Since 2013, the United States Navy has been rotationally deploying a single Littoral Combat Ship to South-East Asia, operating out of Singapore and conducting a variety of activities, many of which are aimed at enhancing security and co-operation between nations in the region.

Littoral combat ships are designed to operate in both shallow and congested sea lanes, allowing them to operate in areas where ships requiring deep waters and space cannot go or are constrained by such, a situation common to the waters of South-East Asia given the archipelagic geography of the region.

The US Navy’s LCSs come in two different designs, the Freedom class with a conventional hull design and the Independence class with a trimaran hull design.

LCSs are designed to be configurable based on the ship’s mission, with the space to install or remove mission module packages which allows it to be configured for surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare or mine counter-measures, thus providing flexibility compared to most ship designs which have single built-in configurations.

The current LCS deployed to the region is the Independence Class USS Coronado (LCS 4) with previous deployments being the Freedom Class ships USS Freedom (LCS 1) in 2013 and USS Fort Worth from 2014 to 2016.

The USS Coronado is configured with the Surface Warfare mission package, comprising two 11m rigid hull inflatable boats (RHIB), two visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) boarding teams, two 30mm machine guns, two Northrop-Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned aerial vehicles and an MH-60S Seahawk helicopter.

The Coronado’s trimaran design allows it to have a larger flight deck allowing it to carry out both Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and helicopter operations off the deck at the same time with the Seahawk helicopter and Fire Scout UAVs.

The US Navy plans to deploy multiple LCS operating out of Singapore in the coming years.

Overseeing the LCS deployments is the US Navy command headquarters called COMLOGWESTPAC/Task Force 73, which has a small staff in Singapore. COMLOGWESTPAC/Task Force 73 conducts advance planning, organises resources and directly supports the execution of maritime exercises between the US Navy and its partners in its area of responsibility, which covers South Asia and South-East Asia.

Recently, we had the opportunity to speak to Rear Admiral Don Gabrielson, the commander of Task Force 73 on the LCS deployment to the region and its future.

US Navy Littoral Combat Ship

Rear Admiral Don Gabrielson (left), Commander, Task Force 73, greeting an officer from the Royal Thai Navy during the opening ceremony of the South-East Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT) 2016 exercise at the Changi Naval Base in Singapore.

Gabrielson in the past had served as the commanding officer of the LCS USS Freedom during its construction and commissioning and thus is well versed in the unique capabilities that the LCSs have over conventional design ships.

He pointed out a number of capabilities that the LCS has which makes it strongly suitable for the region, among them the adaptability of the LCS, due to the available configurable volume and modularity of the ship.

“There is 60% of the USS Coronado’s volume that is available to be configured. Modularity plays into that because of the standard physical and network interfaces that are all there which enables us to update the ship continuously throughout its life to keep it relevant to the changes that occur in the world,” revealed Gabrielson.

Gabrielson also said that being deployed in South-East Asia not only allows the LCS to respond faster to any situation in the region, but also its available configurable space allows it to carry additional or specialised equipment required for the situation it is responding to compared to conventional ships which have limited space and cannot be easily configured to meet a particular requirement.

He drew attention to the LCS’s suitability to the geography of South-East Asia.

“From the Philippines to India, there are over 50,000 islands and if you look at the port facilities in terms of the deep draft required, a destroyer or larger ship needs a depth of 10m of water just to float, and more to move, so they can only go pierside in a dozen ports in the region.

“The LCS, with its shallower draft, allows it access to a thousand ports in the same area and because of that, you have access to thousands more inner land locations where the ship can get in and help people, help control the sea space, help protect your interest, operate with partners, and get the job done compared to larger ships with deeper drafts,” he said.

The LCSs also have a much higher speed than conventional ships in the region. The USS Coronado has a speed of over 40 knots (74km/h), making it faster than the average conventional navy ships’ speed of 25 knots (46.3km/h).

Gabrielson pointed out that the LCS’s higher speed allows it to respond faster to any situation.

“If you need help, you want that help quickly and every knot matters in a ship’s speed and the design of the LCSs allows them to maintain high speeds in waters that much larger ships would not be able to do.”

US Navy Littoral Combat Ship

An MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned aerial vehicle preparing to land prior to the launch of an MH-60S Seahawk helicopter aboard littoral combat ship USS Coronado.

With South-East Asia being often struck by natural disasters, military forces in the region have been in turn mobilised to conduct Humani-tarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations in regard to such occurrences.

Gabrielson touched on the LCS’s suitability for such missions given its unique characteristics compared to other surface ships.

“If you go to any other warship such as frigates or destroyers, first of all, they have probably a 7m or greater draft compared to the 3m-4m of the LCS.

“That’s a big difference. The non-LCS ships may have a helicopter hangar that you can put some things in if you remove the helicopter, so it’s a very small amount of space by comparison to an LCS so you have limits to what you can do with the non-LCSs ship which are less flexible.”

In November 2013, the LCS USS Freedom delivered relief supplies to the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan.

The USS Coronado’s air assets of two Northrop-Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned aerial vehicles and an MH-60S Seahawk helicopter allow it to cover a large area by air in contrast to most ships which only have a single embarked helicopter.

This makes the LCS ideal for maritime search and rescue operations which require vast bodies of waters to be surveyed rapidly.

US Navy Littoral Combat Ship

The littoral combat ship USS Freedom (foreground) and the Royal Malaysian Navy frigate KD Jebat during an exercise in 2013.

In December 2014, during its deployment to the region, the LCS USS Fort Worth was dispatched from Singapore to the Java Sea to take part in the search for Indonesia AirAsia Flight 8501 that crashed on Dec 28. The manoeuvrability and shallow draft of the design allowed the ship to efficiently conduct its search tasking in the shallow and congested water environment there.

A significant portion of the LCS activities in South-East Asia revolves around cooperation activities with other navies in the region such as port visits, participation in regional exhibitions (the USS Coronado recently took part in this year’s Langkawi International Maritime and Aviation exhibition) and military exercises.

These activities all contribute towards strengthening the ties between the US Navy and South-East Asian navies.

“The demand for these ships in the region is well off the charts; I cannot get more of them here fast enough.

“The navies of the region recognise the value of the LCS; everywhere I go, the first question I hear from them is, ‘when is LCS coming to visit because we want to operate with it, and we want to understand what the US Navy is doing with it so that we can learn from it’,” said Gabrielson.