Exploit simplicity, numbers, the pace of technology development in electronics and robotics, and fast reconfiguration. That was the US Navy’s idea for the low-end backbone of its future surface combatant fleet. Inspired by successful experiments like Denmark’s Standard Flex ships, the US Navy’s $30+ billion “Littoral Combat Ship” program was intended to create a new generation of affordable surface combatants that could operate in dangerous shallow and near-shore environments, while remaining affordable and capable throughout their lifetimes.
It hasn’t worked that way. In practice, what the Navy wanted, the capabilities needed to perform primary naval missions, and what could be delivered for the sums available, have proven nearly irreconcilable. The LCS program has changed its fundamental acquisition plan several times since 2005, and canceled contracts with both competing teams, without escaping any of its fundamental issues. This public-access FOCUS article offer a wealth of research material, alongside looks at the LCS program’s designs, industry teams procurement plans, military controversies, and contracts.
LCS: Concept & needs
Ultimately, the US Navy is trying to replace 30 FFG-7 Oliver Hazard Perry Class frigates, 14 MCM Avenger Class mine countermeasures vessels, and 12 MHC-51 Osprey Class coastal mine hunters (TL = 56), with about 55 Littoral Combat Ships.
The LCS requirement has been identified as part of a broader surface combatant force transformation strategy, which recognizes that many future threats are spawning in regions with shallow seas, where the ability to operate near-shore and even in rivers will be vital for mission success.
That requires the ability to counter growing “asymmetric” threats like coastal mines, quiet diesel submarines, global piracy, and terrorists on small fast attack boats. It also requires intelligence gathering and scouting, some ground combat support capabilities, and the ability to act as a local command node, sharing tactical information with other Navy aircraft, ships, submarines, and joint units.
At the same time, however, the US Navy needs ships that can act as low-end gap-fillers in other traditional fleet roles, and operate in the presence of missile-armed enemy vessels and/or aerial threats.
Given the diversity of possible missions in the shallow-water and near-shore littoral zones, and the potential threats from forces on land, any ship designed for these tasks must be both versatile and stealthy. Meanwhile, the reality of ships that are expected to remain in service for over 30 years gives rise to a need for electronic longevity. As the saga of the USA’s cost-effective but short-lived FFG-7 frigates proved, “future-proofing” and upgradeability for key systems, electronics, and weapons will be critical if these small surface combatants are to remain useful throughout their mechanical lives.
LCS = Standard Equipment + Mission Modules…
At 115 – 127 meters in length and 2,800 – 3,100 tons of displacement, the USA’s competing LCS ship designs are almost the size of a Britain’s Type 23 frigates. They might well be classified as frigates, were it not for their shallow water design and employment. For whatever reason, high speed has also been identified as an important ship characteristic. As such, both the GD/Austal trimaran and Lockheed’s racing-derived monohull offer potential top speeds of 40-50 knots over short distances.
While a ship’s hull and design makes a number of its performance parameters difficult to change, the Americans believed they may have a solution to the problem of affordable upgrades to sensors and key systems. Denmark’s Standard Flex 300 corvettes pioneered a revolutionary approach of swappable mission modules based on ISO containers. That approach has the potential to radically changes the ships’ capabilities, by creating the option to swap in a full breadth of excellent equipment focused on a particular need. As opposed to the traditional approach, which is to cram a wide-ranging set of bolted-in compromise equipment into fixed installations.
Swappable modules also gives the Navy new options over time. One option is technology-based, via spiral development that focuses on rapid insertions of new equipment. This creates a long series of slight improvements in the mission modules, and hence the ship’s capabilities. Over time, the cumulative effect can be very significant. The 2nd benefit is cost-related, since upgrades require far less work and cost to install when mission technologies evolve. The 3rd benefit is risk-related. The ability to do low-cost, spiral upgrades encourages frequent “refreshes” that remain within the existing state of the art, rather than periodic upgrade programs that must stretch what’s possible, in order to handle expected developments over the next 25 years.
No matter which mission modules are loaded, the ship will carry a BAE Systems Mk110 57mm naval gun with a firing rate of up to 220 rounds/minute, and Mk 295 ammunition that allows the system to perform against aerial, surface or ground threats. The ship will also carry .50 caliber (12.7mm) machine guns, plus defensive systems including automated chaff/flare dispensers and a Raytheon RIM-116 RAM (Rolling Airframe Missile) launcher integrated into an upgraded version of the MK 15 Phalanx gun system’s radar & IR sensors.
