With a war taking place along the Libyan coast, the newest ships the U.S. Navy has for coastline warfare are maxing and relaxing. One of the new Littoral Combat Ships, the U.S.S. Freedom, is sitting in port at San Diego, while the other, the U.S.S. Independence, is continuing its long maiden voyage to the same port, where it’ll also sit out the war. How come?
The official answer is speed. Adm. Samuel Locklear, the commander of Operation Odyssey Dawn, made the call to use naval assets he had close by, and neither the Independence or Freedom was anywhere near, says Lt. Cmdr. Justin Cole, a Navy spokesman. That meant the primary Navy weapons on hand were the expensive, tricked-out Tomahawk missiles, fired from subs and destroyers, not the LCS’ MK-110 guns, which can fire on opponents from 9 miles away.
But that just begs the real question: is the Navy’s LCS missing out on the kind of war that it was all but created to fight? The Libya mission doesn’t just involve the destruction of coastal air defenses, its arms embargo requires swift ships like the LCS (speed: 50 knots) to keep smuggled weapons out of the hands of Moammar Gadhafi’s forces.
For years, the Navy argued that it needed better capabilities for fighting close to the shore as more of the world’s population shifted to the “urban littorals,” bringing conflict with it. The $645 million Freedom arrived in the fleet in late 2008; the Navy commissioned its $704 million cousin Independence in January 2010. They’re the first of 20 more LCSs that will cost the Navy at least $450 million per ship through 2015, ahead of a total fleet of 55 speedy ships that can operate in water as shallow as 20 feet.
But the ships are so new and so high-profile that, ironically, bureaucratic imperatives keep them out of the fight. No Navy planner wants to be responsible for any malfunctions — in software, communications, propulsion or weapons systems — that might be on display in an initial combat deployment so soon after their commissioning, according to an active-duty Navy officer who requested anonymity. “We only have two of these right now, and they’re still getting the bugs worked out,” the officer says.
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