LCS Alternative Weekly
Reinventing the Wheel on LCS
She was supposed to introduce a new era of war at sea to the Navy. The LCS proposals that began at the dawn of the century envisioned a modular, flexible, speedy, low cost warship to return the fleet to the shallow waters where increasingly the Big Warships were being threatened by mines, stealthy diesel subs, and especially cruise missiles. As the decade proceeded other useful roles were envisioned, as the old frigates and Patrol Craft gained renewed importance in the fight to prevent terrorist arms smuggling on the high seas, drug smuggling, and as the age-old threat of piracy returned to the forefront of the headlines.
Instead, after a decade of spending, planning, and design, we have two examples of the littoral combat ship in the water. Instead of a low cost small warship, we have a bloated frigate, with numerous technical problems, costing three times as much as promised. Though the ship was meant to fight fast attack craft and enemy corvettes, she is less well armed than most vessels 1/3 her size or smaller. Recently it was discovered a primary defense the ship was meant to carry, the N-LOS rocket to break of fast attack boat swarms, failed in several tests. At $466,000 each the N-LOS attack missiles are extraordinarily costly for the low tech mission envisioned, which is typical of the entire LCS concept.
Interestingly it is ironic the LCS becomes at risk from the very same small craft, which were considered and rejected in the original proposals, the presumed vulnerable small warships.
In order to field a fleet of small littoral ships by this new decade, the Navy did not have to reinvent the wheel. Though the desire for unique hull-forms may be understandable, there was no need to go over-board in their consistent quest to prove you can do more work with fewer vessels. There was the Swedish Visby and the Norwegian Skjold stealth corvettes, both of which sported high speed technology on a low observable hull. These were both examined by the Pentagon and well respected for their abilities. At the very least there were the Cyclone patrol craft already in service which might have been a template for an enlarged design, as were the high speed catamaran like Joint Venture, which were motherships before mothership were cool.
Seeking something more familiar though, the Navy chose a different route, adding greatly to the dimensions of LCS. In the late 1990s, there was calls for a 400 ton corvette, but the Navy thought bigger meant more survivable and thought that magic weapons could solve the threat from small boat swarming. The two LCS still look like the smaller Nordic corvettes, except their are now grossly morphed into something not quite a shallow water vessel, but not quite a Blue Water warship.
Still, it is not looks that matter here but results. Likely the LCS will perform adequately since they will only be used in low threat areas, probably not in the high risk zones of which they were originally intended such as the Taiwan Straits or even in the Gulf near Iranian cruise missiles. Where the LCS has already failed though is to bring anything desperately needed to the fleet. It does not build up fleet numbers since they are so costly at $600 million each likely will not be built in anywhere near adequate numbers. The navy wants 55 vessels but this is unlikely to occur under present budgets unless the admirals want to stop one of their high ticket battleship programs like submarines or carriers, EXTREMELY UNLIKELY in other words.
In the print edition of Navy Times we see in this article by Phil Ewing the Navy belatedly wants to add a towed sonar array onto LCS:
First, the Navy began exploring what it would take to equip an LCS with a towed sonar array — which would be the ship’s first onboard underwater sensor — and could usher in a new set of tactics for the fleet to hunt for submarines.
Second, new Pentagon documents cast doubt on the future of the Army’s Non-Line-Of-Sight missile planned for use aboard LCS, raising questions about whether the ships’ tactics for surface combat — predicated upon it wielding a short-range surface-to-surface missile — would also have to change.
Taken together, the Navy’s request for proposals about an LCS sonar and the Army’s internal deliberations about NLOS showed that even as the Navy pre-pares to decide this summer which of the two competing LCS designs it will put into full production, basic assumptions about the whole LCS concept remain in flux.
Monica McCoy, a spokeswoman for Naval Sea Systems Command, gave little information about the command’s request for proposals on a variable-depth sonar towed array for LCS, including even the Navy’s basic goals for how it would work or when it might be tested at sea.
Which showcases the continued confusion of roles for the LCS, is she a patrol ship, a frigate, or even (get ready) a mothership?
I can understand the need for some vessels with multi-mission capability, and New Wars looked at some types recently in the post “Meet the Sloop“. Even so, we can’t see a ship needed in large numbers to build up the fleet and combat shallow water foes as a complicated, expensive, and hard to build warship. The two requirements are incompatible. So, here is yet another role fostered off on the apparently “Low Cost Ship”. Commander Greg Parker ponders “Boxes as the U.S. Navy’s New Vision?”
What is clear is that the Navy is using the multimission mantra to address two existential issues. The first is relevance. Overshadowed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Navy continues to argue the importance of the world’s littoral regions and maritime strategy in general, especially in the context of a rising, resource-hungry China.
