war on the rocks

Getting Our Money’s Worth: LCS vs Iver Huitfeldt-Class

August 6, 2013

This week, Senator John McCain stated that the new GAO report on the littoral combat ship (LCS) requires Congress to review the program before funding four more ships.  The Navy obviously doesn’t agree.  In the January Proceedings, Rear Admiral Tom Rowden enthusiastically endorsed the LCS.  He stated that it is a “cost effective and capable solution” that fulfills “defined, enduring and Joint Requirements Oversight Council-approved warfighting gaps.” The U.S. Navy is counting on the LCS to significantly increase its number of new hulls and slow the decline in its overall size. .  If these vessels were either highly capable or reasonably priced ships, this approach might make sense.   However, the LCS is neither compared to other ships.

To determine if the LCS is cost effective, we could compare it to a number of ships with similar price tags.  (None have so little capability, but I will deal with that later in this article.)  For the purposes of this commentary, I will use the Danish Iver Huitfeld-class frigates. Like the United States, Denmark has to contend with high labor and material prices, as well as with requirements to build in unionized, domestic shipyards.  It is also a democracy and thus can suddenly change defense policies and priorities with an election.  Apologists for the U.S. defense industry point to these factors when explaining why U.S. weapons programs cost so much.  Yet somehow, the Danes have effectively dealt with them.  Therefore, comparing the LCS to the Danish Iver Huitfeldt-class should help readers decide if the U.S. Navy is really getting a “cost effective and capable solution.”

Let’s start with cost.  The LCS was proposed as a relatively inexpensive ship ($220M), well suited to fighting in littoral waters.  As of December 2011, the Department of Defense’s Selected Acquisition Report (SAR) estimated a total procurement cost of $33.74B for 55 ships – or roughly $613M each. Unfortunately, this does not include the mission modules.  The Department estimates total program costs including R&D and mission modules will be $37.4B or $680M for each ship.

During this same period, the Danish Navy purchased its three Iver Huitfeldt-class frigates.  The Danish frigate displaces twice that which an LCS does (6,600 tons versus 3,300 tons), but costs only $332M per ship excluding weapons. Even if one assumes that the weapons will double the cost, the Huitfeldts’ pricetag remains about the same as the DOD estimate for the LCS.

While the costs have increased dramatically, the LCS’s capabilities have actually decreased compared to the initial design.  In fact, today’s LCS brings very little to any fight.  Specifically, the basic LCS platform brings only a BAE 57mm (essentially a two-inch gun) and a 21 cell RIM-116 surface-to-air missile system.  The 57mm has a maximum range of 17 kilometers, but a maximum effective surface range of only 8.5 kilometers.  The RIM 116 system is effective to only 9.6 kilometers.

Potential for future growth

LCS proponents argue that one cannot judge the LCS by its current capabilities.   They contend that the mission modules will make these ships more effective.  In fact, the Navy is working on mine warfare, anti-surface warfare, and anti-submarine warfare modules.  However in its March 2012 report, the GAO noted that:

Major elements of each of the three mission modules have yet to be demonstrated and there are unknowns about their cost and performance. Until the program demonstrates these capabilities in a realistic environment, the program will be at increased risk of cost growth, schedule delays, and performance shortfalls.

This bad news was on top of the 2012 Congressional Research Service Report titled Navy Littoral Combat Ship:  Background and Issues for Congress, which itemized the LCS’s problems with combat survival, hull cracking, engine reliability, corrosion, failure of mission modules, and exploding costs.

The Navy did not concur with either report and said it was making satisfactory progress on both the sea frame (ship) and the module deficiencies.  For the purpose of this article, we will give the Navy the benefit of the doubt and assume it can get the ships and the modules to work.  Even if I does, the LCS will remain an extremely poor match for ships of similar cost. Even with working mission modules, the capabilities of the LCS will be very limited for a ship of its size and cost.  Further, while the initial concept called for the LCS to be a multi-mission ship with the modules swapped out in a single day, the Navy now thinks it will take weeks to change modules.  Based on the long reconfiguration time and additional training time required after a new module is installed, the Navy has decided to reduce its buy of modules to 64 for the 52 planned LCSs. In essence, each ship will provide either surface, anti-submarine, or minesweeping capability.  Although upgrades are possible, currently its only air defense will be the very limited RIM 116 and the 57mm gun.

As noted, the modules do not add a great deal of capability.  The anti-surface warfare module (ASUW) has two 30mm MK-46 guns (maximum range 2.2 kilometers), two 11-meter small boats, and a Griffin Missile system (maximum range 5 kilometers, warhead 5.9 kilograms). Thus even with the ASUW module, the LCS will have a surface engagement range of about 8 kilometers. To engage beyond that range, the LCS will rely on embarked armed helicopters, drones or other ships that are part of the FORCENET concept.

The minesweeping module will provide the LCS with a capability similar to today’s minesweepers.  The wisdom of employing a $600M dollar ship capable of 40 knots as a minesweeper remains unclear.

For the anti-submarine warfare mission, each LCS has a flight deck and hangar able to accommodate up to two H-60 helicopters or up to four MQ-8B helicopter drones (one helicopter and two-to-three drones would be a typical mix). It will also have a variable depth sonar, Light Weight Towed Sonars and a torpedo decoy system.

Compared to what?

For surface combat, the Huitfeldts carry 16 Harpoons Block II missiles with a range of 124 kilometers and a warhead of 227 kilograms. It also has two 76mm guns that reach 16 kilometers.  One of the 76mm guns can be replaced with the U.S. Mk 45 Mod 4 127mm gun with a range of 24 kilometers.  For close-in defense, each ship also has a 35mm Oerlikon close-in weapons system and four 12.7mm machine guns or two 20mm cannons.   Thus its primary anti-surface weapon has over 15 times the range of the LCS.  Even its back-up system has double the range of the LCS primary anti-surface systems.

