Surface Forces: Saudis Transform LCS

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January 31, 2020: In late 2019 the U.S. Navy ordered four MMSC (Multi-Mission Surface Combatant) warships to be built in the United States for Saudi Arabia. This comes after four years of negotiations with the Saudis who first expressed interest in buying customized versions of the American LCS (Littoral Combat Ship) years earlier. Saudi Arabia is now the first export customer for the LCS type vessels. From the beginning, the Saudis wanted four modified LCS ships and were willing to spend $2 billion for the ships plus another $4 billion more for basing facilities, training and support as well as extensive modifications to the basic LCS design. The four MMSC ships are part of a larger, $20 billion Saudi naval modernization program.

The Saudi ships are heavily modified Freedom (single hull) type LCS ships. The Saudis have been considering this purchase since 2005 but did not approach the U.S. with the proposal until 2015. The MMSC is heavier (3,600 tons) than the LCS and will have communications and fire control systems compatible with those on NATO ships. The Saudi MMSC armament will be heavier, including eight VLS (Vertical Launch System) cells carrying Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles (ESSM). These are anti-aircraft weapons with a range of 50 kilometers. There will also be a 57mm gun, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, several anti-submarine torpedo tubes, two 20mm remotely controlled autocannon, ten 12.7mm machine-guns and more extensive electronics and defensive systems than the LCS. This includes sonar, a torpedo defense system as well as a more powerful radar and fire control system. An SH-60 helicopter will also be carried. The heavier armament means the MMSC will not be able to use the mission modules the LCS was designed to carry. MMSC will probably have a crew of about a hundred.

Meanwhile, the Americans have been having lots of problems with the LCS vessel. In early 2015 the U.S. Navy decided to reclassify the LCS as frigates. This was not unexpected as in size and function the LCS ships were very comparable to frigates. This type of ship was created during World War II as “Destroyer Escorts” (or DE, versus DD for destroyer). These were basically destroyers that were slower (smaller engines), smaller (fewer weapons) and meant for escorting convoys and patrolling areas where major air attacks were not expected. The DEs proved more useful than expected and were retained after the war and eventually renamed as frigates (FF) type ships. The LCS was meant to be much more than a frigate and used a very innovative design. All that did not work out as expected. The navy is now developing a new, more conventional Guided Missile Frigate design for the new FFG(X) type ship. The final FFG(X) design will be selected in 2020 and the navy wants to produce these quickly, at a rate of four to six ships a year.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy continues having problems with the original LCS weapons and mission modules. There have been development delays, largely due to poor management, of three unique weapons systems developed for the LCS. The simplest weapon involved is a surface launched Hellfire missile. This missile was designed to be launched from aircraft but it has been long suggested that it be adapted for use from the surface, specifically from warships. The LCS Hellfire has been named the SSMM (Surface-to-Surface Missile Module) and was supposed to be ready for service by 2017 but was two years late. This module includes 24 Hellfire missiles.

The SSMM difficulties were minor compared to what happened with the other two problematic modules. One was for mine hunting and other for ASW (anti-submarine warfare) system. The MCM (Mine Countermeasures) module has no major problems with any of its sensors or mine destroying systems. The problems are with the “integration” of the hardware and software created to get all components of the MCM module to work efficiently together. The MCM module was supposed to be operational several years ago but additional debugging and testing will delay deployment this until 2021. There were not as many problems as anticipated with the ASW module. All the components worked well and integration was fine but in getting all this done someone lost track of module weight, which was not supposed to exceed 105 tons. The excess weight had to be removed before the LCS could safely and reliably use the ASW module. This proved expensive since most of the ASW components involved had been around for a while and were not easily or cheaply modified. Changes had to be made the LCS ships as well but this was nothing major. The ASW module will apparently be fully functional in 2020.

The LCS began development in 2002 and in 2012 the U.S. Navy put it into mass production. Then in 2013 one of the three LCSs in service got its first tour in a combat zone (counter-piracy duty around the Straits of Malacca). There LCSs took turns serving six month tours of counter-piracy duty and be based in Singapore. Currently, the plan is to have six LCS ships based in the Western Pacific, including three in Singapore. Another seven will be based in the Persian Gulf (Bahrain).

All these problems, the new ones and many old ones caused the navy to decide in early 2014 to cut the number to be built 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, much more troublesome than expected. This was not surprising because the LCS was a radical new warship design and these always have a lot of problems at first. LCS was basically a replacement for the older frigates as well as several jobs frigates did not handle. 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. Because of the money shortage that is also stalled.

Despite all the problems many in the navy still believe 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 or frigate. 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 assembling a lot of mine-clearing ships or anti-submarine vessels) in an emergency. This has not worked out as well as expected.

The LCS has many novel features that required a lot of tweaking to get working properly. One much resisted latest tweak was to crew size, with ten personnel being added. That made 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.

The navy surprised everyone in 2010 by choosing both LCS hull 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 because 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 a 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. The 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.

The navy originally sought 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 $500 million each as mass production begins. At this point it looks like the navy will only have, at most, 35 LCS ships and by the end of the decade only 20 were completed. These are costing about $530 million each. The navy is still unsure about exactly what it can use these ships for.

 


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