December 11, 2005:
Saudi Arabia. Saudi Chief-of-Naval Operations, Vice Admiral Prince Fahd bin Abdullah, has recently expressed considerable interest in the US Navy's new "Littoral Combat Ship" (LCS). The LCS is to displace 2,500 tons, with a full load draft of under 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 expected to be over 80 kilometers with a range of 2,700 kilometers. Built using "smartship" technologies, which greatly reduce personnel requirements, the basic LCS is expected to require a crew of about 50 in basic configuration, but will have billeting for about 75 personnel. The ship is designed for a variety of interchangeable modules (e.g., air defense, underwater warfare, special operations, surface attack, etc.), which will 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.
There are actually two different LCS designs, a semi-planning monohull from Lockheed-Martin and a trimaran from General Dynamics. The first LCS 1, to be named USS Freedom, was laid down by Lockheed Martin in Marinette, Wisconsin, in June of 2005 and is expected to be commissioned in 2007, after months of sea tests in 2006. LCS 2 is to be laid down by General Dynamics this month. These, and LCS 3 and LCS 4, to be built by Lockheed and General Dynamics, respectively, are essentially prototypes, and serial procurement will probably not begin before 2008, when initial design flaws will have been worked out. Ultimately, the Navy hopes to have between 50 and 60 LCSs by the middle of the next decade, at a unit cost of about $90 million apiece.
Saudi interest in the LCS is prompted by a number of considerations. The LCS's shallow draft is particularly suited to Saudi needs, as most of the waters around the kingdom are relatively shallow. In addition, the Royal Saudi Navy has had persistent difficulties securing sufficient quality manpower to operate larger vessels, a problem that smartship technologies would help resolve.
Speaking of problems with shallow water, and poor quality manpower, recall that in December of 2004 a chuckleheaded prince, pretending to be a naval officer, ran the new 3,200 ton frigate Makkah aground on a reef in the Red Sea some 130 kilometers north of Jeddah. The ship was lodged firmly, with some 45-60 feet of the hull amidships fixed to the bottom. The hull breached during the incident, which resulted in the loss of some 1,400 tons of buoyancy. Salvaging the vessel required some 700 specialized personnel from a Greek firm and about two months work, at an undisclosed, but substantial, cost. It's uncertain if the LCS is a smart enough "smartship" to survive a joy-riding prince.