As regular readers know, ComNavOps has not been a fan of the Navy’s distributed lethality concept. In its original, articulated form, the Navy wanted to arm every ship that floated including amphibious ships, logistic ships, MLPs, MCM, and so on. That’s just stupid. Those ships are far too valuable to risk having them within attack range of enemy ships – if you’re in attack range then you’re also in range to be attacked. Risking vital support ships just to carry 8 Harpoons is idiotic, but, hey, that’s the Navy for you.
Of late, I’ve heard less about arming support ships and more about focusing on arming the LCS as the distributed lethality platform. Of course, arming a warship isn’t exactly distributed lethality; it’s just making a warship what it’s supposed to be – a warship. The only reason this is even a point of discussion is because the Navy has built a class of warship that has no useful weapons!
Let’s focus on arming the LCS with a credible anti-ship missile. We’ll assume it’s the Harpoon, for sake of discussion, although the Navy is also looking at the NSM and other options. Let’s further assume that the LCS will carry 8 Harpoons on two Mk 141 rack launchers which has been the standard Harpoon loadout on every ship that has carried Harpoons since the Perry FFGs. It’s also possible that the LCS will only carry a single launcher which would mean just 4 Harpoons. The number of missiles is likely a weight related issue given that the LCS is hard up against its weight margins. For our discussion, the number of missiles doesn’t matter.
So, conceptually, how does this distributed lethality work?
Well, the LCS will have a 100 nm (the exact range depends on the exact missile but this is a good discussion figure) missile and a 20 nm targeting radar. This is the first challenge in distributed lethality – how does the distributed shooter find a target? The Navy’s answer is that targeting will come from off board sensors like a P-8 Poseidon, F-35, or Triton UAV.
What happens when an off board sensor finds a target? In the case of the manned aircraft, does the pilot instantly radio the LCS and tell them to launch a missile? Of course not. The pilot doesn’t know what distributed shooters are available. Further, the pilot doesn’t know the various missions that are on-going in the area and what priority the target he’s found would have. He doesn’t know the weapon loadouts on the various distributed shooters. He doesn’t know what missions the distributed shooters are currently on and whether it’s worthwhile to disrupt their current mission. He doesn’t know whether it’s better to reveal the distributed shooter’s position by attacking or if it’s better to pass up the shot and stay hidden. In short, the pilot doesn’t have the necessary situational awareness to make a “shoot” call.
The pilot will simply transmit the information back to the local task group or regional commander for evaluation and decision. The commander (presumably an Admiral and his staff) will get the information, weigh it against all of his tasks, and decide what to do about it. You know how those things go. We’re probably looking at a many hours long process to arrive at a decision.
Side Note: What does the off board sensor platform do while waiting for a decision to be made? If he moves on or returns to base, contact is lost. Given that the target is moving, the target co-ordinates are lost and the ability to launch an attack is lost if the delay is an hour or more (a ship moving at 20 kts has now displaced from its original target location by 20 nm). Of course, we can always launch an attack at a predicted location and hope for the best but that’s a rapidly diminishing likelihood of success that, if it fails, will waste a shooter’s load and reveal its location for no gain. Alternatively, does the off board sensor platform try to stay in contact for, potentially, many hours while waiting for command to make a decision? Given the relatively short endurance of aerial platforms, that may not even be possible. If possible, it may not be wise to stay tied to one location near an enemy. That’s a good way to get shot down!
Let’s say a decision is made to launch an attack. If there happens to be a shooter within range then the rest is simple. The shooter is sent targeting data and the attack occurs. More likely, there are no shooters in range (or not enough shooters in range – an attack will likely require multiple shooters to have a good chance of success). More hours will pass while the shooters maneuver into range (refer again to the previous side note). Once all the shooters are in position, the attack occurs.
So, setting aside the issue of trying to operate a data network in the face of peer level ECM, there is nothing wrong with the concept of distributed lethality. It can find targets and attack them with any available distributed shooter ship. The major issues would seem to be the process of simply making a decision whether to shoot and what to do with the off board sensor while that decision making process and shooter assembly plays out.
As I pointed out earlier, this is not really distributed lethality but simply networked warships akin to the Navy’s AAW Co-operative Engagement Capabiity (CEC). Regardless of the semantics, it can work, though clumsily.
One other possible scenario is that the LCS’ own helo or UAV is used to provide off-board target detection. A helo or UAV is relatively short ranged which is not a problem since the Harpoon is relatively short ranged. The problem is that the helo/UAV is also relatively short endurance – a few to several hours – and that assumes the target was located early in the flight. More likely, the target is located during the second half of the flight with consequently much shorter target contact endurance. As previously described, locating a target is only part of the process. A sufficient number of shooters still need to be moved into position and that can take many hours, depending on the dispersal of the shooters.
Of course, a squadron of LCS can operate together, in close proximity, so that upon target detection most or all of the shooters will be in range or can achieve firing positions in short order. The flip side of having a squadron operate in close proximity is that it greatly increases the likelihood of the group being spotted and attacked before they can accomplish their purpose. Close grouping of the shooters inherently contradicts the concept of “distributed” lethality. If you’re going to have a squadron of LCS operate in close proximity then you may as well just have a single Burke which could not only carry as many weapons as a squadron (assuming a vertical launch anti-ship missile) but could also defend itself which a squadron of LCS cannot.
