The U.S. Navy’s New Warship Is the U.S. Navy’s Old Warship … With More Weapons

December 12, 2014 0

Littoral Combat Ship gets upgrades to become a frigate Back in the 1990s, the U.S. Navy came up with a radical plan to replace its...

Littoral Combat Ship gets upgrades to become a frigate

Back in the 1990s, the U.S. Navy came up with a radical plan to replace its tried-and-true Perry-class frigates, at the time the sailing branch’s most numerous surface warship.

The idea was to build lots of copies of a cheap, fast, lightweight “Littoral Combat Ship” with plenty of empty space inside. These “modular” vessels would swap different weapons, sensors, helicopters and drones—all depending on the particular mission.

That plan has collapsed. And now we know how the Navy will fix it—by building tougher, more heavily armed versions of the same modular ships.

Boy howdy, the original LCS is a mess. The 3,000-ton-displacement vessel—the Navy has three in commission so far—is flimsy, lightly armed with just a few short-range guns and missiles and guzzles gas. And at $500 million a pop, the class isn’t anywhere near as cheap as the Navy originally promised.

Surprising no one, in February Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that the sailing branch would cancel the last 20 of the 52 LCSs it was building … and replace them with 20 new frigate-like “small surface combatants” starting in 2019.

“The LCS was designed to perform certain missions—such as minesweeping and anti-submarine warfare—in a relatively permissive environment,” Hagel said. “But we need to closely examine whether the LCS has the independent protection and firepower to operate and survive against a more advanced military adversary and emerging new technologies, especially in the Asia Pacific.”

China, in other words. We actually simulated a confrontation between two LCSs and a pair of Chinese warships and, chillingly, neither of the American vessels survived the encounter. Both Chinese ships did.

After 10 months of study, Hagel revealed on Dec. 11 that the new surface combatant would be … an LCS. With more guns. More missiles. More armor. Better sensors.

“By avoiding a new class of ships and new system design costs, it also represents the most responsible use of our industrial base investment while expanding commonality in the fleet,” Hagel explained.

Shipyards in Wisconsin and Alabama each build their own sub-class of LCS—one a monohull, the other a triple-hull trimaran, both with similar weapons, sensors and shortfalls. The Pentagon hasn’t said whether the new “frigate” LCS will be a version of just one sub-class or both.

In any event, the new LCS will get an enhanced radar, a towed sonar for detecting submarines, new jammers and missile- and torpedo-fooling decoys, extra 25-millimeter cannons, an over-the-horizon-range anti-ship missiles plus more armor and measures to reduce the ship’s detectability by enemy sensors.

The frigate LCSs will also keep the basic weapons and other gear of the baseline LCSs, including anti-ship Hellfire missiles, 30-millimeter guns, short-range anti-air missiles and facilities for H-60 helicopters and drone rotorcraft.

Navy art depicting the frigate’s additions in yellow

The new LCS variants won’t be fully modular. They will be able to swap some elements—including torpedoes and an extra sonar—but apparently will not be compatible with the minehunting gear that the early LCSs can carry.

Nor will the frigates have long-range anti-air missiles—an addition that Bryan Clark, an analyst with the influential Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, specifically advocated in a November study. Clark wanted the frigate LCS to pack 24 vertical missile cells, each able to launch four Sea Sparrow anti-air missiles.

The Navy opted not to add missile cells for defensive anti-air weapon, apparently favoring offensive anti-ship missiles plus passive defensive measures. As a bonus, the frigate LCSs should actually be lighter than the older modular variants.

The aim was to make the frigate just tough enough to survive on its own while hunting enemy warships.

“We have given this multi-mission ship the degree of self-defense that it needs so it does not have to be operating beneath the umbrella of a major ship,” Sean Stackley, the Navy’s assistant secretary for R&D, told USNI News.

The notion of upgrading an existing ship design rather than developing a brand new one is all the rage in today’s Navy. Just a few years ago, the sailing branch actually preferred designing new ships from scratch, including the original LCS, the Zumwalt-class stealth battleship and the Ford-class aircraft carrier.

But the from-scratch efforts proved risky and expensive. So today the Navy’s new attack submarine is an upgrade of an existing class. As is the sea service’s new amphibious ship and its latest destroyer.

The Navy obviously hopes that evolving the LCS will result in a much better warship. One that can actually survive—and fight back—in a major war.

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