After authorizing construction of at least 20 littoral combat ships, the Navy may soon dramatically change course on its decade-long, multi-billion dollar experiment to build a relatively inexpensive surface combatant.
The LCS program has suffered severe criticism for being under-gunned and thin-skinned, outstripping cost estimates and experiencing performance issues on initial deployments. It has also enjoyed a dogged defense by both uniformed and civilian Navy officials.
But in April the Navy released two requests for information for technologies to improve LCS designs or replace them outright. The first asked for existing, mature design concepts for totally new ships. The second solicited systems and technologies at the component level that could be readily included in future ships.
Joe North, who heads littoral combat systems for Lockheed Martin, said, “I bet you it woke up the entire planet. I bet you every shipyard across Europe, which is very stagnant right now … was ready to react ahead of that. The Navy probably got a lot delivered.”
Lockheed is one of two incumbent producers of the LCS. It has contracts to build up to 10 of its traditional monohull Freedom-class ships to be included in a fleet with Austal USA’s futuristic triple-hulled Independence-class vessels.
A report from the small surface combatant task force, that will review industry responses was due July 31. The document will outline alternatives to the service’s ongoing littoral combat ship program, including modifying the two existing LCS designs or buying a new ship.
Because of the tight schedule, John Burrow, executive director of Marine Corps Systems Command and appointed task force director, was unavailable for comment. However, Burrow outlined the RFI process during a recorded roundtable with reporters in April.
“Why are we going out to industry? We want to collect their ideas and thoughts that they certainly have because … it will give us a better idea, I think, of what is technically feasible in the timeframes we are talking about,” he said.
“It will give our team a good idea of what the risks are and help understand the cost associated with many of the systems and concepts that are going to be provided to us,” he added.
The request for information, which has since been made public, states the Navy is “interested in market information pertinent to a future small surface combatant (including modified littoral combat ships).”
The Navy called for input from “experienced shipbuilders, ship design agents and large system integrators on how their ship design supports the roles and missions of a small surface combatant.” Proposals were to include information on whole-ship design and cost drivers of mature, commercially available technologies and vessels.
“The Navy is interested in estimated cost and schedule information for designing, building, testing and delivering the first ship and a notional class of 20 small surface combatants,” the RFI stated.
Both documents include the caveat that the government has no intention of awarding contracts based on the information provided by industry. Burrow emphasized that the process did not amount to a defacto analysis of alternatives or a competition. Neither will the task force make a decision or recommendation on how the Navy should proceed, he said. Navy leadership, including Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert, will make that call.
“We’re developing capability concepts — mission and capability alternatives for a small surface combatant, combined with [concepts of operations] associated with those,” he added. “At no point in time have I or anybody on the team asserted that we were going to be able to come in and say, ‘Here’s what the ship is going to look like.’”
The task force plans to rate various proposals based on their ability to conduct the four primary missions for which LCS was originally intended: air warfare, surface warfare, undersea warfare and mine hunting. Attributes like speed, range and endurance also will be weighed, as well as the mission capabilities of each proposal, Burrow said.
A cadre of Navy officers assigned to the LCS program is leading the effort to determine mission profile concepts, Burrow said. A design team will use those concepts to recommend modifications to existing Independence- and Freedom-class ships, he said.
The Navy’s ultimate decision includes an “affordability target” that Burrow did not specify. The task force simply will tabulate the estimated cost of various technological and ship proposals and present them to Navy leadership. That information will inform deliberations on the Obama administration’s fiscal year 2016 budget, which will specify the financials for an ongoing small surface combatant program, Burrow said.
To correct deficiencies identified during deployments of both the Independence and Freedom to the Pacific, improvements are being made to the ships already sailing and their follow-on vessels. Lockheed Martin and Austal USA are each contracted for construction of up to 10 ships. The Navy had planned to purchase as many as 52 LCSs, but the fleet was trimmed in the fiscal year 2014 budget to just 32.
Both companies have submitted proposals to the task force in hopes of securing ongoing construction contracts to keep their shipyards humming and workforces intact.
Austal spokeswoman Michelle Bowden provided a statement from the company regarding the RFI.
“Austal has submitted a strong response to the Navy’s RFI on the small surface combatant,” the statement read. “Austal’s small surface combatant incorporates significant offensive and defensive capability to support higher-end missions with the existing sea frame.”
The company has offered improvements to LCS 2 that include anti-submarine towed-array sonar, torpedoes, vertically launched rockets and a “tremendous aviation capability to support the MH-60 helicopter,” Bowden said.
Other armament options for surface warfare include anti-ship missiles and a 76 mm remotely operated gun. Austal also proposed installing vertical launched surface-to-air missiles and greater radar detection range, she said.
