Back at the turn of the century, the U.S. Navy came up with an ambitious plan to staunch the precipitous decline in the number of ships, address the perceived need for a brown water or littoral capability, challenge the rising cost of shipbuilding and increase the pace at which new technologies could be introduced into the Fleet. Borrowing from a design concept pioneered by the Danish Navy, the U.S. Navy decided to build a class of vessels, the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), that would be inherently multi-mission through the use of exchangeable mission modules that could be swapped out as needed.
As a consequence, the Navy could replace several existing classes of obsolescent ships, such as mine countermeasure vessels. Also, the initial idea was to build the LCS according to a less demanding set of specifications and with greater automation, allowing for a smaller crew, reducing construction costs and permitting non-traditional shipyards to compete for the work.
In some ways this effort was a remarkable success. Two designs were approved, one by a Lockheed Martin-Marinette Marine led team and the other by a General Dynamics-Austal USA team. Both designs are extremely innovative. The one offered by the General Dynamics team was made out of aluminum not steel and based on a catamaran hull which allowed for an enormous flight deck and massive internal storage. Both designs’ open systems architecture allowed for plug-and-play of mission modules. Their ample flight decks and shelter for aircraft allowed for extensive employment of helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles.
But there were problems. I am not talking about difficulties with ship systems or even construction issues. These occur on each new class but as more are built and the shipyards move down the learning curve, quality of workmanship goes up, defects decline and costs are reduced. The price per LCS was coming down so rapidly that the Navy was able to buy a larger than expected number of both variants. Nor am I speaking of the greater-than-predicted challenges associated with the development of the mission modules. This was to be expected given such a radical departure from traditional ways of equipping warships.
Rather, the current designs for the LCS fell afoul of a change in the strategic environment. Even though President Obama still considers international terrorism to be the number one threat, the danger to U.S. security posed by littoral states including Russia, China, North Korea and Iran is growing. In addition, the swift proliferation of advanced military capabilities in the hands of both state and non-state actors made the lightly armed LCS something of a sitting duck. Simply put, the existing LCS designs lacked sufficient muscle for the emerging strategic challenges.
There is value in having a number of light, fast, shallow-water capable and low cost warships that can perform a range of presence, policing and protection missions that otherwise would require the deployment of more capable but much more expensive large warships. The mine countermeasure mission is one for which the Navy absolutely needs new capabilities.
What is needed is more muscle. So, the teams have come up with ideas for an LCS on steroids. Current proposals include adding longer-range missiles, a bigger gun and even a variant of the Aegis air defense system to the 32 LCS the Navy now plans to acquire. There are options for adding armament to the aircraft the LCS will carry. These measures would substantially increase the combat power of this fleet while still allowing it to conduct the full range of littoral operations, as needed.
There is a general consensus that what the Navy needs in addition to the LCS, but not as an alternative, is a new frigate. This is conceived of as a ship larger and heavier than the LCS, able to carry more weapons and sensors, but still cheaper than current destroyers. Even though the analysis of alternatives is still underway, there are only a few candidates. The reason for this is that the Navy cannot afford the cost or time to design such a frigate from scratch. This means it pretty much has to be a variant of a ship currently in production. In response to a request for information, Lockheed Martin, Austal, Huntington Ingalls and General Dynamics have all submitted concepts for such a ship. It is believed that both Lockheed Martin and Austal are proposing upscaled versions of their LCS variants, Huntington Ingalls a version of the National Security Cutter it is building for the U.S. Coast Guard, and General Dynamics possibly a downsized version of the DDG-51 destroyer. Whichever version is finally chosen will also have tremendous foreign sales potential.
If these plans work out, in two decades the U.S. Navy fleet of surface combatants will consist of a more muscular LCS, a new frigate, the DDG-51 Arleigh Burkes (including some new Flight III variants), three DDG-1000s and the aging but still extremely powerful Ticonderoga-class cruisers. A pretty good fleet for a changing strategic environment.
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