The U.S. Navy has cut the number of LCS (Littoral Combat Ship) it plans to build from 52 to 32. Mostly this was about shrinking budgets, but there’s also the fact that the LCS has been, for many admirals and politicians, more troublesome than expected. This was to be expected because the LCS is something of a radical new warship design. Basically a replacement for the older frigates (themselves replacements for the World War II era “Destroyer Escorts”) the LCS has gone through the usual debugging process for a new design and that has attracted a lot of unwelcome media attention. On a more ominous note the navy has decided to study the possibility of developing a new frigate design, which would incorporate some of the lessons learned with the LCS.
Despite that the navy still believes that the LCS is worth the effort. Costing less than a quarter what a 9,000 ton destroyer goes for and with only a third of the crew the navy sees many tasks where the LCS can do a job that would otherwise require a destroyer. The navy could have built a new class of frigates, but the LCS design was a lot more flexible, making it possible for different “mission packages” to be quickly installed so that LCS could do what the navy needed (like assemble a lot of mine clearing ships or anti-submarine vessels) in an emergency.
The LCS has many novel features which required a lot of tweaking to get working properly. The latest tweak was to crew size, with ten personnel being added. That makes a big difference, because all LCSs have accommodations for only 75 personnel. Normally, a ship of this size would have a crew of about 200. The basic LCS crew was 40, with the other 35 berths occupied by operators of special equipment or special personnel (SEALs or technical specialists). In practice the original crew was usually 55. That was 40 for running the ship and about 15 for the mission package. From now on the number of personnel running the ship increases to 50.
There were problems, and this was expected with a new design. The small LCS crew size was just one of many. The navy found that despite lots of automation, which works fine on commercial ships, there was still too much to do for the basic 40 man crew. For many uniquely military tasks everyone (officers and sailors) pitched in and that got the job done and was great for crew morale. But it left the crew looking exhausted when they came back from more than a few months at sea. So work logs were examined, crewmen were interviewed, numbers were crunched and it was decided that increasing basic crew size 25 percent would make it big difference. It seems to be working and has now been made a permanent change.
The LCS crews are also 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. There are 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 modules is still a work in progress but also shows a need for more people or more automation.
Despite the seemingly endless list of problems, in 2012 it was decided to put the ship into mass production and build at least 52 of them. That was because such problems are typical with a new ship design. If you read the history books you discover this, and how you just have to work your way through the problems. If you read the mass media you get the impression that all is lost. It isn’t.
But the media reports on LCS problems usually lacked any historical perspective. In 2013 the navy discovered that the LCS computer networks (and those of other ships as well) were vulnerable to hacking. That is being taken care of and the details, as one would expect, are classified. Such vulnerabilities have become more common as warships became more networked (internally and externally) over the last two decades and installed constant Internet connections for work and improving morale. The LCS problems were encountered when one of the navy “red teams” (sometimes called “tiger teams”) played offence 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.
There are actually two LCS designs, or classes; the monohull (traditional) USS Freedom class and the USS Independence class which is a radical trimaran design. All the media attention to the teething problems is unavoidable. The navy knew that there would be years of uncertainty and experimentation as this radical new combat ship design was worked hard to find out what works, to what degree, and what doesn't. 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.
Since 2006 both LCS designs were put into service. 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 but has been deployed overseas. 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. LCSs are now being sent overseas for periods as long as 16 months. In addition each LCS actually has two complete crews ("blue" and "gold") of 50 (plus mission package personnel) 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.
The navy surprised everyone in 2010 by choosing both designs and requesting that the fifty or so LCS ships be split between the two very different looking ships. 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. 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.
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. Basic endurance is 21 days and final displacement was closer to 3,000 tons. For long deployments the LCS has to resupply at sea or return to port for more fuel, food and other items.
LCS is currently armed with a 57mm gun, four 12.7mm machine-guns, two 30mm autocannons, and a 21 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).
In 2011 the navy decided to equip LCS with a surface launched version of the Griffin air-to-surface missile. The Griffin is an alternative to the Hellfire II, which weighs 48.2 kg (106 pounds) and carries a 9 kg (20 pound) warhead and has a range of 8,000 meters. In contrast, the Griffin weighs only 16 kg (35 pounds), with a 5.9 kg (13 pound) warhead which is larger, in proportion to its size, than the one carried by the larger Hellfire missile. Griffin has pop-out wings, allowing it to glide, and thus has a longer range (15 kilometers) than Hellfire. The surface-launched Griffin weighs about twice as much as the air launched version because of the addition of a rocket to get it into the air, after which it can glide to the target. The ship launched version was successfully test fired in 2013 and may be installed in the LCS in 2014 or 2015.
The navy hoped to have between 50 and 60 LCSs by 2014-18, at a cost of $460 million (after the first five) each. 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 believes it has the cost down to under $450 million each as mass production begins. At this point it looks like the navy will only have 32 LCS ships by the end of the decade.