August 19, 2010: After over a decade of development, construction and delays, the U.S. has both versions of its "Littoral Combat Ship" (LCS) in service. Both are being worked hard, to determine which model should be put into mass production. That decision may come this year.
While both ships look quite different (one is a traditional monohull, while the other is a broader trimaran), they both share many common elements. One of the most important of these is the highly automated design, and smaller crew. Both ships only have accommodations for only 75 personnel. Normally, a ship of this size would have a crew of about 200. The basic LCS crew is 40, with the other 35 berths occupied by operators of special equipment. But that is already being exceeded on one LCS, which has a detail of 15 sailors for handing special equipment and another 23 to take care of a helicopter. Another shortage encountered is time. Although sailors work a typical six hours on/twelve hours off routine, there are plenty of miscellaneous jobs that cut into off duty hours (taking on supplies and fuel while underway, standing fire/safety alert during aircraft or small boat operations and so on). At times, some sailors were only getting 5-6 hours sleep a day. Fortunately, the LCS uses a two crew system, with each crew being on the ship (at sea or in port) for 40 days, and then the other crew takes over.
Built using "smartship" technologies, which greatly reduce personnel requirements, the LCS was expected to get by with a crew of about 40-50 in basic configuration. The sea trials and two years of operations gave the smartship features a workout. These sea trials were very important, because the LCS is over budget, behind schedule and, worst of all, an untried new concept. Many of the operations in the last two years have been of the sort LCS will encounter during its 30 year career. But the strain on the crew makes it clear that heavy combat operations might be more than current crew size can handle.
The LCS was designed for a variety of interchangeable modules (e.g., air defense, underwater warfare, special operations, surface attack, etc.), which allow the ships to be quickly reconfigured for various specialized missions. Crews will also be modularized, so that specialized teams can be swapped in to operate specific modules. The design and crew requirements for these module is still a work in progress, but also shows a need for more people, or automation.
There are actually two different LCS designs, a semi-planing monohull from Lockheed-Martin and a trimaran from General Dynamics. The first LCS, USS Freedom, completed its sea trials and acceptance inspections exactly two years ago. The ship did very well, with far fewer (about 90 percent fewer) problems (or "material deficiencies") than is usual with the first warship in a class. USS Independence (LCS-2) was laid down by General Dynamics in late 2005 and commissioned in January 2010.
Both LCS designs were supposed to be for ships displacing 2,500 tons, with a full load draft of under 3.3 meters/ten feet (permitting access to very shallow "green" and even "brown" coastal and riverine waters, where most naval operations have taken place in the past generation). Top speed was expected was to be over 80 kilometers with a range of 2,700 kilometers. Basic endurance is 21 days, and final displacement was closer to 3,000 tons.
Ultimately, the Navy hoped to have between 50 and 60 LCSs by 2014-18, at a cost of $460 million (after the first five.) The USS Freedom ended up costing nearly $600 million, about twice what the first ship in the class was supposed to have cost. Only one of each type of LCS will be built now, and the one that performs the best will become the model for the entire class.
The LCS is armed with a 57mm gun, four 12.7mm machine-guns, and an eleven cell SeaRam system for aircraft and missile defense. The RAM (RIM-116 "Rolling Air Frame") missiles replace Phalanx autocannon. SeaRAM has a longer range (7.5 kilometers) than the Phalanx (two kilometers).
Normally, an LCS would have another 35 crew manning its "mission package". The LCS is designed for a variety of interchangeable modules, which will allow the ships to be quickly reconfigured for various specialized missions. Crews will also be modularized, so that specialized teams can be swapped in to operate specific modules. Thus about 40 percent of the ship is empty, with a large cargo hold into which the mission package gear is inserted (and then removed, along with the package crew, when it is no longer assigned to that ship.) Thus the LCS has two crews when underway, the "ship" crew and the mission package crew. The captain of the ship crew is in charge, and the officer commanding the mission package is simply the officer in charge of the largest equipment system on board. In addition, the core crew of 40 is actually two crews ("blue" and "gold") who take turns running the ship. This makes it possible to keep an LCS at a distant posting for years, by simply flying in a relief crew every six months.
So far, the heavy workload has not hurt morale. The small crew means that everyone knows everyone, and its standard for people to handle a number of different jobs. Even officers pitch in for any task that needs to be done. This kind of overworked enthusiasm is actually typical of smaller naval craft. These included World War II era PT boats, with crews of up to 17, and current minesweepers (with crews similar to an LCS) and larger patrol boats. There's also the "new" factor. In addition to being new ships, there is a new design and lots of new tech. This gets people pumped. But the experience of using the LCS has to be used to develop changes that will make these ships viable for the long haul.