Littoral Combat Ship Fires Its First Vertical Launch Hellfire Missile

On February 28th, the Freedom class Littoral Combat Ship USS Detroit fired a Hellfire missile for the first time. The event came nearly three years after the Navy identified the Hellfire Missile to replace the cancelled XM-501 Non Line-Of-Sight (NLOS) missile system. It was not only the first time a Hellfire had been fired off from an LCS, but also the first time one had been launched vertically—or anything else that had been launched vertically from an LCS for that matter. 

The Hellfire vertical launch system—dubbed the Surface-to-Surface Mission Module, or SSMM—is envisioned to be part of the LCS’s Surface Warfare Mission Package, which also includes a pair of 30mm bushmaster cannons and an 11 meter rigid-hull inflatable boat. This test launch was intended to see if the missile’s hot gasses and flames impacted the ship and its systems. Guided tests of the missile will commence aboard the USS Milwaukee late this year. The Navy hopes the Hellfire portion of the Surface Warfare Mission Package will be operational sometime in 2018. 

The Hellfire missile was largely a conciliation prize for the troubled Littoral Combat Ship program after another far more capable system was cancelled. I wrote all about how the Hellfire ended up on the LCS a few years ago, stating: “The Navy has been kicking around ideas to add some sort of guided weaponry to the LCS after its Non Line Of Sight (XM-501 NLOS) missile was cancelled. In fact, both LCS classes, the Independence and the Freedom, were built with space for a miniature vertical launch system containing NLOS missiles to be housed. The NLOS was to designed as two separate variants, the Precision Attack Munition (PAM), with a range of about 30 miles or so, and the Loitering Attack Munition (LAM) that could hang around looking for targets for around a half an hour. When the army cancelled the NLOS program, and the Navy did not pick up the slack, the LCS was left with no punch aside from its Phalanx or C-RAM close-in weapon system, its 57mm automatic cannon, a pair of 30mm chain guns and its MH-60R helicopters.” 

The Hellfire missile was originally fielded as a laser-guided anti-tank weapon for the AH-64A Apache, but over the decades it has been adopted by a dizzying amount of platforms. Most famously, the Hellfire became the weapon of choice for America’s Predator and Reaper drones, and was used extensively to prosecute America’s targeted assassination program overseas. The Hellfire system being adapted for the LCS is based on AH-64D Apache Longbow’s radar system and the radar-guided AGM-114Ls that are used in conjunction with it. As opposed to Hellfire missiles that use laser guidance, this variant of the missile allows for rapid engagement of multiple targets in any weather conditions and lock-on after launch capability. From my prior piece on the system

“The AGM-114L was built to accompany the AH-64D’s APG-78 “Longbow” mast-mounted fire control radar. The concept behind this capable duo is that the Apache could survey the battlefield within its immediate proximity, even while partially masked behind terrain such as a ridge or a bank of trees, and assign targets identified and classified by the radar to its AGM-114L missiles. At which time the missiles could lock on using their millimetric radar seekers, or they could lock on after launch and use their internal inertial guidance system to bring the target within lock-on range… A whole barrage of them can be fired off at individual targets… Additionally, because we are talking about radar detection and targeting instead of infrared/electro-optical detection and laser targeting, the system can work in any weather and visual conditions as visibility is irrelevant to the Longbow radar.”

What we are talking about here is a system that is being deployed specifically to counter swarming boat attacks, and it should be quite capable of doing so—at least until its magazine runs dry. But what is left on the table is the multi-role function that was lost with the cancellation of NLOS, especially in regards to that system’s range. NLOS could have been used to attack targets well over-the-horizon, such as other vessels or targets on shore. As such, LCSs could have provided special operations forces precision air support at standoff ranges in low and medium threat environments. The Hellfire system, on the other hand, has a much narrower mission set. 

It is just another aspect in which the Littoral Combat Ship concept has not lived up to its hype—a failed “Power Point” weapon system that now features a patchwork of capabilities that offer questionable utility in actual combat situations. As recent history has shown us, even in relatively low-threat littoral combat environments, $2 billion Aegis-equipped destroyers are called in to do the heavy lifting, not the Navy’s overgrown aluminum jet boats. Additionally, it’s odd that the two places where swarming boat tactics are alive and well, the Strait of Hormuz and Mandeb Strait, the Littoral Combat Ships are nowhere to be found. In fact, the fleet is still mired in retraining and other issues after the program was restructured following a series of high profile mechanical incidents, and one LCS crew remains stuck in Asia because of this. Also of note, the first four LCS ships are now test and training ships and will not be deployed operationally. 

Meanwhile, in Washington DC, calls for axing the so called “up-gunned” frigate version of the Littoral Combat Ship are growing louder, especially as the Navy is set to receive a large influx of funds under the Trump administration. House Armed Services Committee Chairman and outspoken critic of the LCS, John McCain, made it clear last week that he intends to reexamine the entire frigate program, especially in reflection of the realities of modern naval warfare and operational needs. McCain said:

“The frigate acquisition strategy should be revised to increase requirements to include convoy air defense, greater missile capability and longer endurance…When you look at some of the renewed capabilities, naval capabilities, that both the Russians and the Chinese have, it requires more capable weapon systems.”

There is also timing of procuring this new frigate. The 2018 budget is slated to include a block buy of 12 of these ships, which means that studying the possibility to move the purchase to a new platform, or further adapting the LCS with needed capabilities, will be a challenge. As such, there are calls to slow the purchase so that the same mistakes that spurred the LCS in the first place are not further extrapolated in frigate form. 

USNI News states

GAO Director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management Michele Mackin told lawmakers that frigate cost was unknown and risk too high, and that the Navy did not need to rush into the program because both LCS builders had a backlog of work – a statement the Navy strongly pushed back against.

“Our work has shown that both LCS shipyards are running quite a bit behind in delivering ships already under contract. Backlogs are many months long and up to a year or more in some cases. So the bottom line here is that both shipyards will be building LCSs for years to come, at least into 2021 at this point. So there’s no schedule imperative to add frigates to the pipeline right now,” she said.

“There’s an opportunity here to not repeat the mistakes of the past. Continued concerns about the capability of LCS, testing that’s years away from being complete, unknowns about the frigate and production backlogs at the shipyards are all factors that need to be taken into account. This potentially $9-billion investment can wait until more is known about what the taxpayers are being asked to fund.”

Attractive options—including procuring a proper frigate like the Patrol Frigate family of ships concept Huntington Ingalls has developed based on the Coast Guard’s Legend class National Security Cutter—have been floated for years now (and the author has been pushing for as long as they have existed). Or even just further evolving the LCS to handle anti-air warfare operations so that it can provide area air defense for itself could be an acceptable but not ideal compromise. This could go along with a potential Saudi purchase of a similarly configured LCS variants, saving billions in development dollars. 

No matter what, building even more LCS-derived ships that will be just as dependent on over-tasked and very expensive destroyers for protection as they are today is a miserable idea. Hopefully common sense will prevail and at the very least, the “frigate” version of the LCS will get the air defense capabilities it desperately needs. 

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Tyler Rogoway


Tyler’s passion is the study of military technology, strategy, and foreign policy and he has fostered a dominant voice on those topics in the defense media space. He was the creator of the hugely popular defense site Foxtrot Alpha before developing The War Zone.