The hits just keep coming for the Navy’s $29 billion littoral combat ship program.
Propulsion casualties, an engineering stand-down to deal with persistent issues with the Lockheed Martin Corp. and Austal USA-built classes, and lastly an Oct. 4 tugboat collision and hull crack for the LCS Montgomery. Two captains, from the Fort Worth and Freedom, have been relieved because of the propulsion breakdowns on their ships.
Around the Red Sea straits, deadlier events demonstrated the dangers facing the Navy’s vision of a brownwater fleet.
An Oct. 1 missile attack from Yemen on the HSV-2 Swift, a former Navy high-speed transport now operated by the United Arab Emirates, heavily damaged the vessel. The Swift is an early prototype for the Navy’s present joint high speed vessel program. Images of the gutted hull and superstructure stirred skeptics of aluminum construction in military vessels, who fear they are not robust enough.
A Houthi militia battling UAE and Saudi forces claimed it targeted the Swift with a C-802 antiship missile, a weapon of Chinese design also manufactured as the Noor by the Houthis’ ally Iran. Initially, the U.S. military said the incident did not pose a wider threat to shipping in international waters.
That changed within a few days, with missiles launched toward the U.S. destroyer Mason. Another destroyer, the Nitze, struck back Oct. 13 with Tomahawk cruise missiles to destroy onshore radars. On Saturday the Mason launched countermeasure missiles after its radar showed more possible missiles incoming from Yemen.
The missile exchanges show today’s level of threat to the LCS class, conceived in large part for the Navy’s needs in the shallow coastal waters of the Middle East and South Asia, to counter mines, submarines and small combat craft.
The Mason employed a Nulka decoy and SM-2 and Sea Sparrow missiles to defend itself. The LCS vessels likewise are equipped for countermeasures and close-in defense, and the Yemen incidents are certain to add to the debate over their future.
Some critics saw the fiery fate of the thin-skinned Swift as a cautionary lesson on aluminum construction. The LCSes are far stronger stuff, but using the lightweight metal is critical to their key capabilities: high speed and shallow draft to fight and prevail close to shore.