Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Littoral Warfare - Is There Such a Thing?

The LCS may not be the perfect littoral combat ship but we’ve got to have something, right?  I mean, you can’t successfully fight in the littorals with a blue water navy, can you?  Surely, that’s obvious to everyone.  Capability shortfalls aside, clearly no other Navy ship can go where the LCS can thanks to its shallow draft, and that’s absolutely critical.  In short, it’s patently obvious that there is something unique about a littoral war zone that requires a specially designed naval force to successfully conduct combat operations in it.

If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.

Think about it for a moment…  is there even a littoral war zone?  And if there is, why would we want to be there?  Well, the Navy said there was a need for littoral ships.  They never said why but they hammered over and over again on the need.  Eventually, “littoral” became a concept that everyone accepted without ever asking why.  Well, now I’m asking so let’s look a bit closer.

What is the littoral zone?  There is no precise definition so let’s use the common sense definition that it’s the area near someone’s coast.  Don’t worry about how many yards or miles “near” is.

Is There Something Here That Matters?

So, that’s what a littoral zone is.  Now, what makes it a war zone?  Again, let’s keep it  simple.  It’s a war zone because we want to be there and someone wants to prevent that to the point of engaging in combat.

So, now we know what a littoral war zone is.  Now, what’s in a littoral war zone that makes us want to be there?  Well, the only answer that comes to mind is an amphibious assault.  If you want to land troops on a hostile beach then you need to clear mines, fend off subs, stop enemy naval forces, and shield your forces from missiles.

Fair enough.  That sounds like justification for a littoral combat vessel… except for two things.  One, the Navy’s official doctrine is to avoid beachfront assaults in favor of aviation-borne, maneuver-based assaults in the enemy’s rear area.  Two, there’s nothing unique about a coastal zone that precludes our current naval vessels from operating there.

Regarding the first point, if we aren’t going to conduct beachfront amphibious assaults then there is no littoral war zone.  Remember the definition of the littoral war zone?  It's a coastal zone that we want to be in and someone wants to prevent.  Well, if we don’t want to be there, then there’s no littoral war zone.  Wait a minute.  We don’t want to conduct amphibious assaults?  Who said that?  The Navy and Marines, apparently,

“At a recent amphibious warfare roundtable discussion, the Navy and Marine Corps amphibious warfare leaders, RADM LaPlante and Maj. Gen Jenkins, both agreed that, ‘the World War II amphibious frontal assaults are remote possibilities in today's modern warfare.’" (1)
Wasn’t the MV-22 developed and deployed on amphibious ships to avoid doing beachfront assaults?  Isn’t the LHA-6 class being built without a well deck since there is little need for beachfront assaults?  Isn’t the Navy continually telling us that land launched missiles make the coastal regions out of bounds for amphibious forces?

Burke - Helpless in Shallow Water?
Regarding the second point, if we did do a beachfront assault, what’s so unique about a coastal region that it would preclude current ships from operating successfully there?  There would be mines but our current Avenger MCM ships are quite capable of dealing with the threat.  There would be missiles but Burke class destroyers have CIWS, RAM, ESSM, and Standard missiles and would be quite capable of dealing with the threat.  In fact, the Navy has stated that the LCS can’t operate in a hostile environment without the protection of an Aegis destroyer’s AAW capability.  There would be subs but Burkes and SSNs can deal with those.  And so on …  The point being that there doesn’t appear to be anything so unique about a coastal region that it would render our current ships and weapons useless.  Sure, some characteristics are different.  ASW would use somewhat different tactics such as a great reliance on active sonar versus passive but that doesn’t require entirely new, specialized ships.

Well, what about draft?  The LCS can go further inshore and that’s beneficial isn’t it?  Is it?  Why would we want to be sailing around in 20 ft deep water?  What’s there that we want?  What can a ship do in 20 ft of water that it can’t do further out in, say, 100 ft of water?

When I consider all this, I come to the conclusion that “littoral warfare” is a concept that doesn’t really exist as it relates to needing specialized ships.  It appears to be a buzzword that the Navy latched onto in order to justify more ships to Congress.  If any of you believe that there is a unique “littoral” need, leave a comment.  I’m open to ideas on this.

(1) Littoral Warfare: Adapting To Brown-Water Operations, CSC 1993, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/report/1993/MFJ.htm, LCDR Frank J. Murphy, United States Navy


  1. I've assumed that any potential shoot out with China is going to revolve around small islands in the South China Sea, or that type of "littoral" environment, and will look much more like the Solomon Islands campaign than anything else.

