Battleland

The Navy’s New Class of Warships: Big Bucks, Little Bang

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Navy photo / Lt. Jan Shultis

The first two Littoral Combat Ships: the USS Freedom, rear, and the USS Independence, off the California coast. The ships primarily are designed to engage in combat close to shore.

The Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) is not only staggeringly overpriced and chronically unreliable but — even if it were to work perfectly — cannot match the combat power of similar sized foreign warships costing only a fraction as much. Let’s take a deep dive and try to figure out why.

The story so far:

— Congress has funded the LCS program since February 2002. Its publically stated purpose was to create a new generation of surface combatants able to operate in dangerous shallow water and near-shore environments.

— By December 2009 the Navy had built two radically dissimilar prototypes, the mono-hulled USS Freedom (LCS-1) and the trimaran-hulled USS Independence (LSC-2).

— A year later it adopted both designs and decided to award block buy construction contracts for five more ships of each type.

— Since neither design had yet proven either its usefulness or functionality it seems that the Navy’s object was to make the LCS program “too big to fail” as soon as possible.

— It may be working: the 55-ship fleet is slated to cost more than $40 billion, giving each vessel a price tag north of $700 million, roughly double the original estimated cost.

Both LCS designs were supposed to be small (about 3,000 tons displacement), shallow-draft coastal warships that relied on simplicity, numbers and new technology to stay affordable and capable throughout their service lives.

Navy photo / Lt. Jan Shultis

The new technology was mainly robotics (unmanned air, surface and underwater vehicles) and modular weapons and sensors. The modular systems were a series of mission payload packages or modules; each designed to fit a common cargo/weapons bay or slot and focus the ship on a specific mission.

When the ship’s mission changed it could quickly swap its current module for one that supported the new mission. This was a way to combine the advantages of both single and multi-mission platforms.

Foreign navies had already applied the concept successfully. The Danish Navy’s “Standard Flex” series of weapon modules had in particular grabbed the U.S. Navy’s attention.

Each LCS also has a flight deck and hangar able to accommodate up to two H-60 helicopters or up to four MQ-8B helicopter drones (one helicopter and two to three drones would be a typical mix). In addition, an LCS can carry and operate surface and sub-surface drones. Current modules in development are for mine warfare (MIW), anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and anti-surface warfare (ASUW).

The MIW and ASW modules are mostly sensors with only drone or helicopter launched weapons. The ASUW module is focused mainly on defeating speedboats and offers only two 30mm MK-46 guns and some short-ranged low payload Griffin missiles. None of these modules will even be testable until well into FY13 and none will be operational before FY16.

Outside of the modules an LCS has a permanent armament of a 57mm MK-110 automatic gun, some 0.50-caliber machineguns and a close defense missile system (RIM-116 SeaRAM).

Even with its modules the LCS compares poorly with similar-sized but much less expensive ships in foreign navies.

The new Russian Steregushchyclass frigate, for example, is (at 2,200 tons) about 30% smaller than an LCS and cost only 20-25% as much. Yet, it carries a 100mm automatic gun, 14.5-mm machineguns, close-in defense “Gatling gun” systems (AK-630), medium range surface to air missiles (S400 series), SS-N-25 anti-ship missiles (sub-sonic and shorter ranged than the US Harpoon but far more capable than the Griffin), 533-mm (21”) torpedoes, 324mm anti-submarine torpedoes and a helicopter. The ship is not only in production for the Russian Navy but also for the navies of Algeria and Indonesia. A version is also being built for China.

The Swedish Visbyclass corvette was one of the models on which LCS was based. It carries the same 57mm gun plus antisubmarine rockets and torpedoes, anti-ship missiles, a radar-deflecting hull, and a helicopter pad (but no hangar, apparently). It can also reach 35 knots but it is only a fifth as large.

The Chinese have more than 80 Houbeiclass fast-attack boats in service. Each costs only $40 million to build and displaces only 220 tons (one-fifteenth as much as an LCS). Yet they carry C-801 series anti-ship missiles that greatly outrange any weapon the LCS has.

About the only threat the LCS might handle is the “swarms” of Iranian machinegun and RPG-carrying speedboats in the Persian Gulf. Apart from the fact that the Iranian crisis will have been resolved for better or worse before most of the LCS fleet can be built, these Iranian small craft lack weapons big enough to menace any serious warship.

Navy photo / MCS 2nd Class Rosalie Garcia

However the LCS itself may be more vulnerable to these speedboats than the ships it is protecting from them. This is because the ballooning LCS construction costs caused the Navy to try to save money by ordering that future ships be built to commercial standards.

