The high-stakes competition to win the Navy’s littoral combat ship contract
could be summed up in two words: “tough requirements.”
Each of the proposed hull designs vying for an LCS contract award scheduled
for this fall has its own unique selling points, and they all claim to meet
the Navy’s need for a low-cost, fast, high-endurance, small surface combatant.
But comments from several shipbuilding experts and engineers suggest that the
Navy’s expectations—a ship with high speed and long range at a relative
low price—may be unrealistic. In the world of shipbuilding, said one engineer,
the conventional wisdom is that, “if you want speed, range and low cost,
you can pick two, but it’s very hard to get all three.”
Conceptually, the Navy plans to deploy LCS as part of a carrier battle group.
Capable of speeds of up to 40-50 knots, LCS would be the “first responder”
vessel during a crisis, sprinting thousands of miles towards the coast, so it
can detect and neutralize mines, hunt submarines and interdict potential terrorist
Some Navy officials describe the LCS as an “anti anti-access” ship,
that would help remove the obstacles that typically hamper naval operations
in littoral areas, such as sea mines and enemy diesel submarines. The plan is
to buy up to 60 ships during the next two decades.
The Navy asked contractors that their LCS designs not exceed $220 million per
ship. A more desirable price tag would be $150 million, said Navy officials.
A realistic price range, however, should be between $300 million and $350 million,
according to AMI International, a naval analysis and consulting firm.
Guy Ames Stitt, president of AMI, said he is enthusiastic about the innovative
designs being proposed for LCS and is hopeful that the program can help revive
the U.S. shipbuilding industry. But he is skeptical about any company’s
ability to deliver every feature the Navy wants in LCS at the $220 million price.
“LCS is a tough program,” he said.
Stitt also is concerned about the Navy’s acquisition strategy for LCS.
Rather than buy the hull and the combat systems at the same time, the Navy has
chosen to select the hull first and then develop the “mission modules,”
under a separate competition. That approach is risky, said Stitt, because its
success is based on the notion that the winning design will be flexible enough
to accommodate the mission modules later on.
“The teams claim they can plug and play anything,” said Stitt.
It is not clear how the Navy can be sure that the mission modules will work,
if the mission modules have not yet been designed. “That is [a similar
situation] as when Microsoft released Windows 98,” he said. “After
the third fix, then it began to work.”
Given the LCS fast-track schedule—the Navy wants a ship in the water
by 2007—there may not be enough time to go back to the drawing board if
any problems arise during the operational testing phase. “I worry about
that,” Stitt said. “Rear Adm. Loren really needs to pay attention
to that.” Rear Adm. Donald P. Loren is the director of the Navy’s
surface ship branch, and oversees the LCS program requirements.
“There is a lot of focus on the hull and not enough on the systems and
the mission modules,” said Stitt. “I’m really concerned that
the [contractor] teams are pushing their own unique systems. Loren is going
to have a much harder time evaluating the system solutions than the hull.”
The Navy is “taking a risky approach by segregating the system from the
hull,” he added.
Different modules, for example, would be inserted in the ship, depending on
the missions—mine or submarine hunting, maritime interdiction or ferrying
special operations troops.
The Navy should pay more attention to the mission packages, Stitt said, because
they affect the way a crew operates at sea.
“Sailors have to be able to man these ships,” he said. “Sea
keeping and stability are crucial.
“If you add and remove systems and equipment, that changes the way the
ship reacts in different sea states,” he noted. In bad weather, for example,
a good portion of the crew may get seasick. “You just can’t easily
change modules out. The idea sounds really great. But the implementation requires
a lot more work.” Module changes have been done on ships before, but on
large vessels, where seasickness is not as big a factor as it would be on an
While the Navy’s program executive office for ships is responsible for
the construction of the hull, a different organization—the PEO for integrated
warfare systems—will manage the mission module development and production.
“The trouble is that those modules are greatly going to impact the size
and shape of the ship,” Stitt said. Based on his experience in shipbuilding,
he said, it does not make sense to select a ship if the mission systems development
is disconnected from the hull-form design.
Asked which of the competing LCS designs he liked the best, Stitt said the
best performer may be the concept proposed by the Lockheed Martin team. It is
a semi-planing aluminum mono-hull, based on the Destriero class. The Destriero
holds the trans-Atlantic speed record, averaging 53 knots.
