Saudi Arabia has become the first export customer for the U.S. Navy’s new LCS (Littoral Combat Ship) type vessels. The Saudis are buying four modified LCS ships for $11 billion. This includes basing facilities, training and support as well as extensive modifications to the basic LCS design. The Saudi ships are heavily modified Freedom type LCS ships that the Saudis call MMSC (Multi-Mission Surface Combatant) frigates. The Saudis have been considering this purchase since 2005.
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 warships 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 Saudi MMSC armament will be heavier, including sixteen VLS cells carrying Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles (ESSM). These are anti-aircraft weapons with a range of 50 kilometers. There will also be a 76mm gun, eight Harpoon anti-ship missiles, several anti-submarine tubes, a 21 cell SeaRAM anti-missile system, a 20mm remotely controlled autocannon, ten 12.7mm machine-guns and more extensive electronics and defensive systems than the U.S. LCS. This includes a variable depth sonar, a torpedo defense system as well as a more powerful radar, and fire control system. A 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. NNSC will probably have a crew of about a hundred.
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 Surface-to-Surface Missile Module and won’t be ready for service until 2017. This module includes 24 Hellfire missiles. The problems are minor compared to the two other problematic modules; the one for mine hunting and one 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” (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 by now but additional debugging will delay this at least until 2016. The worst problems are with the ASW module. All the components work well and integration is fine but in getting all this done someone lost track of module weight, which was not supposed to exceed 105 tons. The excess weight must be removed before the LCS can safely and reliably use the ASW module. This will prove expensive since most of the ASW components involved have been around for a while and are not easily or cheaply modified.
These mission modules (which the Saudis are not going to use) are in addition to the basic armament of the LCS which includes 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 replaces the earlier Phalanx autocannon. SeaRAM has a longer range (7.5 kilometers) than the Phalanx (two kilometers).
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 will take turns serving six month tours of counter-piracy duty and be based in Singapore.
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 to be expected 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 assemble 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 which 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 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.
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 32 LCS ships by the end of the decade and still unsure about exactly what it can use these ships for.