Lessons for the Navy’s New Frigate From the Littoral Combat Ship
Since their inception over a decade ago, the U.S. Navy’s littoral combat ships have been plagued by cost overruns, frequent breakdowns, and an ever-changing mission set. As the former navigator of the USS Coronado, the second littoral combat ship of the Independence-class, I experienced firsthand how these ill-conceived vessels impacted sailors. Recently, the U.S. Navy selected a variant of the Italian-made European multi-purpose frigate to revitalize its stock of surface combatants, which, given the ship’s design is already in use by NATO navies, is a promising sign. However, as its newest class of warships begins construction and as the Navy continues to formulate its training and crewing structures, it should take stock in the lessons learned from its ongoing struggle with the littoral combat ship.
During my nearly three-year tenure in the program, I heard a range of derisive substitutes for the littoral combat ship acronym, LCS. “Let’s Change Something” and “Little Circus Show” were common and among the more polite. Indeed, the program has largely been dismissed by insiders, and even by its own sailors, as a $30 billion failure. As the navigator of the USS Coronado from 2018 to 2020, I spent much of my time struggling with the ship’s many shortcomings. On one occasion our vessel’s propulsion lost all power in the middle of San Diego Bay and we were saved from grounding in the city’s downtown only by an emergency anchorage. The Coronado, along with the other first three littoral combat ships, have proven so disastrous that the Navy announced their early decommissioning next year.
How can the Navy redeem itself with the new guided-missile frigate class, or FFG(X), which seeks to fill the hole of small surface combatants left by the fledgling littoral combat ship? By selecting the Italian-designed FREMM frigate, the Navy has already taken a positive step. Littoral combat ships were originally conceived as part of a radical concept of operations: fast and customizable combatants that could operate in near-shore environments and meet a range of missions from minesweeping to anti-submarine warfare. In short, they were warships designed to face the asymmetrical threats of the 21st century. In the end, however, the customizable modules were deemed impractical and the ships were delivered with few weapons and no capability to detect mines or submarines. Furthermore, the Independence-class littoral combat ships were designed after high-speed ferries and featured aluminum hulls, waterjet propulsion, and empty compartments for a yet-to-be-chosen missile. In order to defend itself on deployment, the Coronado had to be retrofitted with harpoon missile cannisters on its bow. These were dubious choices for warships that were meant to cross the Pacific Ocean and fight independently at sea.
Instead, the FFG(X) will be a variant of frigates already in use by the French and Italian navies, with characteristics more like an Arleigh Burke–class destroyer than an experimental combatant: a steel hull, traditional propellers, and existing weapons and sensors like the SPY-6 radar and the vertical launching system. Furthermore, the Navy has planned for a slower production schedule than the littoral combat ships. Rear Adm. Randy Crites, the Navy’s deputy assistant secretary for budget, recently stated that the program sought to avoid “a repeat of some of the lessons of LCS where we got going too fast,” and aimed to have only eight frigates under construction by the time the first one is delivered in 2026.
As a July report by the Congressional Research Service makes clear, however, the Navy may be underestimating the cost of its new frigate despite its more traditional design. The FFG(X), based on the selected design, will have a displacement of 7,400 tons — which is about 76 percent that of the latest variant of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer — and will be nearly the same length and breadth. The Navy has predicted the cost of the third and subsequent ships of the FFG(X) program at roughly $940 million each, which is 49 percent of the cost of a destroyer. How can a ship that will be three-quarters the size of a destroyer, as the report points out, and which will be installed with many of the same weapons and systems, cost half as much? Indeed, given the Navy’s recent track record for building new ship classes (think of the Zumwalt-class destroyer and the Ford-class aircraft carrier), it may be worth questioning whether the Navy can deliver on everything it has promised for the FFG(X) at the current price.
