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The Littoral Combat Ship Trap

May 25, 2009
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USS Freedom (LCS 1)

USS Freedom (LCS 1)

Raymond Pritchett at the Information Dissemination blog makes a very convincing argument for continued support of the Navy’s littoral combat ship, LCS, probably the best I have ever heard. Still, I am not buying it. First, here is what the blogger says is the half billion dollar warships good points:

Innovation is the bane of contracting, indeed contracting by nature is a risk averse exercise that draws criticism at a rate consistent with the level of risk involved. The LCS is a combination of several innovations including modularity, unmanned systems, smaller crew size, automation, and speed. I personally don’t think all of these combination’s add up to a ‘littoral combat ship’ nor even a ship with well designed requirements, but I appreciate the fact the Navy needs to get all of these innovations into the future fleet (thus to sea). The only way that happens is to build a few Littoral Combat Ships and see what they can do.

Other than the LCS, right now the US Navy has nothing on the chalkboard smaller than the DDG-51s, and nothing on the chalkboard that can act as a mothership smaller than the LPD-17. If the LCS was canceled today, what would the US Navy build? MSC ships like T-AKE or JHSVs? I’ll take more Littoral Combat Ships instead. The QDR is going to hopefully change what goes on the chalkboard, but even that will take a few years. For now, the Littoral Combat Ship is an excellent way to move ahead with mothership development in my opinion.

Raymond appears to have fallen into the trap that is current Pentagon practice when they invent a particular weapon and we the public are supposed to accept whether we like it or not. I wrote about this ongoing phenomena recently in a post titled  “LCS: An Offer We Can’t Refuse?”:

The Admirals have convinced Congress and the public that the new littoral combat ship, LCS, whose production is ramped up in the new budget, is the final word in shallow sea, Brown Water operations. While it is an interesting concept as a fast wave-riding vessel, and at around $500 million significantly cheaper than every other USN warship program, it is still a very large and expensive vessel for such dirty naval warfare. The type of adversary the LCS would likely face in such waters would be a $10,000 speed boat available in large numbers by stateless pirates, or rising Third World navies such as Iran. Her large bulk leaves a dangerous opening for swarming  attacks by such numerous and agile craft, tactics the Iranian Navy practices on a regular basis.

The future of warfare is less about expensive platforms, which Raymond admits the LCS is, but more about the weapons the ship carries. Of course, platforms are essential, but it is more important they be affordable enough to produce in adequate numbers, and on time when needed. If replacement vehicles, planes, or ships are required due to age, battle damage, or even obsolescence, they should be easily and quickly replaced. Here’s more from Raymond:

I believe USS Freedom (LCS 1) and USS Independence (LCS 2) represent the USS Langley (CV-1) of the 21st century. I believe that in the 21st century, motherships for manned and unmanned underwater, surface, and aviation systems will be as important as aircraft carriers were in the 20th century.

USS Langley (CV-1)
USS Langley (CV-1)

The blogger uses the first American carrier to describe the LCS, so I will use the latest in service of the Nimitz class. The vast amount of requirements now placed on these mobile naval airfields have become so extreme, such as 1000 foot angled decks, nuclear power, thousands of crewmen, the cost distracts from its real purpose as a mothership. Today the Navy struggles to fill these spacious and awe-inspiring Goliaths with aircraft, the Navy may have to reduce the number of planes in carrier squadrons to reign in costs. Maintaining carrier numbers now exceeds the importance of whether they can actually perform their mission efficiently or not.

The LCS’ current high cost and technical difficulties stem from its advanced engines and especially its function as a multi-payload platform. From the Navy website the blogger posts this:

LCS consists of a seaframe that is outfitted with reconfigurable payloads, called Mission Packages that can be changed out quickly. Mission Packages are supported by special detachments that operate and maintain manned and unmanned vehicles and sensors to counter mine, undersea, and surface threats. There are currently three types of focused Mission Packages that provide potent combat capability in specific warfare areas: Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), Mine Warfare (MIW) and Surface Warfare (SUW). The ship will operate one package loaded at a time, but can swap to a new package in 1-4 days.

Meant then to be a mothership, we see the vessel becoming another do it all exquisite platform, innovative to the extreme which can do many interesting missions, none of them well. But to deploy the advanced new unmanned systems which Raymond details, these weapons just need a parent vessel, not a costly untested warship. The more advanced the mothership, the fewer such weapons we can deploy, as we are proving with carrier aircraft.

