In a discussion awhile back, a commenter stated that the helo and hangar might be the only thing the LCS got right. My first reaction was that the statement might be right but the more I thought about it, the more I think the opposite is true.
Before we go any further, let’s set the record straight on the aviation capabilities of the LCS. Most people think the large flight decks (and they do have that!) mean fairly extensive aviation capabilities: the ability to operate several helos of any type, the ability to act as a lily pad for any number of any type of helos, and, possibly, the ability to operate MV-22s. The reality, however, is quite a bit less. Ignoring UAVs, here’s what the LCS can handle.
LCS-1 – (1)SH-60 (hangar)
LCS-2 – (2)SH-60 (hangar) or (1)H-53 (flight deck only)
As a lily pad, the LCS can, presumably, accommodate any helo up to the weight of an SH-60 or SH-60/H-53, depending on the LCS class. That’s tempered, though, by the fact that the flight decks are structurally weak. I’ve never seen actual data on the flight deck weight limits or total capacity but LCS program engineers I’ve spoken to suggest that the structural weakness greatly limits the flight deck capacity. My best assessment is that the flight deck can’t handle much more than the one or two helos the ship’s are credited with operating.
Thus, the LCS-1 class can operate a single helo and the LCS-2 class can operate one or two helos. That’s not a lot. Add to that the maxim that if you have one helo, you have none, in recognition of the helo’s extensive maintenance requirements and you begin to recognize that the helo is not as useful in practice as it would seem on paper. Further, unlike, say, a ship’s gun which is ready 24 hours a day, a helo can only be used for several hours, at most, before it must return to the ship to rearm and refuel – a lengthy process even assuming a relief crew is available and, given the high maintenance requirements, the helo is only available for several hours out of 24.
Assuming it’s mechanically “up”, what can a helo contribute to the ship’s three main missions of ASW, MCM, and ASuW?
ASW is the helo’s forte and the MH-60R is well suited for it. The only drawback is the lack of numbers and limited endurance. A single LCS can only operate one or two helos which provides pretty spotty coverage. A helo can only operate for a few hours before it must return to the ship to rearm and refuel – a lengthy process that leaves gaps in the ASW coverage.
MCM was intended to be performed in large measure by helo towed or mounted MCM equipment. Unfortunately, apparently no one checked to see whether the the -60 helo could safely tow the equipment. As it turned out, it can’t. Further, some of the helo mounted MCM systems have failed to pan out. It looks like the helo is going to operate the Airborne Mine Neutralization System (AMNS) which uses a remote controlled (fiber optic link) “torpedo” (Archerfish or similar) with a camera and explosive charge to relocate a target mine and destroy it. It appears that a helo can neutralize up to four mines before returning to the ship to rearm. Thus, a maximum of four mines can be neutralized over the course of several hours, at best. Further, unlike the MH-53E, the MH-60S cannot conduct MCM operations at night and has less endurance. Overall, the helo is going to play a much smaller MCM role than originally intended.
ASuW is a potentially useful role for the helo armed with up to 8 Hellfires, however, operational constraints greatly decrease the usefulness. Aside from the spotty availability, the helo will only be useful if it happens to be airborne and armed with the proper weapons at the exact moment of an attack. Given the probable short range and short warning of engagements, the odds of getting a helo into action are not great. Add to that the vulnerability of the helo to Stinger-type missiles and the ASuW role begins to look a bit suspect.
Some of the LCS’s aviation limitations could possibly be alleviated by operating the ships in squadrons so that they can pool their helos. Of course, that requires that the ships stay in fairly close proximity so as to maximize mission time. If that’s the case, it would probably make more sense to simply operate a single amphibious ASW or MCM mothership, at least from a helo operations and support point of view.
So far, the discussion has been straightforward and the conclusion is that helos on the LCS are of much more limited usefulness than would appear on paper. Add to that the fact that each LCS has to be its own helo support and maintenance center and it quickly becomes apparent that LCS helos are somewhat useful, though limited, and inefficient to operate.
Now, let’s go a step further. Recognizing both the potential usefulness of helos and operational inefficiency of the LCS, what about deleting aviation capability from the LCS and, instead, operate non-aviation LCS squadrons centered around amphibious motherships (retired Tarawas, for example)? The LCS, now much cheaper to build and operate, and suitably modified for this new role, would provide the ASuW and AAW protection for the mothership, extended reach for MCM and ASW remote underwater vehicles (assuming they ever pan out), and extended area patrol, boarding, and other “peacetime” activities. In addition to being able to operate more helos than a squadron of LCS’s, the mothership would provide the centralized support and maintenance that would allow for more efficient helo operation, a degree of materiel and maintenance support for the LCS squadron, and centralized command and control.
So, quite the opposite from the helo/hangar/flight deck being the one thing the LCS got right, I submit that it’s a serious failing in the ship design and concept of operations. That’s not surprising, really, since the Navy, by their own admission, never had a concept of operations in place when the LCS was designed. The proposed concept of operations offers the opportunity to salvage a degree of usefulness from the LCS while enhancing MCM and ASW capabilities in the fleet.