The ships will also rely on their onboard MH-60 helicopters and/or RQ-8B Fire Scout helicopter UAVs, plus other robotic vehicles including a variety of Unmanned Underwater Vessels (UUV) and Unmanned Surface Vessels (USV). UUVs currently being tested for use with the LCS include theBluefin 21 advance surveyor, WLD-1 which tows the AQS-20 mine-hunting sonar, and others. These systems will actually be part of mission modules: integrated packages of weapons, sensors, robotic vehicles, and manned platforms that can be switched in and out depending on the ship’s mission.
The ships’ first and most important mission module is not officially listed. It consists of a small but very cross-trained crew, plus the flexibility to accommodate small complements of specialists. The most obvious example is Special Forces missions, given the ships’ low draught, high speeds, flexible mission spaces, advanced communication systems, and ability to launch ancillary craft. Beyond the human element, the LCS program will initially draw upon module sets for Mine Warfare (MIW: 24 planned), Anti-submarine Warfare (ASW: 16 planned) and Surface Warfare (SUW: 24 planned).
The LCS Mission Modules Program Office (PMS 420) packages a variety of technologies, many of which are produced by other program offices and delivered as elements of a particular mission module. As of August 2008, The Mission Package Program was led by PMS-420 PEO Capt. Mike Good. Northrop Grumman serves as the Navy’s mission package integrator.
Mine Detection & Clearance
The MIW module brings together several systems developed by the Mine Warfare program office (PMS 495).
The currently include the AN/WLD-1 Remote Minehunting UUV System; the AN/AQS-20A towed mine-detecting sonar and sensors; the Organic Airborne Surface Influence Sweep (OASIS); the Airborne Laser Mine Detection System (AES-1 ALMDS); the Airborne Mine Neutralization System (AMNS); and the Rapid Airborne Mine Clearance System (RAMICS) 30mm cannon with its “supercavitating” ammunition. See DID’s in-depth coverage of the MH-60S Airborne Mine Countermeasures (AMCM) program for more details.
The Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) module has experienced more turbulence. The Advanced Deployable System (ADS) had been at the heart of the ASW anti-submarine module, and was intended to be a fast-deploying underwater sensor net developed by Lockheed Martin under the Maritime Surveillance Systems program office (PMS 485). Unfortunately, the ADS program was terminated. The next mainstay was expected to be Lockheed’s WLD-1 sub-surface USV towing the AN/AQS-20A, but that was relegated to mine warfare only in late 2009.
What’s left is a new General Dynamics USV, and acoustic sensors such as Lockheed’s Sea Talonmultifunction towed array and remote towed active source. Other detection systems and weapons are designed for use aboard the MH-60 helicopter and unmanned surface vessels (USVs) like theSpartan. New technologies like the revolutionary “Sea Sparker” active sonobuoy may also find their way into this mix.
After early testing went poorly, the Navy is now re-thinking this entire module.
The Surface Warfare (SUW) attack module makes use of 4 weapon stations. In addition to the 57mm naval gun, firepower would include the same 30mm cannon system used in the Marines’ canceled Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. Even so, that level of armament would make the LCS just a $700 million coast guard cutter. In littoral regions filled with missile-armed fast attack craft, as well as motorboats with small guns or torpedoes, that won’t do.
Initial plans wanted to add a version of the US Army’s Non Line-of-Sight – Launch System (NLOS-LS), aka. NETFIRES. Each of 3 on-board weapon stations are sized to carry a Netfire “missile in a box” module, each of which packs 15 cells, for 45 missiles total. These cheap precision attack missiles (PAM) roughly duplicate the effects of a 155mm shell, and have a range of up to 40 km/ 24 miles. A NETFIRES-equipped Littoral Combat Ship could even offer inshore naval fire support, if the ship is willing to come within artillery range of the coast, or a longer-range missile is developed. This missile array would also prove very suitable for engaging swarms of fast-moving targets like small boats. On the other hand, they would be badly outclassed by common anti-ship missiles, with ranges of 150 – 300 miles and warheads that pack 200 or more pounds of explosives.
In 2010, even that overmatched capability was removed, as problems led the US Army to cancel its participation in NLOS-LS. Without vertical launch cells as part of the base LCS design, the Navy’s examination of alternatives will require a new launcher, as well as new weapons.
