Could Boeing give LCS more punch?

An advanced new missile could potentially mean big changes for the littoral combat ship.

Our distinguished colleague John Reed had a very interesting item this week that could potentially mean good things for the Navy’s littoral combat ship — Boeing wants to build it a new missile.

As John wrote over at Defense Tech, Boeing has a thing it’s calling the Joint Air-Breathing Multi-Role Missile, a concept for “a surface engagement weapon enlisting air breathing propulsion capabilities for greater range  than some current solid rocket propelled missiles. It could be used as an air interceptor or surface engagement weapon against fast moving vessels,” as Boeing’s spokeswoman told him.

It’s early days for this weapon and LCS does not have a good track record with missiles — the Army cancelled its Non-Line of Sight missile and now the Navy is trying to make the Griffin work as a stopgap — but if Boeing can deliver, it might go a long way toward shoring up some of critics’ biggest arguments against LCS.

Lockheed Martin’s Freedom-class ships have a standard Rolling Airframe Missile launcher aft on the superstructure, and Austal’s Independence-class ships have a SeaRAM. But those are for ship self-defense, not for heavy-duty anti-air work, so if LCS got several crates of new heavier-duty missiles it could use against red air, it might give Navy commanders more flexibility in the types of scenarios in which they felt comfortable using LCS. By some measures, these ships could make up half of tomorrow’s surface force, so a beefed up anti-air capability might have been inevitable anyway.

At very least, Boeing’s concept could restore, or even expand, the ships’ ability to attack surface targets. Back in the old days, the idea was an LCS would launch its Fire Scout unmanned helicopter, use it to pick out bad guys and then direct the missiles to their targets. If the Navy gets that back, it’ll restore its onetime baseline for the LCS’ ability to fight on the surface, and if it gets a longer range and a bigger punch, so much the better.

The problem, of course, is making all of it a reality. Moreover, Boeing’s promises could begin to create tension for LCS right at the moment when its supporters want it to start building momentum. LCS wasn’t supposed to be a cruiser, rolling in with heavy weapons to try to outduel other warships. The Navy specifically wanted it to fight down, for lack of a better term, assuming the enemies would be illiterate pirates or suicidal swarm-boat attackers or small groups of bad guys near a coast. The prospect of new heavier weapons on ships that will form so much of the fleet could create pressure to continue up-gunning LCS to compensate for the projected gap in major combatants — especially if the Navy is confident about developing weapons while continuing to struggle in fielding the ships’ unmanned accessories.

That idea would please the people who have been saying all along LCS is way too under-armed to call itself a U.S. Navy warship. And even LCS advocates have said all along the beauty of the ships was that they could evolve and adapt as the Navy needs. Still, the Navy could find itself in a situation where it was shoehorning a destroyer-type mission onto a platform that was built for a very different vision, and which was not built for major combat.

Then again, the standard LCS caveat always applies: It’s all so far in the future no one can say what will happen.