    If the Burkes and the Ticos are the equivalent of capital ships, we need to have a rugged little equivalent to a destroyer.

    And the LCS is not a Fletcher class...

    OH, and I just stumbled across your blog, and added it to my daily read. Thank you!

  2. Thanks for looking in, Jon!

    Tell me more about how you think a China conflict will revolve around the many small islands. What about the islands would make them of interest to the U.S.? Would we invade the islands, just bombard them, simply isolate them, or something else entirely? Your thought is interesting. Please expand on it a bit!

    1. The islands in question are the property, for lack of a better word, of an ally with which we have mutual defense treaties. Would that not make them in our interests?

    2. Stephen, I don't recognize your name so welcome aboard!

      I'm not sure which islands, specifically, you're referring to, our which ally. Regardless, though, the point of the post was that our interests and military activities related to those interests would not take place in littoral zones and, even if they did, would not require any special littoral platforms. Do you see something about the islands you have in mind that would negate that premise?

  3. In terms of ASW - it's a very different ballgame in the littorals. The environment very much negates the sensor and weapons advantages we've long held in the open-ocean.

    I'm not saying our sensors and weapons would be completely ineffective, but without the proper training and experience I don't expect them to be nearly as effective.

    The risk-reward calculus is also very different. For example -an SSN can quite simply tear apart an SSK in the open ocean with little risk to itself. But in the littorals, the $1 billion SSN and the $250 million SSK are largely on an equal footing. It's a like a knife-fight in a phone booth.

    I think what we really needed is what LCS-ASW was 'intended' to be - a quick, cheap little ship with an standoff ASW mission module that allowed it to detect and kill subs at a distance. But that's not what LCS is delivering...

    1. SSK do not prefer operating too close to the shore, unless it is a really tiny midget sub. They have a higher risk of running aground.
      I have served on board the USS Simpson for 5 years and never have I heard or experienced a situation where because of an enemy SSK near the shore we were too big or not able to get close enough to chase it.
      I feel the LCS ASW module is unnecessary, a few OHP's could do a far better job for coastal ASW.

    2. Thanks for checking in! Your comments reinforce my main point. There's nothing so unique about the littoral zone that it requires a specialized vessel.

      The LCS ASW module, as it currently stands, is just a re-hash of existing technology and offers little or no improvement in ASW capability.

      The LCS ASW module, as it was envisioned, would have been an interesting technology effort and well worth pursuing as a developmental program separate from the LCS, itself. Possibly some useful technology might have come from it.

      Have you ever trained against a non-nuclear boat and, if so, are there any general observations you can share regarding differences in either the OHP or the sub's behavior due to the non-nuc boat characteristics?


    3. Have been on exercises with foreign navy SSK's but never in a coastal region. BTW the recommended practice for coastal Sub detection is to use ASW heli's with their dippers in active mode.
      I don't see anything special in LCS that would make it better for coastal ASW warfare. The Soviet Moskva carriers would probably be the best concept for a coastal ASW system.
      Spoke to some submariners on this they usually consider coast regions dangerous as subs are easier to corner. A deep water thermal layer is what they dream for.

  4. Well said. I agree completely. As you point out, the shame of it is that the LCS could have been useful. We should have only built one LCS and used it as test bed to develop modules and tactics while upgrading FFGs until the LCS was ready for primetime.

  5. We did build a test bed LCS, it was called street fighter.

    Unfortunately, neither "LCS" looks like what street fighter promised.

  6. You mentioned the helicopters of the LCS in another post. They can hunt for subs and are the main armament with the LCS serving as more or less support in their different roles.

    Two things defining the littorals are clutter and concentration of sea lines of communication. Clutter confuses sensors and will be substantionally and intentionally increased in any war zone to play fool with each other. Sea lines of communication are ships and many boats in the littorals as well as pipelines and marine electricty and communication cables.
    The boats have a shallow draft and can use waterways inaccessible to large ships that are hindered from policing them and finding the hidden minelayers among all the innocent looking fishing vessels. - Military and civilian spheres mix in the littoral, making it a guerilla zone akin to urban conditions.

  7. I'm in deep 'you know what ' because even though I'm from Milwaukee I find the USS Milwaukee to be a considerable waste of money. Granted if we were at war with Canada maybe it would be a good investment but I do not see that happening. If we're going to spend the money we need big effective, dangerous WARSHIPS. Not ships a WW II PTL boat could take out. Littoral are a waste of taxpayer money. Give me an upgraded USS Wisconsin any day or A Cruiser by the name of USS Milwaukee. A littoral is an insult.