The Navy has hung its quest for credible littoral warfare capabilities upon its planned fleet of 52 littoral combat ships, which — according to all the publicly discussed concepts — are to be operated singly or with the larger ships of carrier strike groups, expeditionary strike groups or surface action groups. Yet littoral operating environments are so diverse and difficult that no single type of ship, no matter how well optimized, can remedy the need. Moreover, naval doctrine to date does not emphasize the truly joint, combined-arms operations necessary to modern war in the littorals.
If the Navy is to successfully project power into the world’s shallow waters, it will need more types of small warships, craft and submarines, as well as aerial platforms, several fully developed operational concepts and more cooperation with the combat arms of other services.
Littoral waters vary widely in their physical characteristics, and these differences affect the optimal design, armament, sensors and operation of naval platforms. Waters bordering the open ocean are usually deep, allowing free access to a naval force. More restrictions apply to the marginal (or peripheral) seas of an open ocean such as the South China Sea and the Arabian Sea. And the situation is much different in a semi- or fully enclosed sea, such as the Persian Gulf.
In a typical narrow sea, short distances allow one’s ships to change their respective areas of deployment within hours, yet the maneuvering space for surface ships and submarines is often considerably limited by shallow water, reefs and other hazards to navigation. One’s naval forces are generally concentrated rather than dispersed, with mixed effects on their vulnerability. Surface combatants can operate within mutually supporting distances but are more easily detected, tracked and fired upon.
Narrow seas broaden the range of potential air operations. Shorter ranges mean more kinds of fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft can get involved, more combat sorties can be flown, particularly in bad weather and at night, and more damaged aircraft recovered. The ability to complete an entire airstrike mission at low altitude can also heighten tactical surprise. Indeed, airpower in a typical enclosed or semi-enclosed theater will have a decisive influence on the course or even the outcome of war at sea. Only reliable and continuous air cover can keep the air threat, dangerous especially to surface combatants, from paralyzing a naval force.
Maritime traffic in a narrow sea generally passes along the coast and between ports on opposing shores, with shipping concentrated at the approaches of a few large ports. Again, the effect on vulnerability is mixed. The denser traffic in wartime convoy efforts requires more escorts. Offshore islands can restrict sea routes to the point that they resemble a road map, making evasive routing for naval vessels and merchant shipping more difficult. At the same time, sea traffic along the coast and within the archipelago is relatively more protected from submarine attacks.
Highly capable but high-cost ships such as modern cruisers and destroyers and large nuclear-powered attack submarines may be employed with relatively low risk in waters adjacent to the open ocean or in peripheral seas, such as the South China Sea. But in narrow seas or in the approaches to straits or narrows where the enemy has strong and layered anti-access capabilities, the risks are so great that they render such ships ineffective. Moreover, several of the virtues of such ships and subs — high top speeds and endurance — are of less use in narrow seas, where smallness of the sea area, short distances, shallow water, presence of large numbers of islands/islets, reefs and other navigational hazards would greatly limit sailing at speeds greater than 30 knots.
The Navy’s answer to this has been the 3,000-ton littoral combat ship, which comes in two classes: LCS 1 Freedom and LCS 2 Independence. But even these ships, only somewhat smaller than the Perry-class guided-missile frigates, are too large for effective employment in narrow seas such as the Persian Gulf. Although their reduced drafts (12.8 and 14.1 feet) allow them to operate in shallow water, they are at great disadvantage when faced with swarming attacks by much smaller, fast and highly maneuverable hostile missile-armed craft operating within a strait or narrows or a coast with many offshore islands. Less agile than such adversaries, the LCS is also less stealthy. And in truly confined waters, even their signature characteristic, top speeds of 45 knots or higher, is of little use.
Needed: Small Ships
If the littorals are truly the theater of future naval conflict, the Navy needs ships and craft that are even smaller than the LCS. A proposed mix could include relatively large numbers of light frigates of 1,500 to 2,000 tons, multipurpose corvettes of 1,000 to 1,250 tons, fast combat craft of 400 to 500 tons, and advanced conventional submarines with air independent propulsion. Such craft are much more suitable for operations in a confined sea area and shallow waters than their larger counterparts.
Light frigates, generally rated for about 30 knots and built for either anti-air warfare or anti-submarine warfare, can carry a helicopter or two, along with long- and short-range anti-ship cruise missiles, surface-to-air missiles, anti-sub torpedoes, and light, multipurpose medium- and light-caliber guns. Corvettes, which can be designed primarily for anti-surface, anti-sub or anti-air warfare, can be armed with several launchers for anti-ship and anti-air missiles, anti-sub torpedo tubes and several dual-purpose medium or light guns. With a top speed of 25 to 30 knots, they can operate in a medium-threat environment. Fast attack craft, built to run faster than 35 knots, can carry several anti-ship missile launchers, one dual-purpose medium-caliber automatic gun, one or two small-caliber guns and perhaps a torpedo tube. They can attack larger surface combatants and merchant shipping, escort larger surface combatants and merchant vessels, lay mines and deliver special operations teams.
Advanced conventional submarines, or SSKs, quieter and more agile in shallow water than the Navy’s fast-attack boats, can be armed with anti-ship missiles, torpedoes and mines. Their missions can include anti-surface warfare, mining, surveillance-reconnaissance, delivering SOF teams and protecting convoys.
These smaller surface combatants are not replacements for but complementary to larger surface combatants. A proper mix of these platforms would boost the Navy’s overall fleet size. More importantly, it would release the fleet’s highly capable, high-cost surface combatants from such missions as surveillance, protecting merchant shipping, counterpiracy patrolling and fighting smaller craft.