For air defense, each Huitfeldt has 32 SM-2 Block IIIA missiles with a range of 167 kilometers in a MK 41 VLS launcher.  This system is backed up by 24 Evolved Sea Sparrow RIM 162B anti-air missiles with a range of 16 kilometers and four Stinger missiles.    The Huitfeldt’s maximum anti-air engagement range is over 20 times that of the LCS.  Its back-up systems also double the range of the primary LCS anti-air system.

For anti-submarine warfare, the Huitfeldts carry two twin-torpedo tubes for the Eurotorp MU 90 active passive homing torpedoes with a range of 15 kilometers.  Like the LCS, the Huitfeldts have a hanger with capacity for either one medium or two light helicopters or a mix of drones.   The Huitfeldts also have bow-mounted sonar.  In short, the Danish frigates have all the ASW capability of the LCS when the LCS has the ASW modules.  The difference is that every Huitfeldt has the capability all the time.

The Huitfeldt vastly outclasses the LCS in yet another area – range.  The Huitfeldt can sail 9,000 nautical miles at 15 knots.  The LCS is limited to 3,500 nautical miles at 14 knots.  While the LCS can sprint to 40 knots compared to the Huitfeldt’s top speed of 28 knots, the value of sprint speed is still being debated.

Manning is one area that the LCS claims to save the Navy money.   The ship was designed to be minimally manned with only 40 sailors and an additional 35-40 to support the aircraft and mission modules for a total crew of 75-80. However, for its initial deployment to Singapore, the USS Freedom had a crew of 91 sailors. Because of design limitations, the LCS lacks built-in living spaces for the additional sailors.  Thus, some sailors must live in containers lifted onto the ship or the living compartments must be reconfigured from two-to-three high berthing to provide sufficient beds.  Modifications will still be required to provide the additional water and food storage capacity.  In contrast, 100 sailors man the Huitfeldt-class frigate with billeting space for 65 additional personnel.  This allows space for helicopter, drone, or Marine detachments.  Further, it means the Huitfeldt sailors have sufficient fresh water, food storage, billeting, and mess spaces.

One advantage that the LCS has is draft.  At 14 feet, the LCS can go places that the Huitfeldts with a draft of 17 feet cannot.  Whether a $600M ship is the right platform to commit to shallow waters is a separate question.

Does the LCS work?

The U.S. Navy’s own 2012 OPNAV report on the LCS notes that even when finally,

Equipped with a surface warfare or maritime security mission package, the ships were judged capable of carrying out theater security cooperation and deterrence missions, and maritime security operations, such as anti-piracy. … But the LCS vessels cannot successfully perform three other core missions envisioned for them—forward presence, sea control or power projection missions…

In short, the United States is planning to buy $600M ships that can only deal with enemies no more lethal than pirates.   Both the Chief of Naval Operations and the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation have warned that the “LCS is not expected to be survivable in a hostile combat environment.”

In contrast, the Danish frigates are

…configured for multi-aspect warfare operations. Incorporation of a 32-cell Mk 41 vertical launcher amidships and an advanced anti-air warfare system based on an active-array multifunction radar makes this class of vessel prepared for area air defence and long range strikes.

Compared to the LCS, the Danish ships provide vastly superior anti-air, long-range strike, and anti-surface capability while also providing equivalent ASW capability and the flexibility inherent in 65 additional billeting spaces.  Since the Navy has decided to buy only 64 mission packages for the 52 LCSs, the vessels will essentially be a single mission platform.  In contrast, each Huitfeldt provides all the capabilities of the LCS except minesweeping.  Given that the LCS minesweeping module will rely on helos and off-board vehicles, one can see them being adapted for deployment on a Huitfeldt-type ship.   However, given the nature of the minesweeping role, the use of a ship in this capacity worth hundreds of millions remains highly questionable.

Proponents of the LCS note that it is designed to be part of a FORCENET-enabled fleet.  Thus, theoretically, it can be protected by the more capable ships of the fleet.  However, it is hard to imagine that a ship with Huitfeldt-like capabilities would not be an order of magnitude more valuable in a FORCENET fleet than one with the numerous, documented limitations of the LCS.  There is no question that the Navy still needs a multi-role, small-battle, networked combat vessel as part of its fleet, but why should it accept ships with so little capability?  For significantly less money and with roughly the same sized crew, today’s Huitfeldts are vastly superior to even the proposed 2017 version of the LCS.  And of course, this assumes that the troubled LCS program achieves all of its planned goals between now and then. Even if it does, the Navy is left with two different types of ships that require separate training, maintenance and supply chains to keep them at sea.

Proponents of the LCS argue that the Navy was not trying to buy a frigate.  If the Navy is indeed looking for a smaller ship for inshore missions, there are a wide-range of truly capable shallow water ships that cost roughly $100M each, have crews under 20, and are still vastly more lethal than the LCS.

An overdue review

Senator McCain is doing the nation a service by requiring a careful review of the LCS.  In a time of falling budgets, we cannot afford to buy expensive ships with such limited capability.  Taking the politically easy course of continuing the buy rewards all that is dysfunctional in our political-military-industrial complex.  It’s time to cancel the LCS program.  We need to make use of the budget crisis to force change in the way we build ships.   If Denmark can figure out how to build highly capable ships for a reasonable price, the United States can.


T.X. Hammes is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. He served 30 years in the U.S. Marine Corps.