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Littoral Combat Ship Will Be Modified, If Not Replaced 


By Dan Parsons 

USS Independence

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
Reader Comments

Re: Littoral Combat Ship Will Be Modified, If Not Replaced

The Navy needs to stop wasting time and money on the LCS and give the Ghost a try along with the Sea Fighter.

Sky Hawk on 05/26/2015 at 03:35

Re: Littoral Combat Ship Will Be Modified, If Not Replaced

With the comments I'm reading about the Thin Hulls and that of being under Armed, Why not just go back to a Proven Hull, like a Frigate, but then just modify, all the Electronics, Radars, Countermeasures, and weapon systems, etc ?? As it is, sure the Russians and Chinese are spending huge amounts on ships, but that still doesn't equate into Superior Ships than the ones we already have !!! Just saying !!

Karl Elze on 04/28/2015 at 12:10

Re: Littoral Combat Ship Will Be Modified, If Not Replaced

Our Navy should start over with their Corvette and Frigate designs. Key in my opinion is more survivability via fire control redundancy, versatility in weapons near and far range, offensive and defensive capability and more of them on all corners of the ship, and more armor. One cannon, are you kidding? You have to assume the Chinese and Russians are going to overwhelm weapons systems with volume of fire. And you need adequate surface weapons. And yes, shore fire support has its place. I remember when they said you don't need guns on fighters anymore - too much high tech can go wrong especially when you are counting on one power source which can be hit - redundancy and survivability with lethality or no ship at all.
the Navy should not have to rely on industry for all the ideas - they should have some ideas of their own or fire the brass and start over.

Bruce Wing on 10/01/2014 at 03:43

Re: Littoral Combat Ship Will Be Modified, If Not Replaced

This thing, and some of the other super ghost, all the ghost spin offs, well looks like some new new form of Greek fire. Does the #electrify-stream and #electrify-fog work and have both remote control and kill switch.

Come on, I have prioritaire on these vessels. We're going to wrek havoc on China and Russia's combatants with these and every variant I've seen.

These are excellent.

Which one is most likely and most quickly to make an uprun on lava falls at peak max dam output.

#electrify-misty button

RCOVERT on 09/09/2014 at 06:45

Re: Littoral Combat Ship Will Be Modified, If Not Replaced

Even more disturbing is the continued use of "LCS." There are *two* very different ships, a good one and a bad one. Sadly the political weight of Lockmart ensures we will build many bad ones. Also, the complaints of thin LCS armor are silly. We don't armor our ships any more, save some extra thickness on carrier decks. A .50 cal round can breach the hull of any ship in the Navy. The critical LCS capability is aircraft capacity, and is the main reason the Independence Class is worlds superior to the Freedom Class. You could operate MH53Ks and VTOL drones or F35Bs from the former even in high sea states. And the 57mm vs. 76mm gun argument is equally ludicrous. What are you people smoking? Shore bombardment is useless in most scenarios; PGM use is the solution.

Sam Lord on 08/07/2014 at 04:50

Re: Littoral Combat Ship Will Be Modified, If Not Replaced

The Littoral is a classic example of a post retirement jobs weapons systems for officers who are responsible for keeping lame ducks like this in the funding pipeline. The Air Force has the lame F35.

The Navy was smarter 120 years ago with the Monitor class -- see the USS Wyoming. They even had designs for the Monitors to take on ballast water to lower their target profile.

The Monitor class would be ideal for the new electro magnet cannon. And a fleet of them could be built for the cost of one Littoral.

President Eisenhower warned us about the military/industrial complex. The Littoral and the F35 are perfect examples he warned us about.

William Phillips on 07/22/2014 at 21:46

Re: Littoral Combat Ship Will Be Modified, If Not Replaced

They'll be modified all right.

hp on 07/20/2014 at 18:16

Re: Littoral Combat Ship Will Be Modified, If Not Replaced

@Peter Increased standard systems (ie: VLS, 76mm gun, etc etc) would add extra weight but as I under stand it both ships still actually have room for more weight to be incorporated.

That said why did both designs go for differing engines? Independence class the LM2500 and the Freedom class the MT30. I understand that the MT30 has more power but the LM2500 is more common within the navy, Wouldn't it make more sense for both classes to share the same engine? Would give a bit of a speed boost to the Independence class off setting extra weight.

On topic of the Ghost it looks like a good little boat but does it have the range? Have heard complaints from some in the navy that both the LCS varients are too short ranged and a smaller boat is unlikely to change that unless launched from a larger 'mother ship'.

Matthre on 07/17/2014 at 21:15

Re: Littoral Combat Ship Will Be Modified, If Not Replaced

That Ghost patrol boat is awfully reminiscent of the Lockheed Martin IX-529 Sea Shadow. I'm glad someone saw the value in the concept.

Robert on 07/17/2014 at 02:11

Re: Littoral Combat Ship Will Be Modified, If Not Replaced

The LCS program strikes me as a typical military major procurement - they didn't know what they wanted but they wanted to skip generations of technology and develop a mission for it along the way. Kind of like the Army did with JTRS. They probably also changed and added specs as they went driving the costs through the roof. Now they have an emasculated combat ship that couldn't survive a hit from an RPG.

The LCS should have a defined mission with a defined combat capability. The Ghost Ship could meet those needs but would need a more robust weapons payload. Maybe a pod containing AMRAAMs, and/or Harpoons. And some land attack weapon with a range of more than 7K and a larger warhead, The 20mm Vulcan is a nice touch though.

DBM on 07/16/2014 at 20:09

Re: Littoral Combat Ship Will Be Modified, If Not Replaced

Any status on the Mission Modules (MMs) such as anti-mine and ASW because the current LCSs still have those bays for MMs. I read it's the MMs that lag behind in schedule and performance testing and thus make the current LCSs even weaker. Actually, what does the USN want with each MM anyway? I don't think that has been clear yet.

Also, if the Navy were to add all these other capability modifications, wouldn't that slow down the speed of the LCS due to the added weight? That is one factor the Navy was hesitant to upgrade the LCS because it still wanted the speed, which is one hallmark of the LCS. Wouldn't adding these modifications just give a ship with 30+ KTS speed, akin to a regular naval ship?

Good coverage on the Ghost stealth patrol boat. I didn't know about that craft. Would the U.S. Coast Guard be interested even though the Ghost has no real search and rescue capability? The USCG really lacks potent ASW and ASuW with the lack of the Harpoons, torpedo tubes, and sonars from the National Security Cutters. How about SOCOM's Special Boat Units?

Good article, Dan, thanks.

Peter on 07/15/2014 at 21:35

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