Surface Forces: The Devolution Of LCS

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September 20, 2016: The United States Navy has decided to come full circle and turn its innovative LCS (Littoral Combat Ship) into what its designers had tried to avoid; a replacement for the 71 Perry class frigates. This change has been obvious since early 2015 when the navy decided to officially call LCS vessels frigates. By mid-2016 the navy decided to go one step further and drop the use of modules in the LCS. Instead the navy would equip existing and future LCS ships like MMSC (Multi-Mission Surface Combatant) version of LCS Saudi Arabia had requested in late 2015.

This shift from LCS to frigate was not unexpected as in size and function the LCS ships were very comparable to frigates. This type of ship first appeared 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. During the age of sail there had been a similar smaller warship called a frigate.

The LCS was meant to be much more than a frigate and used a very innovative design.

The U.S. Navy effort to abandon the frigate and reinvent it with the quite different and very innovative LCS design was risky, and it largely failed to achieve its objectives. The innovative design did not work out as expected. What many sailors really wanted was a replacement for the 4,100 ton Perrys, which were very popular with their users. Construction of Perrys lasted from 1975 to 2004 and that included a lot of upgrades and modifications. These ships had a top speed of 55 kilometers an hour and a crew of 176. There were anti-aircraft and anti-submarine sensors and weapons, plus a 76mm cannon a Phalanx anti-missile 20mm autocannon and two helicopters that could be armed with anti-submarine torpedoes or anti-ship missiles. Six foreign nations used the Perry and some substituted local weapons for American ones.

The Navy and its contractors were unable to get new LCS concepts and tech to work. Many of the innovations in engine design, automation and crew size backfired. The delays meant costs continued to escalate.  As a result of all this the U.S. Navy has decided to permanently install modules (either surface warfare, mine warfare or anti-submarine warfare) in the 40 LCS ships the navy plans to have. Over half of those have already been built.

When Saudi Arabia became the first export customer for the LCS they specified four modified Freedom type LCS ships that were basically modified to be frigates. The Saudis called their LCS the MMSC (Multi-Mission Surface Combatant) frigates. The Saudis have been considering this purchase since 2005 and had followed the experience of the LCS carefully.

The MMSC modifications were numerous. Armament was much heavier including sixteen VLS cells carrying Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles (ESSM). These are anti-aircraft weapons with a range of 50 kilometers. There was also 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 original 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 on the MMSC and the heavier armament means it will not be able to use the mission modules the LCS was designed to carry. MMSC will have a larger crew of about 120.

The problems with the original LCS weapons and mission modules included 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 2017. 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 rejected) 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. 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 (the Freedom type is a traditional monohull while the Independence type 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, at most, 40 LCS ships by the end of the decade and still unsure about exactly what it can use these ships for. That led to all the recent changes and now the navy has to decide how many LCS frigates will get which module permanently installed.

 


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