31 December 2010

Navy Refuses To Choose, Buys Both LCS

The two winning LCS designs

Why Choose When You Can Have Both?

Rather than choosing a winner in a high stakes contest between two competing Littoral Combat Ship designs for its next twenty ship purchases in the newly created ship class, the U.S. Navy has decided to buy ten of each. One winning design is a radical (for the Navy) trimaran design (the LCS-2 Independence class of the Austral consortium lead by defense contractor General Dynamics), while the other is a more conventional naval ship design (the LCS-1 Freedom class of the Lockheed team).

The first of the ten new ships in each class will cost $430 million each. The next nine ships over five years will cost $789 million each. No that makes no "economies of scale" sense, but this is the military, so one can't expect such things. The original budget was $220 million per ship and the ships are both behind schedule. This is not cheap or timely, but no other ship class that the U.S. Navy is purchasing has a per unit cost of less than $1 billion per ship, and the least expensive buys involve 1980s destroyer designs with new electronics and selected weapons systems upgrades that fill mission niches that have been essentially unchanged since the late 1930s.

The split buy is supposed to save $2.9 billion dollars over buying twenty of the same class, on the theory that ongoing competition between suppliers with the potential to cease to purchase ships from a supplier who charges too much will limit cost overruns. With relatively few new ship designs on the drawing board, a failure to win this competition would have threatened the continued existence of either contracting team as a ship builder.

There are pros and cons to each design. The Independence team, for example, has touted greater fuel efficiency. But, ultimately, the Navy wasn't interested in analyzing these issues.

A New Class Of Ships

The ships are similar in size to frigates (the Freedom is 3,000 tons, the Independence is a couple hundred tons smaller), a ship class that has been phased out of the U.S. fleet. They are capable of achieving speeds a little short of twice as fast as that of than any existing ship class in the U.S. Navy for short sprints, with shallow drafts allowing them to serve in shallower waters. They have smaller crews than comparably sized frigates (about 75 including 35 crew for a module v. 200+ for past frigates) due mostly to increased automation, and they are supposed to be relatively inexpensive per ships so that they can be purchased in larger numbers and be "expendible" to some extent in strategic calculations.

The U.S. Navy is much more oriented towards "Blue Sea" missions than any other navy in the world. In less charitable terms, the U.S. Navy is basically deesigned to fight World War II with a few Cold War inspired tweaks. But, this hasn't been were much of the sea warfare action has been in the past half-century. While almost all other warships in the U.S. Navy in recent times (cruisers, destroyers, frigates and a good share of attack submarines) have primarily served as escorts for aircraft carriers or Marine helicopter carriers, these ships are intended to be used more autonomously.

They are designed so that they can be configured to fill multiple missions including anti-submarine warfare, anti-mine warfare, interdiction of shipping, anti-piracy, anti-small missle boat missions, serving as a mothership for a variety of drone classes (air, ship and submarine), humanitarian relief missions, and support of small units of ground troops with helicopters and artillery. Each has a helipad, some basic armaments and room for mission modules and their crews. All of the mission modules, however, seem to be having technical difficulties of one kind or another, at the moment that prevent them from being operational. Until the modules are perfected, the ships are simply glorified fast transport ships.

In order to fill new missions, the new Littoral Combat Ship class gives up the large complement of vertical launch cruise missiles, torpedoes, AEGIS comprehensive threat identification sensor and targeting system, the heavier duty hulls of other U.S. Navy ships, and more robust anti-missile and anti-aircraft capabilities associated with Phalanx anti-missile guns, 3" to 5" naval guns (in favor of a 2" main gun plus heavy machine guns, grenade launchers, helicopters and a small anti-air missile system) found on other Naval ships. Lockheed Martin is marketing an AEGIS equipped version for national missile defense missions to Gulf States, however.

In other words, the LCS is something of a navalized version of a large Coast Guard cutter.

It is likely that the first ships of the class will be outfitted for anti-mine warfare, because delays LCS procurement has left the Navy with a critical shortage of ships capable of carrying out that dangerous but essential role, and for boarding party missions that don't require much in the way of specialized mission modules.


The LCS has a variety of criticisms directed at it. Like all major procurement programs, it is drastically overbudget, behind schedule and suffering serious technical difficulties despite not being a particularly technologically ambitious project.

More fundamentally, the LCS is a ship designed by committee and the committee can't even decide which version it really wants. As a jack of all trades, it may be a master of none. And, while modularity may be of use in providing flexibile alternatives to buying new ships over the course of the next decade or two, few observers believe that real time module changes will make military sense, so the flexibility may provide little short term benefit.

The LCS is a compromise between those who wanted a larger, more capable craft, and those who wanted a smaller, faster, more agile craft, in the 300 to 600 ton range, with a more focused mission and smaller crew that would be suitable even for racing up foreign rivers.

Those who wanted a more capable craft have aired concerns about its lack of defensive capabilities. Smaller crews means fewer resources available for damage control in a fight. Thinner hulls make the risk of serious damage from relatively minor hits greater. Even with its faster speed, its large size puts it at a disadvantage against militarized speed boats in speed and manuverability. None of its standard weapons are of much use at all against a submarine or full sized warship, or at ranges beyond line of sight, making it vulnerable to opponents with longer range weapontry.

