Surface Forces: LCS Program Terminated

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September 28, 2023: It came as no surprise when the U.S. Navy recently made it official that its ambitious but poorly implemented "Littoral Combat Ship" (LCS) program will be eliminated. This comes after more than a decade of effort to build at least fifty of them to replace 51 very successful Perry-Class frigates and 26 smaller mine warfare ships. Only 35 LCS ships were built and now they are being rapidly retired, often after only a few years of service. The main reason for this is that the LCS never performed adequately and cost much more than they were supposed to. The navy saves a lot of money by eliminating the LCS ships and can use the savings to maintain or expand construction of ships that work.

Currently there are only 25 LCS ships in service, but many are not operational. In early 2022 only seventeen LCS ships were in service with only eleven fully capable. Six had operational limitations because of engine problems and were unable to go overseas or do much more than act as patrol ships in the Caribbean, interdicting illegal drug smuggling. By early 2022 six of the older LCS ships were retired early, four of them of the type that have debilitating engine (combining gear) problems.

The Navy never came close to obtaining the 55 LCS ships originally planned. The failure of the LCS was not unusual because the U.S. Navy has, since the 1980s, had an impressive and disastrous number of new ship designs that failed. The LCS failure was not sudden, but the result of a growing number of construction defects and design flaws that have caused the planned number to be produced or kept in service revised downward five times. The latest reductions may be the last, because a replacement ship has already been selected and ordered.

The problems began to appear when the navy was unable to decide which of the two competing LCS designs to select. One was the Lockheed-Martin monohull Freedom-class and the other the General Dynamics trimaran Independence-class. The first LCS built, the traditional monohull USS Freedom, completed its sea trials and acceptance inspections in 2009. The ship did very well, with about 90 percent fewer problems, usually 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 fatal flaw in the monohull Freedom-class was not confirmed until 2020 when two Freedom-class ships had engine failures at sea and had to return to port at slow speed. The problem was with the ball-bearings in the combining gear, which was needed to achieve top speed by combining the power of both the diesel and gas-turbine engines. By 2022 the Freedom type LCS ships could only use their diesel engines. The navy believed it had a fix, but implementing it takes several months and involves removing a lot of equipment from the engine space to reach the combining gear for ball-bearing replacement and other adjustments. This turned out to be a temporary fix. Because of the uncertainty four Freedom class ships that were under construction or launched and ready for sea-trials were indefinitely delayed until the full extent of the combining-gear problem could be determined. In the end, the Freedom class ships were declared a failure. Note that warships use diesel engines for economical slow cruising. Gas turbine engines are used for rapid acceleration and have been around for decades. The problems with the diesel and gas turbine engines should not have happened. Both types of LCS had their own problems as well as problems common to the overall LCS concept.

The Navy surprised everyone in 2010 by choosing both monohull and trimaran designs and requesting that the fifty or so LCS ships be split between the two designs. While both ships look quite different, 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 150-200. The basic LCS crew is 40, with the other 35 berths occupied by operators of special equipment. That was eventually changed to 73 crew as standard, with another 20 if the ship was equipped with a helicopter and UAVs or another type of mission module. Even with nearly a hundred crew the workload is heavy and the LCS has two crews for each ship, each one serving at sea four to five months are replaced by the other crew. The current crew size meant revising the berthing arrangements to provide berths for up to a hundred crew. The inadequate crew size problem was one of several defects that doomed the LCS.

The much smaller crew required some changes to how the crew ran a ship and how many sailors and civilians were required back on land to support a LCS at sea. It was also found that the interchangeable mission modules took 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. It turned out that the mission modules were a flawed concept that never worked.

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, as in RIM-116 "Rolling AirFrame" 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. An 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 have yet entered service. Emphasis has been placed on getting the mine warfare and anti-submarine warfare modules ready as soon as possible. The mine warfare module had problems and was never ready for use. The anti-submarine warfare module had even more problems. From the beginning, many naval construction experts doubted that these modules would ever be ready for use. Both of these modules used a lot of equipment already available for use on helicopters as well as the ship. The LCS received helicopters and UAVs that were only used for naval patrol. Ships like destroyers have long used their helicopters equipped with submarine detection equipment and lightweight anti-submarine torpedoes.

By 2020 the Navy had and selected and ordered a replacement for the LSC in the form of frigates from an Italian firm that won the competition to build two FREMM type frigates for the U.S. Navy, with an option for eight more and eventually twenty, to replace the failed LCS design. At least twenty of these FREMM ships will be built in the United States as the 7,200-ton Constellation-class FFG (guided missile frigate), which is optimized for ASW (anti-submarine warfare). The first FFG is to enter service in 2026. Each will cost about $800 million, which is what each of the less capable and reliable LCS vessels ended up costing. If FREMM is as successful as expected, that will be the end of the LCS. The first FREMM entered service in 2012 for France while a year later the second one entered service for Italy. Eventually about a hundred FREMM type ships will be in use, mainly by France, Italy and the United States. Several other countries have expressed interest in being export customers for FREMMs.

The LCS demonstrated it could not replace the old Perry class frigates or be of much use at all. Without the mission modules, the LCS could only be used as a coastal patrol ship that was only able to detect surface ships. The LCS has actually been quite effective at the patrol work, which is all it has been able to do so far. Smaller and cheaper patrol ships are available for that sort of thing.

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 that ship builders thought would work and bring them a lot of business. 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.

In this case the LCS was a very flawed design with a growing list of problems. The first LCS, the monohull USS Freedom, entered service in 2008 and over the next five years suffered major problems. In addition to a computer network 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. That turned out to be a prelude to the combining-gear flaw, which took several years to reveal itself.

The first 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. It is unclear if those fixes will hold or that the Independence design will not develop more serious flaws.

Cracks, corrosion, and equipment breakdowns are common in new warship designs, particularly designs that are radically different. 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 LCS failed and the navy turned to a proven European frigate design that could enter production quickly and with confidence that the new ships will work.

Since the 1990s the navy has had to deal with unworkable or too expensive ship designs like the Seawolf nuclear subs, the Zumwalt class destroyers, the LCS and even the new Ford class carriers, which had problems becoming ready for service because a radical new EMALS catapult design that was rushed into production without sufficient development and debugging. This is a track record of disasters that the U.S. Navy seems incapable of ending.

 

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