It’s not too late to get useful low-end ships
The Navy is moving apace to stabilize the Littoral Combat Ship program and integrate it into a new fleet design. Upon reading LCS-focused maritime blogs and articles, one might think the time for debate has passed. Some suggest that the most useful path for think tanks, the maritime defense industry, the Defense Department, the Navy and maritime thinkers is to accept Navy LCS decisions and support the effort.
In fairness, the Navy and shipbuilders have made noteworthy efforts to resolve LCS problems. Still, important concerns about the class persist, and the debate is far from over as to what hull type will best provide a viable surface combatant for low-end, high-demand missions. Touted for a decade as a three-class replacement optimized for high-threat littoral waters and designed for numerous missions, the LCS can at present can deliver none of the promised capabilities, except speed. It will do so at great cost and at the expense of producing a more balanced small warship that might actually satisfy the combatant commanders’ demands for low-end ships for “phase zero” shaping missions (regional engagement, antipiracy, freedom of navigation operations, presence, etc.) and other roles that higher-end destroyers and cruisers are too busy to accomplish.
This article provides a brief summary of the remaining LCS areas of concern and presents two options that could meet the Navy’s force structure and fleet design goals, as well as combatant commanders’ requirements.
Acquisition and life-cycle challenges persist — most notably, the practicality of the dual-award purchase of hulls with different combat systems suites. Experts at the Congressional Research Service, the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Budget Office continue to raise concerns.
The LCS’ deficit of self-protection capability — the ships lack both a fire control radar for the 57mm gun and a medium- to long-range antiship missile — remains a serious class limitation and a potential liability during escorted and independent operations. In particular, it prevents LCS ships from executing frigate-class missions. This suggests Navy leaders are ignoring the possible need for this capability despite the lessons of two world wars and the ramifications of the “Asia-Pacific pivot.”
Problems with the ships’ mission modules, in the form of production delays and marginal test results, mean that no LCS will deploy with full mission capability until at least 2017 — 11 years after the christening of LCS 1, Freedom. The dual-hull purchase and small crew size exacerbate the daunting complexity and cost associated with mission module maintenance and repair.
The ships’ small crew is facing hard human constraints as more and more equipment is strapped onboard, making crew overload and burnout a real concern, especially in combat scenarios.
Mechanical and hull problems have delayed testing and forced several unscheduled, extended dry-dock periods. These issues — most notably, the early 2012 LCS 1 port shaft mechanical seal failure and resultant flooding, the cause of which remains undetermined — continue to suggest construction and design flaws.
Finally, the lack of a relevant concept of operations further sustains lingering ambiguity over LCS’ mission, complicated by seemingly contradictory statements by senior officials.
These problems have led respected statesmen and defense experts to call for a class reassessment, program curtailment or outright cancellation.
There are at least two alternative paths the Navy might choose — workable solutions that use the existing (and funded) LCS hulls and avoid draconian decisions that result in serious sunk-cost losses. Either could shift the program from an effort to mitigate the situation to an effort to optimally meet fleet requirements.
Option 1: Continue the LCS program, but scale it back to create three types of single-mission ships to meet immediate fleet needs. This would entail abandoning the multimodule capability for each vessel and optimizing hulls and crews for a single core mission module.
This would help fix several problems. It would minimize the maintenance and repair parts nightmare of multiple modules; onboard consumables and spares could be consolidated in the space gained in the mission bay areas. Similarly, a fixed suite of weapons would allow a simpler, more efficient magazine load-out and eliminate the need to change out ammunition and reloads every time the module is switched. Finally, this option would slash the expansive crew training requirements for multiple missions and the need for separate module detachments. The savings on personnel alone seems compelling.
Under this option, some LCS vessels would be turned into badly needed low-end surface warfare combatants capable of most frigate-type missions, including long-endurance patrol and blue-water escort. Their hulls would be modified to accommodate more fuel, berthing and hotel services, boosting endurance while creating space for manpower-heavy missions (boarding teams, law enforcement detachments, etc.). Adding torpedoes for self-defense and a medium- or long-range antiship missile in a small vertical launch cell also seem prudent.
Clearly, the next priority would be a LCS mine-warfare vessel, in view of the planned 2019 retirement of the Navy’s last vessels dedicated to that mission.
Next up might be an antisubmarine warfare LCS. Upon examination, however, the Navy might find that such a hull would not add sufficient capability to be warranted, considering the exceptional sub-hunting capabilities of the DDG 51 and DDG 1000 destroyers.
Admittedly, additional up-front costs would be necessary to make this option viable. Yet, the long-term cost savings from simplified training pipelines and fewer personnel and mission modules would likely reduce program costs.
Option 2: Curtail the LCS buy at six to eight ships, modify them for single missions as above, and acquire a modified National Security Cutter class to meet low-end missions. The much-lauded Coast Guard NSC program has benefited from a stable, simple design throughout production, in stark contrast to the two ever-changing LCS sub-class/module designs. At roughly $500 million per hull (and perhaps less with a Navy contract for modest acquisition numbers), the NSC’s relative cost seems appealing, especially considering the numerous and arcane LCS expenses beyond the basic hull. Moreover, the recently reduced Coast Guard purchase seems to provide a fortuitous opportunity for Navy acquisition.
As a platform, the NSC has almost four times the range and endurance of the two LCS sub-classes, making it much more relevant for low-end operations and frigate roles discussed above. It has a two-helicopter hangar, a fully capable special compartmented intelligence facility, and spare berthing for 30-plus personnel to accommodate special-mission crews.
An NSC adapted for surface warfare could have capabilities similar to the LCS version described above, plus a fire control radar for its 57mm gun. Some NSC self-protection capabilities, such as the SLQ-32 electronic warfare system, are more robust than the LCS class, while its chemical-biological-radiological collective protection system is also a surprising capability with direct Navy mission relevance.
The NSC idea is not new; numerous defense and maritime thinkers, including this author, have presented it as a viable option since 2009. Huntington Ingalls, the NSC shipbuilder, has even offered a “navalized” version of the NSC, called the Patrol Frigate 4921, for foreign sales. But it deserves more consideration than the Navy seems to be giving it.
While NSC unit costs are slightly more than the LCS, the much-reduced number of personnel and mission modules under this option would clearly reduce the overall program costs.
Time is short for an LCS course change that might help the class avoid becoming a latter-day echo of the Navy’s PHM guided-missile hydrofoil, a program in which great expectations for a small, fast combatant were undercut by the realities of complex “offboard” maintenance, small crew, lack of a dedicated support vessel and confusion about how to fit the class into the operational fleet. The Defense, Navy and congressional decision makers should consider their options.