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Corvettes and the Failure of the LCS Pt 1

July 8, 2009
The littoral combat ship Independence (LCS 2) underway during builder's trials.

The littoral combat ship Independence (LCS 2) underway during builder's trials.

Where is the High Low Navy?

For reasons of economy and the need to keep ship numbers in adequate supply, navies have traditionally built high and low operating forces, generally consisting of large numbers of escort and patrol craft, buttressed by a smaller complement of high-end and more expensive battle force ships. During the Age of Sail, the bulk of the Royal Navy Ship of the Line fleet consisted of the versatile Third Rate “74″ and only a few of the larger First and Second rates ships of of up 100 guns or more, as typified by Admiral Nelson’s famed flagship HMS Victory, still in existence today.

During World War 2, the already versatile destroyer was joined by less capable and costly destroyer escorts, frigates, sloops, and corvettes to allow the more capable greyhounds to operate with the faster battle groups as much as possible.

Up until the 1990s, the bulk of the US Navy consisted of low-end escorts which might be handy for escorting convoys, especially in the volatile Persian Gulf, guarding ports from terrorists attacks, or even anti-smuggling operations in concert with the US Coast Guard. Somehow, starting in that decade and ongoing to this day, the admirals have convinced themselves and the politicians in charge of ship procurement that the high-end only fleet can meet the country’s future needs. Every major warship with a single exception in production today exceeds the $1 billion mark and are the largest and most heavily armed versions of its type, from aircraft carriers, to missile destroyers, plus amphibious ships and attack submarines.

No nation, not even a superpower can afford the purchase of such “wasting assets” for long, especially in an age where small robot weapons based on micro-chip technology, notably guided missiles, stealthy submarines, and smart bombs, are in widespread proliferation  and threatening our much smaller operating forces. Belatedly the US Navy has made a half-hearted effort to address the discrepancies in capabilities and numbers with the new littoral combat ship (LCS). The first problem we see with this new strategy is that only 55 are planned with the bulk of the proposed 313 ship Navy remaining of the high-end variety.

Why the LCS Failed

The LCS defies description as a low-end warship because of its immense cost, now approaching $700 million each. The original price tag of $220 million now appears as a knee jerk quote rather than a serious cost estimate based on the revolutionary design’s specifications. The real cost more closely resembles a European guided missile frigate, which brings us to our next grievance. LCS at 3000 tons is too large for a true littoral ship and too underarmed for the  Blue Water frigate it more closely resembles. Here are the specifications:

Displacement-3000 tons full load
Length-378 ft
Beam-54 ft
Draft-12 ft
Speed-47 knots
Armament-BAE Systems Mk 110 57 mm gun
                       RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missiles
                       2 .50-cal guns
Aircraft-2X Seahawk helicopters

USS Simpson (FFG 56)

USS Simpson (FFG 56)

When the last of the USN frigates of the Perry class (FFG-7) were commissioned between 1977-1989 there was some acknowledgment that such low-end warships were too small and under-armed to deal with advanced Soviet submarines entering service, though such expendable vessels would be adequate for coastal patrol, escorting convoys, and specifically to push ship numbers toward the 600 ship Navy. Here’s is former CNO Admiral Elmo Zumwalt from his book “On Watch” concerning the ships known then as The Patrol Frigate:

PF may have some limitations as an escort for carriers, particularly nuclear carriers. Part of its low cost comes from foregoing speed and range and part from using certain less-sophisticated kinds of sensing and communications equipment. However it is quite adequate as a patrol vessel or as an escort for convoys of merchantmen or naval auxiliaries and…can serve as an escort for carriers in a pinch.

To this day the Perry’s have proved very  useful in the roles envision by Admiral Zumwalt, especially as the Navy’s sole remaining low-end asset (save for a handful of Cyclone class Patrol craft) but they are now very old and costly to operate for such sundry duties and very large for coastal work. Proof of this can be gleamed in recent years when the remaining FFG-7 ships lost their forward missile launcher for a SeaRam point defense. Currently, like the LCS, she is fitted with armament more befitting a corvette sized ship, but on an obsolete frigate hull.

The New Frigate

Obviously then the Navy sees LCS as a frigate replacement, despite the absurdity of replacing an obsolete concept with a like vessel of virtually the same size and weapon’s load. While the USS Freedom and USS Independence offer a unique hull design able to operate at very high speeds, there is a question if speeds of 40+ knots are required for shallow water patrol, or necessary when escorting slow-sailing merchantmen in such waters.

