war on the rocks

Why Choose the Littoral Combat Ship? Because it is the Best Option

January 25, 2016

Any recent perusal of the defense news or blog pages would suggest the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) is in for a rough year. The USS Milwaukee (LCS 5), the newest commissioned LCS unit, suffered a serious engineering casualty last month that could delay her entry into the active fleet for months. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has proposed cutting LCS production from 52 to 40 units and from two shipyards to one in order to support the addition of new and legacy offensive systems to the fleet. The most recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on LCS says the ship does not meet Navy survivability requirements. USS Fort Worth, successfully deployed to Singapore in a variety of missions suffered an engineering casualty that appears similar to that of Milwaukee.Critics have demanded other solutions from masses of small ships to a conventional frigate replacement for the now retired Oliver Hazard Perry class. Should the Navy retain the LCS in the face of such criticism?

The relatively small size of America’s fleet means thata much higher percentage of ships must be forward-based in order to meet demands for both presence and war fighting missions articulated in the 2015 Cooperative Maritime Strategy. The ships that meet this mission must be reasonably priced and produced in numbers sufficient for global activity.The aging low-end component of this force must be replaced by an economical successor. Small ship capabilities on a common hull will reduce procurement and maintenance costs over the life of the platform. Moreover, separating some capabilities such as weapons and sensors through modularity is still a good solution to reduce wear and tear on both people and equipment over the life of a ship. The LCS remains the best program to pursue a modular small combatant.

The LCS program has been plagued with legitimate problems to be sure, but defense media sources would rather garner headlines for reporting problems such as the Milwaukee and recent Fort Worth engineering problems rather than analyze why the Defense Department and the Navy chose and have retained the LCS concept. Two presidential administrations, five secretaries of defense, and multiple changes in civilian and military naval leadership have supported the continuation of the program. Perhaps it is because the LCS remains the best, most economical choice for replacing multiple aging, small combatants for a global U.S. naval strategy.

Forward Presence and Warfighting

The 2015 Cooperative Maritime Strategy states that 300 ships will be required to provide both presence and war fighting capability in forward operating areas. The Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John Richardson, has said the Navy should not have to choose between the two concepts and that both are requirements for a balanced fleet. The Navy expects to forward station 120 ships by 2020 in order to meet both goals. It has sourced the bulk of its forward deployed forces since 1948 from rotationally assigned ships permanently based in the United States. The success of that system, however, was predicated on a sufficient overall number of warships to permit the constant maintenance and crew training of the ships in that rotation. It has generally taken three warships to produce one deployed unit, with the other two in maintenance or training. The precipitous drop in the overall number of deployable ships since the early 1990s, combined with increasing overseas responsibilities to which naval forces are assigned, is rapidly making this system untenable.

The LCS is geared to support both presence and warfighting in its planned concept of operations (CONOPS). Using multiple crews that deploy to the ship (instead of moving the ship back and forth over long distances, with associative wear and tear) and a nominal force of 40 LCS (if Secretary Carter’s reductions are approved) means that 20 of these ships will be forward deployed. This 50 percent availability is much improved from the present nominal 20-33 percent permissible through traditionally crewed and deployed vessels. The most recent deployment of USS Fort Worth (LCS 3)testifies to the value of the LCS in presence operations, specifically in interacting with smaller, regional navies. Littoral combatants are now also planned to carry anti-ship cruise missiles as part of their armament starting later this year. Given the success of the Fort Worth deployment and the potential capability of its anti-ship missile armament, the LCS supports both presence and warfighting as required by the Cooperative Maritime Strategy.

A Reasonable Price

Much of the negative coverage of the LCS program centers on its cost and supposed waste of tax dollars on a program that has yet to produce a capability. The LCS program suffered from a number of problems over the decade of the 2000’s that contributed to the initial high cost of $670 million for theFreedom and $704 million dollars for theUSS Independence (LCS 2). Both ships were originally expected to cost $220 million.

