Questions Remain About Navy’s Modified Littoral Combat Ship

By Valerie Insinna
When former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel paused littoral combat ship contract negotiations in 2014 to look at alternatives to the vessel, some thought it portended the early end of a ship maligned for its perceived vulnerability and lack of combat prowess.

But later that year, the Navy doubled down on the vessel. Instead of cutting down the program of record, the service will procure the full 52-ship buy, and the last 20 ships will be outfitted with beefed up weapons, sensors and armor, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert announced in December.

The service has not yet cemented what specific upgrades will be incorporated onto the modified USS Freedom and Independence variants, but officials say the ships will provide a leap ahead in combat capability. The Navy will deliver its acquisition timeline to the office of the secretary of defense May 1.

“We came up with a more lethal, more survivable small surface combatant that gives the fleet exactly what” it wants, Rear Adm. Peter Fanta, the Navy’s director of surface warfare, said in January. Fanta was one of the co-chairs of the small surface combatant task force, the group charged by Hagel with studying alternatives to the littoral combat ship, including existing hulls, new designs or modified versions of the vessel.

The decision is a boon for manufacturers Lockheed Martin and Austal USA, which produce the Freedom and Independence class, respectively. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus has said that modifying the LCS will add about $75 million per ship, but the service will be able to keep expenses below the $220 million congressional cost cap.

However, the Navy’s decision to procure 20 up-gunned versions of the vessel may do little to quell the program’s critics in Congress and the Pentagon.

Those changes will not be enough to significantly enhance the lethality or survivability of the LCS, according to the 2014 report by the office of the director of operational test and evaluation. The office in October conducted an assessment of the alternate concepts developed by the small surface combatant task force.

“That assessment found that only major modifications to the existing LCS design, or a new ship design, could provide the multi-mission capabilities and survivability features found in a modern frigate,” the report stated. The minor improvements recommended by Navy leadership would reduce the ship’s susceptibility, but not yield a ship with the capabilities of a modern frigate, it said.

Some lawmakers in Congress also remain skeptical about whether the changes to the ship address the many issues legislators have had with its survivability, lethality, mission modules and manning concept. 

“I think the modifications that they recommend are good modifications. They still don’t address some of the concerns on the LCS,” Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., chairman of the House Armed Service seapower and projection forces subcommittee, said in February. For instance, a “marginal” improvement to survivability is “better than nothing,” but may not fix the problem.

 Most members of Congress’ defense committees have similar views, he added.

Mabus said the two LCS variants “don’t look like traditional Navy ships sometimes, and I think that’s one of the issues that … traditionalists have. But if you look at missions, you look at what a frigate is supposed to do, that’s what this ship does.”

In January he declared that the modified littoral combat ships would be designated “FF” for fast frigate. The reason, he said, was that the original name sounds like Pentagon jargon and did not adequately represent naval traditions. “It’s a frigate. We’re going to call it that.”

The fast frigate will be a multi-mission ship focused on surface and anti-submarine warfare, according to information issued by the Navy. Some of the new equipment under consideration include: an improved 3D air surveillance radar, improved electronic warfare and signature management systems, a multi-function towed array sonar system, 25 mm guns, torpedo defense systems and armor.

The ship will be outfitted with an over-the-horizon, surface-to-surface missile. The service has not yet determined which missile it will purchase, but it tested Kongsberg’s naval strike missile on LCS 4 in September.

The Navy will begin procuring the new frigates in 2019, after the 32nd LCS is procured in 2018, said Rear Adm. Brian Antonio, program executive officer for the littoral combat ship program. “That allows the industrial base consideration so we don’t have an interruption in the production line of these hull forms.” Incremental upgrades could be introduced as early as 2017, the service has said.

Still on the table is how much speed the service is willing to trade away for a boost in range or payload, Antonio said. The LCS was designed to be a fast, agile vessel capable of getting to a fight quickly and maneuvering around shallow littorals.

“We’re not at the point where we’re going to take a 40-knot ship and make it a 16-knot ship. What we’re talking about here is something within the percentage points of what the original speed is,” he said. “There are limits here with how much weight we can put on a ship and make sure it can still remain stable, but there are trades we can make.”

The LCS’s manning concept — in which small crews of about 50 sailors are rotated between ships — may be tweaked for the fast frigates, which may need more personnel onboard, he said.

The Navy has not discussed with the LCS manufacturers the path forward for the modified ships, including what specific upgrades will be required, said officials from Lockheed Martin and Austal. Both responded to the task force’s request for information with a menu of weapons and sensors that could be added to the Independence and Freedom variants.

The biggest discrepancy between the companies’ frigate proposal and the Navy’s was in the realm of anti-air warfare. Both Lockheed and Austal proposed vertical-launch missile systems capable of shooting down aircraft, but the Navy decided against including such weapons in its modified LCS design concept, Greenert said.

Lockheed did not focus on up-armoring its ship, but is open to adding armor as directed by the Navy, said Jeanine Matthews, the company’s director of business development.