The second issue is one of capacity. Hampered both by the 1990s draw-down in defense funds and a striking inability to control shipbuilding costs in the last decade, the Navy operates with an inventory of approximately 285 ships, well below the 600-ship target of the 1980s and a mere shadow of the 6,700 ships it had when World War II ended.
Indeed, the LCS itself is as notorious for its cost overruns – from a planned $220 million per ship to approximately $600 million at last count – as it is famous for its new design. That’s a big problem: Quantity, after all, has a quality all its own.
But if a multifunction ship mitigates the concern about quantity, the broader vision of how these boxes might work together in a new and distinct fashion has not been laid out.
Here is the problem with this line of thinking: The modular boxes on the LCS is not the end, but a means to an end. In other words, just as everyone of your vessels can’t be an all-purpose battleship like the DDG Arleigh Burkes (give the Navy credit for trying, though!), neither should every vessel in your fleet be a mothership to the exclusion of other roles. If so, the question cones to mind, mother to what? The current fleet plans as described here might then be likened to a bow without an arrow of an aircraft carrier without planes. Will we depend on untried robots alone to make up for our lack of hulls? How is that working out with the failure of N-LOS?
The LCS wants to be a mothership, fine. But it also must be our patrol, mine warfare ship, sub-chaser and whatever future mission the Navy sticks her with. Except for these functions you will require something more like a sloop than an over-priced Patrol boat like LCS Freedom.
All the talk here is about mission boxes, except boxes cannot sail on their own, and be in more than one place at a time. They must have hulls in the water to deploy. The multimission warship concept fails to take into account the admitted presence deficit of the Navy worldwide, nor is it an answer to the over-deployment of crews and continued out of control costs in warship design. Then there is the grave risk such singular vessels can be swarmed without any defense (as we noted above). Bring on the motherships, by all means, but you can’t build a Navy or deploy effectively with motherships alone.
I still say the best counter for a small warship is another small warship, because they can do presence. Boxes don’t do presence.
Fracture LCS Acronyms
Here we go again!
Ludacris Crafted Ship
Lacking a Clear Strategy
Lacking Capability Speedboat
Least Capable Showboat
Least Capable Ship
Keep sending them in! Thanks to Graham, D.E. and yours truly.
More LCS Cost Issues
Sean Reilly at the Alabama Press-Register reports on a hearing at the House Armed Services Seapower subcommittee. that focused on continued rises in LCS cost:
Although the Navy’s ability to meet a cost target for two planned littoral combat ship purchases is an issue, Mississippi Rep. Gene Taylor suggested Wednesday that the long-term trend for the troubled program matters more.
“The real question is, what’s the chances that the third ship (will be) substantially cheaper than the second, that the fourth will be cheaper than the third?” Taylor, D-Bay St. Louis, said during a break in a hearing on the Navy’s shipbuilding plans for the 2011 fiscal year, which begins in October.
The hearing was held by the House Armed Services Seapower subcommittee, which Taylor chairs. For 2011, the Navy is seeking about $1.2 billion for the proposed two-ship LCS purchase, which amounts to about $600 million for each vessel. As a recent Congressional Research Service report notes, that figure appears to be well above a $480 million cost cap imposed by Congress last year.
Let the Competition Begin!
As predicted earlier, the team of General Dynamics and Austal are parting ways on the LCS and are now competitors in the final design. Here is Chris Cavas at Defense News:
The move – first reported in January to be in the works – is a direct response to a new acquisition strategy announced by Navy officials last September.
Navy acquisition chief Sean Stackley, in a bid to increase competitive elements in the LCS program, declared the Navy would choose between a steel-hull design offered by Lockheed Martin and an aluminum trimaran from the GD/Austal USA team. An initial award to one shipyard of two ships with options for eight more is to be followed in two years by a five-ship award to a second-source shipyard. The new hitch: The second shipyard could have no affiliation with the first.
That set the stage for the GD/Austal split, since GD all along has wanted to build LCS ships in its Bath, Maine, shipyard. Recently, the company has been considering LCS construction at its National Steel and Shipbuilding Co. (NASSCO) yard in San Diego, which needs orders for new ships. But the Navy’s new rules would prohibit GD’s yards from building LCS ships should the service choose the trimaran design and the partnership continue.
The split positions either Bath Iron Works or NASSCO to bid on the five-ship offering in 2012.
Got that? I think I get it. From cooperation on the initial design, now they will see who gets to actually build follow on vessels.
BTW-GD and Austal are the team which gave us the pointy Independence design.