The U.S. Navy is trying to salvage what it can from its ambitious but poorly implemented "Littoral Combat Ship" (LCS) program. Sixteen are in service, another four under construction and fifteen more on order. It looks like the Navy is going to end up with about thirty of these ships rather than the 55 originally planned. The LCS was intended to replace 30 larger Perry class frigates and two classes of 26 smaller mine warfare ships. So far the number of LCS ships to be produced has been revised down, four times so far.
From the beginning, there were two different LCS designs and some of both were built and put into service. Problems were encountered and that was expected. The much smaller crew required some changes in how a crew ran a ship and how many sailors and civilians were required back on land to support a LCS at sea. It was found that the interchangeable mission modules take far longer (2-3 days instead of 2-3 hours) to replace. The LCS has still not seen combat and the Navy wants the first violent encounter to be successful, or at least not disastrous. It is expected that there will be surprises, which is about all that can be guaranteed at this point.
The two different LCS designs are from Lockheed-Martin (monohull) and General Dynamics (trimaran). The first LCS, the monohull USS Freedom, completed its sea trials and acceptance inspections in 2009. 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. There were problems. The corrosion and hull cracks were expected eventually but appeared much earlier than anticipated.
The Navy surprised everyone in 2010 by choosing both designs and requesting that the fifty or so LCS ships be split between the two designs. 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 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.
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 to be over 80 kilometers with a range of 2,700 kilometers and basic endurance of 21 days. In reality, the monohull Freedom class was a 3,500 ton (full load) ship with a max speed of 83 kilometers an hour and max endurance of 21 days. It could travel up to 6,500 kilometers (at 33 kilometers an hour) before requiring refueling. The multihull Independence class was a 3,100 ton (full load) ship with a max speed of 87 kilometers an hour and max endurance of 21 days. It could travel up to 8,000 kilometers (at 37 kilometers an hour) before requiring refueling.
Basic LCS armament is a 57mm gun, four 12.7mm machine-guns and an eleven cell SeaRam system for aircraft and missile defense. This system uses RAM (RIM-116 "Rolling Air Frame") missiles to replace the older 20mm Phalanx autocannon. SeaRAM has a longer range (7.5 kilometers) than the Phalanx (two kilometers). An LCS can also carry two MH-60 helicopters or two slightly smaller MQ-8C helicopter UAVs (or one of each).
In addition to basic armament and electronics (sea and air search radars) the LCS crew was to contain specialized teams who are swapped in to operate specific mission package modules. 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.
Initially, there were to be quite a few mission modules including mine warfare, air defense, anti-submarine warfare, special operations and surface warfare. These modules would allow the ships to be quickly reconfigured for various specialized missions. Crews for each module will also be modularized so that specialized teams can be swapped in to operate specific modules. The design and crew requirements for these modules are still a work in progress and none of the planned mission modules is yet ready for service. Emphasis has been placed on getting the mine warfare and anti-submarine warfare modules ready as soon as possible. But currently, the mine warfare module is not likely to enter service until 2020 and the anti-submarine warfare module in 2021. Both of these modules make good use of equipment mounted on helicopters as well as the ship.
The Navy is already looking at buying a new class of frigates because the LCS has demonstrated it cannot really replace the old Perry class frigates. But with the mine warfare module, the LCS could make a superior mine warfare ship. The anti-submarine module will apparently turn the LCS into an effective way to hunt down and destroy diesel-electric subs in coastal waters. Without the modules, the LCS has shown itself capable of quickly carrying supplies, vehicles or small number (up to an infantry company) of troops on trips that do not require crossing oceans (which the LCS can do but not on a regular basis). The mission module compartment can hold vehicles which can drive off using a ramp to a dock. Small boats can also be launched from the rear of the ship so personnel or even cargo can be delivered from offshore as well. Without the mission modules, the LCS has been used as a coastal patrol ship but it is only able to detect surface ships. The LCS has actually been quite effective at the patrol work.
