The saving grace for the U.S. Navy's Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program may prove to be the Sikorsky MH-60 Seahawks, needed for most of the surface warfare, mine countermeasure or antisubmarine-warfare missions the vessels are expected to perform.

While the LCS sea frames and equipment for the ships' integral mission-module packages have suffered substantial cost increases, schedule delays and operational hiccups, the Seahawk has proved to be the program's consistent high performer.

Indeed, the success of LCS operations will depend on the fleet's aviation assets. In addition to MH-60R (Romeo) and MH-60S (Sierra) Seahawks, the ships also will likely employ Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout unmanned helicopters. They could be real aids if the Navy uses LCS vessels for certain U.S. Marine Corps amphibious operations.

The Marines love the Fire Scout, says Capt. John Ailes, who is in charge of LCS integration efforts. “It's basically a sensor,” adds Ailes, a Navy officer recently selected to be an admiral. The Navy is currently using the MQ-8B but eventually is expected to move to the C-Model Fire Scout. The Fire-X, a Northrop Grumman/Bell Helicopter joint venture is scheduled to make its first flight this fall.

Aviation always has been a vital component of LCS. The program's concept envisions quickly sending small warships to hot zones with mission-specific equipment that can be operated off the vessels.

“The LCS could exploit its speed to increase the reach of task groups by serving as a fast-moving lily pad for helicopters other than its own,” says a 2010 report on LCS from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment. “In such cases, one or more LCSs could be positioned on the periphery of a task group to which manned or unmanned air assets could be deployed from (carrier for landing dock ship), or to take advantage of the LCS's large flight decks to refuel and rearm in patterns synchronized with the LCS's own air detachment. It could also extend the range of its embarked air assets by using its speed to sprint toward recovery points.”

While LCS may be evolving much more into a platform other than the aviation “lily pads” envisioned early on by some defense analysts, there is no doubting the importance of the helicopter-centric operations for the vessels.

Fleet commanders will covet the LCS airborne assets, Ailes predicts. “Not everyone has a helicopter. The first question fleet commanders ask is: 'How many helicopters do you have?' There are so many things you can do with a helicopter. It can double for surface sea surveillance. You can drive around and look for submarines.”

Indeed, the Romeo makes an LCS a capable and lethal antisubmarine-warfare vessel, Ailes says, thanks to the periscope-detection capability and other technological advances on the aircraft.

“You want to keep submarines at [long] range,” he explains. “You never want to get close because they'll shoot torpedoes at you. You send your helicopter out, and this is extraordinarily long range. We never talk about just what big part the helicopter is in all of these scenarios. It's just huge.”

Many earlier-model destroyers, Ailes notes, do not have a helicopter presence.

The Navy program of record calls for the service to receive 280 Romeos, with 166 delivered thus far; and 275 Sierras, with 234 delivered. A Romeo is now deployed on LCS-1 USS Freedom, a Sierra on Freedom in 2010.

“We bring the helicopter,” Ailes says. “And not just any helicopter—we've got the Romeos. They're eye-watering helicopters; by far, the most capable system we've ever built. And it's already in the fleet, so there's not a lot of technical risk there. We've deployed it on LCS-1 [USS Freedom], so we retired that risk.”

The Romeo is now on Freedom as part of the ship's surface-warfare-mission suite as it is deployed in Asia. The Navy expects to be “driving” around and testing the antisubmarine-warfare mission components on Freedom by the end of 2014, says Ailes.

Meanwhile, the Navy is counting on the Sierra to conduct a host of mine countermeasure missions. Initially, the Navy had planned to conduct some rather robust sensor pod-towing missions with the Sierra, which had required helicopter modifications. As a recent Government Accountability Office report notes, the Navy decided to abandon those operations because of engine-failure concerns.

Ailes explains the helicopter still proved it could do the missions but opted against using the Sierra because it lacks a backup engine, and even though there were no reported engine failures, it would be safer to use other equipment for the same task.

For its slated mission set, LCS officials say, the Sierra has done the job.

“Those were really successful, surprisingly successful,” says Tracy Nye, a Navy mine warfare specialist working on the LCS program. “We were just able to fly that helicopter on and off the ship. We tried different tactics of launching and recovery. They really pushed the envelope on helicopter operations on the ship.”

Nye acknowledges, however, the need to reduce the time to reload mine-neutralizer magazines. When fully implemented, the LCS mine countermeasures package will include an AN/AES-1 sonar, the Airborne Laser Mine Detection System and AN/ASQ-235 Airborne Mine Neutralization System, making the LCS a potentially formidable anti-mine platform compared to the current Avenger-class ships.