This will reduce their survivability level (protection of ship, crew, and vital systems) to (or below) the lowest level (of three) the Navy recognizes. Survivability testing has been cancelled, as it would cause too much damage to the test ship. Instead, the LCS is rated as not survivable in a “hostile combat environment.”

Worse, the Navy has admitted that, unlike the foreign systems they were modeled on, LCS modules will not be swappable within day or two as originally envisaged. Instead, the process can take weeks. Practical and political limitations on storing modules and supporting them overseas are likely to make module swapping possible only in U.S. shipyards. An LCS entering a combat theater will have to be in a single “come as you are” configuration that cannot adapt to mission changes.

The LCS does lead its foreign competitors when it comes to speed. At the Navy’s insistence, each LCS carries a set of diesels for cruising. It also has a suite of gas turbines that can at least for short spurts propel it at speeds as high as 50 knots.

By contrast the LCS’ foreign competitors rarely exceed 35 knots (the heavily-armed Steregushchy is only good for 26). However, speed at sea is a terribly expensive capability. Except for large nuclear-powered ships, very high speeds are only possible for limited times and in good weather. Incremental speed increases require geometric horsepower increases. Gas turbines generating more than 100,000 horsepower and their associated fuel tanks must leave the LCS little space for armor, weapons, sensors or crew accommodations. Though the Navy has not said so, it is likely that these gas turbines have been the source of many of the LCS’ mechanical problems.

Why is high speed so important? Even high-speed minesweeping does not require more than 25 knots or so. For chasing small boats the LCS’s size advantage will let it catch nominally faster craft if any kind of sea is running. If this is not enough, the LCS has its helicopters and drones. The LCS may need speed to deploy quickly over long distances but is unlikely to need it for tactical maneuver. Without its gas turbines the LCS could be small (and cheaper), like the Visby, or powerfully-armed, like the Steregushchy. Instead, it is neither.

When asked why the LCS has sacrificed so much for speed, Navy spokesmen tend to become vague. In a recent interview, Rear Admiral Thomas Rowden, the Navy’s chief of surface warfare, could only explain the LCS’ speed requirement with clichés such as “speed is life” (is the LCS really an airplane? Does it outrun cruise missiles?) or “more is better” (more speed but less of everything else?). He even quoted John Paul Jones asking for a fast ship to go “in harm’s way.” Such fatuous statements might satisfy a fourth-grade civics class but this contemptuous dismissal of legitimate taxpayer concerns speaks volumes about what the Navy thinks of the people who ultimately pay its bills.

The surface-warfare chief went on to say that the Navy had yet to settle key LCS issues regarding missions, tactics and the design features to support them. In a sane world, such issues would have been ironed out before any ships were built. Once they are settled, the results will have to be applied to existing ships (to the extent that is possible) at enormous cost. Such are the effects of a “build first, design later” shipbuilding policy.

The level of incompetence the Navy has displayed with the LCS is truly breathtaking.

The LCS was supposed to be small and cheap, able to relieve larger more expensive ships of secondary tasks and to dominate coastal “brown water” environments. Yet, it is not cheap. Construction costs have ballooned to more than triple their original estimates. It is incredibly extravagant for some of its missions (those than any Coast Guard cutter could do), and very inadequate for most of the others. Its MIW and ASW capabilities are only those of the aircraft it carries. Even with its ASUW module, its firepower falls far short of foreign ships one-fifth the size. Its RIM-116 lacks the range to protect other ships. Its 57mm gun is short-ranged and cannot support troops ashore.

Taxpayers – and Navy personnel, past and present — may better appreciate the scope of the LCS disaster when reminded that current plans call for these pseudo-warships to comprise more than a third of the Navy’s surface combatants by 2020.

Nevertheless, the Navy is not worried. Congress will bail them out and ensure the LCS program yields some sort of product, even if it is a terribly overpriced and only marginally meets program requirements.

Meanwhile, foreign — not necessarily friendly — navies are building better and cheaper ships.

John Sayen retired from the Marine Corps in 2002 as a lieutenant colonel. He currently works in the defense industry and occasionally writes on current and historical military and naval issues.

U.S. Navy / Lt. Jan Shultis

95 comments
Palladium
Palladium

I'm not even going to ask why a 60 ton tank from every other nation on this planet outguns this 3000 ton piece of joke.

matthew.east.1989
matthew.east.1989

@Palladium  Should be noted the original design put forth as well as for International markets has both classes fitted with much bigger weapons, Why the USN chose not to go for them I dont know...

dcacklam
dcacklam

The old Perry class ships (nicknamed 'Hellen Keller' because of poor radar/sonar capabilities) were more capable than these things...