USS Independence (LCS 2)

USS Independence (LCS 2)

This is not meant to be overly-critical of Raymond, who is merely expressing all our frustrations at naval shipbuilding practices of at least the past 2 Administrations. If the USN had built only 3000 ton frigates (an accurate description of LCS) in the 1990s instead of 10,000 ton Burke battleships, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. What the blogger is saying then is, “what other choice do we have“?

We think there are other choices and the time is past due to stop compromising and get Navy procurement right this time. The 1000-1500 ton corvette warship should be the building block for the future surface future fleet. A good seaworthy vessel is all that is required and there are good foreign designs to choose from which would be excellent platforms for the new generation of unmanned air-surface-submarine vehicles now coming into service, and likely to dominate the littoral waters in the near future.

In wartime numbers are vital. The US Army in Iraq and Afghanistan produced their winning combination of armored vehicles in only a few years development. The Stryker went from concept in 1999 to combat in 2003 in about 4 years. The MRAP even quicker with an astounding 10,000 vehicles produced since 2007! We want to see something similar from the Navy, when they went from being arguably the third most powerful in 1939 to the greatest fleet in history by 1944. For this to happen there must be an end to decades long procurement cycles, ships with too many faults when they enter service, and single class warship types which pack in too much innovation and give us too few numbers.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink
    May 27, 2009 8:18 am

    “I bet they will get lost quite a bit…”

    Good point and as with any new technology. Better this though than an entire nuke submarine prowling around in littoral waters!

  2. Distiller permalink
    May 27, 2009 1:35 am

    I guess nobody figured that out yet. Seatrials and operational experience will have to shape it. The LCS’ balance of onboard and UxV sensors and effectors will be in constant flow (and is not good right now), as the autonomous capabilities of the UxV will be growing. I think that the first phase should concentrate on sensor-UxV and leave the effectors to the ship and SH-60.

    I also think that more UUV (didn’t figure out yet what USV are actually good for) are needed for each ship and I bet they will get lost quite a bit. One of the reasons I say keep it to sensorcrafts for the time being, as it makes more compact and cheaper UUV. The other reason is persistance, as a sensorcraft can’t go winchester and be forced to return to the ship, breaking the ISR cycle and coverage. Same goes for the MQ-8, I think. The idea of putting DAGR onto it is nice, but with Netfires shooting almost 50km and MQ-8 being (mostly) controlled line-of-sight from the ship I see no reason for now.

    The current public state of things is somewhat fuzzy. The first modules are being delivered now. They look a lot like lab models, though, and not really like operational equipment. Google for LCS mission packages, or ASW and MIW packages. Couple of informative ppts out there.

  3. Mike Burleson permalink
    May 26, 2009 6:59 pm

    Jim I get a lot of good info from Wikipedia. before you panic, if you check out their source articles you can find some good and credible facts on whatever subject.

  4. jim permalink
    May 26, 2009 2:09 pm

    I’m trying to get my mind around USV/UUVs possibilities. Any pointers to papers/articles that discuss the current and near future state of these? I’m just an educated layman, so sometimes have difficulty distinguishing real technological progress from PowerPoint blunderbuss.

    For example, automated launch and recovery, and also automated refueling, seems a key enabling tech to unlock the usefulness of USV/UUVs, especially with shrinking crew sizes. How close are we to that? Will it really require giant robot arms on the mothership? Can such arms be retrofitted to existing ships?

    With UAVs, every ship with a helo deck already had all the infrastructure needed for UAVs like the Fire Scout. And the small fixed-wing UAVs seems to require very little new ship infrastructure.

    Also, when I imagine future USV/UUV scenarios, they seem to require more individual bots than with UAVs. A single Global Hawk or Predator can be extremely effective, but USVs and UUVs seem more likely to be useful in coordinated packs. Is some future mothership gonna need room to carry dozens of USV/UUVs?

    Obviously, my thinking on this is a bit muddled. Any pointers on this would be helpful. I did read through the latest Navy unmanned systems master plan. But that was too detailed for my current level of understanding. I just couldn’t understand the big picture of how the Navy intends to actually use these systems.

  5. Scott B. permalink
    May 26, 2009 8:54 am

    Mike Burleson said : “I wouldn’t be surprised that by the next decade the price will have crept nearer to the $1 billion mark.”

    What Bob Work, the new appointed Under Secretary of the Navy, is proposing is this (see page 73 of this report) :

    “By continuing to produce four LCSs per year after reaching the TFBN requirement of fifty-five ships, replacing the oldest four LCSs on a one-for-one basis, and then selling or transferring the decommissioned ships to US allies, the Navy will have a small combatant shipbuilding plan that is perfectly suited for its new maritime strategy.”

