LCS Alternative Weekly
Real Clear Gunboats
In the US Navy’s mind, a 100,000 ton aircraft carrier is a gunboat, a 10,000 ton destroyer is a small boy “tin can”, and a 3000 ton frigate a cheap coastal patrol ship. In contrast are real gunboats, corvettes, and fast attack craft, built by most of the world’s navies, performing many of the same functions as their giant cousins without the expense to build, the high volume of fuel usage, or manpower needed to operate. Some navies like Somalia expand their seapower with commandeered merchant and fishing vessels. Others like the Columbian drug lords build basic submarines in jungles, without the vast industrial expertise and nautical knowledge of traditional ocean-going nations, proving that the quest for maritime supremacy isn’t always rocket science.
Small spartan warships, needed to boost ship numbers, which provide much needed work for shipyards, while producing savings in manpower and fuel costs, are much maligned today as “less capable” and “too vulnerable” in modern war. This fallacy has allowed Western navies to shrink to historic proportions, but the use of these ships in war prove their utility.
- In 2006, a 1500 ton Israeli corvette is struck by a Hezbollah cruise missiles unawares and limps to port under its own power.
- In a few years, Sri Lanka defeats the world’s most feared terror group, the Tamil Tigers, with great help from a few hundred small speed boats to intercept armed ships. They also use converted patrol vessels as cruisers to hunt down and destroy enemy motherships on the high seas.
- The South Koreans can lose a 1000 ton corvette in a dispute with North Korea without starting a new world war (recalling the Panay and Reuben James incidents from the last one).
Iran’s Bladerunner Bluff
Craig Hooper of Next Navy is none too impressed with Iran’s covert acquisition of the Bradstone Challenger, a Bladerunner 51 type speed boat:
As I have said before, the Iranians could easily (and quietly) buy Bladerunner 51 vessels in Dubai and ride them across the Gulf, no problem–but getting such a “high-profile” vessel in a “high-profile” fashion has got to be a boost to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard mystique–and if there is one thing the Revolutionary Guard looooves more than anything, it’s good press.
For the Revolutionary Guard, the value of the Bradstone Challenger seems to have depended upon the vessel’s ability to boost the global perception of the platform as a potential threat. I feel like this is something of a bluff–The moment the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is not seen as the toughest bunch around, that group is going to encounter problems–both at home and in the Gulf.
But just as Tehran may be overselling the vessel’s capabilities, there is the chance the West may underestimate the abilities of small-boat navies:
Iran isn’t really a big threat, in itself. … the real small-boat threat comes from the increasing potential for miscalculation. As small boat performance improves, as they become operationally viable in weather and conditions that challenge even the best, most seasoned maritime surveillance assets, the margin for error gets very, very small…
Miscalculation is the real threat small, fast boats pose to the West–a threat that goes far beyond Iran.
So as the navies of NATO shrink with cuts typically falling on cheap, easy to operate escort craft which can more easily manage the small-boat swarm, the few Big Ships of the West might be under threat, or just not available when problems arise.
LCS-“The Fatal Error”
Mike Colombaro of Combat Fleet of the World has been bringing us an excellent survey of the future of the US Navy, this time focusing on small surface combatants and littoral ships. His comments on the LCS are worth noting:
Early 1990’s/2001: A initial great idea or the return to the naval littoral warfare !
In the aftermath of the cold war, with some new kind of conflicts around the world, the concept of littoral warfare resurfaced (especially the “Street-fighter” concept, a 500/800 tons fast, stealthy craft intended to dominate enemy littoral’s) rise up.
2001/mid 2003: Very trendy, many design study and some hope for a smaller 300/800 tons design…
By mid 2001, some US warships study look for a 500 tons design. The LCS is intended to be a cheap (220 $ million max), fast (40+ knots) and +/- light (up tp +/- 2000/3000 tons), highly automated (40/75 sailors) surface combatant that is to be equipped with modular “plug-and-fight” mission packages. The LCS’s primary intended missions are antisubmarine warfare (ASW), mine countermeasures (MCM), and surface warfare (SUW), particularly in littoral waters. Others missions include peacetime engagement/partnership-building operations, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) operations, maritime intercept operations, operations to support special operations forces, and homeland defense operations.
Here comes what Mike describes as “The beginning of the joke”:
Unfortunately, with the building of the first 2 demonstrator’s ships, some weakness (some even severe), begin to appear:
– Cost of the first 2 demonstrators ships rise even DRAMATICALLY: LCS 1”Freedom”, from 220 to 637 $ million (+ 289%); LCS 2 “Independence”: from 220 to 704 $ million (+320%). This tremendous cost forces the US Navy to delayed/postponed the 2 others “demonstrators ships from 2007 to 2009. With this, one of the main advantages of the LCS, the affordability, disappeared….
– Delays, cost-overruns and even much worse (NLOS-LS) for some “combat modules”.
