The first two ships in a new class of U.S. Navy warships call the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), one each of two radically different designs, are finally deploying, one to the Persian Gulf and the other to the Pacific Theater, and hence crossing the road from R&D to military reality. One is a fairly striking trimaran design, while the other is a more conventional small warship design. The Navy was supposed to pick one design over the other after the early first in class ships, but chose instead to punt and order new ships of each design.
The ships are each about the size of the last few Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates in the existing U.S. Navy Fleet (about 3000 tons), but have about a third as many sailors for operation of the ship and a reconfigurable mission module combined, have a much higher peak speed and a much more shallow draft. They lack standard weapons systems of most existing U.S. warships like large cruise missiles, three inch naval guns, torpedoes and Aegis sensor suites. The ships have helipads, smaller mostly defensive missiles, and a cannon shooting grenade sized rounds. They are less heavily armored than traditional U.S. warships. The standard issue armament and weapons suite for the LCS class ships is closer to a large Coast Guard cutter than to existing surface combatants in the U.S. Navy.
The Module Concept
The new class of ships, intended to operate in shallow coastal waters (littoral means "coastal"), is intended to have a range of mission modules such as anti-mine warfare, anti-submarine warfare, anti-piracy/interdiction of small craft, coastal water fire support for ground troops on beaches, serving as a mother ship for drones, and so on, that can be changed out, realistically in a matter of something on the order of a day to a week (early proponents of the modular idea had suggested unrealistically that modules could be swapped out in a few hours). Still, the real point of the module is to allow the navy to change its priorities at a reasonable cost on strategic six month to several year deployment cycles, not to repurpose the ships in tactically relevant time frames.
Thus, if we have forty LCS in the fleet, of which eight are mine sweepers, and thirty-two have other purposes, and the Navy decides that it needs twice as many mine sweepers, it can swap out eight LCS modules over a year or three at a fairly modest manufacturing and design costs (perhaps $30 million to $50 million each, rather than $300 million to $500 million each), rather than having to design and build eight new purpose built mine sweeping ship designs from scratch, a process that could take a decade or two.
A Different Niche
Every other surface warship in the U.S. fleet (except the Zumwalt class megadestroyer and a few residual purpose built minesweepers) has as its principle mission serving as an escort to an aircraft carrier as part of an aircraft carrier group. Cruisers, destroyers, frigates, as well as a good share of our nuclear attack submarine fleet, all collectively act as linebackers protecting the aircraft carrier quarter back and its carrier aircraft who act a bit like wide receivers.
The LCS, in contrast, is expected to carry out missions that aircraft carrier groups don't, but that many world navies do have ships tailored to address. It, hovers between the kinds of littoral patrol ships and cutters used by the U.S. Coast Guard (which would be part of the navy proper in most countries), and the larger foreign war oriented warships of the U.S. Navy.
Continuing the sports analogy, the LCS is playing basketball while the rest of the U.S. fleet is playing football. They aren't even really engaged in the same enterprise.
The Question of Cost
A key attraction was supposed to be their affordability and minimal production delay, on the theory that the ships are not very technologically ambitious relative to the current standard. The ideas was that in a war of attrition, one needs to fight asymmetric challenges from Third World countries affordably.
So far, the ships are over budget and behind schedule, but less grossly so than many major new defense procurement projects. A new LCS is still cheaper than the new conventional, 1980s design (with upgrades) destroyers that the U.S. Navy is currently buying and offers capabilities not found in the current fleet. But, it is undeniably a smaller ship with less potent destructive capabilities. It isn't at all obvious that an Arleigh Burke class destroyer and an LCS can be compared on an apples to apples basis by anyone other than a blowhard politician intent on maximizing the number of ships in the U.S. Navy in order to make him sound tough in speeches (a la Ronald Reagan).
Critics of the program come from multiple directions. Some are concerned about technical kinks in the implementation of new prototype designs, rather than the strategic concept of the program itself, but most are bigger picture criticisms directed at the direction of the modern navy.
Some critics argue that the LCS is still too big to be effective in anti-piracy and riverine warfare missions, for example, against developing world tricked out speed boats and missile boats. A few decades ago, the Navy had ships as small as the Cyclone Class Naval Patrol Ships (launched from 1992 to 1994) at 331 tons each with crews of twenty-eight sailors each, that filled a conceptually similar niche to the LCS and had similar armanent. Ten remain in active service (five in the Persian Gulf and five at a U.S. naval base that rotate with each other) and three more are currently on loan to the Coast Guard. The LCS is nine times as large and much more expensive, but doesn't obviously offer all that much additional naval capability in that niche.
Too Little Tooth To Tail?
Other critics argued for a mother ship-combat boat design that wouldn't require every ship to be burdened by carrying around a house for its crews to live in for months at a time into hostilities where the extra weight and size is a liability.
Some critics argue that all surface combatants are still slow moving, large, non-stealthy targets relative to submarines (particularly smaller, less expensive diesel-electric and air independent diesel-electric ones from models already in production for our allies) and aircraft (manned and drones) that could do most of the same jobs better, with the LCS being particularly vunerable due to its thinner suite of weapons and lighter hulls.
Even though the LCS is much faster than existing surface combatants, a minivan on a coastal highway would easily outrun an LCS moving as the crow flies in the coastal waters parallel to that highway, and it still isn't the fastest watercraft in coastal waters. All the real speed in the LCS concept comes from carrier helicopters and air based drones, for which the LCS can provide an important range expending role without leaving a big footprint from a major U.S. presence in a region. An LCS, like all other surface combatants, in addition to being relatively slow, is vastly larger than a tank or a fighter jet or an attack helicopter, for example.
Some critics argue that the LCS is too much of a light weight, without the heavy weapons and heavier armor needed to address near peer threats like Russian and Chinese naval fleets in World War II style surface ship to surface ship combat in the "Battleship" paradigm. (Battleships themselves were phased out of the navy decades ago, although the very small run of Zumwalt class destroyers basically constitute a tiny number of de facto battleships in the modern U.S. Navy).
Never mind that it has been half a century since surface combants from countries who were adversaries in a war engaged in surface ship to surface ship combat with each other in earnest. You can fit every naval battle of any kind, anywhere in the world, between any two nations that was serious enough to produce casualties while anyone currently in active duty service in the navy was serving on the back of a business card. The naval combat experience of active duty American navy sailors is pretty much limited to training exercises and sophisticated war gaming.
The American navy has intervened in many conflicts as recently as the insurgency in Libya and anti-piracy missions within the last year, in capacities other than navy to navy warfare involving sovereign states, but the real demand for surface combants in practice is very different from what they were designed in the first place to accomplish. This absence of the kind of battles that the ships that comprise the bulk of the U.S. Navy were designed for is one of the main reasons to applaud the LCS program.
The lack of hard empirical evidence on what works and what doesn't in modern warfare seriously engaged by a reasonably developed country is one of the reasons that so much of a difference of opinion is possible. All sides of the navy procurement debate are operating on largely untested theories that are driving tens of billions of dollars a year in naval procurement.