Such cost increases are common in Navy shipbuilding, but perhaps were not as visible before the age of the Internet. The Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates that the LCS was partially designed to replace rose in expected cost from $64.8 million dollars in 1973 when the lead ship was authorized to $174 million per ship in 1978. Similar to the LCS, the cost of the first FFG 7 substantially rose to $239.6 million by 1975. Perhaps the defense media should do more historical research before blasting LCS program cost increases as outside normal practice.

A dedicated replacement for the Perry class frigate (FFG-X) (built for $202 million in 1979) was estimated to cost a minimum of $680-$700 million dollars in 2003 by the Congressional Budget Office. Today, that cost would likely be even greater due to inflation and the spiraling cost of advanced electronics. It is unlikely that these ships would be built in equal numbers to LCS given these costs and because fewer would be available for overseas service in the traditional rotational or forward based concepts. The CS sea frame, the basic ship without a mission package costs $479 million a copy (with $440 million per unit in the latest block buy.) The mission modules that provide anti-surface, antisubmarine, and mine warfare capabilities to the ship presently cost between $20.9 million and $97 million dollars with an additional cost of $14.9 million per module for common material. Given these figures, the LCS remains a much better value and provides greater potential forward deployability than does a traditional multi-mission warship.

The built-in rotational crew concept of the LCS also means that the littoral combatant force will have a much smaller permanent footprint than larger combatants that are permanently based overseas. There is no need to house dependents or provide the additional services associated with overseas dependent occupancy. The focus of deployed assets associated with the LCS can be entirely focused on ensuring the ships’ operational capabilities.

A Different Time, A Different Fleet, A Different Small Combatant

The Perry class frigates exited a very different fleet than that which they entered in the late 1970’s. They were designed to replace retiring World War II vintage destroyers as convoy and replenishment group escorts. They were expected to fight in a highly contested conflict for control of North Atlantic shipping lanes in a hypothetical World War III against the Soviet Union. The FFG-7 class was the zenith of Cold War escort development, and was the first U.S. ship of this type to incorporate a significant air defense capability with a missile magazine of 40 slots (36 surface to air missiles and 4 anti-ship cruise missiles).In short, while labeled frigates, the Perry class ships had an armament more consistentwith the guided missile destroyers of the late 1970s rather than the convoy escorts that immediately preceded them. A Congressional Budget Office study from 1981 specifically set the Perry classapart from previous classes of Cold War escort ships (previously known as destroyer escorts) due to their much more robust capabilities. The United States at this time possessed a high-end surface fleet consisting of 27 guided missile cruisers (nuclear and conventional) of varying capability, 10 Terrier missile-armed Farragut destroyers, and 23 less capable Adams class destroyers (60 ships). These were capable units for their time, but concerns were mounting that the surface navy could no longer protect the carrier fleet from guided missile attack. The Spruance class destroyers (31 units) then entering the fleet were primarily antisubmarine warfare vessels and not capable of significant anti-air or anti-missile combat. The AEGIS cruiser wasprojected at that time to be $1.2 billion dollars a copy and had not yet entered service. The introduction of a frigate class with more capabilities in common with a modern destroyer made sense for the fleet of the late 1970’s.

Today’s surface combatant force (a nominal 84 units) is a very different force than that which the Perryclass entered. The high-end surface combatant force is entirely comprised of ships equipped with the AEGIS combat system. These vessels have differing capabilities based on the various baselines of the AEGIS system they support, but have more commonality than at any point since 1945. They are networked to support each other and other units at a level unsurpassed in the history of naval warfare. Their vertical-launch missile systems offer a mix of capabilities and rate of fire far in excess of past combatants. There is no need for a large frigate in a fleet with these capabilities. Intelligence and/or future strategic requirements may suggest a larger frigate than the modified LCS with greater range, but unlike the late 1970s there is no need for an escort with a destroyer’s armament to plug a gap in overall U.S. surface force capabilities.

