Four high-speed U.S. Navy vessels will soon start operating from Singapore. They will be the new face of the U.S. Navy for maritime policing and partnership-building in Asia-Pacific waters, where many countries in the region are trying to find a way to balance the rise of China without provoking a military confrontation.

These vessels, known as Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), come in two different hull and superstructure designs. Sleek and stealthy, both look like maritime marauders from James Bond movies.

Although their deployment to Singapore was foreshadowed last year, the move was only confirmed in April when Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen met his U.S. counterpart, Leon Panetta, in Washington. A joint statement said they had discussed the proposal for the United States to forward-deploy up to four LCS at a time to Singapore on a rotational basis.

The vessels would not be “based” in Singapore, but would move in and out to train and engage with regional partners.

Although couched in low-key terms by the U.S. and Singapore, the arrival of the LCS will mark a controversial, change in force structure for the U.S. Navy and deployment of its ships around the world to keep vital sea lanes open and deter violent or disruptive activity by states and nonstate actors, including terrorists and pirates.

The U.S. awarded construction contracts last month for four more LCS, bringing the total under order or in service to 12, out of 20 scheduled to be built by 2015, and 55 eventually. Two are already in service and two more should be ready later this year.

In an era of military cost-cutting in Washington, the LCS will be crucial to maintaining an affordable U.S. Navy, and keeping the size of the fleet around 300 in the decades ahead.

The LCS is scheduled to become the most numerous class in the U.S. fleet, taking over from the 51 Aegis destroyers.

With a top speed of more than 74 kilometers per hour, the LCS is significantly faster than a destroyer. But at a current unit cost of about $350 million, it is far less expensive than an Aegis destroyer, which costs around $1.7 billion.

The LCS is about the size of a frigate, generally recognized as the smallest class of warship in world navies. It is built for flexible and agile operations in shallow waters close to coasts, hence the name Littoral Combat Ship.

While many of today’s warships have primary tasks, the LCS is designed to carry out multiple missions. They include surface warfare, counter-mine, and anti-submarine operations. In the future, the scope may be widened to special operations, disaster relief, and maritime security.

To use computer-speak, each of these tasks is intended to have its own “plug and play” mission module that can be moved quickly on and off the vessel in port.

Will this revolutionary concept work in practice?

“We have to prove it,” U.S. Navy Department Undersecretary Robert Work told a congressional panel the other day. “There are a lot of skeptics. We have to get out the [LCS] fleet. We have to show it (in operation).” Singapore will be a test bed.

How would the LCS perform in a combat situation? Use of aluminum and other lighter-weight materials than the thick steel plating on conventional warships prompted the Pentagon’s independent Department of Operational and Test Evaluation to warn that the “LCS is not expected to be survivable in a hostile combat environment” facing advanced anti-ship missiles, mines and small-attack boats working in swarms.

The U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, said April 12 that the new high-speed vessels were “not large surface combatants that are going to sail into the South China Sea and challenge the Chinese military; that’s not what they’re made for.” He explained that the LCS contingent soon to start operating out of Singapore would focus on exercises, port visits, humanitarian assistance and counter-piracy operations with Southeast Asian partners. In a crisis, they would be backed up by heavyweight U.S. Navy warships.

LCSs in Southeast Asian waters would take some of the patrolling and flag-flying burden off U.S. aircraft carriers, cruisers and destroyers, enabling them to focus on the deterrent and war-fighting missions that they were designed to perform.

As the LCS fleet is rolled out, its vessels will “tend to displace amphibious ships and destroyers in [waters off] Africa and South America,” Adm. Greenert said. That would “free up surface combatants, more high-end ships” for the seas off East Asia.

The U.S. already deploys half its available at-sea navy ships in the western Pacific, about 50 vessels on an average day. It plans to raise that to 58 by 2020 as more of the planned 55-strong LCS fleet enter service.

The challenge for the U.S. Navy in the region is to do more at much less cost, with the help of regional allies and security partners as well as advanced technology. If the LCS fails to perform as hoped, this task will be made much harder.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.

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