The Israelis, the Danes, and the Germans all produce better corvette-class ships that actually can dish it out in a fight...

LCS is the Navy's equivalent of the Army's Stryker: It can get 'there' quickly, but can't do anything beyond move around & show the flag once it arrives...

Armed like a Coast Guard cutter & scores more expensive... Sorry, skip it....

matthew.east.1989
matthew.east.1989

@dcacklam What is not taken into account is that the construction costs have actually being decreased with each follow on vessel so the $700m a ship is misleading. While there are corvette class ships out there with more bang none of them have the speed that is needed because one of there role is against small fast attack craft where speed is key.

DDodge42
DDodge42

They should have just built upgraded 70s era Pegasus class hydrofoils with limited stealthiness (while not at high speed) and upgraded systems.  Maybe an lcs ship would work as a mothership/tanker to support a squadron of upgraded Pegasus class hydrofoils (using helicopter etc for asw and search), but as a patrol craft its horribly overpriced and undergunned.  The pegasus was far smaller, just as fast if not faster, had a similiar main gun and 4 harpoon missiles to boot.   We could probably build 3-4 pegasus type boats for each lcs.

Fatesrider
Fatesrider

In today's money, the USS Iowa (A BATTLESHIP displacing 65,000 tons with the largest surface guns ever mounted on a U.S. man-o-war) cost about 1.2-1.3 billion dollars to build.  Based on the armament of the LCS, the Iowa could take them ALL on and never break much of a sweat.  Even at close range, the Iowa's twin 5 inch batteries are bigger than anything the LCS's can fire off at them.  And if the LCS isn't configured for surface action, well, guess it's out of luck in hitting back with anything like effective fire.

Take the 40 billion earmarked for the LCS's construction and build a few more battleships.  At least then we'd get some REAL bang for our buck.

njunk
njunk

If you really want to make an argument about how expensive this ship is going to be over the current ships in service. You need to look at the support cost. Cost of housing the contractors in foreign countries and sailors while doing turnover and inport periods. 

This program is just starting and the costs have just begun.

glof
glof

I am sure Northrup-Gruman and Lockheed Martin will be happy to learn they will receive 700 million  when they signed a fix-price contracted to build LCS for about 430 million. And of course that their worker will be pleased to work for the same wage as Russian ship builder get. And etc.

Those who want to compare US built ship too foriegn ships on price never remind people that it is much more expensive to build ships in the US, which is why we don't build that many.

Let also remember the LCS is not a frigate, and was never intended to be a major surface combat ship. It is intended as a support ships, like WWII patrol ship, minesweepers, subcasers, and gunboats. They are not ment to fight larger warships.

Should the LCS be better arm? I wish they were equipt with Harpoon missile and a second RAM launcher, but the USN does not even have enough Harpoons to provide all their destroyer with these missile, let alone providing any to other ships, and the RAM launcher are also in short supply.

As for other of their short commings, remember we only have two prototypes to work with until recently. They won't know what they can do until the first production LCS join the fleet in mid decade.

obbop
obbop

No cost is too great to ensure corporate USA maintains the wealth flow from overseas into its coffers.

Defend the USA?

Yeah, right....  (as many-millions of unlawful invaders across our wide-open borders scamper throughout society).

aka_mythos
aka_mythos

The author refers to several ships used by other nations... the Houbei-class, the Steregushchy-class, and the Visby-class... The LCS has accomplished the feat of being as large as the largest and as fast as the fastest. The LCS has greater range and endurance than any of those ships as well. It maybe fair to say those assets aren't tangible enough and come at too high a cost, but it should be acknowleged as a technical achievement

I believe its unfair to compare the price of the Steregushchy-class and LCS, the author is cherry-picking his figures taking the manufacturing cost of the Steregushchy-class and comparing it to the program unit cost of the LCS. The difference is that the Steregushchy-class' cost doesn't include Ramp;D expenses as the Russian's utilize a means of book-keeping where by Ramp;D costs are more rapidly absorbed as sunk cost. An example of this is how they're already moving onto the Gremyashchy class which is 99% the same ship, but allows them to issolate the higher costs. If the US were treating the LCS the same way it'd be the some how more proudly touted $460M per ship. Still higher, but less hyperbolic.

