USS 'Independence,' USS 'Manchester' and USS 'Tulsa' sail in formation in the eastern Pacific.


The U.S. Navy has confirmed it will decommission the first two Littoral Combat Ships, likely beginning what could be a unhappy reckoning with a program that has consumed billions of dollars without delivering much in the way of useful capability.

A year after announcing its desire to get rid of the oldest four LCSs in order to avoid the high cost of upgrading the vessels, the Navy has firmed up its plans for the first two of the troubled, near-shore ships.

The news website of the U.S. Naval Institute was the first to report on the decommissioning plans. USS Independence, the lead vessel in the trimaran subclass, will decommission in July. USS Freedom, the lead monohull LCS, will follow her cousin into retirement in September.

Freedom is 13 years old. Independence is 11. Freedom has managed to deploy for low-stakes missions around Latin America. Independence, by contrast, has never completed a front-line cruise.

Both vessels were built to last 25 years, but the Navy estimated it would cost $2.5 billion to bring them, plus the next two oldest LCSs—one of each variant—up to the standard of the other 31 LCSs that are in service or under construction.

The service decided the ships weren’t worth the money. That should come as no surprise. Yes, the Navy is working hard to grow its front-line fleet from around 300 ships today to as many as 355 a decade from now.

But it’s also trying to reorganize its ships for intensive, long-range combat with an increasingly powerful Chinese fleet. The LCS has no clear role in this kind of fighting. “To give the Navy credit, they’ve shifted focus,” said Eric Wertheim, author of Combat Fleets of the World. “You have to cut your losses on what doesn’t seem to be working well.”

The LCS as Navy officials imagined it in the late 1990s was going to be a fast, inexpensive combatant for shallow-water fighting. It would be modular, meaning it would be compatible with plug-and-play sets of weapons and sensors, each optimized for a different mission. Minehunting. Anti-submarine warfare. Defense against small boats.

But the concept was flawed. High speed required a complex propulsion system that, two decades on, breaks so often on the monohull variant that the type struggles to complete a deployment. The swappable modules proved so finicky that the Navy gave up on ever installing more than one different module in any given LCS.

Perhaps worst of all, to keep down the roughly $500-million-per-ship cost of the hulls, the Navy chose to arm them only with light weaponry—guns and short-range self-defense missiles. While the fleet has added to some LCSs pairs of quad launchers for 100-mile-range anti-ship missiles, it hasn’t added Mark 41 vertical cells for long-range surface-to-air missiles.

That’s a problem. The Mark 41—and the “universal” SM-6 missile that it fires—is the key to the Navy’s future battle plans. The SM-6 can strike ships, planes, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and even ground forces.

The fleet is experimenting with a new construct that involves lots of small robots scouting for the enemy, relaying target coordinates via satellite to destroyers, frigates and drones packing Mark 41 cells full of SM-6s.

As the rest of the fleet doubles down on its heaviest weaponry, the LCSs’ light armament dooms them. Too big and expensive for scouting and incompatible with the SM-6, the near-shore warships have nothing to add to the new sensor-missile network.

The Navy might yet find a role for the 31 LCSs it could keep. They could conduct peacetime patrols, train alongside smaller allied navies and maybe partially replace the gun-armed boats the fleet is eliminating from its Persian Gulf patrol force.

But don’t count on it. Every time the Chinese navy adds a new destroyer or cruiser to its own heavily-armed fleet, the urgency grows for the United States to match China ship for ship, missile for missile. Every dollar the Navy doesn’t spend on LCSs is a dollar it can spend on a warship with, you know, weapons.