Arleigh Burke-class destroyer in a simulated small boat attack exercise.

Arleigh Burke-class destroyer in a simulated small boat attack exercise.

Finally, consider that the LCS is vulnerable to the same type of swarming tactics which all high-end warships currently face in coastal waters from fast attack craft-equipped navies. With only 55 planned and likely spread among the stretched escort fleet guarding amphibious ships, aircraft carriers, and convoys in wartime, there would never be enough to effectively counter such asymmetrical tactics.

It appears like the old FFG-7 Perry class frigates, the prime motivation behind LCS is not the introduction of a new capability to the fleet, but to reach the long-promised ( and hardly grandiose) goal of a 313 ship Navy, or perhaps to prevent a further decrease in numbers. Such a strategy is not a sensible one for buying an obsolete warship at a gold-plated price, whose cost makes it seem like a Ferrari, but with abilities which more resemble an Edsel.

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. Jose permalink
    June 24, 2010 7:08 am

    To experiment isn´t a fail, LCS-2 is a marvellous, although it is very expensive, in my country Spain people is afraid about investigation, they think investigation is to waste money, i love america, continue with innovation in spite of possible fails.

  2. leesea permalink
    July 9, 2009 8:42 pm

    ahem a point of terminology Mike. The littorals are greenwater NOT Brownwater. As a Brownwater Navy vet, I can tell you there is a vast difference it operating scenarios.

  3. Scott B. permalink
    July 9, 2009 5:01 am

    B. Smitty said : “A 47kt LCS is somewhat less susceptible to swarming tactics owing to its ability to run faster”

    A recent NPS master’s thesis (2003) which examined LCS’s ability to defend an ESG in an anti-access scenario against a high-density small boat attack suggested that high sprint speed was potentially detrimental in this scenario.

    Below is a short passage from the thesis :

    “When LCS operates within the strike group, defending against attackers, enhanced speed is no factor due to stationing requirements of remaining in a smaller area and staying with slower ships. Also, the other factors would most likely add weight to LCS, increasing the cost to have the high-speed ability, so speed is not a recommended capability.”

  4. Mike Burleson permalink
    July 9, 2009 4:06 am

    If only we still had some, Steve! We have yet to find an adeqaute replacement in all this time.

  5. steve cpo usnr ret permalink
    July 8, 2009 10:20 pm

    Paint scheme and profile reminds me of “Water World”. How about a FRAM II destroyer instead? 5 inch 38s would do just fine.

  6. B.Smitty permalink
    July 8, 2009 3:36 pm

    Of course the Absalons only have two MTU 8000s (8.3MW ea).

  7. Mike Burleson permalink
    July 8, 2009 3:34 pm

    Distiller said “Agree that the blue water battle navy is on the way towards CVN + Burke” and about the 200 ship Navy mentioned by Des:

    This is entirely possible. At least with the stuff the Milboggers and some of the journalists are writing, they can’t say they weren’t warned, or didn’t have any other options.

    The funny thing about warfare, it always have a way of straightening things out. For example, technology solved the problems of stalemate at sea as well as on land after the First World War. Then the Royal Navy battleships couldn’t get to the German battlefleet safe behind their screen of mines, torpedo boats, and submarines, but at Taranto in WW2, it was found that aircraft could easily circumvent these obstacles. Likewise did the tank prove an antidote to the trench warfare, even though many thought the next war would be much like the last.

    With all the talk about how dangerous it is for Big Ships to lurk in the littorals, I think the Chinese are figuring out ways to help us fix our problems of ever increasing ship size and cost. The problem is, their solution involves a whole lot of our sailors dying and many of our ships littering the ocean bottom, because we could see no other alternatives except high end and very large battleships for the myriad tiny threats facing us at sea.

    So time and technology will prove the answer to all our petty little problems at sea which we think there all no alternatives. The question is, will we like the solution and will we be able to adjust in time to provide a proper response? Historically the West has been up to the task of coping with disaster, but can we expect this to always be the case?

  8. B.Smitty permalink
    July 8, 2009 3:28 pm

    Scott B said, “Larger ships don’t necessarily have a much higher fuel consumption.

    OTOH, the K130 has just two MTU 20V 1163 TB 93 engines producing a total of 14.8MW – less than half the power of the frigates you mentioned.

