Wednesday, March 30, 2011

While Libya Rages, Navy Sends Its Newest Warship to… San Diego?!?

While Libya Rages, Navy Sends Its Newest Warship to… San Diego?!?: "

With a war taking place along the Libyan coast, the newest ship the U.S. Navy has for coastline warfare set off on its maiden voyage on Saturday. Only the U.S.S. Independence isn’t heading for Libya — it’s en route for its new home port of San Diego, where it’ll join the Navy’s other Littoral Combat Ship, the U.S.S. Freedom, in sitting 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. 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.

Also, some of the LCS’ core capabilities — anti-submarine warfare and mine clearance — wouldn’t be on display in Libya. Gadhafi hasn’t even really put his navy into the fight, meaning the LCS wouldn’t have to force access to the shore while larger Navy ships stay further out in the waters. That might seem like Libya might be a relatively easy test case for the ship. But it also means the need to send them to Libya is reduced, even on top of the difficulty in getting them to the fight.

Even if none of those concerns existed, President Obama’s desire to dial down the U.S. combat role in Libya will likely keep the LCS back in San Diego. “It would be swimming upstream from the administration’s policy,” says C.J. Juhl, a retired Navy commander with NATO headquarters experience. “I’m sure they’d be very useful if [Obama] had the tactical and strategic plans in place to make use of them.”

Without the LCS in play, Libya has put some of the limits of Navy weaponry on display. Tomahawks cost about a million dollars apiece, and the war has reached the point where they’re barely necessary anymore. (They certainly won’t be called upon to enforce a maritime arms embargo.)

Analyst Raymond Pritchett writes that the Navy needs “an accurate weapon system for deploying fires up to a range of about 10km from a position offshore of about 2km” and another “low tech and low cost one” with a “range of about 50km from a position offshore of around 25km.” He adds, “the LCS is coming, and with the LCS comes a significant number of [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] capabilities that will create opportunities for the US Navy to take the fight to the enemy.”

But it’s not there yet, and it may not be part of the Libya war at all — much like the F-22, a big Air Force priority that ended up sitting Libya out (and is probably overqualified to take on Gadhafi). Representatives from the Freedom and Independence didn’t return requests for comment for this post, though if they do, I’ll update. And representatives from the Navy, the Pentagon, U.S. Africa Command and NATO are mum about the impending command changes for the mission, so they’ve begged off saying much about what future ships, planes and weapons might be called into the fight.

Photo: U.S. Navy


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