Corvettes and the Failure of the LCS Pt 1
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
Armament-BAE Systems Mk 110 57 mm gun
RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missiles
2 .50-cal guns
Aircraft-2X Seahawk helicopters
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.
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.