Among the program’s varied cost-cutting measures, littoral combat ships were intended, from the start, to be manned by “minimal” crews. The Coronado’s crew of 70 sailors, which was similar to the other littoral combat ships, was barely able to meet the Navy’s underway watch requirements and struggled to maintain qualified security teams while the ship was in port. I learned that minimal crews were designed to operate the ship when all its systems were in perfect working order yet proved to be woefully inadequate when equipment broke down, which occurred frequently. The Coronado’s entire engineering department, for example, contained about as many sailors as a single division of gas turbine technicians when I served aboard the destroyer USS Carney, even though the engineering plants of both ships were comparable in size and complexity.
The Navy had intended for these reduced crews to be complemented by a robust shoreside structure, which would be responsible for much of the ships’ maintenance, training, and administrative requirements. This didn’t happen. During my tour, our squadron put those requirements back into the hands of their crews, and sailors on the Coronado ended up with the same responsibilities and underwent the same inspections as their counterparts on cruisers or destroyers, yet with only a fraction of the personnel. Creating separate instructions and standards for everything littoral combat ship-related, it turned out, became too impractical for the surface Navy to implement.
According to the same Congressional Research Service report on the FFG(X), the Navy expects a complement of 200 sailors to man its new frigate. This is certainly a more realistic number than the meager core crew of 50 sailors originally allotted to the littoral combat ship. However, it may prove to be insufficient given the comparable size and systems of the FFG(X) to a destroyer, which is generally manned by close to 300 sailors. The Navy should remember that in order for a ship to be self-sufficient on deployment, it should have enough experience and skill among its crew not simply to operate the ship, but to fix it at sea. Furthermore, it should have enough sailors to stand watch with careful regard for rest requirements. The Navy’s reports on the 2017 USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain collisions made clear that watch stander fatigue can have deadly consequences at sea.
Finally, the FFG(X) can learn from the failures and successes of the littoral combat ship’s specialized training model. The initial training pipeline, dubbed “Train to Qualify,” left much to be desired when I arrived in San Diego, California in the fall of 2017. Before reporting to their crews, new sailors were kept in a trainee squadron for upwards of one year, during which classes were haphazardly scheduled and taught by non-experts. The program was derided in the community as little more than an extended vacation, and it wasn’t until enlisted sailors actually reported to their ship and completed crew certifications that training proved at all effective. The training program has been reformed since I left it in 2018, but the FFG(X) should not repeat the chaotic and aimless early days of littoral combat ship indoctrination.
Conversely, the littoral combat ship pioneered an exemplary training system for surface warfare officers, whose reputation as mariners has suffered in the wake of the Fitzgerald and John S. McCain collisions. Before commencing their tour, officers underwent weeks of specialized instruction in bridge watch standing and the ships’ unique waterjet propulsion. The Officer of the Deck course, which I attended before reporting to the Coronado, was taught primarily by seasoned civilian mariners and was the most demanding training I received during my five years as a naval officer. Rear Adm. Ron Boxall, the surface warfare director for the chief of naval operations, commented that the FFG(X) program would seek to mirror this specialized training model. He praised the “the quality of the training” among littoral combat ship officers and attributed their success to the extra time spent in navigation simulators. In finalizing the design of the FFG(X), the Navy should concurrently develop a robust training program for the officers who will stand watch on its bridge.
Nearly 12 years after commissioning the first littoral combat ship, the Navy has learned hard lessons about creating a new small surface combatant. In that time, its focus has shifted back to the great-power competition between maritime nations. This necessitates a return to more robust warfighting capabilities that littoral combat ships could not deliver. The Navy should examine all facets of the littoral combat ship program, from its training and organizational structure to the ships’ design itself, and implement those lessons in the construction of the FFG(X). It has already made encouraging steps in that direction and should now put the new frigate’s future sailors at the forefront.
Thibaut Delloue served for five years as a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. He was the communications officer aboard the destroyer USS Carney and the navigator of the littoral combat ship USS Coronado. He left active duty in 2020 and continues to serve as a lieutenant in the Navy Reserve. His views are his own and do not represent those of the Navy Reserve, the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.