How US Navy Littoral Combat Ships Could Lose the Battle for the South China Sea
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By David Axe, The National Interest
The U.S. Navy in late 2019 or 2020 expects to select a shipyard to build the fleet’s new guided-missile frigate.
The 20 heavily-armed frigates will replace roughly half of the 50 or so Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) that the Navy had planned to buy before realizing that the lightly-armed LCS likely couldn’t survive in a major shooting war.
Just how vulnerable is the LCS?
In 2013 journalist Kyle Mizokami put the speedy, 3,000-ton-displacement vessel to the test. Booting up Command: Modern Naval/Air Operations -- a high-end computer war game -- Mizokami pitted simulated LCSs against a Chinese flotilla.
“The result isn’t good — and a harrowing lesson to be cautious about how we equip the U.S. military,” Mizokami wrote.
The mock battle raged near the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. In real life, The Philippines and China both claim the shoal. In Mizokami’s simulation, a Chinese force composed of the destroyer Changde and the corvette Qinzhou ambushes and sinks a pair of Philippine frigates.
Two LCSs, Fort Worth and Freedom, are the first to arrive on the scene of the massacre. The American destroyer Halsey also is on the way.
“It’s a gamble because Littoral Combat Ships are not well-protected against anti-ship missiles, having only their 57-millimeter guns and Rolling Airframe missile launcher mounts,” Mizokami wrote. “I believe Qinzhou is out of anti-ship missiles. Changde might still have all of her missiles, but she’s also taken serious damage trading shots with [Philippine ship] Emilio Jacinto.”
From his piece:
Moving at more than 40 knots, Fort Worth and Freedom begin closing the gap. Qinzhou and Changde both turn to face Fort Worth. Apparently they want to fight. I’ll oblige them. Both LCSs are under orders to engage the enemy as soon as they come close enough to fire their Griffin surface-to-surface missiles. Between the two of them, they have 30 Griffins.
At four miles, Fort Worth opens up on Qinzhou with her 57-millimeter gun. Qinzhou immediately returns fire with her 76-millimeter gun, lightly damaging Fort Worth. Unfortunately, Fort Worth’s Rolling Airframe missile launcher is destroyed early on, meaning she is out of active anti-missile defenses.
Then the Griffin missile launcher is put out of action, meaning Fort Worth’s sole armament is a single 57-millimeter gun. Within moments, that too is destroyed.
Fort Worth is hurt, with a bad fire and severe flooding. She’s defenseless at this range. It’s time to leave. Fort Worth turns to race south at maximum speed, but it continues to be pummeled by Qinzhou’s 76-millimeter gun. Laser rangefinders, gun directing radar, 30-millimeter Bushmaster guns all knocked out … the damage reports keep coming in.
Fort Worth is doomed.
As if that weren’t bad enough, Halsey detects two anti-ship missiles launched to the south, halfway between her and Fort Worth and right in the vicinity of the Scarborough Shoal. Could they be from a submarine?
Whatever they are, they’re moving at 520 knots. The two mystery missiles streak north, towards Fort Worth. Not good. Halsey again tries to intervene, launching a salvo of four SM-6 air-defense missiles that within moments are traveling at 2,400 knots. Will they reach the threats in time?
Suddenly, it no longer matters. Fort Worth capsizes.
Freedom closes in on Changde. “At 5.7 miles, Freedom reports there is light damage and major flooding on the already wounded Changde,” Mizokami wrote. “She opens fire with the 57-millimeter gun, quickly scoring several hits. Changde’s gun must be damaged, because it is not opening fire.”
But the LCS’s weapons are too light quickly to sink the Chinese destroyer.
Changde takes a lot of hits but is not going down, likely because of the small size of the 57-millimeter shell. Freedom is charging ahead at more than 40 knots, blazing away with her gun.”
I’m waiting for my Griffin missiles to launch. What’s the range on those things? What’s taking so long?
At a distance of three miles, the Griffin missiles launch. It’s about time, because the 57-millimeter gun jams. Changde already has a medium-sized fire and major flooding. Several Griffins malfunction but most score hits on Changde.
Still, they don’t do any appreciable damage to the already damaged ship — Griffin missiles have a warhead that weighs as much as two laptop computers. The next largest anti-ship missile in the American inventory, Harpoon, has a warhead that weighs 488 pounds. But there aren’t any Harpoons within hundreds of miles.
Finally, with the last of Freedom’s missiles expended, Changde goes down. But Quinzhou, the Type 056 corvette, has arrived at the shoal and engages Freedom with its 76-millimeter gun. Due to the short range of the 57-millimeter gun, Freedom can’t return fire. ...
I waffle, and Quinzhou and Freedom are now locked in a gun battle and only one is going to sail away. Freedom has a rapid firing gun and likely better fire control, but Quinzhou’s shells are larger.
Freedom catches fire.
And that’s where the 2013 war game ended.
The Navy undoubtedly ran similar simulations of its own, with similar results, for a year after Mizokami played out the destruction of two LCSs, the Navy drastically curtailed the program in favor of buying tougher, more-heavily-armed frigates.
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