The problem was that the LCS orginally wasn't intended as the type of ship it's become. It was envisioned as something physically smaller and as ship only replacing a number of smaller ships but then it was sold as a cost effective means of replacing larger ships, something it was never inteded to be. That change stole critical developement money away from the things that mattered. The LCS was originally intended to replace 2 wooden hulled ships that each only had a pair of .50cal machineguns while also allowing for the transport and recovery of small boats and helicopters; for something of this original size the crew complement, the minimal armament, and the emphasis on speed makes sense. With what its become these things are more liabilities.

The LCS is indicative of a problem critics and even the author fail to recognize. The LCS is the end result of decades of over emphasis on surface warfare capabilites, like the Arleigh Burke-class, that has left the Navy few resources to deal with all the threats of the other sorts. Little or no ability to provide fire support close to shore; little ability to deal with mine threats; no ability to operate a small fast autonomous response; no surface ability to support fleet operation with submarine detection... The end result is LCS where the Navy painted itself into a corner and forcing it into going all-in on a program to do it all with a ship that costs more than a number of specialized classes. The need imposes a time senesitivity that won't allow for new programs and thats why this program won't die. At the current price of the contracts, they can build 2 LCS' for every Arleigh Burke-class... and with the newest higher bid for the next batch of Arliegh Burke-class the Navy can build at least 3 LCS. Between the numbers game of congressional mandates on the shear number of ships and the requirements from treaty obligations for ship presence, they'll keep making the LCS even if it isn't what it was suppose to be.

Dursun Sakarya
Dursun Sakarya

but if we hadn't spent the $40 billion, the Terrorist will have won 

IonOtter
IonOtter

I served aboard the USS Reuben James from 96' to 2001.  She was a kick-butt little ship?  FFG-57.  Technically, she was classified as a "missile/torpedo sponge", meaning it was supposed to either take out incoming missiles/torpedos, or just get hit by them in order to protect the carriers.

The thing is, it was *well* designed to do just that.  The SM-1 launcher on the front was damn good at taking out incoming missiles, and because it was so good, the Russians had to follow a policy of "MOAR DEKKA" in order to get through.  (For those don't know the lingo, it means 'fire all five-hundred missiles') The anti-submarine defenses weren't spectacular, but against Iran and North Korea, it would more than have sufficed?  And it too, carried two SH-60B LAMPS-Mk III helicopters.  We were small, but we were *fast* and we could pull in and out of port without any help, thanks to the Retractable Auxiliary Propulsion Units.

We also had 4 Harpoon missiles onboard, and those could sink anything short of a carrier in just one or two shots.  Just before I left, we added the Penguin missiles to the torpedo magazine.  Oh yeah, I forgot to mention?  We could fire the Mk 46 torpedoes, too.  And there was the 76mm, the 25mm chain gun and the 20mm CIWS Block II.

We performed rescues in 26' seas that broke the USS John Young and forced her to turn back.  We slipped up into the North Arabian Gulf and played "Ghost in the Graveyard" with Iranian gun boats, in and among the sunken tankers from the Tanker War.  Our comms suite wasn't ultra-modern, but we could talk longer, farther and with *more* foreign naval allies than the newer ships.  (We were an HF/VHF/UHF ship, no SHF or UHF.)

In short, the USS Reuben James FFG-57, built in 1985, could WIPE THE SEA FLOOR with this pathetic piece of plastic.

But no.  They took off the SM-1 launcher.  No more missile killers, no more ship-sinkers.  The Russians are all gone, and there's *coughCHINA* no other threats *coughIRAN*out there for us *coughNORTHKOREA* to be worried about.

And now she's deploying for one last time.  Heading out to the Gulf for...*retch*..."security" detail.  *sigh*  At least they didn't take away the 76 and the torpedo launchers.  She's gone from medium-weight to light-weight. At least she'll still be able to defend herself against the small attack boats, and the 76mm will still mess you up, but that's all she's got against missiles. God help her.

God-damned bean-counting, lilly-livered, brown-nosing, limp-wristed, never-been-in-a-fight congresspukes screwin' with my shipmates, givin' em' ships made outta tissue paper.

But wow, they SURE DO LOOK GOOD!

dsh_nva
dsh_nva

>> Its publically stated purpose was to create a new generation

Publicly, not "publically."

alexgafford
alexgafford

John Sayen is being far too kind about this class of warships. Since we are no longer in the Cold War there is no point in claiming the construction of these warships is a treasonous act against the national security of the United States of America. We can just point to iodicy and corruption. What disturbs me the most is that no patriotic ( in the true sense) member of Congress has blown the whistle on this. Where is Lindsey Graham when you need him?  This program makes the F35 look like a well founded and managed business. At least the F35 will  be able to launch real weapons that really work and kill our enemies.

