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The nation’s first Littoral Combat Ship, Freedom, makes a side launch during her christening at the Marine shipyard in Marinette, Wis., Sept. 23, 2006. (Lockheed Martin)

Ships and Strategy

Seth Cropsey

In warfare, technology is a middleman with one foot in strategy and the other planted firmly in tactics. Weight shifts from leg to leg unpredictably and usually without account.

The American Civil War innovations that produced revolving turrets and accurate, long-distance shell guns allowed ships to fire in virtually any direction with the reasonable expectation of striking true at previously unattainable range. Combined with iron-cladding these inventions led to the dreadnoughts which magnified the power of wealthy states to strive with one another for global pre-eminence.

Four centuries earlier, the technological difference between high-riding Spanish galleons and more seaworthy English warships equipped with longer-range weaponry was critical to the tactics that shattered Philip II’s Armada, but did not equal the strategic consequences of 19th century naval innovations. Technology, including ship design itself can have results from the tactical to the grand strategic level.

Political and military leaders who can look clearly into the future seek to apply their ideas to the design of future equipment. The littoral combat ship (LCS) is one such example. It is a small naval combatant whose powerful engines can move the vessel quickly from one part of a troubled world to another. The idea in building it took shape around the time that terrorism became a recognized threat to U.S. national security. Small naval combatants might operate close to shore and, working with the patrol craft of Third World states, forestall their failure or limit their vulnerability to the lawlessness that makes them attractive as terrorist bases.

At the same time, about a fifteen years ago, China’s naval buildup, although enjoying abundant financial resources, did not possess the blue water, power projection capability that increasingly characterizes China’s fleet today and will do so with increasing strength in the future.

LCS proponents sought to concentrate the Navy’s effort on operations close to shore where—it was thought—naval power must weigh in the balance more heavily than on the high seas. They may yet be proven right. But in the decade and a half sinceLCS was conceived and designed, China’s naval reach and power have taken large strides. Chinese combatants have sailed to Africa’s east coast and into the Mediterranean. China has established a necklace of bases in the Indian Ocean. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) took possession of an aircraft carrier last year and plans more.

Calibrated aggression and the patient application of dubious or groundless legalisms complement Chinese armament. Beijing’s 2013 unilateral declaration of an air defense international zone in the East China Sea that included Japan’s Senkaku Islands is an example of the former. Attempting to place a billion-dollar oil rig inside Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Seas exemplifies the latter. Both indicate a shift away from traditional blue water and toward littoral operations.

Some things haven’t changed since LCS was conceived. The struggle against radical jihadism remains “the Long War.” Despite its leader’s ignominious death, al-Qaeda and related Islamist terrorist groups flourish from Central Asia to East Africa.

Thus, U.S. post-Cold War strategy is beset by the divided attention of policymakers struggling to grapple simultaneously with the geographically widespread and potentially cataclysmic possibilities of nuclear-armed Islamists and the possibility that China will become a Cold War-style peer competitor.

In such an environment, the question of future weapons design – especially with a program as large as LCS is a strategic one. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel reflected the tension between such conventional threats as Beijing poses and the more asymmetrical challenge of jihadists when in February he cut the Navy’s purchase of LCS from 52 to 32 vessels. He observed that “the Navy is relying too heavily on the littoral combat ship (LCS) to achieve its long-term goals for ship numbers,” and asked Navy to “submit alternative proposals to procure a capable and lethal small surface combatant, consistent with the capabilities of a frigate.”

LCS was initially designed so that the same vessel could be quickly refitted with different combat “modules” that allow it to conduct anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare as well as mining operations. The modules are useful in training with coastal navies and partnerships that strengthen U.S. relations with small and medium-size coastal states. But the original LCS lacks effective defenses against such airborne threats as planes and missiles and its range is limited. It is not clear that the enhanced model of the same LCS to which the Navy is institutionally inclined can fully address the concerns that Secretary of Defense Hagel raised in February.

But Hagel left open the possibility of another design while simultaneously insisting that proposals for a more capable replacement should reach him so that they could be incorporated in next year’s budget. In the world of ship design, that’s fast. But “fast” is possible.

Scandinavian shipbuilders have been constructing modular combatants with air defenses plus LCS’ advertised combat missions for decades. Huntington Ingalls has proposed a more heavily armed variation of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Legend-class cutter at a lower cost than can be anticipated for the current LCS. The ship offers a vastly increased range and robust air defenses. Along with the other missions that LCS performs, this variation on the Coast Guard cutter answers Hagel’s concerns about a surface combatant that is more consistent with a frigate’s capabilities.

When the Cold War ended, some thought we had reached the end of history and inevitable triumph of democracy and human rights. But in the 21st century, both the jihadists and China are taking aim in different ways at the same target – the international liberal order whose sustenance and expansion has been a chief objective of U.S. foreign policy for over a century.

It may not always appear as such, but the LCS question directly relates to this strategic reality. Even with a smaller buy, LCS will represent more than a tenth of Navy’s future combatant force. The twin need to operate in confined littoral areas and to seek out and destroy threats to larger U.S. warships is not just another question of military hardware. It is a national strategic imperative.

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