The ability of the new Littoral Combat Ships to survive combat was comparable to other surface warships despite criticism that the aluminum-hulled LCS class would be prone to fires from a hit, the chief of Naval Operations said Friday.
All surface combatants acting independently, as the LCS was designed to operate, were vulnerable, given the increasing range and lethality of modern anti-ship weapons, Adm. Jonathan Greenert said.
“There isn’t really even an Arleigh Burke (class destroyer) that I would say you just go anywhere — anywhere in the world and you will be able to encounter all kind of threats” without risking survivability, Greenert said.
“I don’t know of any right now” — other than possibly submarines — “where you can say you can go out there and be very much on your own in all threat environments,” Greenert said. “My point is, we have to be vigilant and smart where we deploy this ship, and that includes understanding its survivability capabilities.”
Greenert added that the two designs in the LCS program – the single-hull Freedom class and the trimaran Independence class – were never meant for slug-it-out surface combat.
“We believe that they should be built to operate and, if damaged in combat, to survive and then to withdraw, if you will. That’s the design from the very beginning,” Greenert said. “They have been built and tested to that level, and so far, I’m satisfied with that.”
Greenert’s remarks came ahead of what was likely to be a crucial week for the future of the LCS program, in which the Navy envisions building 52 of the ships for a projected cost of about $37 billion.
The Government Accountability Office was expected to release a report on the cost projections and performance problems of the LCS class in the coming week, and the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces will hold a hearing on July 25 on the acquisition and development challenges of the LCS.
Vice Adm. Richard S. Hunt, director of the Navy Staff and chairman of the Navy’s LCS Council for oversight of the program, was scheduled to testify.
In a wide-ranging Pentagon briefing, Greenert spoke to the Navy’s current inability to support the U.S. Southern Command in Latin America and the Caribbean, the growing piracy threat in the Gulf of Oman, and the scrapping of the two-carrier policy in the Persian Gulf for the forseeable future.
The effects of the sequester process, estimated to cut $14 billion from Navy spending in Fiscal Year 2014, loomed over all of his planning, Greenert said.
Marine Gen. John Kelly, head of the Southern Command, has warned repeatedly that the lack of Navy ships in the area was directly related to the increase in drug trafficking from South America to the U.S. and also to East Africa, where the drug money funds elements of Al Qaeda and other radical groups in Mali and Nigeria.
Greenert acknowledged that currently “zero ships” are committed to Southcom. He said “I don’t know” when asked when the Navy had ever in the past left Southcom without a surface combatant.
Officials at the Fourth Fleet in Jacksonville, Fla., which supports Southcom, couldn’t recall either. “We can’t remember for the life of us when we didn’t have a ship presence,” said Lt. Cmdr. Corey Barker, a spokesman for the Fourth Fleet. “Usually, we’d have four or five,” he said.
To compensate, “in the future we’ll have patrol craft” in the Southcom area, “but these don’t count in our combatant ship category,” Greenert said. “There’s reduced presence there, and we need to find innovative ways to help Gen. Kelly out,” he said.
Barker said that the frigate Rentz will also go on station for Southcom for six months starting in August, and added that the Fourth Fleet was eager to have a high-speed LCS to take on Trans-National Organized Crime duty going after small-boat drug runners.
“We’d surely love to have one,” Barker said. “We can take an LCS as is,” without the modular additions designed to allow the LCS class to switch from anti-mine to anti-submarine warfare, Barker said.
Greenert also said he was planning to deploy the Spearhead, the first Joint High Speed Vessel, to Southcom for several months in FY14.
As a catamaran, the Spearhead, “can get around. It’s very nimble, as well,” Greenert said. The ship has excellent “troop carrying capacity, but behind that is also a backbone to do command-and-control for things like counter-piracy, maritime security,” and there’s also room for a law enforcement detachment, he said.
In his Pentagon briefing, Greenert also noted an uptick in piracy in the Gulf of Oman at the southern end of the Persian Gulf, and he suggested that the increase could be due to the successful efforts at combating piracy in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia.
Greenert could not provide numbers on the piracy incidents but said “I would call it an increasing trend, not yet as bad as the Gulf of Aden once was.Why is this happening? Is it the migration of Somali pirates to the north, smugglers turning now to piracy? We need to look into it to see what that is,” he said.
On the Persian Gulf presence to counter the threat from Iran, Greenert said the Navy could only afford to keep one carrier battle group there, as opposed to the two-carrier presence before sequester went into effect in March.
As a result, the Navy will be restricted to a single carrier battle group in the Gulf and one in the western Pacific at least through FY14 which begins Oct. 1, Greenert said.
The Navy currently has 95 of its 286 ships deployed, along with 3,700 aircraft, but “I’ll tell you, since sequestration sort of set in with the impact of a continuing resolution, we’re down about 10 ships from, say, about a year ago or actually several months ago, forward deployed. So there is an impact,” Greenert said.
Normally, the Navy would have three carriers in reserve stateside to act as a surge force in case of a crisis, but because of sequester the reserve has been reduced to one carrier, Greenert said.