Rumionemore
Rumionemore

Are they a metaphor for the U.S. military? Or what it is quickly becoming?

Ron Little
Ron Little

We need to dig up President Truman he took care of this kind of corruption in WW!! THE CONTRACTORS WERE SHAKING THE GOVT. DOWN.Truman ws on top of them ,because his biggest supporter was a crook that did the same in his town so he was experienced.  

frostfire451
frostfire451

Just a way to keep government contracts in congressional districts.  It is just government pork for no reason than to keep a politician elected.

John Grabowski
John Grabowski

Funny how the U.S. can afford this, but can't afford student loans or Big Bird.

willardschoeffling
willardschoeffling

What a terrible waste of money, All the navy wants are hulls in the water and congress wants " pork "I hope the day never comes when young Americans have to man these ships into harms way.

willardschoeffling
willardschoeffling

This entire class of ships are a joke. Over priced and under armed, Without a single surface to air missle or surface to surface missle they are the laughing stock of the world. A speedboat with a 50 cal. could put them out of action. Wait until the final costs are in, They will be 750 million each.

CloudZ1116
CloudZ1116

Seriously... just bring back the Iowas. They have the best survivability of any ship currently afloat, tout the deadliest array of weapons ever deployed at sea, and would probably cost less to refurbish, maintain, and operate in the long run.

Kevin Brent
Kevin Brent

This mess needs to be de-funded and put out the Navy's misery, ASAP.

brad
brad

the speed is obviously so it can run away from battle quickly and do things that are up to "commercial standards" like fishing and transporting plastic made goods from China to L.A.

That gun on the front actually just fires a harpoon in case they want to go whaling with the Japanese. 

Andrew Whyte
Andrew Whyte

maybe the political lobby groups that are working for the corporations that are profitting from the LCS project have hijacked the whole defence department and now that they have built up sufficient momentum in paying for the campaigns of various congressmen and women that they have in their pockets there is no stopping the LCS gravy train. Until perhaps the United States Navy loses several of these ships to platforms of the People's Liberation Army Navy which are a fraction of the LCS in terms of size and price. Seriously why not build a range of off the shelf platforms that are already developed such as the Absalon Multi Purpose Ship, Skold missile attack craft, Visby Class Corvettes. Why not get involved with the Israelis with their new Meko Coastal Corvette or even modify the Britain's Type 26 Frigate for American use? You know ships that are designed to operate in a hostile, environment and you know fight.

akpat
akpat

If you think this is bad then look at the F22, the plane that kills its own pilots at 450 million each and the F35 the plane that falls apart at 350 million each.

No wonder Obama uses drones.

akpat
akpat

And if you think thats bad just look at the F22 and F35 aircraft. No wonder Obama uses drones.

eliking
eliking

This is why the defense sequester should be allowed to kick in.  Let the Pentagon figure out how to live on less, and stop wasting taxpayer money.

QFactor7
QFactor7

WOW! Talk about wasteful spending!!  And we can't get books for our kids! WTF!!

Damian Romard
Damian Romard

the LCS is rated as not survivable in a “hostile combat environment.”

So glad my hard earned tax dollars are building a naval ship with little survivability.  I hope one of the drones doesn't accidently shoot it.

WillLeach
WillLeach

You would think the M1 tank would have taught the Pentagon about some of the problems with gas turbine engines. Just because something works for aircraft does not mean it will work for everything.

Michael Wellman
Michael Wellman

"... these Iranian small craft lack weapons big enough to menace any serious warship."

Tell that to the survivors of the USS Cole.  Speedboats bearing explosive charges are exactly the type of threat the LCS is meant to combat, and it's a threat from which we don't currently have adequate defense.

Fr0ntSight
Fr0ntSight

This is truly pathetic.  We have always had a good strong Navy that has kept us ahead of the curve in maritime engagements.  I can't believe the Navy would do this then bicker over having that new museum setup!! Priorities are all messed up.  Please build us and design a better ship...one that we can all be proud of as Americans.  I have a feeling we are going to need our Navy's supposed strength soon.  This was really disappointing.

bertafiable
bertafiable

Reminds me of the old saying, throwing money down a rat hole, our country is seemingly going down one faster and faster each day.

However, even we are not stupid, mabey there is a whole lot the military and feds are not telling us .........

Patrick Kiefer
Patrick Kiefer

Where did you get your information that a version of the Steregushchy-class frigate is being built for China?

vstillwell
vstillwell

Good article. Like the F-22, the LCS program is a sick joke. WTF is going on at the Pentagon these days? Is graft becoming our worst enemy?

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