Surface Forces: Modules Gone Wild For The LCS


August 10, 2006: The U.S. Navy is coming up with new ideas for how to use its latest ship type, the LCS (Littoral Combat Ship). The navy commission its first LCS early next year, and has two more under construction. This is the first new warship design in over half a century, and the navy is still trying to decide just how flexible it wants the LCS to be. The LCS has a large part of its hull empty, ready to accept a " mission module" containing all the equipment needed for a particular job. Each module comes with the special equipment needed, and sailors needed to operate it.
Currently the navy is designing mission modules for mine warfare, anti-submarine warfare and surface warfare. Now there are proposals for additional modules, like maritime interdiction, special operations, and humanitarian support operations. Another possibility is a LCS Tender module. In light of the maintenance problems with smaller ships in the Gulf, a little help in that department might be of use for a flotilla of LCS in a areas where extreme climate is tough on ships and crews.
At the moment, there are actually two different LCS designs. One is a semi-planning monohull from Lockheed-Martin. The other is a trimaran from General Dynamics. LCS 2 was laid down in late 2005. These are essentially prototypes, and serial procurement will probably not begin before 2008, when initial design flaws will have been worked out. One of the two designs may be selected for the rest of the LCS class, or, perhaps, there will be two sub-types. Ultimately, the Navy hopes to have between 50 and 60 LCSs by the middle of the next decade.
The Littoral Combat Ship is, simultaneously, revolutionary, and a throwback. The final LCS design is to displace about 3,000 tons, with a full load draft of under ten feet, permitting access to very shallow coastal waters, as well as rivers. This is where most naval operations have taken place in the past generation. Top speed is expected to be over 80 kilometers an hour, with a range of 2,700 kilometers. Built using commercial "smartship" technologies, which greatly reduce personnel requirements, the LCS is expected to require a crew of about 50 in basic configuration, but will have accommodations for about 75 personnel. The ship 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.
In many respects, the LCS is a throwback to ship developments a century ago. The LCS is a cheap, short range, heavily armed jack-of-all trades warship. That's what the first destroyers were, when they appeared a century ago. Another throwback angle is the price, and the way it historically creeps upward. Currently, the navy expects to pay about $310 million per LCS (more than three times the initial estimate.)
The navy is introducing two radical concepts (smartship and modularity) at once, and is bracing for lots of bad press from the mass media. New concepts bring with them lots of trial and error. Headline hungry reporters love trials and errors. But out of all this, the navy expect to end up with the first truly "21st Century Ship."


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