    In effect, what it means is that, should Bob Work get his way, each LCS is going to serve about 15 years in the US Navy.

    Assuming a very optimistic $550M per LCS (seaframe + mission package), this means that under Work’s plan, each LCS would cost the Navy $1.1 billion over a period of 30 years.

    And guess what ? Mr Raymond Pritchett thinks Bob Work’s proposal “is a very good idea”.

  6. Scott B. permalink
    May 26, 2009 8:25 am

    The German newspaper Die Welt has an article on the gearbox problems with the K130 corvettes : article here (in German)

  7. Scott B. permalink
    May 26, 2009 8:10 am

    Mike Burleson said : “Scott, concerning the conspiracy, I was referring to your post about the German Press and the Swiss gearboxes, with a little tongue in cheek!”

    1) MAAG Gear AG is the company producing the gearboxes for both the K130 and the LockMart LCS design.

    2) The gearbox arrangements on the German K130 corvettes are much less complex than on LCS-1, yet they don’t seem to be exactly troublesome.

    3) Various *manufacturing* problems with the reduction gears caused significant cost overruns and a 6-month delay on LCS-1. (see for instance page 8 of LockMart Fred Moosally’s testimony before the HASC in 2007 here).

    We’ll see what happens next… ;)

  8. Mike Burleson permalink
    May 26, 2009 7:27 am

    Scott, concerning the conspiracy, I was referring to your post about the German Press and the Swiss gearboxes, with a little tongue in cheek!

    Raymond might be a little swayed by his recent trip on the LCS, which yours truly would give his right arm to ride on as well, despite my misgiving of it as a fighting vessel. Personally I supported the LCS at one time on this blog, with the same reasonings that he gives which is “what else is there”? When the cost reached the price of a Norwegian Aegis frigate, I could no longer in good conscience do this.

    Since the root my constant critiquing of the US Navy concerns ship numbers, I feel the LCS is yet another gold-plated drag on scarce shipbuilding funds. I doubt we will get the 55 vessels promised, and I wouldn’t be surprised that by the next decade the price will have crept nearer to the $1 billion mark. I have read some estimates at $700 million already.

  9. Scott B. permalink
    May 26, 2009 7:11 am

    From the Danish DoD datasheet on the Absalons :

    In Danish :
    Den samlede pris for de to skibe med udrustning er ca. 2.5 mia. kr. og skibene planlægges at være fuldt operative med udgangen af 2007.

    In English :
    The overall price for the two ships complete with equipment is about DKK 2.5 billion and the ships are planned to become fully operational by the end of 2007.

    As of yesterday, exchange rate was : 1 USD = 0.188 DKK

    That means $470 million for two ships, i.e. $235 million per ship.

  10. Scott B. permalink
    May 26, 2009 5:21 am

    Mike Burleson said : “Also Scott, sounds like a conspiracy!”

    Mr Raymond Pritchett is, as he puts it on his blog, an armchair admiral, who’s been particularly enthusiastic about LCS right from the start of the program.

    While I don’t think Mr Raymond Pritchett is part of a conspiracy, I believe he’s being taken advantage of by various people with a pro-LCS / pro-LockMart agenda.

    What Mr Raymond Pritchett’s piece tells us is that, as reality inexorably continues to contradict his misplaced optimism, Mr Raymond Pritchett is gradually locking himself in some kind of Fort Alamo, one in which a) no alternative to LCS even exists and 2) opting for something different than LCS would result in an even bigger fiasco.

    Evidence of Mr Raymond Pritchett’s state of denial can be found in his latest blog entry, in which he is quoting an article by the excellent Philip Ewing at Navy Times, and deliberately snips the entire paragraph in the article where it that “The worst offenders were the littoral combat ships Freedom and Independence, which came in at 193 percent and 147 percent over cost, respectively.”

    It wouldn’t be much of a problem if Mr Raymond Pritchett was the only individual in Fort Alamo. Problem is when actual decisionmakers like Robert Work, the newly appointed Under Secretary of the Navy, start to cut themselves from the reality and design plans to build LCS indefinitely.

    Now this is extremely worrying !!!

  11. Mike Burleson permalink
    May 26, 2009 5:02 am

    The Stryker at sea would do for the Navy what the Stryker on land does for the Army. The future of land warfare is empowering the infantry. It is about spreading firepower and capability around the infantry unit, where before it only advanced by the point of the heavy tank’s main gun. So you have the armored infantry vehicle and its parasite “fighters” deploying robot weapons on land, including UAVs, battlefield robots, and man-portable armaments such as SAMs and ATGM. Individually none could stand up to the old style armored force of the last century. As a networked force they are more capable, more flexible, more lethal.