Modularity Offers a Cost Effective Solution

The need for economical solutions to the problem of fielding low-end capabilities such as patrol, mine warfare, and antisubmarine warfare in littoral areas has plagued the Navy since the end of World War II. The smaller warships that have traditionally performed these roles have been slow, and lacking in either range or capability. Single mission small ships like the Avenger class MCM’s and the Cyclone class patrol ships have been less able to accommodate significant updates over their service lives. Assigning a high-end warship like the DDG 51 class to such missions is overkill in both cost and capability.

The LCS, through its system of modular capabilities resident on a common hull offers an affordable solution to the problem of how to field multiple low-end capabilities and rapidly and affordably update them over time. Each LCS mission package is an assembly of sensors, weapons, associated equipment, and the sailors needed to operate them. The mission module list currently features surface warfare, antisubmarine warfare and mine warfare packages. An LCS can only support one module at a time. LCS represents a compromise in a common hull for all three missions that it is larger than the MCM and PC units, but smaller than the Perry class frigates it replaces.

Modularity decouples the acquisition pathways of the ship and the capability. Individual capabilities can be developed and fielded rapidly outside the more complex process required for a ship where all such systems are always integrated. This open architecture should lead to lower costs over the life of the ship. For example, if the ship does not have to accommodate conditions inherent with permanent installation aboard a naval vessel (i.e., carry its towed array sonar through heavy seas ora shifting electrical load, then perhaps that piece of equipment will have a longer life span, require less maintenance and be a more effective tool when needed by the warfighter. The Navy remains committed to the concept of modularity as it looks forward beyond present ship classes. The LCS will provide a vital first look at modularity integrated from the start in a combatant ship class.

For fielding an open architecture, modular small combatants have proved much more challenging than the Navy expected. The Navy expected too much, too early, and at an underestimated cost of $220 million per sea frame. The LCS has been beset by other problems, however, unique to its class and time. The test and evaluation community, born and developed in the Cold War, and geared to evaluate incremental rather than revolutionary change, seems unwilling to support modularity as a way of rapidly fielding new concepts. As Soviet Admiral Gorshkov supposedly once described his own nation’s acquisition system, “perfect has become the enemy of good enough.” The ship’s modular capabilities are unfamiliar to generations of uniformed and civilian naval personnel, and early, aggressive methods of the LCS program to promote the ship by attacking critics had a definite negative impact on acceptance. Defense media outlets have much greater access to both the service and the public through the Internet than in the past. They regularly excoriate programs like the LPD 17 San Antonio class one day, and sing its praises a short time later. The LPD-17 class, like the LCS, has undured over a decade of unremitting criticism from defense media outlets. One wonders how the FFG-7 or DD 963 classes, both labeled as under-armed and unsurvivable, or the excessively expensive AEGIS systemwould have fared in an Internet age of instant criticism and anonymous condemnation.

The LCS program represents a reasonable attempt to field a common small combatant that meets present U.S. requirements and fits within the force structure of the 2nd decade of the 21st century. Its cost remains significantly lower than other proposed solutions from the analysis community. It has suffered unremitting criticism from an analysis community unhappy with the Navy’s choice of small combatant, from a defense press eager to publish bad news stories, from a retired community unfamiliar with its concept, and from legions of “hobbyists” who heretofore never had access to the age-old, messy process of compromise involved in producing a warship. In spite of criticisms, the LCS still represents the best way forward to produce a small combatant that meets multiple mission requirements in the 21st century.

 

Steven Wills is a retired surface warfare officer who spent most of his operational career in small combatants. He is now a PhD candidate in Military History at Ohio University. His forthcoming dissertation examines the change in U.S. Navy strategy from 1989-1994 with an emphasis on the effects of the end of the Cold War, the Goldwater Nichols Act, and the First Gulf War on that change.