Littoral Combat Ship agonistes
A couple of months ago I wrote a post about challenges facing the US Navy. I was in the Navy for a hitch, a long time ago, and yet still find the Navy and its mission an eradicable point of presence.
I had the opinion that the Navy ought to press forward with one new ship type, the Littoral combat ship (LCS) - Wikipedia, because while it was a troubled purchase I thought there were needs it met. After I finished that post (and when the NYT wrote a big article on the LCS A Smaller Navy Ship With Troubles, but President's Backing - NYTimes.com) I realized two additional things I should have mentioned. One was that what most drove the form factor of the ship was the desire to operate large helicopters from it. The other thing was that people weren't just dubious -- every big program has got the dubious -- there was an extremity of disgruntlement even rabid dislike for this ship. So I decided to revisit whether the LCS program are good ships or bad ships.
One criticism is that the ship is under-gunned. However, it is generally in line with the capabilities of other corvettes, a ship type common in other countries but not traditionally built or operated by the US Navy. It is; though, not comparable with the best of these, nor with any frigates, a larger ship-type it shares size and overall ambition with. This is significant because its unit cost now equals that of a frigate, and the LCS program was conceived as replacing a line of generally successful frigate classes for the US Navy.
Comments swirled that the US's military industrial complex is not building ships of the same quality that other nations can. It's worth noting that for many other countries a ship this size is a capital ship and more care is present in their design and manufacture. There is the also the criticism that the small size leaves fundamental defensive gaps, in anti-air warfare (AAW) particularly. It does not carry the standard area air defense missile. And it also relies on towed sonar arrays rather than sonar integral to the hull. It cannot listen persistently for enemy submarines.
It may be helpful to put up a small table of comparisons to make some of these issues clearer. Listed first is the LCS, then the frigate it is in part replacing followed by the US fleet mainstay the Arleigh Burke DDG. Then a section of comparable frigates operated by other Navies, last an additional section of ships that were specifically compared to the LCS in a Navy postgraduate school thesis. The table is for orientation purposes only, a sketch of key features. I have used the primary weapons as a stand-in for the more complex topic of the sensor and data systems necessary to identify and hit targets. Fire-control systems generally correlate with the weapons installed. Bolting a standard missile launcher to a corvette accomplishes little without upgrading to a SPY-1k or similar radar system to guide it.
Comparisons among light warship types
|| Mk-3/110 57 mm gun, Mk-44 30mm chain gun, Mk-50 Torpedo, AGM-175 guided missile
||RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missiles
||2 MH-60R/S Seahawks, MQ-8 Fire Scout +Hanger
||$670 (cw/cyclone class PC $31) |
||Oto Melera 76mm gun, Mk-38 25mm, Mk 60 Torpedo
||SH 60 Seahawk +Hanger
|| $650 (2009$)
||Mk-41 vls: Rim-66 , BGM-109, RUM-139, Mk-45 127mm, 25mm gun ||Rim-66, RIM-161, RIM-174, RIM-162, 20mm Phalanx
||2 MH 60 Seahawk +Hanger
|Comparable Corvette Classes
||Braunschweig Corvette (Ger.)
||76 mm, 27mm Guns, RBS-15 ASM
||21 cell RAM CIWS
||S-100 Reconn/Drone +Hanger
|Holland OPV (Neth)
||76 mm, 30 mm guns, 4x 12.7mm
|De Zeven Provincien Fr.(Neth)
||Oto Melera 127mm, Harpoon (Mk-41 VLS), Mk46 Torp.
|| Mk-41 40 Cell VLS: SM-2, ESSM, Goalkeeper CIWS
|Absalon SS (Den)
||Mk-45 127mm, 30mm, MU90 ASW Torp.