  9. Distiller permalink
    July 8, 2009 3:05 pm

    Agree that the blue water battle navy is on the way towards CVN + Burke, since I wouldn’t bet that CG(X) is gonna happen.

    One aspect of LCS size: I think LCS has to be able to defend its MH-60 and MQ-8 from enemy aerial action, since it will not always operate under AEGIS or SHornet umbrella. That means it should have ESSM (or preferably Barak-8). To install those SAM systems I think LCS-1 is about 500 tons too light. LCS-2 might be a different story, since multihulls tends to be lighter for the same volume. I also think that LCS should in all configurations have two MH-60 abord, and this be close to 4000 tons monohull equivalent in displacement.
    The class under LCS should then be not larger than Skjold, better be Skjold.

  10. Scott B. permalink
    July 8, 2009 2:56 pm

    B. Smitty said : “And frankly, larger ships don’t cost that much more to buy, all things being equal (though they do have higher life cycle costs due to fuel consumption)”

    Larger ships don’t necessarily have a much higher fuel consumption.

    For instance :

    1) Singapore’s Formidable-class frigates (3,000+ tons displacement) are powered by 4 MTU 20V 8000 diesel engines (each rated at 8.2 MW) for a maximum speed of 27+ knots.

    2) Denmarks’s Ivar Huitfeld-class frigates (6,000+ tons displacement) are powered by 4 MTU 20V 8000 diesel engines (each rated at 8.2 MW) for a maximum speed of 28 knots.

  11. DesScorp permalink
    July 8, 2009 11:16 am

    Fellas, I think all of this may be moot. One, I think we’re soon headed for a 200 ship fleet, despite the Navy’s protests, and that’s with the cancellation of Zumwalt ships. We’re not giving up our carriers, and the Virginia class boats have gotten too expensive, with no other alternatives. That leaves surface warfare. I won’t be terribly shocked if the Navy ends up retiring Cruisers and Frigates, and goes to an all-Destroyer surface warfare force. Before you say that’s absurd, what would you have said 20 years ago if you were told that the F-18 would become naval aviation? I think there’s a chance that the Burke’s will similarly become surface warfare, because the Ticos and Perrys are getting old, and with the cost explosion of the LCS ships (and the criticism of their capabilities), the Obama admin may put them on the chopping block. Littorals? Maybe a mix of cyclones and mothership-fed patrol boats.

  12. Bill permalink
    July 8, 2009 10:43 am

    “Bill,

    Great stories. Interesting how that kind of stuff is never mentioned when discussing shallow water performance. Everyone just quotes draft.

    A dearth of AMV designer-type folks employed on USN programs that can actually say “been there, done that, got the skinned knuckles to prove it” perhpas? ;-) nah.

  13. Scott B. permalink
    July 8, 2009 10:39 am

    Mike Burleson said : “With the corvette, we give them something to work with, a back to basics with a weight limit to get back to a reasonably priced fleet.”

    LCS had a weight limit : they busted it !

    LCS had a cost limit : they busted it !

    At the risk of repeating myself, what you’re trying to do is run the EXACT same software that lead to the LCS disaster.

    You’re simply hoping that re-booting the system will remove the bugs in the software : which isn’t going to happen, no matter how many times you’re going to re-boot.

    What you want to do is change the paradigm (i.e. the software) rather than change the narrative (with the 1,000-ton corvette in place of the 2,000-ton LCS) !

    In short : Think BIG, not small !!!

  14. Scott B. permalink
    July 8, 2009 10:33 am

    B. Smitty said : “I mentioned both the foreign-built Absalon and the foreign-built K130 in my comparison. My point was to say you can have a well-armed large ship for the price of a less well-armed small ship.”

    Amen to that, 100%. ;)

    Think BIG, not small !!!

  15. Scott B. permalink
    July 8, 2009 10:27 am

    Bill said : “Not many. The simple fact of the matter is that waterjet propulsion still requires a considerable amount of draft below the keel (more corectly, the jet intakes) or big trouble ensues.”

    You beat me to it !!!

    What more can I say now ?

    Maybe that a mythical 1,000-ton corvette like the Israeli Sa’ar 5 has a navigational draft of 15 feet (i.e. 4.7 meters).

  16. B.Smitty permalink
    July 8, 2009 9:55 am

    Bill,

    Great stories. Interesting how that kind of stuff is never mentioned when discussing shallow water performance. Everyone just quotes draft.

