The U.S. Navy Gives Up on Its Lousy Future Warships’ Main Feature
Littoral Combat Ships will stick to a single module instead of swapping them out for different missions
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
When the first Littoral Combat Ship launched a decade ago this month, the U.S. Navy expected it to herald a new class of inexpensive, agile fighting ships with a radically new “modular” design — allowing them to swap out bundles of weapons, sensors and crews for different missions.
So if the LCS needed to fight other warships, hunt submarines or search for mines, sailors could quickly install distinct modules for each mission, although only one at a time. Don’t worry, the Navy promised, it’ll work.
On Sept. 8, the Navy announced that it is effectively abandoning the LCS’ modular concept for 24 of the ships in both the Freedom and Independence-class variants. The initial four ships — which are already in service — will become testing vessels.
The Navy previously announced that a further 12 planned ships will become up-gunned and non-modular “frigates.” All together, the Navy intends to operate 40 Littoral Combat Ships including the frigate variants, down from an initially planned 52 ships.
If that’s confusing, each modular LCS right now has two distinct crews while at sea. The first crew is assigned to the ship specifically, while the second handles the plug-and-play module on board. When the ship returns to port and swaps modules, it swaps out the second crew, too.
Now the Navy is merging those crews together. The vessels and their crews will form into (our emphasis) “four-ship divisions of a single warfare area — either surface warfare (SUW), mine warfare (MCM) or anti-submarine warfare (ASW),” the Navy noted in a statement.
That means these new, multi-purpose vessels will become … single-purpose vessels.
The Navy will base three divisions of monohull Freedom-class warships in Florida, and another three divisions of the triple-hull trimaran Independence class in California. One LCS per division will serve as a training ship.
Consolidating the two different hulls in separate ports makes sense, as the Pentagon in the 1990s split the program between Lockheed Martin (Freedom) and Austral (Independence). When the two types mix, it adds complications to training and logistics.
Also gone is a confusing crew rotation scheme known as “3:2:1,” in which three crews cycled between two ships. Now two crews organized into “blue” and “gold” teams of around 70 sailors each will take turns manning individual vessels — similar to ballistic missile submarines.
“Our core focus was to maximize forward operational availability, while looking for ways to increase simplicity, stability and ownership,” Naval Surface Forces commander Vice Adm. Tom Rowden told reporters.
It’s a much different concept from what the Navy had envisioned.
The Navy designed the LCS to carry only one module, so they could be smaller and speedier than a destroyer or cruiser, and thus more effectively chase after small boats in littoral regions close to shore. But the LCS is larger than a corvette — a necessary consequence of the do-many-things philosophy at the core of the design.
Similarly, the Navy wanted them to come cheap, with smaller crews, and fewer costs associated with maintaining and upgrading integrated systems common on other warships.
That was, at least, the theory.
In reality, costs ballooned to more than $500 million per ship — twice the original estimate. They are fast. However, the modules don’t work. Instead of taking a few days at most to replace them, it takes weeks without extremely precise planning. That’s far from assured in peacetime, let alone during a major war.
The 3,000-ton LCS is heavier than first planned — and it’s poorly armed and vulnerable to anti-ship missiles. Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s director of operational testing and evaluation, described the LCS in 2013 as “not expected to be survivable” in combat.
Another embarrassment — the vessels are finicky.
The Independence-class USS Coronado broke down in the Pacific in late August and limped back to Hawaii. USS Freedom, the lead ship of her namesake class, is sitting in San Diego after seawater leaked into her lube oil system and wrecked the diesel engine. USS Fort Worth is heading home for repairs to her gearing system after suffering a mishap in January.
Trimming the LCS will also save billions of dollars that could now pay for drones, jets and weapons. A rebooted LCS could even one day get an over-the-horizon anti-ship missile, according to The National Interest. That’s good news for advocates of a Navy geared toward battle, as opposed to presence which requires large numbers of ships active around the world.
These are not always mutually exclusive goals, but the Navy has decided they are when it comes to the LCS.