In January 2020 the U.S. Navy decided to retire four of its troublesome LCS (Littoral Combat Ship) “frigates”. One of these ships is only six years old and the oldest one has been in service for twelve years. Congress has to approve the decision and that will probably raise the issue of navy efforts to expand the fleet to over 300 combat ships. This expansion has been criticized as unrealistic given the amount of money required and the fact that the navy does not, and will not likely have, the money to pay for it or the ability to control the shipbuilding project's schedule, quality and costs.
Meanwhile, the Americans have been having lots of problems with the LCS vessel. A few problems were purely cosmetic. For example 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 to achieve that. This did not work out as expected. Eventually, the navy decided to develop a new, more conventional Guided Missile Frigate design for the new FFG(X) type ship. The final FFG(X) design will be selected in mid-2020 and the navy wants to produce these quickly, at a rate of four to six ships a year.
As of early 2020, there were four existing frigate designs under consideration as the new FFG(X). Each proposed design must provide the ability to detect enemy ships over the horizon and attack them. That means carrying a helicopter plus UAVs as well as the new Naval Strike Missile. The frigate must be able to detect submarines with onboard sonar plus a sonar equipped helicopter. There must be 32 VLS (Vertical Launch System) cells for anti-aircraft/submarine/ship or land target missiles. There must be active and passive EW (electronic warfare) equipment. The ship must be able to deal with attacks by swarming (multiple) small boats and the ability to do convoy escort to protect transports from submarine or surface ship attack. The frigate does not have to be as fast as the LCS, which had a top speed of 80 kilometers an hour. The frigate needs only to do about 45-55 kilometers an hour.
One proposal, from Austal, is an enlarged version of the trimaran LCS (Independence class). That means 139 meters versus 127. Crew size would be about 180 and displacement close to 4,000 tons. Armament would still consist of the 57mm gun plus 32 VLS and eight Navy Strike Missiles plus a 21 cell RAM (Rolling Airframe Missile) for defense against aircraft and anti-ship missiles. RAM uses the rocket motor and warhead from the Sidewinder air-to-air missile and the guidance system from the Stinger shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile. The RAM missiles cost about a million dollars each and are shipped in a sealed container that is slid into the launcher. Since the 1990s the RAM software was upgraded to enable it to attack aircraft, helicopters and cruise missiles. There are also six 12.7 mm machine-guns plus four NUKLA decoy launchers, each with six decoys that confuse incoming anti-ship missile guidance systems. There will also be sonar and torpedo countermeasures and the 32 VLS cells. This ship can carry one or two large helicopters that can have dipping sonar and anti-sub torpedoes.
The second candidate is the Italian FREMM frigate which would be built by an American firm under license. This design has been in service since 2007 and is currently used by four nations. FREMM was designed to be adapted to various user specifications. Basically it is a 6,000 ton ship that varies in length from 132 to 142 meters. Top speed varies from 50-56 kilometers an hour. Crew size is from 145 to 199. FREMM is armed with a 76mm cannon plus anti-submarine torpedoes and all the other equipment carried by the Austal design.
The third candidate is the Spanish F100 frigate, which would be built by an American firm under license. This design has been in service since 1998 and is also a 6,000 ton ship with a crew of 250 and can carry the same weapons and electronics as the first two candidates. The F100 can also be equipped with the AEGIS air defense system which the FFG(X) does not need, if only because of the expense.
The fourth candidate is a militarized version of the U.S. Coast Guard's new Legend-class cutter (seagoing patrol ship). This is a 4,500 ton, 127 meter long ship with a crew of 113 (bunks for 148) and top speed of 52 kilometers an hour. Legends are only armed with a 57mm gun and a Phalanx 20mm anti-ship autocannon plus some 12.7mm machine-guns. There are eight Legends in service (since 2008) but it would have to be enlarged a bit to handle all the weapons the FFG(X) has to carry. These types of cutters are designed to accommodate more weapons because in wartime the Coast Guard becomes part of the navy and some ships are deployed overseas.
The FREMM and F100 are the most likely candidates because the design is already in service as a frigate and both ships are designed to easily accept different weapons systems as well as the types FFG(X) requires.
All four candidates would cost nearly a billion dollars each but the FREMM and F100 could go into production sooner than the others.
There is also a fifth “candidate” that is already being built and is based on the LCS design. This is the MMSC (Multi-Mission Surface Combatant). In late 2019 the U.S. Navy ordered four MMSC 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 years earlier. Saudi Arabia is now the first, and probably only, 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 100-150.
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, both 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. But it was clear the end was near when 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, if it would only work reliably. Costing less than a quarter what a 9,000 ton destroyer goes for and with only a third of the crew, there were many tasks where the LCS could do a job that would otherwise require a destroyer or frigate. The navy could have originally built a new class of frigates, but the LCS design seemed 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 did not work 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, 30 LCS ships but most will probably be retired after about a decade of service and replaced by the new frigate. The navy is still unsure about exactly what it can use LCS ships for. The navy decision to retire four LCS ships indicates that the others would be retired as the FFG(X) came into service. Doing that will be a major test for the navy. The LCS is not the only recent failed new ship concept. The new Ford class nuclear aircraft carrier is crippled by bad design decisions and manufacturing problems. Before that there was the DDG-1000 class stealth destroyers that proved too expensive to mass-produce. Only three were built and their main weapon does not work. Similar problems inflicted the Seawolf SSN (nuclear attack sub). All these failed projects indicate that the navy has not yet fixed its fundamental inability to design and build new ships. The navy plays down how serious this problem is but that only made it look worse because of the Chinese success at building new ship classes much more quickly and on budget. The U.S. Navy used to be able to do this and the loss of that capability continues to be the most serious threat the navy faces and the one too many navy leaders are willing to take on. The FFG(X) is an opportunity for the navy to demonstrate that they can do it right. Unfortunately, it’s an opportunity, not a sure thing.