||Mk-48 VLS RIM-162, Harpoon
||2 EH-101 +Hanger
|Evaluation and Comparison of Freedom Class LCS
||Formidable class frigate
||Oto Melara 76mm, RGM-84C Harpoon SSM, 12.7mm, A244/S Mod 3 torpedoeso
||Sylver A50 8-cell VLS MBDA Aster 15/30
||S-70B Seahawk +Hanger
|MILGEM (Milli Gemi) class corvette
||76mm gun, 12.7mm, Mk 46 Torpedo, 8 tube Harpoon
||Mk-41 VLS ESSM, RAM
||S 70b Seahawk +Hanger
||90mm gun 14.5mm mg, Redut VLS: (P-800, kh-35 3m-54 Klub), Kashtan CIWS-M CADS, ss-n-29 Torpedo
|Sigma class corvette
||20, up to 80
||Oto Melara 76 mm, MBDA Exocet MM40 Block II, 20 mm Denel Vektor G12 (Licensed copy of GIAT M693/F2, EuroTorp 3A 244S Mode II/MU 90
|| quad MBDA Mistral TETRAL, forward & aft
|Visby class corvette
||Bofors 57 mm Mk3, Type 45 torpedoes
||RBS15 Mk2 AShM
|Data from Wikipedia.org, Global Security.org, New Wars - Warship Costs|
A point embedded in this table is an idea of the vessels size. There is a rough rule of thumb that only ships around or above 3,000 tons are good open-ocean seakeeping vessels. Below that they are best suited to coastal patrol duties. The LCS is expected to be self deploying, that is it is expected to sail from American ports and cross oceans to take up station for months at a time. It is on the border of comfortably accomplishing that. Small is also often wet, wave are big. The Freedom class variant of the LCS may even be an inherently wet hull design with little ability to take on additional weight in weapons and systems without some redesign.
A better question than whether the LCS is a good or bad ship is to ask whether it is the right ship or the wrong ship. Its suitability for its mission. Despite numerous claims that this is a ship without a mission, the usage and tasks of the LCS are commonly understood. Wide Area Interdiction, both anti nuclear proliferation and other contraband interception as well. Ordinary patrol work and flag presence. The importance of the latter cannot be overestimated.
The Navy needed as well surface warfare (SUW), Mine Intervention Warfare (MIW), and Anti-Submarine warfare (ASW) in shallow coastal sea spaces in the face of asymmetrical Anti-Access / Area Denial. Ninety percent of these ships lives would be spent working in low threat but busy environments in the manner of a Coast guard cutter, and the right ship will have many characteristics of a cutter. Critically for its tasks the Navy wanted Helos. Helicopters in hangers, protected from the corrosive sea elements, able to launch and recover in smooth and moderate sea states. With ranges up to 300-500 miles, at speeds to 170 mph. Able to attack speed-boat technicals, sweep mines, search and kill submarines. Helo is how the Navy spells versatility.
At a general level any navy must take care to be a balanced force. There will always be something approximating a main battle-fleet of capital ships. And a marine troop delivery capability. There is also always the daily task of simply being about, on the water, in the places where things are going on. The basic parameters of this third part of the fleet as the Navy already sees it involves not just power projection over the Littoral, shallow coastal waters, but in the Littoral with an assortment of smaller ships. As platforms engaged in multiple tasks.
What the Navy got for a decade of conceptual trouble was what you could call the Too-New-Ferry-boat. Both of the LCS contracted builders use hulls descending from existing ferry-boat designs. And both incorporate radical stealth features. Sparse geometric slab sides and a determined lack of familiar navy deck clutter. They are by no means the only stealth corvette in existence, many -- most of the corvettes in the above table are also. But they are the first US Navy vessels to have these features. The equally loathed Zumwalt destroyers will have these features also. The Independence subclass is a trimaran, both hulls are derided as so much shaped aluminum (although minesweeping missions are enhanced by Independences non ferrous make-up, minesweepers traditionally were wooden hulled). A community reaction including congress that these ships are not serious and bear a heavy burden of proof otherwise, has settled upon them like top-heavy tonnage "CRS-RL33741 Navy Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) Program: Background, Issues, and Options for Congress".
The name Littoral Combat ship itself rankles. It's not a traditional warship, rather an augmented patrol corvette, a minesweeper, a speciality ship. If severely damaged in combat -- and it is not designed to sustain much damage and continue its mission its damage control resources are minimal -- it is considered totaled and the crew is expected to abandon ship The LCS is not expected to be survivable in a hostile combat environment - USNI Blog. At a certain price point and under certain cost benefit analysis this may be reasonable if sanguine position.
At this point you have to watch the general tenor of the talk as criticism begins slipping into little more than: These new ships, they're not like the Old Ships. The steel fighting ships. The Oliver Hazard Perry, Bagelys, Gridleys, Clemson ships. And when those ships as they came down the ways, similar men stood around and exclaimed: Good solid oak and smooth-bore cannons is what makes a real navy not these iron buckets. Community reaction of this sort is ever present. It is not argument, merely sentiment. A backward looking attitude of reflexive regressive nostalgia.
