As we all know, the LCS is, by design and intent, utterly useless without a module. Of course, the first LCS was commissioned in 2008 and here we are, a decade later, still waiting for any useful modules. Now, USNI News website reports that the Navy is developing an unmanned surface vessel (Common Unmanned Surface Vessel – CUSV) as the prime ‘carrier’ for the various planned mine countermeasure equipment packages (mine hunting, mine sweeping, mine neutralization). This is actually somewhat old news – not sure why it’s being reported as new other than the Navy’s constant attempt to spin news.
As a bit of memory refresh, the ASW (anti-submarine warfare) and MCM modules are running neck and neck in terms of the most module program starts, stops, start-overs, revamps, and slipped schedule dates. The MCM module was originally planned to be a combination of helo-towed equipment and the unmanned underwater (UUV) remote multi-mission vehicle (RMMV). Unfortunately/unbelievably, no one bothered to see if the helo could actually safely tow the required equipment and, as it turned out, it couldn’t. Plus, the RMMV was a failure. So, it was back to the drawing board. After a few years of floundering around, the latest plan is to use the CUSV to tow sonars and influence sweep gear.
The really interesting point to this is the time frame. As the article reports,
NAVSEA is set to compete for the MCM USV with an acquisition program that could start as early as 2020. (1)
So, the CUSV acquisition program won’t start until 2020 (or later – everything LCS related seems to slip its schedule!). Integration and testing will take several more years. Let’s be generous and say that the MCM module will be ready in 2025. By then, the first LCS will be 17 years old and staring at retirement (the Navy hasn’t kept any ship class for its full service life in recent times). More likely, the testing will slip further.
Okay, all of this highlights the abject stupidity and incompetence of the Navy but that’s hardly news at this point, is it? Is this just another beat up on the LCS and the Navy post? No, it’s not. There’s a larger point here.
For sake of continued discussion, let’s assume that the LCS MCM module works perfectly and is fully deployed by 2025. The question then becomes, so what?
As a reminder, the LCS fleet has been reorganized into two squadrons, one on each coast of the US, and each squadron will consist of four 4-ship divisions with one division each for training so there will be one division of ASW, one of ASuW, and one MCM in each squadron. (2) Thus, there will be a grand total of 8 MCM-configured LCS ships in the entire US Navy.
The Navy’s entire MCM fleet will be 8 ships.
That bears repeating.
The Navy’s entire MCM fleet will be 8 ships.
Those 8 ships will be replacing the previous 12 Osprey class and 14 Avenger class mine countermeasure ships. In addition, the Navy’s entire helo-based mine countermeasures inventory, 30 MH-53E Sea Dragons, are old and barely flightworthy and will retire very soon and without replacement. Thus, the 8 LCS MCM ships will be replacing the Ospreys, Avengers, and MH-53E’s. So, 8 LCS will replace 26 ships and 30 helos. Does that sound rational to you? Do you really believe that 8 LCS are equivalent to 26 ships and 30 helos?
Let’s recall a few salient points related to mine warfare and mine countermeasures.
- In WWII, the Normandy (D-Day) invasion used over 250 minesweepers to clear the sea lanes and approaches in a combat-useful time frame.
- China’s inventory of mines is in the tens or hundreds of thousands.
- Iran’s inventory of mines is in the tens of thousands.
- N Korea’s inventory of mines is in the tens or hundreds of thousands.
- A single LCS can clear a couple of mines per hour.
Ponder the interrelated ramifications of those five related points.
Considering the concept of combat-useful time frames, the size of the mine inventories our enemies have, and the clearance rate of the LCS-MCM, it becomes immediately apparent that we have a mammoth mismatch between needs and capabilities which is only going to get worse as the LCS becomes the only MCM asset in the fleet.
The mine clearing capacity of the entire LCS “fleet” is absolutely dwarfed by the enemy inventories and combat time frame requirements. There is almost no difference between having the LCS-MCM fleet and not having it at all. We have atrophied to the point that we may as well have no MCM capability since even with the LCS-MCM fleet we essentially won’t have any for any relevant use.
The conclusion is inescapable. We need to abandon both the LCS and the LCS MCM concept (modular, remote, unmanned vehicles locating and removing single mines at a time) as an effective mine countermeasures asset and move on to an entirely new concept. What that concept is, I don’t have a solid idea about. Certainly, though, it needs to include high speed, high volume mine removal – sweeping – combined with individual mine removal, as needed. Whether this can be done with small, unmanned craft towing influence sweeps or whether we need dedicated small vessels, as in WWII, is something for the experts in the field to determine.
Oddly, the Navy’s LCS MCM module development has been almost exclusively focused on one-at-a-time mine removal which is useless in a combat scenario. I’m completely baffled by the thinking behind the effort. What is needed, as I stated, is high volume, high speed clearance. From day one of LCS MCM module development, we should have been focused on combat clearance (sweeping), not leisurely one-at-a-time clearance.
We also need to hugely increase our MCM asset numbers. Mine clearance in a combat-useful time frame requires numbers of assets … large numbers of assets (250 minesweepers at Normandy!).
We need to produce an immediate replacement for the MH-53 which currently forms the backbone of our MCM effort.
The Navy bet ‘all in’ on the LCS for MCM and crapped out. We have, essentially, nothing left. We need to invest heavily and quickly in a multi-faceted and robust MCM force. As it stands, our vaunted amphibious assault capability can be stopped in its tracks by any country with a handful of mines. Further, a system of mines laid in the gaps between the various islands of the first island chain can effectively close the E/S China Seas to the US Navy and don’t think that thought hasn’t occurred to China.
Related thought: Given China’s willingness (eagerness?) to flaunt international treaties, laws, and norms in constructing artificial islands and expanding their territorial claims, it’s only a matter of time until China decides that the negative political repercussions of laying mines between the first island chain waters and truly closing the E/S China Seas to the US is worth it. We would have no means of conducting large scale clearance operations and would have no choice but to fully concede the E/S China Seas.
Another related thought: In a war, if China places just a few mines in just a few US harbors, stand back and watch the US Navy convulse in an effort to protect and clear all our harbors with just 8 LCS – leaving none for forward combat operations!
(1)USNI News website, “Navy Developing New Mine Countermeasures USV for Littoral Combat Ships”, Sam LaGrone,
(2)USNI News website, “Littoral Combat Ship Program Vastly Different a Year Into Major Organizational, Operational Overhaul”, Megan Eckstein,