The Captain of the Independence variant LCS was frustrated and angry and he was taking it out on the poor radar operator. The ship had been hiding amongst the Philippine islands for the last six days, searching for a target and had found nothing despite the heavy Chinese presence. The LCS was part of the Navy’s distributed lethality operation and pre-war distributed lethality doctrine had assured the Captain that networked regional surveillance assets would provide situational awareness and targeting data without the LCS needing to conduct active searches.
Reality, however, disagreed with the Navy’s plan. The UAVs and P-8 Poseidons that the Navy had counted on for surveillance and targeting were being shot down as quickly as they arrived in the operational area and the Navy had now suspended aerial surveillance operations.
Prior to the Taiwan invasion which had kicked off the war, the Chinese had taken a page out of the US Marine’s book and established numerous bases on Philippine islands with the intent to use the Philippines as an outpost to guard the southern approaches to Taiwan thereby cutting off any attempt by the US to flank the invasion. In a master-stroke, the Chinese had persuaded (coerced?) the Philippines to ban US presence or overflights during the run up to war and the Chinese had used the time and freedom from observation to pre-position base materials at numerous locations throughout the islands. The Chinese now had multiple radar, IR, optical, and sonar observation posts set up throughout the islands. In addition, Chinese aircraft were operating from their few carriers and from Philippine civilian airports which the US refused to attack for political reasons. Unlike the Marine’s plan, the Chinese had control of the sea and the sky and were, thus, able to support their forward bases.
The LCS was part of the Navy’s distributed lethality operation aimed at neutralizing the Chinese naval presence in and around the Philippines and opening up the southern approach to Taiwan. So far, however, this particular LCS had been searching for targets with no success. The radar operator went over the difficulties of their situation yet again with the Captain, explaining that the very islands that interfered with Chinese search radars and protected the LCS from detection also prevented the LCS from seeing beyond and around the islands for targets. In addition, the ship’s radar could only be operated in very short ‘bursts’ or else it would be detected and pinpointed. It was far more likely that any detections by either side would be from optical sensors rather than radars. Of course, optical sensors were just as impaired by the surrounding islands as were the radars.
While the Captain understood the search challenges of the situation, he couldn’t help but wish that he had more skilled sensor operators. The unfortunate reality was that, like all LCS crewmen, the sensor operators were cross-trained and had multiple job responsibilities. This meant that their training and time on task was necessarily limited. The operators were competent but not experienced or exceptionally well trained and in this kind of life and death situation, merely competent wasn’t good enough. Exceptional was the only passing grade in combat. This was an unforeseen detrimental effect of the Navy’s decision to pursue minimal manning for the LCS. The saying, jack of all trades and master of none, certainly applied to the LCS crew, in general, and the sensor operators, in particular, and, unfortunately, ‘master of none’ was not the path to success in combat.
The LCS had only one more day left on station before it would be forced to retire for scheduled maintenance. The LCS maintenance model of returning to port every couple of weeks was proving to be a severe limitation and liability in war. The Navy had, initially sent two LCS ‘tenders’ – actually, Puller class Afloat Forward Staging Bases – to service the LCS vessels so as to enable them to stay in the operating area longer but, being non-stealthy and having no credible self-defense capability, both ships had been quickly spotted and sunk. Now, with Guam having been rendered inoperable in the first hour of the war, the nearest maintenance and resupply location was Northern Australia, some 2000 miles to the south.
Cognizant of his ship’s time constraint and sensor
limitations, the Captain decided to take a calculated risk and venture out from
the relative safety of the island shore the ship was currently nestled up
against. Venturing out would offer an
improved field of view for his sensors but it would equally offer the Chinese
sensors a better view of the LCS.
|LCS Hiding Near Island|
As night fell, the LCS slowly sailed out into more open waters. While darkness did not provide the concealment that it once did, the Captain felt that his ship would have a bit of an advantage when it came to optical detection since it was somewhat smaller and, thus, harder to detect than the larger Chinese destroyers believed to be operating in the area.
As the hours ticked by, tensions aboard the LCS rose. The crew had been at their battle stations almost continuously since entering the operating area six days ago. The LCS minimal manning concept was proving incompatible with wartime operations. The crew was exhausted and beginning to lose concentration and they were making mistakes – yet another reason to return to base soon.
