The Littoral Combat Ship is the bane of many surface warfare experts who see the thin-skinned vessel as a $650M speedboat without a clear mission, or teeth for that matter. After years of denial, the Navy has begun listening to the LCS's detractors and has come to terms with the fact that their plug-and-play wannabe warship needs more weaponry in order to gain relevance. The first step in this re-arming of sorts will be adding the AGM-114L Longbow Hellfire missile.
The LCS saga reads more like a disaster novel than a true romance, with all the hallmarks of a crappy defense program: large cost overruns, reduced capabilities, broken timelines, questionable survivability in combat, lack of operational independence, and most glaringly of all, very little ability to actually destroy anything.
With this in mind the Navy has been kicking around ideas to add some sort of guided weaponry to the LCS after its Non Line Of Sight (XM-501 NLOS) missile was cancelled. In fact, both LCS classes, the Independence and the Freedom, were built with space for a miniature vertical launch system containing NLOS missiles to be housed. The NLOS was to designed as two separate variants, the Precision Attack Munition (PAM), with a range of about 30 miles or so, and the Loitering Attack Munition (LAM) that could hang around looking for targets for around a half an hour. When the army cancelled the NLOS program, and the Navy did not pick up the slack, the LCS was left with no punch aside from its Phalanx or C-RAM close-in weapon system, its 57mm automatic cannon, a pair of 30mm chain guns and its MH-60R helicopters.
A huge and building threat to the Navy's traditional lumbering "blue water" forces is swarming fast attack craft. War games have actually proven this fact to a ghastly degree.
Seeing as the LCS was built for speeding around the littorals, where these potential swarms lurk, and seeing as it lost its only precision guided weaponry years ago, what real use has it plying the muddy waters when a gaggle of small boats can just overwhelm the ship and sink it? The Navy claims that more traditional "blue water" tasks have come to light for fledgling LCS, but you can never really tell how relevant these new roles are when a program like this is on the ropes and looking for relevance in a rapidly shrinking defense budget. Nonetheless, the ship needs some sort of guided weaponry, and fast.
A highly revised version of Raytheon's somewhat successful Griffin missile was the leading contender for making another run at painting some teeth on the LCS's hull, as a version of it has seen relevant service aboard USAF MC-130W Dragon Spears and Marine MC-130J Harvest Hawks, as well as seemingly sporadic use on unmanned aircraft and the Navy's Cyclone Class patrol vessels. Still, the Griffon relies on laser or GPS/inertial guidance. In other words, an operator has to continuously "paint" a target with a laser while the Griffin is in flight, otherwise a specific location on the globe must be programmed into the Griffin before launch. This equates to engaging one moving target at a time or engaging multiple fixed targets, both of which are not the best solution for repelling swarming small boat attacks.
With this in mind, the folks at Raytheon would have to integrate a new RF (radio frequency) seeker to the pint sized missile in order to give the Navy's LCS program what it wanted. Doing so costs money and takes extra time, and usually makes little fiscal sense if the missile is being modified just for a few dozen ships. So, it took the Navy a few years to look carefully at what the DoD already has in its inventory that may be able to get the job done, and they logically came up with the Army's AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopter's unique version of the Hellfire Missile, the AGM-114L.
The AGM-114L was built to accompany the AH-64D's APG-78 "Longbow" mast mounted fire control radar. The concept behind this capable duo is that the Apache could survey the battlefield within its immediate proximity, even while partially masked behind terrain, such as a ridge or a bank of trees, and assign targets identified and classified by the radar to its AGM-114L missiles. At which time the missiles could lock on using their millimetric radar seekers, or they could lock on after launch and use their internal inertial guidance system to bring the target within lock-on range. In other words, the AGM-114L is a "fire and forget" weapon, and a whole barrage of them can be fired off at individual targets and the launching platform can turn and run like hell immediately. Additionally, because we are talking about radar detection and targeting instead of infrared/electro-optical detection and laser targeting, the system can work in any weather and visual conditions as visibility is irrelevant to radar.
When it comes to swarming skiffs and cigarette boats attacking a US Navy floatilla, en masse, you can see how being able to target and engage a multitude of moving targets rapids really makes one hell of a lot of sense.
Additionally, weather on the high seas, and especially around coastlines, varies greatly, and with laser guided systems not seeing your target visually or via infrared detection can mean the difference between a hole in your ship and obliterating the enemy with prejudice. The AGM-114L missile will take guidance from the LCS's installed SAAB "Sea Giraffe" radar system in a similar manner as it does from the Apache's mast mounted radar.
Additionally, there are thousands of Hellfire missiles already in the DoD's inventory, and it is already the primary anti-surface warfare weapon of the MH-60R helicopters that will regularly embark aboard the LCS. In other words, the LCS will not have to stock and maintain an entire separate missile system than the one already deployed aboard it.
In the end, the trading of the laser guided Griffon for the highly proven and plentiful Hellfire makes perfect sense, and a battery of Hellfires will go a long way when it comes to fending off swarming small boat attacks. Still, this system is a far cry from the capability and range of the NOLS missile that the LCS was originally going to be equipped with. The difference between being able to engage a target at 5 miles compared to 30 miles is massive. With NOLS missile capability the LCS would have been able to deliver low collateral precision fire support inland which would have been especially relevant for supporting special forces and beach landing operations.
As with so many of the DoD's programs lately, in the end something is better than nothing, and the Hellfire missile system, when combined with its 57mm and 30mm cannons, CIWS, and hellfire toting MH-60R Seahawk, will allow the ship to be quite a potent weapon system against swarms of fast boats. If the Hellfire system is installed with a robust inventory of missiles embarked, and thus it does not end up being just a token self-defense oriented capability, the LCS with a surface warfare package installed could act as miniature AEGIS cruiser of sorts, albeit one used for providing an umbrella of small boat plinking capability within the inner circle of a Carrier Strike Group.
Still, one has to ask themselves, if arming a $650M combat ship with missiles designed to plink tanks at a few thousands yards is a big offensive improvement, then what the hell are doing procuring these ships in the first place?
It is clear the steely support for the LCS is cracking within the Pentagon, and the Navy knows that the LCS's true value is in great doubt. With this in mind, instead of buying 36 of these ambiguous ships why not call it a day with this failed concept and procure a proper frigate, like the Ingalls Patrol Frigate 4921, a ship that would be capable of defending itself and its companions against aerial attack, while also being to deploy Tomahawk cruise missiles and other traditionally vertical launch system deployed weapons?
To fill in where the littoral dogfighting capability that the LCS was supposed to posses, we could snag a couple dozen true littoral warfare corvettes, like the stealthy Visby Class (more info on the Visby in an upcoming piece!), for things like slinging short ranged missiles and cannon shells at cigarette boats.
In the end, conveying a strike capability to a three quarters of a billion dollar warship that is equivalent to embarking an Apache attack helicopter with her at sea is a start at making the "C" in LCS a reality. Still, considering how far this program has fallen when it comes to relevance and return on investment to the US taxpayer, it really is time to consider other force structure options that offer much more combat punch, operational independence and truly robust multirole capability. For tasks like fighting little boats around the world's shoals go buy a corvette, not a design compromised frigate that thinks it is one.
Photos via DoD and industry