    A real littoral ship would perform the same function, with small corvettes able to operating in various functions as the LCS does but not as complicated, large or costly. because of their size they would be easy to build, and as the Stryker comes in different models for different functions, air defense, anti-tank, a mobile gun system, you would have different versions of the corvette on a like hull. So you would have an air defense corvette, an OPV version with helos, a shore bombardment ship with rockets and perhaps a larger gun as we discussed in these comments before. With greater numbers you would have equal firepower spread out among the fleet, rather than a few vulnerable hulls that can’t be everywhere at once, while taking advantage of the lethality of modern precision weapons, and saving sparse shipbuilding funds.

    The possibilities for the corvette are endless and unlike the overly-large and complicated LCS, we think these capabilities could be fitted in existing hulls like these Austal built HSVs, Coast Guard cutters, or foreign designs.

  12. Distiller permalink
    May 26, 2009 3:18 am

    Stryker at sea? I’m not even sure what Stryker is on land.

    The question is if UxV technology is already advanced enough to justify building a whole class of ships for them. And if you look into the mission packages – there are actually not that many real UUV/USV, or let’s say autonomous UUV/USV – the most important contributors to mission capability and effectiveness are still mounted on the manned SH-60 (of which in some configurations only one will be aboard).

    Currently there is a fuzzyness about the sensor – effector distribution, and there are *by far* not enough of each in each mission package. These things will certainly get lost a lot. And as other people already stated, there are not enough sensors on LCS itself. Not having even a light weight torpedo aboard is dumb. And having only one SH-60 in some configurations is not insufficient, as it means no helicopter for two thirds of the day.

    Also they say UAV will operate up to SS5, and UUV/SUV up to SS4, but they don’t say up to what speed that can happen. And looking at the way they want to deploy toys like the BPAUV or the WLD-1 I doubt it can be recovered at any speed in SS4. Recovery will be the critical part (launch is easy). The whole ramp/sledge complex seems just not robust enough and not enough automated. I think LCS would need something like a pair of Space Shuttle robot arms to bring the UUV/USV in safely and reliably. That might also give more operational freedom for recovery, which now seems restricted in both speed and heading.
    And returning to the robot arms, LCS should have the capability to recover ScanEagle/KillerBees.

    Ok, the UxV thing will rapidly evolve, and one can R&D and optimize them the next hundred years. The big goal certainly are UUV/USV capable of keeping up with LCS at cruise speed, as well as multi-day autonomous operations with LCS away. Couple of interesting concepts out there.

    The speed and size discussion aside, problem here could be that LCS has no real ability to protect itself or its UAV ducklings from enemy anti-air actions. I doubt that the plans to have LCS always protected by the rest of the task force will materialize in operational reality. And there is a contradiction in the CONOPS, as LCS is thought to sprint ahead of a CBG/ASG and do its ASW/MIW thing. But “ahead” also means outside the umbrella of Burkes and Ticos. Will they rely solely on the SHornets to protect LCS from threats when having sprinted ahead? Loitering, circling? Not really, as they are busy with other things. Not putting, say, a VL Sea-SLAMRAAM or that new Barak-8 on LCS is dangerous.

    I’m sure not having even a small VLS hive forward will severly limit the mission value of LCS.

  13. Mike Burleson permalink
    May 25, 2009 6:02 pm

    Jim, the Navy has the public hoodwinked that the piracy problem is all rapped up as soon as its “pirate buster” arrives on the scene. I am not convinced.

    Scott, I could feel Raymond’s pain as he wrote this article. Don’t think he really believes this, just is frustrated with Navy procurement policies.

    Also Scott, sounds like a conspiracy!

    Distiller, the main problem with MRAPs and perhaps Stryker too is they were rushed into service with the Army trying to play catchup on insurgency war when they clearly had the entire 1990s to prove this was the future for Western warfare. I think the bugs are gradually being worked out, and even with the mistakes, there are several concepts which have been proven—wheeled vehicles are not only survivable in intense battlefield conditions, they are actually saving lives. Unlike the armored tracked behemoths of the last century, they can be designed and deployed in a few years in large numbers, rather than decades long procurement and testing. The wheel vehicles will be with us for awhile for certain.

    Now we are waiting for a Stryker at sea.

  14. Scott B. permalink
    May 25, 2009 4:42 pm

    Interestingly, the mainstream press in Germany is now reporting that the brand-new K130 corvettes are experiencing severe problems with their gearboxes : article in German.