– The monohull design was clearly over-powered : 113 000hp for the LCS 1 “Freedom; but only 60 000hp for the LCS 2 “independence” (this difference were due to the better efficiency of the Trimaran hull design). Although with a sufficient range for littoral warfare, unfortunately a very too shorter endurance for effective long oversea deployment (1150 miles at 15 knots, 3350 miles at 18 knots for the LCS 1; and 1940 miles at 46 knots and 4300 miles at 20 knots for the LCS 2……..to compare with 4200 miles at 20 knots or 5000 miles at 18 knots for a O.H.Perry FFG).
– Some serious concerns about survivability in littoral environment (again supersonic or even future hypersonic cruise missile, very fast rocket propelled torpedoes, advanced mobile mine, improvised naval mine, suicide frogmen with limpet mine/charge, suicide midget submarines, suicide small fast crafts, improvised rocket). Don’t forget that the first 2 ships failed during shock hardening tests (ability to keep operating following an nearly underwater explosion) and even more worse, LCS-1 could be easily swamped when fully loaded.
– With too fewer crew, serious doubt rise about the capabilities…to conduct efficient battle damage repairs…
Mike’s conclusion is what you’d expect:
Although usually a mass warships building reduce the unit cost, growing warships cost and inflation will most likely keep the cost per furthers LCS above 600+ $ million, without combat modules…
In fact, it is clear that despite the official 55 goal vessel requirement of the U.S. Navy, this reach, AT THE EXTREME BEST CASE (if any future budgets cuts/delays/cost overruns occurred during…….2012-2032……………), only around +/- 53 ships. Because with the current plan, the 55th LCS will be ordered by FY 2031 and commissioned by +/- 2034 (at the same time as the 1st LCS will be retired).
Clearly the Navy is in dire straits when it’s only low cost ship is unaffordable, with the craft being essentially useless except in benign operating environments.
In stark contrast is the following press release from Lockmart which glosses over the first LCS’ major deficiencies. Here’s just the headline:
So why can’t they get it back to the original estimate price of $220 million and restore the fleet? Still, though it would be too underarmed, undermanned, and unprotected.
Explaining small warships
The return to small warships seem to be the answer to most of the Navy’s warship woes. Such cheap and even off the shelf craft would be the antidote to too few warships compounding presence deficits, trying to create lean manning through automation which has proved a failure, high cost of fuel, and well as the continued complications of large multi-mission ships intended to “be all and do all” like the LCS. Also because they are needed in large numbers, this would give continuous work to our impoverished shipyards, instead of 5-9 vessels a year constructed there would be dozens and scores of new craft.
Here is more on the subject of small warships which I wrote in January, within a post titled “Small Answers for Big Problems“:
- The fleet being smaller than ever, it is also busier than ever. The consistent solutions have been “lets build fewer platforms, but make them bigger and more complicated to get more work out of them”. We then have one warship replacing four, one fighter replacing dozens, and so on. So I have to question whether the Navy’s large ships which they assure us are so capable, are really up to the task set of a new era of warfare?
- With small warships, you already have reduced manning. Today we deploy an all-battleship-navy, on a small navy budget! Aircraft carriers also regularly go to sea with fewer airplanes than they can carry, yet we insist on building them bigger…
- It isn’t just smaller warships and cheaper weapons we want to see. It is a return to basics, a return of simple warfighting and shipbuilding skills, and most of all a bigger fleet of reasonably priced warships. It’s all about the tyranny of numbers and no matter how good your technology, it can’t be in more than one place at a time, or in other words, you can’t do presence if you aren’t present!
The Stiletto Advantage
If you want another high-priced, Blue Water warship, to add to the Navy’s overwhelming advantage, though shrinking number of such vessels, perhaps the littoral combat ship is right. On the other hand, for craft intended to go into harm’s way in shallow seas, where lurk naval mines, suicide boats, and midget subs, then the M Ship Stiletto stealth boat has some advantages. Brad Graves at the San Diego Business Journal points to the need for small craft in the Navy’s force structure today:
The federal government is talking about cutting its budgets, and the littoral combat ship project has substantially exceeded its original budget. There are two versions of the ship, one each built by General Dynamics Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp. The Navy plans to choose its preferred model this summer.
The two littoral combat ship designs are fast and relatively small, but they are really oceangoing vessels, professor and author Milan Vego noted in a 2008 article. The two designs displace roughly 3,000 tons apiece, and need 20-foot-deep water to operate. One is made of steel, the other aluminum.
Swarms of small enemy craft, opponents in suicide boats and shallow waters such as the straits of the Middle East call for something different, Vego says. Vego lays out the case for launching a fleet of craft much smaller than the littoral combat ship in an essay titled “Think Small” in the July 2008 issue of Armed Forces Journal.
The Stiletto displaces 45 tons, operates in 3 feet of water, and is made of carbon fiber. It costs $6 million.