These smaller vessels should not be considered expendable but, rather, a critically important capability for a blue-water navy operating in the littorals, and in narrow seas in particular. Fast attack craft and, to some extent, multipurpose corvettes are less vulnerable to enemy mines than are major surface combatants, but more vulnerable to determined and skillful air attacks. They would need continuous and reliable air support by carrier and/or land-based aircraft.
Navy leaders need to develop service doctrine that includes several operational concepts for fighting in the littorals. Yes, they say they are doing so right now, but they’re misusing the term. Most of these “concepts of operations” are actually tactical concepts — that is, ideas about employing LCS either singly or as part of some other force.
We can define a naval or joint operation as a series of related tactical actions (attacks, strikes, raids, engagements and battles) aimed to accomplish an operational and sometimes partial strategic objective. Such an operation is planned and conducted by a single commander and in accordance with a common idea: an operational concept. Such a concept encompasses a number of functional concepts (notional forces; task organization/command and control; maneuver, fires, sequencing and synchronization of combat forces; logistical support/sustainment; force protection) that collectively ensure its effective application in combat. Each functional concept consists of several enabling subparts, describing the tactics, techniques and procedures of how a respective functional concept is carried out.
In the littorals, major operations are inherently multiservice and very often multinational efforts. In a narrow sea, such an operation will most likely encompass the entire operating area: surface, subsurface, air and coast. Diverse combat arms of the Navy and other services will be extensively employed. Combat actions will be short and intense and will likely result in high losses. Because of the ever-present threat from the air, the fighting will take place mostly during the night or in bad visibility. Most of the actions on the surface and subsurface will be fought at short ranges. They will consume fuel and ammunition quickly.
In the littorals, the weaker side may not operate in the way we think it would, and it may use asymmetrical responses to neutralize or even nullify the advantages normally enjoyed by a blue-water navy. LCS is not an asymmetrical response, but, for example, the Iranian “swarming” tactic is. Ironically, the weaker side at sea might obtain greater benefits by using rudimentary netting capabilities to link its seagoing and shore-based forces and obtain a real- or near-real-time picture of the situation as hostilities begin. The weaker side will launch missile strikes from ambushing positions on the coast and islands. Both sides will likely use advanced electronic warfare techniques, degrading the effectiveness of sensors and guided weapons.
The tactical and operational situation will likely change frequently and radically. The high speed of modern ships and aircraft and their ability to combine maneuver and fires may allow one side to achieve surprise. The combat actions will likely be more decisive than in the past because torpedoes, anti-ship missiles and other weapons are smarter, more precise and longer-ranged.
Small surface combatants and SSKs would be employed in combination with shipborne or land-based multipurpose helicopters, UAVs, SOF, ground forces and coastal missile and gun batteries. These forces should be organized in what can be called littoral combat groups. Each LCG would be tailored for its particular mission. Such missions may include obtaining or maintaining sea control, denying sea control, projecting power ashore, attack on the enemy’s maritime trade, and defense and protection of friendly maritime trade.
Such groups must have reliable and continuous air cover from carrier strike groups and land-based fighter aircraft. Because of the short distances, the time to acquire, select and destroy targets in a typical narrow sea will be greatly reduced. This, in turn, requires a very simple and streamlined command structure with the fewest possible intermediate levels of command. Command structure should be highly flexible. Subordinate tactical commanders must have a high degree of freedom of action. Hence, the key prerequisite for success is to apply the German-style mission command where the high commander in issuing his intent sets the framework within which subordinate commanders exercise their initiative. Hence, the Navy’s long-standing problem of a zero-defect mentality cannot but hurt the conduct of war in the littorals. Not only would the higher commanders unnecessarily interfere in the responsibilities of the subordinate commanders and thereby restrict their freedom of action, but such actions would make subordinate commanders less willing to act with the initiative.
The Navy must fully embrace joint and coalition operations as the principal method for the employment of its forces at the operational level of war. The Navy’s capstone document, NDP-1 Naval Warfare, discusses the employment of naval forces/Marine Corps in joint operations, but only generally; not a single operational concept is described in it. Joint and coalition forces give the commanders more options, and applying forces in all three physical mediums presents the enemy with a difficult multidimensional threat. Missile-armed surface combatants can attack targets on the coast, while land-based aircraft strike enemy warships and merchant ships in port or at sea. Ground forces can seize naval bases, ports and airfields, easing the task of obtaining sea control and air superiority. Joint and coalition operations require more preparation to overcome the difficulties inherent in complex and centralized command and control, data interoperability, logistical support and sustainment for a more heterogeneous force, differences in service cultures and doctrine, and even personal relationships among the high commanders.
The littorals pose many challenges but also opportunities for the employment of naval forces in case of a high-intensity conventional war. The Navy must be properly balanced so that it can successfully operate in diverse operating areas, from the deep water of an ocean to shallow waters of a typical narrow sea. Its battle force should include a relatively large number of small surface combatants and SSKs.
The Navy’s current plans envision 24 littoral combat ships in service by the end of this decade and 52 by the end of the 2020s. This should be drastically scaled down, even limited to those LCSs in service and under construction. Perhaps a few LCSs could be employed as the flagships for the proposed LCGs and the rest incorporated into surface actions groups or expeditionary strike groups.
The Navy needs to revise its NDP-1 so it specifies several operational concepts for fighting in the littorals. This means it needs to fully embrace major naval/joint operations as the principal method for the employment of its forces at the operational level of war. Any tactical concept for littoral warfare must be elevated to the operational level; otherwise, the success will be found wanting.