    Sure wouldn’t be fun to be in the midst of a swarm attack in an LCS, fire up the turbines for a high speed getaway, only to have one of your jets eat grandma’s old Persian rug!

    Mike,

    My point is, with proper discipline, you can have both large and numbers.

    I mentioned both the foreign-built Absalon and the foreign-built K130 in my comparison. My point was to say you can have a well-armed large ship for the price of a less well-armed small ship. (granted they are built by different yards for different navies with different priorities)

    We can have both numbers and size.

  17. Mike Burleson permalink
    July 8, 2009 9:33 am

    Smitty, basically your points mean that larger is better. With the corvette you spread various capabilities among many vessels, rather than trusting all on a few large and vulnerable hulls. I completely understand your ideas which prevail in our current smaller and stretched thin fleet, but happen to emphatically disagree with it. Numbers count, especially in wartime, as does size.

    You may be right that size doesn’t necessarily mean high cost, but this doesn’t count in the USN which loves to add on the extras, greatly increasing cost and understandably turning off the ship procurers in Congress ( your mentionaing the foreign built Absalan is most revealing). They inspire little confidence and can’t be trusted. With the corvette, we give them something to work with, a back to basics with a weight limit to get back to a reasonably priced fleet.

    Big Ships for the Blue Water, small ships which are naturally stealthy and numerous enough to combat and survive swarm attacks, for the Brown.

  18. Bill permalink
    July 8, 2009 9:23 am

    ” I have to wonder though, how many places Freedom can go at 3.7m draft that an F125 can’t go at 5m draft.”

    Not many. The simple fact of the matter is that waterjet propulsion still requires a considerable amount of draft below the keel (more corectly, the jet intakes) or big trouble ensues. This is particularly true if you need to maintain the ability to back down or conduct low-speed maneuvers; in that case the reverse bucket flow looks and acts exactly like one of Mel Fisher’s salavage boats..everything/anything on the bottom…as much as 3-4m BELOW the keel..gets nicely ‘recovered and filtered’ through the intake for future removal by a diving crew (with that propulsion line tagged out, of course.

    I I can persaonlly tell ya how long it takes a team to extract a steel-belted radial tire from a 63SII KaMeWa (4.5 hours) ..oh..and a Persian carpet too (2.5 hours). The load of large (4″-8″ diameter) rocks we picked up in Pusan..we didn’t bother to remove since the impeller was trashed.

    Intake grates kill jet performance and are seldom employed on any jet vessels designed and built by the ‘competent guys’ (e.g. thems not here in US) but even with intake grates, the jet impeller erosion and damage is till great when using buckets in ‘shallowuish’ water conditions.

  19. B.Smitty permalink
    July 8, 2009 8:50 am

    Mike,

    A few points,

    1) You need to look beyond the fixed armament of the LCSs when judging their capabilities. The mission modules are their primary punch. Corvettes can’t carry anywhere close to the same capabilities. They just don’t have the space and weight.

    2) A 47kt LCS is somewhat less susceptible to swarming tactics owing to its ability to run faster, and not having the same shallow water navigational restrictions that Burkes and Perrys have.

    3) IMHO, we need cheaper and more numerous ships, not necessarily smaller ones. Size is not the major determinant in cost. 6300 tonne Absalons (~$230 million) are cheaper than 1700 tonne Braunschweig K130 corvettes (~$300 million).

    Question: Why is LCS too large for the littorals?

    Frankly, I personally think the LCS is too SMALL for its job. Both hulls already appear to be under-margined and weight critical.

    Larger ships are better at fighting hurt. Large ships have more room to grow. Large ships have better seakeeping, endurance and range. Large ships can have superior crew accomodations (especially important for long-duration presence missions).

    And frankly, larger ships don’t cost that much more to buy, all things being equal (though they do have higher life cycle costs due to fuel consumption).

    Personally, I would much rather have a 6-7000 tonne $700 million Littoral Frigate (e.g. F125, Nansen, FREMM), than a 3200 tonne, overweight, $700 million LCS. Even if it means giving up the 40+kt top end.

    My biggest worry would be losing the very shallow draft of LCS-1. I have to wonder though, how many places Freedom can go at 3.7m draft that an F125 can’t go at 5m draft.

    Just MHO.

Trackbacks

  1. LCS Alternative-Diesel/Electric Corvettes « New Wars
  2. Corvettes and the Failure of the LCS Pt 2 « New Wars

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