Those who wanted a smaller ship also fear that the LCS will still be too expensive per ship and not sufficiently expendible to be a cost effective means of "fly swatting" individually small, but collectively troublesome threats. It is still very expensive spend $750,000,000 per ship to deal with $750,000 armed speed boats or $7,500,000 missile boats. A design concept for the LCS that insisted on each ship being able to support its own crew for several weeks onboard also prevented it from having the packing in all the capabilities that one could fit an all business military boat, which did not have to all the comforts of spartan cruise ship. Opposition forces deploying from coastal home bases in littoral waters don't face the same constraints.

It isn't obvious that the LCS compromise struck is well suited to taking on swarms of small craft, even with modules, despite the fact that this is one of the key missions used to justify the new class of ships after this vulnerability was discovered in military exercises. It's heavy machine guns and grenade launchers may be too light to reliably defeat at a reasonable range the kind of light attack boats common in many world navies. It has no surface to surface missiles as standard equipment, and its 2" gun may be inadequate to take on a large number of miltiarized small craft over a wide area at once at a safe range. The LCS seems better suited to interdicting smuggling and piracy than it does to providing a screen defense against small craft as part of a larger fleet.

Is It A Good Idea?

My own view is that the LCS is a welcome addition to the U.S. Navy. It fills a variety of holes in military capabilities in the existing fleet and is the first in a new generation of more highly automated ships. It has also been handled in a way that promotes creative military thinking rather than squashing it.

Time will tell if the U.S. Navy really needs more than twenty of them in the current designs, or if there are other more urgent niches to be filled by more purpose built small warships that the LCS doesn't fill well. But, the fact that the LCS won't be ideal for all of the missions that have been considered for it, doesn't mean that there aren't twenty ships worth of missions, like shallow water anti-submarine warfare, anti-piracy, interdiction of shipping, and anti-mine warfare that it is needed to fill more efficiently than current resources.

Its speed is something of a frill. An armed helicopter is five to ten times as faster as any surface craft, and fighter aircraft and cruise missiles are faster still.

The truth, that the Navy is reluctant to admit, given that it has a force more heavily concentrated in large surface combatant than any other navy in the world, is that large surface combatants are exceedingly vulnerable to any sophisticated opponent, and constitute an unacceptable loss when they suffer even a single disabling defeat (whether or not the ship actually sinks).

Exercise after excercise, and the small number of real life naval military encounters we have seen in the last half century has revealed that surface combatants are almost always outmatched by submarines and sophisticated heavily armed aircraft in naval warfare between warships. Sophisticated and powerful anti-ship missiles in the hands of the Russians, the Chinese and probably soon enough, other countries that acquire the technology, are very likely to be successful against U.S. ships at least some of time, even if they can usually be defeated by defensive weapons. In modern warfare, defending a large, slow target that can duck or jump, that can't hide effectively from radar and satellites, and that is counting on knocking out bullets with bullets to survive unscathed is not a winning proposition against any sophisticated opponent willing to devote enough resources to destroy a particular ship.

Realistically, the only strategy that the U.S. Navy can hope to prevail with in naval warfare against a sophisticated is to strike naval opponents with aircraft from distant launch points, long range missiles and submarines before friendly forces are close enough to be fired upon by their opponents. If seamen can see the enemy with their eyes, the battle has probably already been lost.

But, the Navy generally, and the Littoral Combat Ship in particular, is useful, because the vast majority of the countries of the world do not have sophisticated naval forces, or theoretically viable anti-ship forces. Only half a dozen or so nations (Russian, the People's Republic of China, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, and South Africa) are both plausible military opponents and sophisticated enough to be a real naval threat.

Most of the potentially countries of the world have navies that consist of no more than a few frigates and a number of militarized boats with modestly powerful line of sight missile capabilities, and most of the potentially hostile countries of the world do not have even a single attack submarine. In these cases, naval power can cut off a country's access to the rest of the world, can provide an unassailable base of operations for U.S. forces on land, and can serve as a potent symbol of U.S. willingness to engage a diplomatic situation with military force if necessary. The LCS is well suited to providing back up to forces of Marines deployed to Third World hot spots. It is a ship that makes more sense to deploy in the Red Sea to control Somoli pirates or near the Ivory Coast during a disputed succession fight, than it does to make a part of the defense of Taiwan against an attack from the People's Republican of China, or even to defend shipping and U.S. ships against a concerted small boat swarm attack in the Persian Gulf directed by Iran.

The Littoral Combat Ship is also particularly useful against disorganized, non-governmental operations of isolated terrorists, pirates and smugglers at sea, and allows the U.S. to cover much more territory than a strategy based on large naval ships operating together in carrier groups ever could.

We may need a new design for a ship to defend shipping and U.S. fleets against swarms of small missile boats. But, if the LCS can plug most of the other holes in the U.S. fleet's capabilities (another which it won't plug is missile defense), then it has served a useful purpose.

The LCS is also consistent with a combined military and diplomatic strategy that attempts to reduce the cost of U.S. efforts to develop a large conventional naval to deal with a small number of sophisticated potential opponents, most of whom must be handled with special care in any case because they also have nuclear weapons, through conventional naval arms treaties, rather than increased U.S. Navy fleet capabilities. But, any such treaty would probably not restrict ships in the class of the LCS.

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