seems to me that is a better way to go and attack the air threat associated with the Littoral Combat Ships as opposed to perhaps investing in increasing the air defense capability.”