Among the upgrades presented by Lockheed was the surface electronic warfare improvement program, or SEWIP, an electronic warfare system that would make the modified LCS less vulnerable, she said. The company’s Longbow missile is already a part of the surface warfare mission module, but Lockheed has offered to permanently install the weapon system aboard the frigate variant.

Austal proposed options including a towed array sonar, torpedoes, vertically launched anti-submarine rockets and 76 mm and remotely operated small caliber guns, a spokeswoman from the company said.

Industry was not given guidance as to whether the Navy considered tradeoffs to speed and range acceptable, Matthews said.

“We did not want to constrain ourselves by having to continue to meet that 40 knot speed because that would have perhaps meant changes to the propulsion system, which is proven,” she said.

During the months that the small surface combatant task force carried out its analysis, little was known about the ships being studied or the methodology employed. In January, a group of reporters toured the “war room” — the small conference room in Arlington, Virginia, where the task force met to share ideas.

As the days passed, the walls of the room were covered with charts, graphs and research, said a Navy official who provided a tour of the war room to reporters in January. The official was not authorized by the service to speak on the record because members of the task force had not yet finished briefing members of Congress. Sometimes, the work day stretched a full 12 hours.

One of the most important steps was identifying “capability concepts,” or the capabilities and mission sets that can be performed by a small surface combatant, he said. The task force found that frigate-like vessels performed four primary missions — mine countermeasures and surface, anti-submarine and air warfare — with varying levels of capability, adding up to 192 capability concepts for a frigate-like ship.

The task force then narrowed down those concepts, eliminating those that would yield ships too similar to the LCS, Aegis cruisers, destroyers or other ships in the Navy’s fleet, as well as those not suitable for offensive maneuvers.

It conducted a wargaming exercise with working groups made of Atlantic and Pacific fleet sailors to learn what users most valued in a ship, the official said.

“The key thing was they wanted multi-mission capability,” especially in surface warfare and anti-submarine warfare, he said. Air warfare capabilities were also rated highly, but could not come at the expense of maritime missions.

With the input of Greenert and other Navy leaders, the task force eventually determined eight capability concepts that best represented what the service wanted in a small surface combatant. The concepts stressed surface and anti-submarine warfare and incorporated an over-the-horizon offensive capability.

For each of those concepts, the task force looked at requirements, cost and schedule for a clean-sheet new vessel, existing domestic and international ship designs, and modified LCS — which spanned versions of the Freedom and Independence that included no major upgrades to the electrical or mechanical systems as well as variants where the hull was expanded.

“What we wanted to do is give them a range of options,” he said. The task force evaluated 2,300 combat system configuration alternatives and more than 600 ways to modify the littoral combat ship.

The task force in April 2014 issued two requests for information to solicit data on hull designs and shipboard systems. “We had 48 companies that responded to our request for information with 161 ideas that they wanted us to consider.”

Eighteen existing ship designs were submitted to the Navy, and the service independently considered five international hulls. The service declined to disclose what ships were considered or their country of manufacture, citing the proprietary nature of that information.

Ten ships met the characteristics specified in the eight capability concepts, including one design from a U.S. manufacturer, the Navy official said.

The task force then provided lifecycle cost information for ships with combat configurations that met the eight capability concepts, he said. Importantly, it also stated its confidence level in its estimates.

What the task force found — perhaps unsurprisingly — is that cost increased as new weapons and shipboard systems were added and as survivability improved, he said.

“If you’re going to modify an LCS and not make major changes to it,” you can make it less vulnerable and susceptible, “and you can add mission features,” he said. If greater lethality and survivability or an architectural change was desired, the service would need to make a greater investment in a significantly modified LCS, existing or clean-sheet design. “It’s a matter of what it is that you want and the cost associated with it.”

Even though the Navy opted to continue procurement of the littoral combat ship, the official was adamant that the task force hadn’t done months of work only to arrive back at Point A.

“This is a multi-mission capable ship that can perform offensive capability with an over-the-horizon, surface-to-surface missile. It has multi-mission features associated with it. It can do ASW and surface warfare concurrently,” he said. “In terms of capability, in terms of lethality or in terms of survivability, you can’t compare it to the current LCS.”

Before settling on the modified LCS, the service ran multiple war games to test its performance, Fanta said. Many anti-ship weapons are targeted against big, heavy ships like aircraft carriers and destroyers and can thus also take down a littoral combat ship, so it was not a surprise that some of the vessels were damaged or sunk. Nonetheless, officials were impressed by gains to its offensive and defensive capabilities.

“We’ll lose some LCS in a full up nation on nation war. It shouldn’t be a discovery to anyone. It’s called war for a reason,” he said. However, “you put entire enemy fleets in the bottom of the ocean. Why? Because they come from everywhere and they’re all equipped with weapons, and they’re all equipped with weapons that can come out and touch you.”

Topics: Shipbuilding

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