It wasn’t until 2012 that it was decided to put LCS into mass production. The LCS has been unique in many ways, and this has caused the Navy all manner of grief in the media. The LCS is a new ship type and generating a larger number of problems than older, more traditional ship designs. The media loves this because problems with new weapons grab attention that generates ad revenue. In response to this media feeding frenzy, the Navy tried some damage control. In 2010 the Navy began warning officers and sailors involved with the LCS to avoid providing the media with anything that could be used to make the LCS look bad. For example, there was an unresolved issue with stability and maneuverability in the LCS (monohull) 1 design. This is not unusual and American destroyer designs have varied considerably in their stability and maneuverability characteristics. New designs, especially for a new type of ship, are inherently risky. Project managers know that the media is always looking for bad news. That sort of thing can also be leveraged into accusations that project managers are trying to deceive Congress and perpetuate a fraud on the taxpayer. These accusations rarely pan out but they are much desired by editors as they can get exciting stories going and keep them going for a while. The rather less exciting reality is that the LCS is just another new warship design. The real story is the growing inability of American shipbuilders to construct warships competently. That story gets kicked around from time to time but never seems to gain any traction to be used long enough to find some answers.
There seemed to be no end to the problems the LCS was having. In 2012 the Navy discovered that the computerized combat systems of the LCS were vulnerable to hacking. That was partly because of the high degree of automation on the LCS and the extensive use of automation and computer controlled systems. This sort of vulnerability on U.S. warships has been hinted at for years, but Navy officials have largely been silent on the subject. The LCS case was notable because so many systems were automated. Such vulnerabilities have become more common as warships became more networked (internally and externally) over the last two decades and installed Internet connections for work and improving morale. The LCS problems were encountered when one of the Navy “red teams” (sometimes called “tiger teams”) played offense on the LCS electronics and found there was a way in that provided opportunities to do damage. The Navy has no comment on the vulnerabilities with other ship classes.
In the last few years, the LCS design has been found to have structural and other flaws. The first LCS, the monohull USS Freedom, entered service in 2008 and over the next five years suffered major problems. In addition to the hacking vulnerability, there was a leak in a propeller shaft seal which caused some minor flooding and cracks in the hull as long as 17 cm (6.5 inches) were discovered. The water-jet propulsion system broke down as well and in a separate incident one of the gas turbine engines broke down.
The most serious problem was found in the USS Independence, the radical trimaran design. It seems that a "dissimilar metals" situation arose when salt water, the aluminum hull, and some other metals got into close proximity with each other and extensive corrosion resulted. Aluminum hulls tend to corrode more than steel but the problem became so bad with the USS Independence that, 18 months after entering service, it was sent into dry dock for corrosion repairs and design changes to eliminate the problem.
Cracks, corrosion, and equipment breakdowns are common in new warship designs, especially designs that are radically different (like the broad trimaran shape of the USS Independence). Usually, these problems can be fixed, but there's always the risk that the new design will be seriously flawed, requiring extensive rework and a halt in building more ships of that class. That is what happened with LCS. There is some nervousness about all this. The U.S. Navy has not introduced a radical new design for nearly a century. The last such new design was the aircraft carrier, which required two decades of experimentation and a major war to nail down what worked. Even the nuclear submarines of the late 1950s and early 60s were evolutionary compared to what the LCS is trying to do.
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. The Navy hoped that cost would down to under $450 million each as mass production got underway. That did not happen and with the mission modules still in development, it is not clear how much these will cost. The current plan is to get at least 30 LCS operating with one or two mission modules and demonstrating that the LCS was not a total failure. The use of LCS as an emergency troop and vehicle transport also has potential and some design and equipment modifications might be made to enhance that role. The Navy is hoping that the LCS makes itself useful because early retirement will mean yet another search for a new class of mine warfare ships.
The Navy is seeking a design for a new class of frigates and desperation has led the admirals to seriously consider foreign designs. There are several European frigate designs that are already in service and demonstrating the kind of capability, reliability and affordability that the Navy needs right now.