The two top senators on the armed services committee called for the Navy to reevaluate its Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) deployment strategy, citing concerns about the ship’s mission modules for surface warfare, submarine hunting and mine hunting.

The future USS Coronado sailing away. Photo: U.S. Navy
The future USS Coronado sailing away. Photo: U.S. Navy

The Navy has developed two LCS variants—the Freedom-class made by Lockheed Martin [LMT] and the Independence-class built by Austal. Both hulls are modular and can be reconfigured to host one of three mission packages, which contain weapons, aircraft, unmanned vehicles and other equipment needed to complete mine countermeasures, surface warfare or anti-submarine warfare missions.

All of those pieces are in various stages of development and testing, from the Freedom-variant, which has seen multiple deployments with the surface warfare package, to the Independence seaframe, which reached initial operational capability (IOC) in January but has never been deployed, to the mine countermeasures mission module, which the Navy is reviewing after one system in the package suffered reliability shortfalls during testing.

With that in mind, the service should focus on completing integration and testing of the mission modules aboard the LCS rather than doubling down on deployments of the ship to the Asia-Pacific region, said the top two lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.).

“Given the state of LCS mission package development, we are concerned with the volume and complexity of LCS mission package testing that remains,” they wrote in a Feb. 5 letter to Navy leadership. “The Navy’s decision to increase the permanent LCS presence in Singapore from one LCS today, to two later this year, to four by 2018 appears to exacerbate testing challenges. With practically no LCS mission capabilities provided and only six delivered, we urge you to reevaluate the deployment strategy to ensure deploying a greater number of these ships does not comes at the expense of completing the integration and testing necessary to give LCS combat capability to meet the already delayed schedule.”

The letter echoes criticisms of the ship made by the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester Michael Gilmore, who released his annual report last week. Based on Navy briefings and the director of operational test and evaluation (DOT&E) report, McCain and Reed believe the service may be overselling the program and diminishing its continued challenges, they wrote.

Initial operational capability of the mine countermeasures package already has been delayed by four years, pushing legacy capabilities like Avenger– and Osprey-class ships to the brink of their service lives. The service’s ongoing independent review of the module’s Remote Minehunting System has stalled operational testing, the results of which would inform an IOC decision. “We are awaiting the outcome of this review and the Navy’s proposed way ahead,” the senators stated.

Reed and McCain also took aim at the anti-submarine warfare package, which will not be tested in an operational environment until next year. Fielding the module won’t occur until years after that, after the Navy drives down the weight of various sonar and handling systems that comprise it.

The senators reserved the bulk of their criticism for the surface warfare mission module. LCS equipped with the package, which contains two 30mm guns and eventually will include the AGM-114L Longbow Hellfire missile, may not be able to stand up to enemy small combatants that are already equipped with an over-the-horizon capability, McCain and Reed wrote. The Hellfire and guns have a range of about 5 miles, while adversary combatants carry guns with ranges in excess of 7 miles and missiles that destroy targets more than 100 miles away.

The Navy plans to put an over-the-horizon missile on the more lethal frigate-version LCS, but the ship “will likely only be able to accommodate a small number, which could be consumed by a single ship target,” McCain and Reed wrote.

The senators’ letter comes at a critical point for the program. Last week Defense Secretary Ashton Carter confirmed that the fiscal 2017 budget will include a plan to truncate the LCS program of record from 52 ships split between two builders to 40 ships, with a downselect to a single vendor slated for fiscal 2019. That decision has a ripple effect on the number of mission modules the service plans to buy. 

Capt. Casey Moton, the program manager for the mission modules, defended the performance of the surface warfare package during a Jan. 29 interview with Defense Daily. During at-sea testing last year on the USS Coronado (LCS-4), the service demonstrated that it could launch and recover the 11 meter rigid hull inflatable boats (RHIBs) and ran several simulated small boat raids where the Coronado had to defeat multiple high-speed boats using its 57 and 30 mm guns.

“The objective is basically to destroy, to incapacitate all those targets before they get the ability to fire on the ship. So between our developmental test and the tech eval and the IOT&E [initial operational test and evaluation] test, we ran that stream raid three times and were successful all three times,” he said.

Although the Coronado defeated the swarms of fast incoming attack craft, an enemy boat was able to penetrate the ship’s “keep out zone” in two of the three tests, Gilmore said in the 2015 DOT&E report. The ship also expended a “large quantity” of ammunition from its guns to keep those attackers at bay.

“LCS-4’s failure to defeat this relatively modest threat routinely under test conditions raises questions about its ability to deal with more realistic threats certain to be present in theater,” he wrote in the report.

In a statement released last week, the Navy restated its confidence in the LCS and the surface warfare mission module.

“In two of the three raid events, a single target minimally and only briefly entered the established keep-out range,” the service said. “In both cases, ship’s crew quickly maneuvered to open up the range and achieve a kill on the target.”

Tests of the Longbow Hellfire, the line-of-sight missile that will be included in increment three of the surface warfare module, have also been encouraging, Moton said. The Navy is adapting the Hellfire from the Army version, which is launched from a helicopter. The maritime version of the missile involves modifications so that it can be vertically launched from a ship and then lock onto a target.

“We’ve done two guided test vehicle launch tests in the last year. Those were actually operated off of a research ship, but we were using the prototype LCS launcher,” he said. “It’s not tied into the ship’s combat system yet, but we still tell the missile, okay here’s where the target is, and then everything from the time the missile takes off is just how we envision it on the LCS.”

The Navy plans to do additional guided test vehicle launches from the USNS Relentless test ship this spring. Then it will install the engineering development model (EDM) launcher on an LCS and launch the missile from the ship later this year, Moton said. The service has not yet decided ­­­which LCS will be the first to launch the missile.

The service also plans to conducts cybersecurity tests on the Coronado this spring. During the test, a Navy team will try to hack into the ship’s network. The second phase of the test will evaluate how vulnerable the ship would be once intruders have made their way into the network.