The whole LCS program inside and outside the Navy has become politicized bureaucratically. In the way that opinions ossify and settle into tribes, The Navy's management claims the program is coming along, external watch dogs are increasingly doubtful A Response to the Navy's "Vigorous Defense" of the Littoral Combat Ship: . In the fleet the LCS is seen as an imposed top-down high concept design. Coming from a narrow academic wargaming corridor perceived as have little or nothing to do with the practical realities of long deployments thousands of miles from home and hostile missile-carrying speed-boats. It is felt that insufficient attention to staffing and training issues for small crew and complex ship. Where every crewmember must be expert or at least qualified on several procedures or pieces of equipment (such multitasking is a constant facet of Coast Guard operations). For the LCS crewing the Navy has borrowed an idea from the submarine force, multiple crews. 3-2-1 crewing they call it: Three crews, two ships, one deployed forward. A rotation unlikely to alleviate on-the-job-training inadequacies. Many if not most of these issues where identified by the time the first two ships hit the water and began sea trials. Some were known from the start of the program but waves of optimism and "can-do" carried things along past the point where they could have been rethought.
Somewhere in a comment section someone volunteered that the LCS program was pushed through for the sake of command billets. True enough I suppose. Of course that absurd line of reasoning indicts every warship below nine thousand tons the Navy has ever built. This is the tip of the paranoid style. You start to see claims the Navy Department has become uniquely and suspiciously incompetent and corrupt. That things are being done for hidden and obscure reasons. And you start to see (as I have) phrases like: "If Reagan were here to see this ship
" Apparently Reagan has become a talisman fetish continually invoked by the handwringing fretful.
The desire for ship to be flawless, lies on one end of a spectrum from where it is delivered quickly, a sum of its incapabilities. There is danger as well in the cadillac syndrome the tendency to keep spending time and money building a gold-platted dreadnaught immune to being sunk. I recently read a book called Neptune's Inferno about the naval battles of the Guadalcanal campaign, Savo, Tassafarona and others and came away understanding that no such ship exists.
There is no one Navy the United States can just build and stick in the water. There are at least three. The Navy built in previous years facing the current situation. The fleet being built against tomorrow's contingencies, and what is called the navy after next a stab at global trends and technology for sea power a generation away. The Navy identifies needs, then looks for ways and means to fulfill them. The Navy knows it needs a global presence and likely will through the century. It knows it needs a medium-sized patrol-escort ship, freeing up high offensive platforms for fleet roles without abandoning interdiction constabulary missions. There is now doubt even within the upper echelons of the Navy whether they have built that ship. This after a critical classified internal review know as the Perez report begain circulating in March of this year. Following this a there was quiet shake-up of the program's management and an advisory board was set up to try to put things back on track CNO Establishes LCS Council.
Beyond the specific need for a shallow draft warship, there is the more abstract idea of rebalancing the fleet. This is the idea of a fleet consisting of Economy A and Economy B ships, generally where the latter are approximately 1/10 cost and 1/25 of fleet hull numbers) The littoral combat ship : from concept to program. Case Study No. 7 (pdf). This reflected Street Fighter thinking, a wargame concept for a small fast hard-hitting ship to set against other navies and para-navies non-capital ship capabilities. At almost all times historically a successful and effective navy for a country is split between "battleships" ships-of-the-line "the van", and patrolling ships corsairs, cutters and sloops of war which made up the greater number, particularly in deployment. From the start it was explicitly expected that these LCS ships operate in a networked manner between each other and into further existing Navy C3 systems to fulfill a inherent scouting mission
The Navy had other ideas for its small ship. It wanted it to be capable of taking on different missions Littoral Combat Ship: An Examination of its Possible Concepts of Operation [PDF]. Certain European navies had tried to parse this with MultiRole Stanflex (standard flex) modules. Where weapon and sensor platforms could be swapped out on medium sized warships by fixing and standardizing their sizes, power and control interfaces. The US Navy taking this one step further conceived of mission modules encapsulating an entire ships purpose inside a module. These modules were intended to be independently transportable and installable on station or at least while deployed. A process only taking a day or so. The Navy now acknowledges that hot swaps of the mission modules cannot be done in-area LCS: Quick Swap Concept Dead | defensenews.com due in no small part to security concerns. The process of switching from surface-swarming to mine to anti-submarine packages would generally need to take place in a rear area and could take a week or more before the LCS unit was back in place. In war games the Navy has run, the red team can always exploit this and force the LCS ships out of the littoral zone at critical junctures.