Despite the fatigue and strain, the Captain’s gamble paid off. An electro-optical sensor operator spotted the faint shadow of a ship against the horizon, some 15 miles distant. Maneuvering to keep the now distant island at his back in order to hide the LCS silhouette, the Captain began to stalk his target, trying to obtain visual identification. While any ship in this area was certainly an enemy, he wanted to have some idea of what type of ship it was so that he could tailor his attack to maximize his chances while also trying to minimize his weapons expenditure. The LCS only had eight Naval Strike Missiles (NSM) and using them all on, say, a small patrol boat would be a waste that could come back to haunt him if another target appeared.
The Captain slowly closed the distance and at around 12 miles, he was fairly certain the target was a Chinese Type 052D destroyer. It was time to attack. Besides, he felt he had pressed his luck far enough. This would be a full salvo of the LCS’ 8 NSM anti-ship missiles. The destroyer was approximately the equivalent of a Burke and possessed an Aegis-type defense system. Even 8 missiles might not be enough to achieve a hit but the Captain hoped the element of surprise at such a short range would ensure success.
The NSM’s in the rack mounted canisters received the targeting data and launch commenced. This was a short range, straight-on attack. The flare of each successive missile launch announced the presence of the LCS to the surprised destroyer. However, the Chinese ship’s combat software had a fully automatic operating mode, like the US Aegis system, and it was not capable of being surprised. It began to react even as the first US missile cleared it’s launch rack. The destroyer’s HQ-10 short range surface to air missile system - equivalent to the US RAM - trained to the incoming threat and began launching. In addition, the destroyer’s 30 mm CIWS trained around and began firing as the chaff/flare dispensers started spewing their decoys into the air and the ship’s electronic jamming emitters activated and focused on the incoming missiles.
|LCS Launching NSM at Chinese Destroyer|
Only the electronic ‘reflexes’ of a fully automatic defensive system could have reacted to the attack in time. The Chinese did not believe in a man-in-the-loop concept in wartime and this attack demonstrated the wisdom of that belief.
The first missile, benefiting from the slight delay as the destroyer’s weapon and decoy systems trained and launched, was able to lock on the destroyer and impacted the side of the hangar. Being thin-skinned and largely open space, the missile nearly passed straight through and out the other side but, instead, managed to explode on the far side of the hangar, blowing a hole in the side and venting much of the explosive force outward rather than having it concentrated inside the hangar. Fortunately for the destroyer, the ship’s helo was parked outside on the flight deck, undergoing engine run-up tests. Still, the hangar was heavily damaged. The two chaff/flare dispensers above the hangar on the unengaged side were put out of action, and the hangar was engulfed in flames.
The second NSM was also able to beat the defensive fire but was lured away by a decoy. The third missile was hit by the destroyer’s forward-mounted CIWS and dove into the sea. Electronic countermeasures spoofed the fourth and fifth missiles while the HQ-10 SAMs accounted for the last NSM.
While a single hit against an Aegis-type destroyer was probably all that could be hoped for, the damage to the Chinese ship was not severe and most of the ship’s combat systems were undamaged.
Having been discovered, the destroyer activated its radar and immediately locked on to the LCS which had turned away as soon as it finished launching its missiles and gone to its maximum speed of around 37 kts. Unfortunately, that speed meant nothing to the four YJ-18 anti-ship cruise missiles the destroyer launched. The LCS’ 11-cell SeaRAM, the ship’s only defensive weapon, managed to intercept two of the incoming missiles and one missile was decoyed away but the remaining missile hit the stern of the fleeing vessel, entering the mission bay, exploding, and disabling the propulsion system while sending debris and flaming fuel nearly the length of the ship. With insufficient crew to even attempt damage control, the Captain, miraculously still alive, ordered the crew to abandon ship.
|LCS Abandoned and Sinking|
Of the eight LCS sent to the Philippines to implement the distributed lethality concept, four were sunk before being able to find a target. Three others launched attacks resulting in two enemy ships damaged but not sunk and each LCS was, itself, sunk immediately after their attacks. One LCS survived to return to base, having found no targets.
Disclaimer: This short story was intended to present several of the distributed lethality issues and concepts that we’ve discussed. As always, such stories are not meant to be fully accurate combat simulations but, rather, are simply a more entertaining way to present the concepts and understand how they are related.