After years of setbacks, the Navy's littoral combat ships are going to see a surge in missions in the Pacific, where leaders say they'll be out front as the U.S. seeks to counter China's growing influence in the region.
The Navy has identified the missions the LCS will fulfill in U.S. 7th Fleet, Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener, commander of Naval Surface Forces, said this week.
"If you look at the things we want to do and the 7th Fleet ... that's what [Vice Adm. William Merz] wants to use them for," Kitchener said Tuesday during the annual Surface Navy Association symposium, which is virtual this year due to the pandemic. "And there's a lot of capability there.
"They're going to be on the front lines," he added.
The LCS program has been beset with mechanical problems, which prompted congressional hearings. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said this week that the service must divest itself of platforms that are no longer fit for the future fight, including its experimental LCS hulls. Last year's Navy budget request included plans to send the first four littoral combat ships into early retirement.
For those still in the fleet, though, Kitchener said the LCS is a useful platform -- especially in the Pacific, where the Navy and Marine Corps are focused on littoral operations in a contested environment and expeditionary advanced base operations.
Gilday told reporters last week that he's committed to making good use of the Navy's 31 littoral combat ships. The ships have faced several setbacks, including a near-two-year program overhaul that kept them from deploying out to sea.
"I don't look in the rearview mirror on LCS," Gilday said. "These are ships we have. ... My responsibility is to put them in a place where we can count on, when I put them to sea, that they can go out there and they can operate with a high degree of reliability."
The LCS can bring a lethal capability to day-to-day competition at sea, he said.
"I'm going to deliver that with LCS in this decade," Gilday pledged.
Every LCS is getting the Naval Strike Missile, Kitchener said, which is a long-range precision-strike weapon that can find and destroy enemy ships from up to 100 nautical miles away. The Gabrielle Giffords was the first LCS to get the missile, which it fired during a 2019 exercise in the Pacific.
Kitchener said the Navy is continuing to study how to make the ships more lethal.
"I think it's going to become exciting," he said. "We've just got to deliver a sustained plan of how many we're going to get out there next year, maybe the following year. And we've got to meet that requirement."
The Gabby Giffords completed a deployment in U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in October, where it operated in the South China Sea. The LCS Montgomery completed its first deployment in the region in 2019. The Montgomery was able to pull into shallow ports in the region that bigger Navy ships couldn't normally visit, which allowed the crew to work with a range of regional navies.