Let’s now consider what the distributed shooters are doing when they aren’t actively shooting. Presumably, the shooters are cruising around in enemy or contested waters looking for targets. However, given the mismatch between the shooter’s sensing range, even using helo/UAVs, and the enemy’s sensors (land based Over The Horizon radar, submarines, AWACS-ish aircraft, maritime patrol aircraft, UAVs, and larger ship radars, it is more likely that the shooters will be found before the shooters can find the enemy. Thus, the shooters will be sunk one by one.
In the classic distributed lethality model, especially as espoused by Hughes, being detected doesn’t really matter because the individual shooters are cheap and expendable and individual losses create, hopefully, flaming data points due to the enemy revealing their location(s). Of course, if the enemy attacks with land based anti-ship missiles or aircraft, they haven’t really revealed anything, have they? It’s only if they attack with ships that they reveal anything we probably didn’t already know.
So, the likelihood is that our distributed shooters will be destroyed piecemeal for no gain until a suitable target can be found. If the shooters were cheap enough this might be acceptable. However, an LCS currently costs $500M - $750M after including post-delivery construction, Government Furnished Equipment, and modules. The “frigate” version will be even more expensive – likely $750M - $1B. I’m not sure that a $500M - $1B ship can be considered expendable and sacrificing several just to obtain a single attack opportunity is unlikely to be a beneficial trade.
This also raises the question of how many LCS’s are available for use as distributed shooters? Let’s assume we build the full 40 that are currently planned. Of those, 12 are scheduled to be dedicated MCM vessels. Would we really want to risk our very rare and very valuable MCM vessels? Remember, when the LCS-MCM comes on line we’ll retire the Avengers and those 12 LCS-MCM’s will constitute our entire ship-based MCM capability! So, if we don’t risk those as distributed shooters, that only leaves us with 28 possible distributed LCS shooters. Another 12 or so are scheduled to be dedicated anti-submarine (ASW) ships. The same logic applies. Do we really want to risk them? In this case, the answer may be yes because we do have other ASW assets throughout the fleet. But, if we opt not to risk them, that drops the available distributed LCS shooters to 16 or less.
If half to two thirds of the LCS’s are in port at any given moment, and that’s being generous given the reliability issues, scheduled in-port maintenance requirements (every two weeks), and extremely limited endurance (8-14 days with the current crew levels), then we’re looking at only a half a dozen LCS being available as distributed shooters at any given moment. That’s not a lot and won’t cover much area!
The LCS’ very limited endurance (8-14 days) combined with the maintenance model that requires the ship to put into port every two weeks (hence, the designed limited stores endurance) makes the LCS a very poor choice as a distributed shooter – no surprise, it’s a poor choice for anything!
Worse, the requirement to put into port every two weeks implies that it will have to leave the war zone for two weeks or more every two weeks. The enemy is not going to allow us to use a port located in the contested region. Thus, the LCS will have to leave and travel to a protected or safe port well back from the war zone. The LCS will use up most of its at sea endurance and two week operating window just traveling to and from its maintenance ports! I don’t think the Navy really thought through the use of LCS’s in combat and has not thought through the use of the LCS as a distributed shooter ship.
Let’s now look at this from the enemy’s perspective. One of the claimed benefits of distributed lethality is that it hugely complicates the enemy’s job. He won’t know which ships can shoot and will have to assume they all can. Supposedly, this somehow complicates his day to day life.
In war, each side will attempt to sink every enemy ship they find, right? It doesn’t matter if the ship is armed or not. It doesn’t matter if the ship is a warship or cargo vessel. In short, the enemy will attempt to sink every ship they find. So, if the enemy will attempt to sink every ship they find, how or why does it matter if the ship is a distributed shooter? They’re going to try to sink it anyway. I’m failing to see how the enemy’s tactical position is more complicated. If they see an LCS, they’ll sink it (it’s not like the LCS can defend itself) whether it has Harpoon missiles on board or not.
I’m mentally wargaming this from the enemy’s perspective and I just don’t see how the question of whether an LCS is armed or not affects anything the enemy will do. The enemy’s task is: see a ship, sink a ship. It’s not: see a ship, decide whether it’s a distributed shooter or not, maybe sink it or maybe not.
If the reverse were true, that the enemy could not, or did not want to, sink a non-distributed shooter ship then their tactical situation would be greatly more complicated. They’d have to somehow make a definitive determination of the target ship’s weapon load out which would require additional recon assets and time and add a great deal of uncertainty to the tactical picture. However, that’s a ridiculous scenario. In a war, the enemy will, see a ship, sink a ship, and not care what weapons, if any, it was carrying.
So, the claim of distributed lethality being a complication for the enemy seems unfounded.
Considering all of this, the concept of using the LCS as distributed shooters seems like a costly, high attrition exercise for relatively little benefit. Further, the very LCS maintenance model and associated limited endurance make the LCS ill-suited as a distributed shooter.