For over a decade the U.S. Navy tried to cope, without much success, with a growing list of self-inflicted problems they created when they designed and built the radical new LCS (Littoral Combat Ship). This was supposed to be a cheap and more effective replacement for the older frigates, which were themselves replacements for the World War II era “Destroyer Escorts”. To achieve its goals the LCS included many novel features which required a lot of tweaking to get working properly, or at all. The latest problem has to do with routine maintenance and repairs of onboard equipment.
The LCS uses a lot of automated equipment long used on commercial ships. While the navy has adopted some of this new commercial gear throughout the fleet, that equipment became part of the equipment maintained by navy personnel. The LCS has a lot of commercial equipment used only on the LCS for which the navy expected to use civilian contractors to handle repairs and some of the maintenance. This approach was complicated by the small size of the LCS crew. Original crew size was 40, later increased to 50 to address overwork and fatigue issues as well as a shortage of crew for damage control.
The ensuing endless equipment and operational problems led the navy to cut LCS production from the 52 originally planned to no more than 35 ships. As of May 2021 only 23 LCS are in service and four are to be retired by late 2021, one of them after only seven years of service.
The LCS was intended to replace 30 larger Perry class frigates and 26 smaller mine warfare ships. That did not work out as planned because of delays in completing the task-specific mission modules that enabled an LCS to quickly install specialized equipment, which was accompanied by a team of specialists to operate it. This enabled an LCS to handle mine warfare, surface combat, air defense and so on. While the first LCS entered service in 2008, the first Mission Modules didn’t arrive until 2018 and none of these modules worked as originally planned. Not only were the modules all late, some were cancelled and all were way over budget because of a variety of problems navy planners did not anticipate, but could have if they had paid more attention to all the potential problems with developing these modules.
The LCS is being replaced with a conventional, and successful Italian FREMM frigate design. At least twenty of these will be built in the United States as the 7,200-ton Constellation-class FFG (guided missile frigate). The first FFG is to enter service in 2026. Each will cost about $800 million, which is what each LCS ended up costing. That was twice what the LCS was supposed to cost, before all the problems appeared and cost a lot of money to deal with.
The first FREMM entered service in 2012 and 41 are currently in service or on order for five nations. The United States is the sixth nation to build or purchase a FREMM, which is a flexible design that can be built to order as a ship displacing from 6,000 to over 7,000 tons. FREMM was created by a Franco-Italian consortium that will oversee construction of the American FREMMs. Normally the U.S. Navy does not buy foreign ships or ship designs. In this case the navy wanted something that was a proven design and met the requirements for its Constellation class. FREMM did this best and the U.S. Navy will let the European builders do their thing,
The LCS experience was a major embarrassment for the navy. LCS seemed like a good idea at the time, but the navy soon discovered that a lot of new ideas were more difficult to implement than anyone imagined. For example, the navy found that despite lots of automation, which works fine on commercial ships, there was still too much to do for the 55-man crew. For many uniquely military tasks everyone (officers and sailors) pitched in and that got the job done and was great for crew morale. But it left the crew looking exhausted when they came back from more than a few months at sea. Work logs were examined, crewmen were interviewed, numbers were crunched and it was decided that increasing basic crew size 25 percent would make a big difference. This seemed to work and became a permanent change.
The LCS crews are also modularized so that specialized teams can be swapped in to operate specific mission modules. To accommodate this about 40 percent of the LCS is empty, with a large cargo hold into which the mission package gear is inserted, and then removed, along with the module crew, when it is no longer assigned to that ship. The LCS also 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. A variety of interchangeable modules were planned, including ones for air defense, ASW (anti-submarine warfare), mine clearing, special operations and surface attack. These modules would 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 took much longer than expected and revealed the need for more people or more automation.
Despite the seemingly endless list of problems, in 2012 it was decided to put the LCS into mass production. That was because such problems are typical with a new ship design. If you read about naval history, you discover this, and how you just have to work your way through the problems. If you read the mass media you get the impression that all is lost. It usually isn’t but in the case of the LCS it was.
In 2013 the navy discovered that the LCS computer networks, and those of other ships as well, were vulnerable to hacking. Details on how this was addressed were classified. Such vulnerabilities have become more common as warships became more networked (internally and externally) since the 1990s and installed constant Internet connections for work and improving morale. The LCS problems were encountered when one of the navy “red teams” played offence on the LCS electronics and found there was a way in that provided opportunities to do damage. The vulnerabilities with other ship classes were similar but never exactly the same. There were similar problems with the engines, the hull and various other aspects of the LCS design.
To further complicate matters there are actually two LCS designs, or classes; the monohull (traditional) USS Freedom class and the USS Independence class which is a radical trimaran design. The navy knew that there would be years of uncertainty and experimentation as this radical new combat ship design was worked hard to find out what worked, to what degree, and what didn't. So why not take advantage of all that time to determine which of these proposed designs was superior. Since 2006 both LCS designs have been built and put into service to see which worked best. There was some nervousness about all this. The navy had 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 was trying to do.
Problems were encountered and that was expected. 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. LCSs were eventually sent overseas for a year or more. To make this work each LCS used the two crew ("blue" and "gold") system where two complete crews of 40 (later 50) took turns running the ship. This made it possible to keep an LCS at a distant posting for years, by simply flying in a relief crew every six months. Module crews have a similar arrangement. The navy had long used this two-crew system successfully with some nuclear submarines as well as some surface ships.
The navy surprised everyone in 2010 by choosing both hull designs and requesting that the fifty or more LCS ships be split between the two very different looking ships. While both ships look quite different 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.
LCS was armed with 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 replace Phalanx autocannon. SeaRAM has a longer range (7.5 kilometers) than the Phalanx (two kilometers).
In 2011 the navy began experimenting with equipping LCS with a surface launched version air-to-ground guided missiles like Hellfire and Griffin. The ship launched versions of these missiles were successfully test fired in 2013 but were never made standard equipment.
The navy hoped to have at least 50 and 60 LCSs in service by 2018, 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 expected the per-unit cost to go down to under $450 million when mass production began. That never happened. More problems appeared and costs kept rising. LCS’s did serve successfully, but usually as a large OPV (Offshore Patrol Vessel) because of the lack of Mission Modules and using only their basic armament, which was similar to that of an OPV. Your average OPV is a 1,000-2,000-ton ship that costs a tenth of what an LCS does, has similar size crew and a lot less automation. Modern OPVs have been around for a century and usually belong to the coast guard. In wartime they are equipped with more weapons and equipment, in many cases so they can handle ASW tasks.