March 16, 2013: The U.S. Navy has three of its new "Littoral Combat Ship" (LCS) in service and quite a bit of sea experience with these radical new designs. One of the most challenging aspects of life aboard an LCS is the small crew size. An LCS has accommodations for only 75 personnel. Normally, a ship of this size would have a crew of about 200. The basic LCS crew is 40, with the other 35 berths occupied by operators of special equipment. One of the more radical changes the small crew size produces is the lower proportion of crew devoted to preparing and serving food. On an LCS there are only three CS (Culinary Specialist) sailors. On traditional ships about ten percent of the crew are CS ratings. That means most other ships the size of an LCS have a crew of 200 and 20 CS rated sailors. This has resulted in most LCS captains deciding that everyone will wash their own dishes and meals are usually self-serve. The original LCS design did not contain enough food cold storage for the length of time these ships are actually spending at sea, so more refrigerators and freezers were installed. Keeping the LCS clean also turned into a team effort, with everyone pitching in.
The LCS crews are 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 are also modularized so that specialized teams can be swapped in to operate specific modules. The design and crew requirements for each of these modules are still a work in progress.
A smaller crew, even with more automation and other features to reduce jobs to be done, has put more work pressure on the LCS crew. So far, the heavy workload has not hurt morale but has meant many changes to how officers and crew operate. The small crew means that everyone knows everyone and it is standard for people to handle a number of different jobs. Even officers pitch in when a job needs to get done. This kind of overworked enthusiasm is actually typical of smaller naval craft. These included World War II era PT boats, with crews of up to 17, current minesweepers (with crews similar to an LCS), and larger patrol boats. There's also the "new" factor. In addition to being new ships there is a new design and a lot of new tech. This gets people pumped. But the experience with the LCS has to be used to develop changes that will make these ships viable for the long haul and demonstrate that smaller crews will work in larger ships (up to and including aircraft carriers).
The initial LCS design was for a ship 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 is over 80 kilometers, with a range of 2,700 kilometers. Basic endurance is 21 days and final displacement was closer to 3,000 tons. During World War II this was the typical displacement for a destroyer.
LCS is currently armed with a 57mm gun, four 12.7mm machine-guns, two 30mm autocannon, 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). The navy also 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), 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. UAVs can carry more of the smaller missiles, typically two of them in place of one 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. An LCS can also carry two MH-60 helicopters and a MQ-8 helicopter UAV (that can be armed with Griffin).
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 $670 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. The first trimaran type cost $810 million.