The Navy’s LCS missile woes

The service must field an underwhelming stop-gap while it tries to find or develop a better permanent weapon for its new ships.

The Navy’s littoral combat ships were supposed to bring the era of missile warfare into its next generation. It was the perfect scheme: The Navy would sit back and relax while the Army did all the work developing its planned Non Line Of Sight missiles, a “box of rockets” that soldiers — and later, sailors — could use to bring precise and overwhelming force against tomorrow’s hard-to-find-but-easy-to-kill bad guys.

In the computer-animated “simulations” of yesteryear, a helicopter or cargo plane drops off an NLOS crate for a team of Army special operators deep in Indian Country. Let’s say the soldiers spot some bad guys fleeing in a pickup truck. No time to call in the dumb ol’ Air Force for CAS — instead, the soldiers push some buttons and launch a missile from their own crate, which sweeps down to deliver righteous punishment. Our guys stay under cover and they’re free to continue maneuvering forward and bringing the pain, either with additional NLOS strikes or their own weapons.

The Navy saw this brief and its eyes bugged out — just imagine what a small, precise missile could do for the LCS. Its human-sized dimensions meant it could ride up high on the ships’ aluminum superstructures, hit targets tracked by their Fire Scout unmanned helicopters, and most importantly, keep the LCS well away from knife-fight engagements with potential suicide craft. So in the Navy’s computer-animated NLOS simulation, an LCS used a missile to kill a man on a jet-ski. That is not a joke.

But of course NLOS went away – the Army couldn’t make it work and it was too expensive. That meant the LCS’ most potent weapon disappeared before the first ships even fully entered service, and since then, the brass has been scrambling to try to figure out what to do. This brings us to Monday’s post by our phriend Phib, which quotes a report saying that the Navy is already planning to replace its interim replacement for NLOS:

Even in its original forms of 60 then 45 NLOS missiles, the ASUW package was lame and fraught with technology risk. So much non-mitigated technology risk, that when NLOS predictably could not make it off the PPT slide — we defaulted to the even more than suboptimal Griffin missile that we discussed back in JAN of this year.Over at PEO LCS — or whatever they are calling themselves this FY — RDML James A. Murdoch and his band of merry folks are doing the best they can with the bucket of goo they inherited .. but this is just sad.

The program executive office for the Littoral Combat Ship has already identified capabilities that could replace the Griffin missile that will be utilized by the ship’s surface warfare mission package, and a competition will begin this fiscal year, Rear Adm. James Murdoch, head of the PEO, said here recently.

This is good news, really. Griffin is unquestionably unsatisfactory, but it is all that we have.

Griffin-B’s surface-launched range is less than 1/6th of the Raytheon NLOS-LS PAM’s planned 25 mile range, so replacing NLOS-LS with Griffin comes at a cost. This severe cut in reach, coupled with the warhead’s small size, will sharply limit the Littoral Combat Ship’s already-restricted ranged engagement options. Griffins would be suitable for engaging enemy speedboats, but cannot function as naval fire support for ground forces, or do much damage to full-size enemy vessels – most of which will pack large anti-ship missiles with a 50+ mile reach.

Let me help you with the math with that 13-lb warhead.. 1/6th of 25nm is 4.17nm. Let that soak in. Target 2nm inland … close shore … some goober pulls a 57mm AZP S-60 out from behind the goat shed .. etc, etc, etc … I guess we could just use that awesome speed to run away from a threat. That has such a wonderful pedigree in the Navy.

LCS advocates in the Navy would jump in here and say, now look, the whole point of this is that it’s a different kind of warship. Yes, it can’t get into a slugfest with a Sovremenny — but it was never built to do so. LCS is supposed to show up two days before the strike group and be sure the waters of interest are clear of mines, submarines and villains in small boats.

The problem, of course, is that this explanation — like the Marines’ insistance that their former Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle didn’t need protection against IED because, well, it would just never drive where there were IEDs, OK? — sounds embarrassingly rigid. “LCS doesn’t need a heavier main battery because it will never get into serious combat — we’ve CC’d all potential enemies on this doctrine so they’ll know to play by the rules just in case.”

Murdoch’s new missile could present the Navy with an opportunity to address this. Now all he has to do is get it funded, get it built and field it in large numbers. Easy, right?