The Buzz

Here Is Why the U.S. Navy's Littoral Combat Ships Punch below Their Weight

The U.S. Navy’s newest class of small surface combatants, the Littoral Combat Ships, come with a few minor flaws. They don’t have the firepower to hit anything more than a few miles away. They’re unlikely to survive being hit by anything in return. They cost more than twice as much as promised, and require 75 percent more crew to operate than planned for. The modular-mission capabilities that were a key selling point had to be abandoned. And they’re breaking down constantly.

A review of the ships by the Department of Operational Testing in 2011 concluded: “LCS is not expected to be survivable in a hostile combat environment.”

In fact, if you look at the history of when the LCS was conceived, you can grasp why they were built with such modest combat capabilities. Unfortunately, in today’s global environment, the LCS’s shortcomings are glaring.

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Bodyguards and Handymen of the Fleet

The Littoral Combat Ship is taking over the mission formerly performed by the Oliver Hazard Perry–class frigates retired from service in 2015. Frigates are smaller surface warships specialized in protecting more powerful destroyers, cruisers and aircraft carriers from incoming aircraft or marauding enemy submarines. Nothing beats having more ships to form an effective defensive perimeter and divert incoming attacks, even if those vessels are individually less powerful. Frigate-size vessels contribute to a new doctrine emphasizing “distributed lethality” by spreading firepower across the fleet to avoid putting too many eggs in too few baskets.

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Frigates can also serve as useful handymen, operating closer to shore due to their shallower drafts, and undertaking missions that don’t warrant the massive firepower and expense of deploying, say, a billion-dollar Aegis cruiser bristling with 122 missile-launching cells.

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In the 1990s, a third Battle of the Atlantic with Soviet submarines and surface warships ceased to be a consideration, as China fielded only a modest green-water navy. Instead, the Navy deemed it worthwhile to develop cheaper, more numerous vessels to engage in humanitarian and peacekeeping missions, perform global “presence” missions for political purposes, nab Somali pirates in motorboats and, at worst, duel with the mini submarines and fast attack craft of so-called “rogue states” (i.e., North Korea and Iran) in their shallow coastal waters.

Therefore, the Navy decided to build a new generation of smaller, more expendable and maneuverable “street fighter” corvettes specializing in littoral operations to replace its frigates. These Littoral Combat Ships would employ automation to run with smaller crews and use interchangeable equipment modules to adapt the ships on the fly for surface combat, antisubmarine warfare, minesweeping (a long-neglected mission), or even amphibious-landing support for special operations.

One Mission, Two Ships

But the LCS was saddled with a decidedly unconventional development process. Offered two competing designs by Lockheed and Austal USA, the Navy paid to develop both—and then decided to produce each as well, to save on the swollen costs of the first ships of each class. This, even though operating two different types of ships to perform the same mission costs extra money due to the need to operate distinct training programs and maintain different spare parts.

The ships also swelled in size from the original leaner concept, bulking considerably more than corvettes without a commensurate increase in armament.

Of the two types, the larger Freedom class displaces 3,900 tons, is more conventional in appearance and is considered better for shallow-water ops; it has a tougher steel hull, possesses superior maneuverability, and can more easily deploy launches for special ops and boarding missions. By contrast, the Independence class has a space-agey trimaran (triple) hull made of lightweight but flammable aluminum; it boasts a huge flight deck and extra fuel storage, and is considered optimal for blue-water antisubmarine escort duty. Both can carry similar armament and mission modules.

One of the major virtues of the small ships was supposed to be their low cost, at a mere $220 million dollars each. But the design process led to final costs ballooning to around the $500 million mark instead.

Then the vessels were tested at sea—and began breaking down. Freedom-class ships suffered repeated engine failures. USS Milwaukee had to be towed back to port shortly after being commissioned. The Independence’s hull exhibited massive corrosion, necessitating design modifications for the entire class. The vessels have consistently failed reliability and performance thresholds. The contractor support needed to keep the ships running has inflated lifetime operating costs nearly to the level of a much larger Arleigh Burke–class destroyer, according to the GAO.

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