“We are very excited to be involved in this process,” the Austal statement read. “It is a chance for the Navy and industry teams to work together to maximize the capabilities of the LCS class, but more importantly, permitting the Navy to benefit from the tremendous investment by industry and Navy team in the LCS class while leveraging mature designs and production processes.”
The ships’ relatively light armor and weak offensive and defensive capabilities have been major concerns among critics of the current LCS variants. In a report most recently updated in June, Ronald O’Rourke, a specialist in naval affairs at the Congressional Research Service, detailed the survivability deficiencies of both designs.
“While both seaframe variants are fast and highly maneuverable, they are lightly armed for ships of this size and possess no significant offensive capability without the planned [surface warfare] increment IV mission package,” O’Rourke wrote. That and other capability packages that were envisioned to be plugged into the LCS are not yet available.
“They have very modest self-defense capabilities,” he added.
North said Lockheed Martin has designs on hand for a scalable, modular ship that can accept upgraded mission capabilities including command-and-control systems, new guns and munitions and varying crew sizes to suit the Navy’s evolving needs.
The various hull lengths, ranging from 67 meters to 140 meters long were initially intended as a menu of options for international customers, North said during a media day at the company’s Arlington, Virginia, offices. The existing LCS 1 is 118 meters long.
“We did answer the mail on that … with options to upgrade the existing Freedom-class ship,” North said. “We have a lot of flexibility in the hull. We’re carrying around 100 metric tons of capability — empty space right now — for the mission packages.”
Lockheed stands by its steel hull as survivable in high-threat environments. Critics have asserted that modern anti-ship missiles would force it out to sea beyond the littorals where it is designed to operate.
“We’ve looked at the vulnerability aspect. Between the sensors we’ve got [and] the capabilities we’ve already got put into the ship, we’re very confident that all requirements today are met, but if there are additional things [Navy leaders] want to consider, we certainly have the flexibility with that hull,” North said.
The company also pitched some new technologies in its RFI response. The proposal included options for new sensors and additional firepower like the installation of launchers for AGM-114L radar-guided Longbow missiles, he said.
“The RFI is just [asking] what else can we do?” North said. “We looked at it and said … we can put more enhanced radar capability on it. We can put different guns — we’ve always been gun-agnostic.”
Adding a vertical launch system would give the ship the ability to fire several types of munitions including the evolved Sea Sparrow air defense missile, he said. The existing LCS 1 could accept between three and 30 vertical missile launchers.
The two existing LCS designs will be used as baseline for capability, performance and cost, Burrow said. The task force will then decide if the Navy’s desired capability improvements “can be incorporated into a modified LCS, or does it drive you to a new ship design?” he said.
“The good news about LCS is we have a pretty good idea of what it costs to build an LCS, and we’ve got a good idea of what it is going to cost to modify,” he said. The per-ship cost has hovered around $300 million since fiscal year 2006.
Companies that responded to the RFI insist they can accomplish the LCS missions for far less. Juliet Marine Systems CEO Greg Sancoff said the company’s Ghost stealth patrol boat could outperform both existing ships for just $10 million a copy.
“We have been called, by some smaller countries, a poor-man’s LCS,” Sancoff said. “It is really designed to be a fighting vessel, like a jet aircraft on the water. It is all fuel, all engines, all payload.”
The Ghost’s gyro-stabilized dual-pontoon, supercavitating hull design allows the vessel to run at top speed through 10-foot seas and fire precision weapons, Sancoff said. It can also perform mine warfare, anti-submarine warfare and other missions LCS was designed to handle. Each can be armed with up to 90 Nemesis missiles, a 20 mm Gatling gun, two towed arrays and four torpedoes. The current version is designed for fleet protection with a crew of between three and five sailors. Plans are in the works to build a corvette-sized Ghost of 150 feet or more that would cost around $50 million per vessel, Sancoff said.
“Ghost can be utilized almost immediately for conducting the same missions as LCS,” he said. The company is offering its craft to international customers including Bahrain, Qatar, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Japan that have near-shore national security interests. For those nations that have little need for a blue-water navy, the small, affordable craft can be bought in large numbers to perform maritime border patrol and defense, he said.
Sancoff said the U.S. Navy is slow to adopt smaller craft for inshore operations because senior leaders lust after large-hulled oceangoing vessels. That is driving the ongoing commitment to LCS, despite its initial shortcomings and high cost, he said.
“As you know, the Navy likes big ships,” Sancoff said. “Admirals want to stand on bridges of big ships. That’s why we have LCS. Our country has not readily adapted to new technologies in hydrodynamics.”
Burrow said the task force considered whole-ship designs that are in production and mature designs with a “high degree of fidelity.”
“These things are ideas and concepts that industry should already have,” he said. “We’re looking at everything.”Photo Credit: Navy, Juliet Marine Systems