The Navy might choose to shoulder all of NLOS-LS’ development and fielding costs, instead of making a simple swap with another weapon compatible with the Mk41/ExLs vertical launch cell. At present, however, they seem to be leaning toward a smaller, very short-range weapon called the Griffin. The 33+ pound, 42 inch long Griffin B has a 13 pound blast-fragmentation warhead, and uses a combination GPS/INS and semi-active laser seeker. The gravity-eject Griffin A version is currently in use as part of the MC-130W Combat Spear’s “roll on armed Hercules” kit. Estimated Griffin B range is in the Hellfire class, or about 3.5 miles when ground launched without a booster motor. That’s less than 1/6th the Raytheon NLOS-LS PAM’s planned 25 mile range, and this severe cut, coupled with the warhead’s size, sharply limits LCS ranged engagement options. Griffins would be suitable for engaging maneuvering targets like enemy speedboats, but cannot function as naval fire support for ground forces, or engage Fast Attack Craft or larger vessels.
The LCS’s mission bays can also be adapted for other purposes. Indeed, one of the key benefits of the entire concept is that new mission modules can give ships new capabilities, in response to emerging needs over its lifetime, without creating massive refitting costs.
The Danish Absalon Class multi-mission frigates have shown that reconfigurable bays can be adapted to carry troops and vehicles, in a manner reminiscent of the 1930s-era APDs adapted from World War 1 destroyers. Other missions that have reportedly been studied for the LCS include a configuration with medical/humanitarian modules, SEAL and special forces support modules, troop transport for Marines, or even Naval Fire Support employing a variant of the Army/Marine Corps’ 227mm Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS).
An MLRS system might fix some of the LCS’ lackluster firepower, and their lack of recoil poses fewer engineering problems than artillery-at-sea programs like Germany’s MONARC 155mm howitzer or Britain’s naval Braveheart. At present, however, there are no firm plans for an MLRS mission module. If the USA’s LCS ships do field MLRS modules, they would become the first ships to do so at sea. The new German F125 Sachsen Class frigates were also supposed to carry MLRS modules, but the expense of adapting them to the corrosive salt-water environment caused them to drop that option. A packaged solution from the USA that required no German research and development funds could change that calculus, however, and draw interest in this weapon from other countries as well.
LCS: Controversies & Cautions
The cost and size of LCS ships are now comparable to other countries’ high-end naval frigates. As the US Navy’s primary low-end vessels in the future fleet, they will be expected to perform many of the same roles. The cargo hold’s size has created some challenges in fitting all of the required equipment into the mission modules, without compromising high-end performance at the modules’ particular tasks. Even so, LCS ships can be expected to perform the mine countermeasures role very well, and the frigates’ traditional anti-submarine role reasonably well, thanks to their helicopters, array of robots, and rapidly upgradeable systems.
Other traditional roles for frigate-sized vessels are more controversial. The biggest controversy surrounds the ships’ one area of severe inflexibility: their weapons fit.
Present LCS designs don’t even carry torpedo tubes, or vertical-launch systems (VLS) that could accommodate present and future attack and/or defensive missiles. Even with the Surface Warfare module installed, LCS ships will carry a very light armament set for a major naval vessel: a 57-mm Mk 110 naval gun system; RIM-116 SeaRAM short range defensive missiles; 30mm cannons that would replace very short range Griffin launchers if installed; 12.7mm machine guns; plus any missiles or 70mm rockets carried by its accompanying helicopters (up to 2 H-60 slots or up to 4MQ-8B Fire Scout UAV slots).
That armament is closer to a support vessel than a naval surface combatant, and larger high-speed support designs like the JHSV would offer far more mission module space for reconfigurable specialty support ships. Naval analyst Raymond Pritchett has pithily described the current compromise as:
”…3000 ton speedboat chasers with the endurance of a Swedish corvette, the weapon payload of a German logistics ship, and the cargo hold of a small North Korean arms smuggler.”
The LCS weapons array also compares unfavorably with comparable-sized frigates that can perform the full array of anti-submarine, fleet air defense, and naval combat roles. The new Franco-Italian FREMM Class, or even Britain’s much older Type 23/Duke Class, outclass it considerably. So do smaller corvettes like Israel’s US-built, $260 million Sa’ar 5 Eilat Class, and Sweden’s ultra-stealthy Visby Class. Even the tiny Danish Flyvefisken Class, whose swappable “flex ship” modules helped pave the way for the LCS idea, has a Mk 48 vertical launch system that can handle longer-range air defense missiles, and mounts launchers for Harpoon anti-ship missiles.