    Interestingly, the gearboxes used on the K130 are manufactured by the Swiss company MAAG of Winterthur.

    Interestingly, MAAG is also supplying much more gearboxes for the LockMart LCS design.

    Interestingly, problems with the gearboxes for LCS-1 supplied by MAAG are one of many factors that created much delay and cost overruns in the past.

    Something to watch closely…

  15. Scott B. permalink
    May 25, 2009 3:51 pm

    Mr Raymond Pritchett’s piece is less than convincing.

    For instance, his paragraph on how ADM Vern Clark came up with a cost estimate of $220M per LCS is a Sea Story, and not a credible one at that.

    Regarding the Absalons, $440 million sounds about right for 2 ships, meaning than one Absalon costs about $220 million, i.e. exactly what LCS was supposed to cost initially.

    We understand that Mr Raymond Pritchett’s understanding of the shipbuilding industry is very limited.

    Therefore, rather than listening to his (pro-LCS) anonymous (imaginary ?) sources, Mr Raymond Pritchett should spend more time studying the subject, starting with this recent GAO report on commercial vs Navy shipbuilding.

    If he reads this study, Mr Raymond Pritchett might be able to find out how Odense Steel Shipyard, despite higher wages in Denmark than in the US, has managed to remain highly competitive and innovative in the global shipbuilding industry. And was therefore able to produce the Absalons for about $220M a piece.

  16. jim permalink
    May 25, 2009 3:21 pm

    It’s clear that the Navy, and the American public, doesn’t feel a sense of urgency about this. And probably won’t until China starts flexing her naval muscles.

    In the meantime I like the mothership idea. I’d like to get a couple out there and start experimenting to see how it works. This UAV, USV, UUV era has the potential for dramatic changes and novel concepts. At this stage we don’t know how it’s all gonna shake out.

    Actually, with UAVs it seems like we are getting a handle on what the possibilities are and how to use them. But USVs and UUVs are taking longer to mature. The next decade will hopefully clarify that.

  17. Distiller permalink
    May 25, 2009 2:55 pm

    Mike,

    The Stryker is an obese Schwerer Panzerspahwagen http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schwerer_Panzersp%C3%A4hwagen and its SBCT is the Wehrmacht Kampfgruppe idea http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kampfgruppe institutionalized, when it was a ragtag emergency formation. Shinseki had a secret library of old Nazi war stories, but somehow he read the wrong chapters. No real cavalry, but heavy motorized constabulary in an Army still not capable of 2D, let alone 3D maneuver warfare.
    Then the monsterous road-bound coach for an infantry overloaded by 200 lb rucksacks called MRAP that manifests a failed infantry tactic for all to see.
    Nothing here is anything to crow over, or fit for a real war. But still too heavy, in fact even the “light” units are now in danger of becoming undeployably heavy, and the whole crap is *way* too expensive for the expanded constabulary action that is going on. Netcentric? No. FCS was broadsided by an establishment that is just fine with having climatized autobahn panzers instead of lousy, dusty jeeps. Were is netcentric? Where is light? The logistics train for even “infantry” BCT (which they aren’t) units multiplied. And one wonders why SOCOM grows and grows?

    And now LCS, the Littoral Constabulary Ship, way too big for the real littorals, but way too weak to face any half decent enemy. An empty hull four times as expensive as everyone else builds in the same class, supposed to be filled with modules that are too complex to be modular. And all that possibly centered around the concept of a giant logistics raft (aka Seabase aka missile magnet), that depends on a non-existing heavy VTOL lifter and non-existing giant hovercraft and a total failure called V-22 to get the stuff across the shoreline. And all that depending for protection and punch on a carrier with an anorexic air wing. Great.

    Multiple organ dysfunction syndrome.

    Rant over.

  18. May 25, 2009 2:34 pm

    actually USN was not the biggest fleet in ever tonnage or numbers till June 1945, that was the RN, but that was mainly thanks to the flower class corvettes – me I would just like to take the old castle design (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castle_class_patrol_vessel) and upgrade by adding a few hundred tones, some length and breadth, and a vls, maybe the little one I was discussing the other day, maybe a 41, as although that might seem a little excessive, I like the idea of being able to link it into awaks or space baced radar and firing SM-3’s from it…afterall a corvette really could be got up rivers, or sent close inshore; so it would give a useful platform for ABM and for protection in the littoral (plus the 41 already has SAMs built for it, so using its modular system you could just have that a BAE 110 57mm, a CIWS on the hangar, and some torpedoes and 20mm cannon and you would be away with aviable of the shelf design).

    yours sincerly

    Alex

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