Navy's Fast-Growing LCS Fleet Will Control Air-Surface-Undersea Drones
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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven
(Washington, D.C.) Swarming robotic attacks, high-threat search and rescue operations, forward reconnaissance and offensive strike maneuvers are all missions the U.S. Navy is increasingly trying to perform with autonomous Unmanned Surface Vessels dispatched from and operated by larger, manned surface ships performing command and control.
This conceptual and tactical vision is now being accelerated across the Navy’s fleet, including the fast-growing fleet of Littoral Combat Ships which, among other things, are being engineered and upgraded to operate larger numbers of undersea and surface drones. Unmanned systems are of great significance regarding the LCS, giving its improving, AI-enabled capacity to perform command and control functions and the value of drones for mine-countermeasures, surface attack and anti-submarine warfare. The LCS already operates several undersea mine-hunting drones and, through software upgrades, is in the process of being configured to more quickly acquire and process targeting and sensor data from air-sea-and-undersea drones.
The Navy is adding LCS ships to the fleet at a much faster pace than other ships given the increasing extent to which they are being armed with weapons and in some cases back-fitted with new technologies now being built into its even more heavily armed FFG Frigate fleet such as over-the horizon missiles, deck-fired interceptors and mounted guns. Some of the Navy’s LCS-building industry partners, such as Lockheed and Austal USA, could be asked to rev up production.
“We have the ability to flex to meet the Navy’s rate request. Through our manufacturing process we have the ability to meet changing Navy requirements as they are presented including future small surface vessels,” Craig Savage, Austal USA spokesman told Warrior
Operating larger numbers of unmanned systems massively changes the tactical equation for the LCS and of course better aligns the ships with the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations strategy which calls for much greater levels of disaggregated operations. This is significant for the LCS as it can both operate in coordination with other surface and undersea vessels and also more independently for coastal patrol, mine-hunting missions or even deep-water attack.
“The LCS is a fast, agile, mission-focused platform designed to operate in near-shore environments, while capable of open-ocean tasking and winning against 21st-century coastal threats such as submarines, mines, and swarming small craft,” a Navy report states.
All of this pertains in great measure to the Navy’s rapid progress in the area of autonomy, a circumstance enabling the ships to coordinate a small fleet of interconnected Unmanned Surface Vessels sharing information with a host ship as well as one another. Some USVs are configured to tow sonar to hunt for enemy submarines and mines, while others perform surface and aerial reconnaissance to search for potential points of entry for amphibious attack or even conduct offensive maritime combat operations. The LCS fleet is also growing in its capacity to operate undersea drones with advanced levels of autonomy. One such system in development, called Barracuda, is able to use undersea semi-autonomous networking to find and then itself explode enemy mines.
The U.S. Navy is cranking out new Littoral Combat Ships at an ambitious pace to fortify the surface fleet with armed surface combatants along with new measures of surface, anti-submarine and countermine warfare.
Independence variant shipbuilding Austal USA just delivered the future USS Mobile (LCS 26) as a recent step on route to complete ongoing construction of as many as four more new LCS ships. The current Navy plan is to commission the new ship next year.
“Building ships on time and on cost has been something we have been focused on since the beginning and we have been able to achieve that through strong safety records and performance excellence,” Savage, Austal spokesman, told Warrior.
LCS 28, 30, 32 and 34 are all under construction, Savage explained, referring to an ongoing effort to keep pace with sustained Navy demand for the ships; Austal delivered four LCS during the year 2020, and the particular number for this year remains in flux as it depends upon Navy requirements and continued ship construction at Austal’s Mobile, Ala., shipyard.
“Mobile is the 23rd littoral combat ship (LCS) and the 13th of the Independence variant to join the fleet. Four additional Independence-variant ships - Savannah (LCS 28), Canberra (LCS 30), Santa Barbara (LCS 32), and Augusta (LCS 34) - are in various stages of construction at Austal USA, and two more are awaiting the start of construction following LCS 34,” an Austal statement said.
The Navy’s push to add new LCS surface ships certainly aligns with the service’s strategy aimed at better arming its fleet for attack and pursuing more distributed or dis-aggregated tactics. The Navy’s current Distributed Maritime Operations strategy seeks to expand command and control technologies to better network the fleet for modern, more dispersed warfare possibilities in response to emerging technologies and new threats posed by major power rivals. Potential adversaries have longer-range weapons, sensors and AI-enabled systems in position to present new levels of threats to the U.S. Navy, part of why the service has in recent years been moving quickly to better arm the LCS for attack. This broad, fleet wide initiative has resulted in the addition of new long-range, deck-launched strike missiles and ship-launched drones to expand combat reach.
Part of the LCS advantage also rests upon its maneuverability attributes which include an ability to reach speeds of 40 knots and access coastal areas and island chains more effectively than deeper draft ships.
This is particularly relevant in areas such as the Pacific region which includes the highly-contested South China Sea island areas. Much of this area is littoral, and filled with numerous Chinese man- made or “phony” islands now able to launch Chinese weapons, fighter jets and other assets. With these challenges in mind, Savage explained that LCS 10 was recently operating in the Pacific theater.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.