That may not matter against small boats like the “Boghammers,” fielded by the Iranians during their late-1980s guerrilla warfare at sea against the US Navy in the Persian Gulf. Unfortunately, many nations field larger Fast Attack Craft equipped with anti-ship missiles. Despite being 1/3 the LCS’ length and less than that in terms of displacement, their employment would create a threat that could attack an LCS from beyond its range of reasonable retaliation, with a weapon that the LCS’ lower damage tolerance may handle poorly.
It’s telling that brochures for the International LCS versions offered by each team feature a major radar capability boost via the small SPY-1F AEGIS system, and are armed with torpedoes, anti-ship missiles and vertical-launch system (VLS) cells. General Dynamics’ trimaran offers 16 tactical length VLS cells for up to 64 RIM-162 ESSM anti-air missiles or VL-ASROC anti-submarine launchers, and adds torpedo tubes. Lockheed Martin’s international version, which attracted some interest from Israel before cost issues intervened, has 16 strike length VLS cells that could also accommodate anti-ship missiles, or land attack missiles.
Meanwhile, survivability has become an issue on 3 fronts. One is the slim margins created by a very small crew, leaving little margin for tasks like damage control if automated systems are damaged or fail. The others are the questions of shock/survivability testing, and of aluminum structures. The original concept for LCS was a ship whose damage resistance could save the crew, but not the ship, in the even if a significant strike. That was upgraded slightly to potentially saving the crew and the ship, but not continuing to fight while doing so. As the Exocet missile strikes on the HMS Sheffield (sank) and USS Stark (survived, barely) proved, even steel warships designed to keep fighting after a strike may see those margins tested. Navy revelations that the LCS ships would not meet even Level I standards, let alone the OPNAVINST 9070.1 Level II standard of the frigates they’ll replace, has caused some consternation.
So, too, has the use of aluminum in ships exposed to hostile fire. The LCS-1 Freedom Class uses an aluminum superstructure, while the LCS-2 Independence Class is primarily an aluminum design. While both ships have had to certify to the same fire-proofing standards asked of other ships, aluminum conducts heat very well, and melts or deforms easily. If the ancillary fire-fighting systems, resistant coatings, etc. fail, or cannot handle a given situation at sea, structural integrity problems and secondary fires could become fatal concerns very quickly.
The emerging scenario in the USA is a cost for the base ships that continues to hover around $400-500 million each, plus weapons, electronics, and mission modules that bring the price per equipped ship to $550-650 million, even under the proposed new fixed-price contract. That’s no longer a cheap $220 million corvette class price tag. It’s a price tag that places the USA’s LCS at the mid-to-upper end of the international market for full multi-role frigate designs. Even as future procurement trends will make LCS ships the most common form of US naval power.
In that environment, unfavorable comparisons are inevitable. A versatile surveillance and special forces insertion ship whose flexibility doesn’t extend to the light armament that is its weakest point, and isn’t flexible enough to deal with anything beyond token naval or air opposition, won’t meet expectations. Worse, it could cause the collapse of the Navy’s envisaged “high-low” force structure if the DDG-1000 destroyers and CG (X) cruisers are priced out of the water, and built in small numbers. That domino has already fallen, as DDG-1000/ DD (X), production has been capped at just 3 ships, and CG (X) was canceled entirely in the FY 2011 budget. As Vice-Admiral Mustin (ret.) and Vice-Admiral Katz (ret.) put it in a 2003 USNI Proceedings article:
“Because the Navy has invested heavily in land-attack capabilities such as the Advanced Gun System and land-attack missiles in DD (X), there is no requirement for [the Littoral Combat Ship] to have this capability. Similarly, LCS does not require an antiair capability beyond self-defense because DD (X) and CG (X) will provide area air defense. Thus, if either DD (X) or CG (X) does not occur in the numbers required and on time, the Navy will face two options: leave LCS as is, and accept the risk inherent in employment of this ship in a threat environment beyond what it can handle (which is what it did with the FFG-7); or “grow” LCS to give it the necessary capabilities that originally were intended to reside off board in DD (X) and CG (X). Neither option is acceptable.”
Especially if the low end has grown to a cost level that makes it equivalent to other countries’ major surface combatants, while falling short on key capabilities that will be required in the absence of higher-end ships.