The littoral combat ship USS Freedom conducts a replenishment at sea with the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard
When the United States launched its next-generation naval vessel — the Freedom class littoral combat ship (LCS) — in 2008, a Chinese military magazine praised the ship for its supreme stealth, speed, and interchangeable combat modules, which include minesweeping, anti-surface, and anti-submarine warfare. The Chinese consensus at the time seemed to be that the US had invented the next generation of light naval vessels.
Recently, however, some Chinese naval analysts have dramatically changed their perception of the littoral combat ship — a reversal that was especially evident after a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Type 054A frigate was caught in the proximity of the USS Fort Worth, the third LCS ever constructed and the second of the Freedom class, near the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea this May. Speculation quickly arose in both U.S. and Chinese media over which ship would come out on top in a head-to-head competition. An article published shortly thereafter in The National Interest claimed — using a mathematical model to calculate the survivability of vessels during naval combat — that the LCS was superior only when given a numerical advantage over the 054A.
But to Chinese analysts, even this rather lukewarm assessment of the LCS appeared too optimistic. An article in the popular Chinese military magazine Shipborne Weapons questioned the practicality of comparing the two ships using a math equation. Wouldn’t the LCS’s modular design, it argued, significantly lower its combat effectiveness when facing the multi-purpose Type 054A? The LCS would be powerless in such a situation if it were carrying the anti-mine module, since it wouldn’t be able to return to base and switch to the anti-surface module before being attacked. Moreover, the LCS’s high speed would be meaningless in front of the 054A’s powerful anti-ship missiles. Could even a fleet of four LCSs loaded with different modules match up against three 054As, given the latter’s ability to establish a regional air defense and form an integrated combat system?
The declining reputation of the LCS in China is telling, considering that it inspired great interest among Chinese naval commentators less than a decade ago. In fact, immediately after the first LCS was commissioned, many Chinese observers considered the ships exclusively designed to target China, particularly after the U.S. announced that it would deploy four LCSs to Singapore by 2018. The LCS’s flexible response design was seen as a way to enable the U.S. to better reassure its Southeast Asian allies by patrolling the disputed South China Sea more frequently. So what factors prompted China to no longer perceive the LCS as a threat?
A number of problems exposed after the LCS’s commission contributed to China’s skepticism. For one, Chinese analysts regard the use of aluminum alloy on the LCS — a feature of both the Freedom and Independence classes — as a potentially fatal flaw. Thanks to its low melting point, aluminum alloy is highly vulnerable against fire caused by missiles, as evinced by the tragedy of HMS Sheffield in the Falklands War. Secondly, the LCS possesses only minimal firepower, both classes of which are mainly equipped with light naval guns and point anti-air missiles, without any long-range weapons. Compared to the heavily armed Type 054A, the LCS packs too little punch to be taken seriously. As a result, the Chinese regard the LCS as too avant-garde to be a credible threat.
Chinese skepticism of the LCS is to a large degree shared by the U.S. Controversy has surrounded the LCS program ever since its commission. Though it was intended to replace the Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates in the U.S. Navy, the LCS carries too little firepower to fill that role. And aside from its performance issues, the LCS has cost much more than originally expected — about $550 million per ship, plus $100 million for each warfare module. Dissatisfied with the LCS’s current status, the U.S. Navy recently announced that it would upgrade the LCS’s combat abilities and convert the ship into a frigate.
To be sure, the LCS design has its merits. Its high speed and flexibility make it ideal for missions such as anti-piracy, counter-terrorism, and sea-rescue — which is why the U.S. Navy plans to replace its destroyers in Africa and South America with the LCS. Nevertheless, the LCS concept represents what could be called a “post-modern” naval doctrine that focuses on non-traditional warfare and non-combat missions. As the U.S. transforms the LCS into a frigate, it appears that such “post-modern” designs are still immature, at least in light of a strengthening PLAN.
Zihao Liu is a senior at Cornell University, majoring in History as part of the College Scholar Program.