Multirole units tend toward the patrol auxiliary. Utility feature dense and offense weapon light. This is measured against a multi-purpose (multi-mission) ship like the Arleigh Burke with its larger integrated ASW module, over the horizon surface targeting, and area AAW. The supposedly modest capabilities of the bare "sea-frame" LCS is posited as proof that these ships are disadvantaged in combat and of no use to the Navy though it was never expected to be used in just simple configuration. It is also worth noting that very few of the quite useful Destroyer Escorts of World War Two were lost in combat; because the Navy command at the time knew and understood their limitations. They accepted these limitations in order for the ships to excel at their purpose which was mass production, to be where they were needed; along side every convoy across the Atlantic.
Critically the LCS is designed as a multi generation sea frame to accommodate electrical system obsoleteness. The pace of electronic replacement (think iPods and intel chips) could put three or four generations of gadgets large and small in the LCS hull over their service lives. Unlike some previous ship designs the LCS's electrical supply and bus trunks shouldn't preclude that.
The fact that the Navy talked itself into two hull designs, a trimaran and a planning hull (essentially a giant cigarette boat) for a single stated purpose will always seem to have more to do with industrial appeasement than operational necessity. The Navy has in the past created incrementally different designs towards a goal in a close set of fiscal years, but contracted utterly different designs for the same task seems redundant. Moreover each contractor is fitting out their design with their own sensor suite. There is temptation to read in this that the LCS never fully emerged from its conceptual phase.
There are ways to deal with this. Deploying squadrons with a mix of mission packages. As the Navy approaches deploying these ships operationally they have already concluding the LCS should operate in pairs Birth of the Littoral Combat Ship | U.S. Naval Institute. Perhaps as the LCS builds out and enters the fleet in numbers. It will make sense to fit the designs out more permanently to a primary function. One, a modern surface warfare corvette. In this capacity with local surface suppression, but also multiple over-the-horizon abilities. This is a capability the LCS lost when the Lockheed Raytheon NLOS missile was canceled, and which the short range Griffin does not provide. As well an area AWW sufficient to protect not only itself but any paired units. The other design would then specialize in AMW, MCM and ASW missions.
The dual award block buy contract structured some saving in up front costs. The question is whether these savings will make up for the costs of maintaining two training and logistic regimes over these ships lifetimes. There is still the option, after the two shipyards have delivered ten ships. to "down select" -- pick just one design going forward. With the option of having the other ship ard (or another shipyard altogether build the preferred design How many units does the Navy want to build for an unproven design anyway 8, 24, 40? With the Benson-Gleaves, the Fletcher classes of the war years and Knox-Perry's within the last generation, large order numbers didn't come until the maturity of the class design. Initial numbers were built in small batch's in grouped fiscal years evaluated in service.
There are a number of reasons the Navy would like to build to and maintain a force currently known by the rubric the 300 ship Navy. Politicians have their own and separate reasons. Operationally it is the size the Navy needs to be where they need to be without cutting corners -- without pushing deployments tighter than manpower and material evaluation would caution. This is no small matter and the costs of violating this are enormous. There is another reason the Navy might like to keep their warship number up is risk adverseness. Below a certain level - never a fixed level or even one reducible to a single formula - a military force will become inclined to protect their limited assets, moving them out of harms way. Positioning them where they are likely to never have the chance to accomplish anything at a critical moment. Protecting the national interest and trade replaced with a desire not to have a ship sunk and crews lost. This is to a degree unavoidable, its human nature when confronted with a limited resource.
The Navy needs a large production unit in the fleet. A ship that can exist in numbers that allow it to be deployed in strength to the myriad concurrent trouble spots of the world. It would be ideal if this ship could also be a resilient combat frigate equally capable of operating with the fleet. Affordability is the key factor in their replacement; though. A frigate that could do what the LCS's detractors would have it do would cost significantly more than the LCS. More than the Perry FFGs, built a generation ago and now only marginally useful. They could never be added to the fleet in the numbers and the within the time frame that is the class's reason for being. They would be a ship added for comfort and continuity, and no native purpose.
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