Lockheed’s team includes the naval engineering firm of Gibbs & Cox
and two shipyards: Bollinger and Manitowoc Marine Group.
Stitt noted that the Destriero, although made in Italy, is based on a French
design by CMN, a Normandy shipyard. “It’s a fabulous design ...
a phenomenal ship,” he said.
In the quest for LCS, the Lockheed team is up against some formidable competition.
Only one other mono-hull has been proposed for LCS. It is a displacement mono-hull,
a derivative of the Swedish Visby-class 270-foot stealthy corvette. Leading
this proposal is Northrop Grumman Corp., with a team that includes the Swedish
design firm Kockums, United Defense LP, Band Lavis & Assoc. and Navatek.
Unlike the semi-planing mono-hull proposed by Lockheed, the Visby-class is
made of composite material, a drastic departure from the traditional materials
used in U.S. shipbuilding today.
“The Visby has great performance,” said Stitt. But a composite
hull raises “construction issues,” because U.S. shipyards have lacked
the infrastructure to work with advanced materials, he noted. Northrop Grumman,
however, is better positioned to take this on than any other U.S. ship builder,
he said. It currently operates a composite-ship yard in Gulfport, Miss., and
has conducted research on composites for years.
Also competing in the LCS program is a hybrid catamaran air-cushion ship designed
by Textron Marine & Land Systems, partnered with EDO Corporation.
Company officials said the HCAC combines features of both the catamaran and
the surface-effect ship. When operating as a catamaran (off the air cushion)
on diesel engines, the ship is more efficient at cruising speeds of 18-20 knots.
As an SES (on the air cushion), it can exceed 50 knots.
Both the catamaran and the SES hull-forms have been around for a long time,
even though the Navy never managed to incorporate them into the fleet. If LCS
comes to fruition, it would be the Navy’s first 50-knot ship, noted retired
Rear Adm. Joe Carnevale, a career ship architect. Carnevale, who is working
with the Textron team, said the HCAC gives the Navy a flexible design that can
be adapted to various missions and burns considerably less fuel than high-performance
Textron’s ship is made of an aluminum alloy currently used in the Coast
Guard’s motor lifeboats. These high-endurance boats perform daring rescue
operations in 20-foot breaking seas and are known for their ability to survive
a complete roll over.
Stitt noted that Textron’s advanced aluminum production lines give the
company an edge in manufacturing technology, but he views the surface-effect
ship as a “high-risk” design that the Navy may not be willing to
take. “My fear is the stability of the ship at certain speeds and weights,”
He expressed similar concerns about the trimaran concept proposed by General
Dynamics Bath Iron works, partnered with Boeing, Austal USA and BAE Systems.
The trimaran is a novel design based on the British RV Triton, a 295-foot steel
hull. Stitt’s assessment is that the trimaran is an innovative concept
but “needs more work.”
Also offering an SES ship is Raytheon, which leads a team that includes the
naval design firm of J.J. McMullen & Assoc., Atlantic Marine, Goodrich and
Umoe Mandal. The design is derived from the Norwegian Skjold, a 154-foot composite
Composite ships are desirable for many reasons, such as the fact that they
don’t require painting, said Chris B. McKesson, a ship architect at J.J.
McMullen. He said the SES hull-form “gives the best balance” needed
to meet the Navy’s ambitious requirement for a small ship that can carry
a substantial amount of payload, at high speeds and over long distances.
Surface-effect ships were introduced to the U.S. Navy more than three decades
ago, but the Navy never got around to buying them. The Coast Guard employed
SES ships in the 1970s to interdict drug runners.
Stitt said the Skjold design is impressive, despite some risk. “Scandinavian
countries have been notorious for taking on new hull-forms and proving them
Regardless of which ship is selected for the LCS, the program has huge industrial
implications for the U.S. shipbuilding sector, because it could help invigorate
a market that has been in decline for decades, Stitt said. The Navy, in his
opinion, should make an effort to make LCS “marketable” to foreign
“The U.S. Navy is going to have to be more like the Europeans,”
who aggressively promote their ships around the world. In recent months, said
Stitt, “I have been in South America and the Philippines: everyone is
excited about LCS.”
As the project moves forward, the Navy should help the winning shipbuilders
sell their designs, said Stitt. The contractors, not the Navy, should own the
designs, so they can more easily be sold to foreign navies. U.S. shipyards need
more export sales to keep their prices competitive, he added.