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.
What of those neat interchangeable modules? Well, several billions of dollars later, only the surface-combat and antisubmarine modules are nearly ready. It was found that switching back and forth between them was technically impractical, so now the ships will be permanently dedicated to one of three missions.
And those Mine Counter Measure modules? Not happening until 2020s at the earliest, as the onboard helicopter proved incapable of safely towing the mine-detection module and the remote mine-hunting system was canceled. Even the antisubmarine module is overweight and has undergone little testing under realistic conditions.
It was also found that the core crew of forty sailors and officers were too few to safely operate the ship without overworking personnel and forcing them to perform tasks they’d barely trained for. The complement increased to seventy, and the ships had to be redesigned with extra bunks. Furthermore, a radical new crewing concept based on the interchangeable modules had to be abandoned when the module idea didn’t pan out. And because ship operation proved so demanding, six LCS—three of each type—will be dedicated solely to training new crews and another four to testing.
The LCSs do have their strengths—particularly the ability to operate in shallow waters due to their draft of only thirteen or fourteen feet, and surge to high speeds of forty-four to forty-seven knots (about fifty miles per hour), affording them superior mobility. Furthermore, their hulls have been designed for stealth, and should benefit from lower detection ranges. Therefore, some argue the LCS is still effective in at performing the mission they were designed for, and have merely received bad press due to teething issues typical to new weapons systems and a poorly managed procurement process.
Punching Below Their Weight Class
The problem, however, is that the world has changed. China’s surface fleet has grown dramatically in capability. The U.S. Navy now faces a proliferation of long-range antiship missiles—for example, rebels in Yemen launched several in 2016 at U.S. ships. These also include deadly high-speed weapons such as the Russian Kalibr and the Russo-Indian BrahMos. And both China and Russia field boats even smaller than the LCS with heavier firepower.
Consider the LCS’s surface-warfare armaments: a rapid-fire fifty-seven-millimeter autocannon for blasting small ships, two short-range thirty-millimeter cannons and Rolling Airframe Missiles for self-defense from missiles and aircraft, and Hellfire missiles that can strike targets five miles away with twenty-pound warheads. These might be excellent for destroying swarming motor boat attacks—a concern in the Persian Gulf—but none can strike targets beyond visual range, even though the frigates it replaced could fire Harpoon missiles with a range of sixty miles.
Let’s compare the LCS to a Buyan-M–class corvette, five of which are active in the Russian Navy. Each of the boats displaces considerably less at 949 tons, and come with a hundred-millimeter gun and Kalibr sea-skimming supersonic antiship missiles in four vertical-launch cells with a range of around three hundred miles, while packing 440-pound warheads.
And keep in in mind than an LCS, with its lightweight hull—possibly built with highly flammable aluminum—and smaller crew available for damage control, would be unlikely to remain combat effective after being struck by an antiship missile.
Now, defenders of the LCS point out advantages in the vessels’ soft systems, and their ability to deploy MQ-8C drones and advanced MH-60R or S Seahawk helicopter on search, sub-hunting and even attack missions. And tackling surface combatants with long-range missiles was never their intended mission profile.
They also contend that the LCS’s predecessor is seen through rose-tinted glasses: the Oliver Hazard Perry frigates had only a single launch rail for long-range missiles that it lost in 2003 anyway, employed more primitive SH-2 helicopters, and lacked the modern computers and sensors that we take for granted today. The frigates cost slightly more to build in inflation-adjusted dollars, were atypically heavily armed and required more than twice the crew complement.
Nonetheless, the Navy is apparently growing concerned about the LCS’s shortcomings. In December 2015, it downsized the order from fifty-two to forty ships. Then in 2016 the Pentagon announced the last twelve LCSs in the order would be upgraded to serve as “fast frigates” featuring extra armor, combined antisubmarine and surface-warfare modules, and tweaked armament. However, the up-gunned and up-armored ships will likely cost as much as more capable vessels, lose much of their speed advantage, and still currently lack over-horizon antiship missiles.
Proponents of the little ships are optimistic the platform is flexible enough to adapt currently missing capabilities in long-range missiles or mine-warfare capability. Harpoon missiles were tested on an LCS in July 2017, for example, and the Naval Strike Missile and Long-Range Anti-Ship Missiles are also to be evaluated. Eventually, and at great cost, all the bits of tech may fall into place for the LCS to perform as expected. However, the Navy is apparently looking ahead to develop tougher and more heavily armed frigates in its FFG(X) program, to succeed boats conceived in a very different threat environment.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
Image: U.S. Navy