January 23, 2013: Last year the U.S. Navy had decided to put its new "Littoral Combat Ship" (LCS) into mass production. This year one of the three LCSs in service will get its first tour in a combat zone (counter-piracy duty around the Straits of Malacca). This ship, and others currently in service, will take turns serving six month tours and will be based in Singapore.
Meanwhile, these ships still have a lot of teething problems to deal with. The 57mm and 30mm guns have some reliability and accuracy problems. The original mine-hunting equipment meant for the LCS ships is not yet available and may not be for a few more years. There are also doubts about the ability of the small crew to handle battle damage adequately. All this is pretty normal for a new class of ship. But the navy leadership has grown less able to tolerate criticism over the last few decades and this “breaking in” business is more painful to the brass than it needs to be.
Navy officials have been warning their subordinates to not provide the media with anything that could be used to make the LCS look bad. For example, there was an unresolved issue with stability and maneuverability in the LCS (monohull) 1 design. This is not unusual and American destroyer designs have varied considerably in their stability and maneuverability characteristics. New designs, especially for a new type of ship, are inherently risky. Project managers know that the media is always looking for bad news, for that is the really profitable news. That sort of thing can also be leveraged into accusations that project managers are trying to deceive Congress and perpetuate a fraud on the taxpayer. These accusations rarely pan out but they are a lucrative source of advertising revenues to the news media that can get exciting stories going and keep them going for a while. The rather less exciting reality is that the LCS is just another new warship design. The real story is the growing inability of American shipbuilders to construct warships competently. That story gets kicked around from time to time but never seems to gain any traction.
The LCS has long been a good source of bad news and potentially explosive revelations. In the last year the LCS design has been found to have structural and other flaws. The first LCS, the monohull USS Freedom, has suffered four major problems since it entered service five years ago. The latest one is a leak in a propeller shaft seal, which caused some minor flooding. Despite this, Freedom was able to get back to port under its own power. Two years ago cracks in the hull as long as 17 cm (6.5 inches) were discovered and the water-jet propulsion system broke down as well. Three years ago one of the gas turbine engines broke down.
The most serious problem is in the USS Independence, a radical trimaran design. It seems that a "dissimilar metals" situation arose when salt water, the aluminum hull, and some other metals got into close proximity with each other and extensive corrosion resulted. Aluminum hulls tend to corrode more than steel but the problem became so bad with the USS Independence that, 18 months after entering service, it was sent into dry dock for corrosion repairs and design changes to eliminate the problem.
Cracks, corrosion, and equipment breakdowns are common in new warship designs, especially designs that are radically different (like the broad trimaran shape of the USS Independence). Usually, these problems can be fixed but there's always the risk that the new design will be seriously flawed, requiring extensive rework and a halt in building more ships of that class. So far, the U.S. Navy has not wavered in the face of potential design and construction flaws.
This is all part of the expected years of uncertainty and experimentation as this radical new combat ship design seeks 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.
In the last seven years two different LCS designs were built and put into service. Problems were encountered. 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 and 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.
The navy shocked many three years ago by choosing both designs and requesting that the fifty or so LCS ships be split between the two very different looking ships. Nine are on order or under construction, in addition to the two conventional hull and one trimaran type in service. 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. Both ships have 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.
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.
So far, the heavy workload has not hurt morale. 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 for any task that needs to be 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, and 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 lots 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.
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 three years ago. 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. Corrosion and hull cracks were expected eventually but appeared much earlier than anticipated.
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. 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). Two year ago 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), 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.