On Oct. 1, 2019, the Independence class Littoral Combat Ship USS Gabrielle Giffords fired a stealthy RGM-184A Naval Strike Missile at the ex-USS Ford, a decommissioned Oliver Hazard Perry class frigate, as part of sinking exercise, or SINKEX, off Guam. Since then, the ship has continued to ply the waters of the Western Pacific, with the U.S. Navy recently highlighting her presence in the hotly contested South China Sea as an important signal to China, as well as a demonstration of America's commitment to its allies and partners in the region.
However, official pictures have also consistently shown that, after more than nine months, the forward-deployed Gabrielle Giffords has still not loaded a fresh launch canister in place of the one it expended last year and has been operating with seven RGM-184As ready to fire, rather than a full load of eight.
The Navy has touted the complete weapon system, also known as the Mk 87 Mod 0, as a critical upgrade offering a major boost in firepower for both Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) subclasses. As such, having a visibly empty missile canister in place for months on end seems, at best, puzzling and, at worst, it raises questions about the state of the program, as well as the Navy's ability to support deployed examples of the system and its commitment to keeping these ships on the front line fully armed with the few weapons they can carry. To date, Gabrielle Giffords it the only LCS to have deployed operationally armed with the Naval Strike Missile (NSM).
The U.S. Seventh Fleet, to which Gabrielle Giffords is presently assigned, declined to confirm or deny that the ship has not gotten a reload for its NSM launchers since the October 2019 SINKEX.
"USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS 10) is conducting routine operations in the South China Sea. Through continued presence in the region, the U.S. Navy supports transparency, the rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight, the principles that underpin security and prosperity for the Indo-Pacific, so that all nations in the region may benefit," Navy Lieutenant Joe Keiley, spokesperson for the U.S. Seventh Fleet, told The War Zone in a statement in response to questions about Gifford's present armament. "U.S. Navy forces will continue to fly, sail and operate in the international waters of the South China Sea at our discretion and in accordance with maritime norms and international law, demonstrating the wide range of naval capability we have available in the Indo-Pacific."
However, all the official pictures that The War Zone has examined of the ship in the interceding nine months clearly show an open hole in the rear of the top right canister on the NSM launcher closest to the ship's superstructure. Pictures and video from the SINKEX showed that this was the missile that Gabrielle Giffords fired at that time.
The open hole is a clear indication that the launch canister is empty. NSMs come from the manufacturer, Norway's Kongsberg, pre-loaded in these canisters, also known as Launch Missile Modules (LMM). The rear hole is sealed with a plug that fits over the rocket motor that propels the missile in the initial launch phase of flight. After the rocket burns out, this booster falls away and a small turbojet engine then kicks in. You can read more about the NSM and its capabilities in detail in this past War Zone piece.
Even if the rear plug in the canister was missing for some reason, which would also expose the missile inside to potential environmental damage, especially from corrosive saltwater, the rocket motor would still be visible. The missile cannot function properly without this boost motor in place.
It's fair to say that other Navy surface warships may conduct routine operations with at least some number of their Vertical Launch System (VLS) cells empty. However, it's not immediately apparent from the outside that there isn't a missile in a VLS cell, adding uncertainty and ambiguity into any potential adversary's planning process and risk calculuses. That the Navy has so visibly gone nine months without getting the Gabrielle Giffords a new missile would seem to be sending a message about the ship's capabilities that doesn't quite line up with the service's public statements.
"That’s a game-changer for LCS," Navy Rear Admiral Casey Moton, the Program Executive Officer for Unmanned and Small Combatants, said in an interview with USNI News in September 2019 regarding the addition of Naval Strike Missiles. "Now, every LCS that’s out there can’t be ignored."
It also raises questions about the present state of the Navy's supporting infrastructure and logistics chains for the NSMs, as well as just how many missiles the service has inventory right now, which could be a relatively small number still. Gabrielle Giffords is forward-deployed in Singapore, where she could readily reload if stocks of RGM-184As were available.
The pictures of Gabrielle Giffords launching the one missile during SINKEX last year show that the LMMs loaded on the ship have markings in Norwegian and English, indicating they came from Kongsberg and underscoring how its American partner in its deal with the Navy, Raytheon, still has yet to establish robust U.S.-based production and supply chains.
It's not as if the Navy has kept Gabrielle Giffords away from potential major hotspots, either. The service has been particularly eager to talk up the ship's presence, as well as that of the Independence class USS Montgomery, in and around the South China Sea on multiple occasions this year. This included sending it near the site of a dispute between China and Malaysia over the latter country's exploration of potential undersea oil and natural gas deposits.
"The versatility and flexibility of Independence-variant littoral combat ships rotationally deployed to Southeast Asia is a game changer," U.S. Rear Admiral Fred Kacher, head of the U.S. Seventh Fleet's Expeditionary Strike Group 7, said in a statement on May 12. "Gabrielle Giffords' operations near [the Malaysian government-chartered drillship] West Capella demonstrate the depth of capability the U.S. Navy has available in the region."
With competition in the Pacific region, particularly with China, heating up, the Navy has been keen to point to the LCS deployments in the region as examples of how the program as a whole has finally turned a corner after years of disappointment and questions about the ships' operational utility. The planned addition of the NSMs to ships across both classes has been an important component of broader efforts to expand the capabilities of the LCSs in any kind of significant confrontation.
The limitations of both LCS subclasses already led the Navy to initiate plans in 2017 to buy much more capable frigates. In April, the service chose Wisconsin-based Marinette Marine to build at least the initial batch of these ships, presently referred to as FFG(X)s, based on a design from its Italian parent company, Fincantieri.
"We’re at the beginning of doing these recurring deployments, and I expect LCS deployments are just going to continue to increase in numbers," Navy Captain Jack Fay, the commander of Littoral Combat Ship Squadron One, headquartered in San Diego, told USNI News for a piece it published on July 1. "Multiple LCS in theater, especially adding Naval Strike Missile like Gabrielle Giffords has, is a huge huge move forward for the ship class. When I think about what adversaries have to think about – now it’s not just one particular focus area; now they’ve got to look across the entire theater – and that challenges a staff, that challenges their capabilities. I think it was a huge win, and we’re just seeing the start of that, what multiple LCS in theater can do."
At the same time, those same adversaries can see that Gabrielle Giffords has been sailing for months now with one NSM short of a full load. For all the progress the Navy has made to try to squeeze as much capability as possible out of these ships, there still appears to be work left to do.
Contact the author: Joe@thedrive.com