Reconsidering the LCS

Editor’s note: Fishbreath and I aren’t fans of the LCS, but he asked me to defend it and I can hardly resist such a challenge…

The LCS is a curious sort of ship. There are two classes, the Freedom-class and the Independence-class, and I’m going to group them together for the purposes of this discussion. They are both very fast, lightly armed, and carry a helicopter. They have some swappable mission modules to enable them to carry things like Hellfire missiles. Their only air defense system is a launcher for the RIM-116; a close-in weapon.

One is immediately struck by what the LCS don’t have. They don’t have a fancy towed sonar array. They don’t have a fancy bow sonar array. They don’t have a bunch of lightweight torpedo tubes. They don’t have antiship missiles. They don’t have a “proper” SAM system like SM-2/3/6, Aster, or ESSM. One might think of them as stripped down Oliver Hazard Perry-class analogues, but this might be frustrating. The Perrys are the quintessential Cold-war era multirole frigate. One might also look at all of the other ships called frigates these days and despair about the LCSes. They are underarmed!

Or are they? Let us first ask what mission we might have for the LCSes. Mission ought to drive the ship design. The Perrys were designed as escorts. Second-rate escorts: intended to protect the anticipated convoys running supplies and war materiel from North America to Europe in the event of a Cold War gone hot. As such, they have an antiaircraft armament of one Mk. 13 single-arm launcher for the SM-1. They also have a towed sonar array and some lightweight torpedo launchers, plus hangar facilities for two helicopters. On paper they’re much more capable ships.

However, one of the things we note is that from 2004 to 2005, the US Navy removed the Mark 13 launchers from the Perrys that remained in service. Why? Well, clearly removing the system reduces ongoing support and maintenance costs. Plus, it’s not really all that useful. The SM-1 missile and Mark 92 fire control system is grossly inadequate against modern threats. The CIWS is going to be able to (probably) handle a single inbound antiship missile fine, and anything serious attack is going to get past SM-1 and CIWS.

The Falklands War showed all manner of problems with the Type 42 destroyers. These were built for air defense, but they suffered badly at the hands of the Argentine air force. The Argentine air force used Exocet antiship missiles and the sort of unsophisticated, low-level, unguided bombing attacks one might see in the Korean War. There were problems with target prioritization, being sure that no target was left unengaged by the multiple firing ships, and ships fouling each other’s radar fixes. The Perrys were even less optimized for anti-air warfare than the Type 42s.

Anyway, the LCS-as-frigate comparison seems to be assuming implicitly that we have to have nice, simple ship types: cruisers, destroyers, and frigates, and proper navies have all three. We have Ticonderoga-class cruisers, which are built on Spruance-class destroyer hulls and are smaller than Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. Let’s unpack those a little more. There are currently 22 active Ticos, each with the Aegis combat system and 122 VLS tubes. There are 65 active Burkes with three under repair, four under construction, and five more on order. Each Burke has an Aegis combat system and 90 or 96 VLS missile tubes. Taking active hulls only, that’s a total of 87 Burkes and Ticos, which I’ll collectively (and imprecisely) refer to as “Aegis ships” for simplicity.

The Aegis ships are fantastic escorts, since they all have powerful radars, computer coordinating systems, communication networks to chat amongst themselves, and lots of missiles. Each VLS tube can hold one of the Standard family of SAMs or four ESSM SAMs. In terms of dealing with air or missile attack, they are the best ships available. They can protect themselves and something nearby. Like a carrier. We have 11 supercarriers, plus nine more straight-deck “Baby Carriers” of the USMC. So if they all were at sea at once, and all operating separately we’d have about four Aegis ships per flattop. That’s pretty good. The Royal Navy would like to be able to do that, and we’d have way more missile tubes per flattop than they would, even if they could manage four escorts per flattop.

Of course, the Mk. 41 VLS tubes on the Aegis ships can carry other missiles as well, including Tomahawk Cruise missiles and LRASMs, giving the ships a potent land attack or surface strike capability. It’s pretty easy for a task force commander to lob an awe-inspiring number of cruise missiles at some tin-plate dictator we hate while having enough SAMs to protect the fleet. For comparison, look at the positively lame ground attacks from the Russian navy deployed to Syria. They wish they had “Aegisski” ships with tons of VLS tubes to lob cruise missiles at their enemies.

In the Aegis ships, the USN has a large number of highly capable surface ships that are truly “Do-everything” ships. They can do any mission you please, and can be configured to do all of them reasonably well at once. No 4-5,000 ton frigate can do likewise. They tend to have 16-32 VLS tubes and a much less powerful radar. These ships tend to carry a mix of quadpacked ESSMs and standard missiles, or foreign equivalent systems. They can do some amount of air defense, but mostly just of themselves. It’s not clear what adding a bunch of ESSMs is going to do to the already formidable air defense umbrella in a US Navy carrier battle group.

Lets also stress that, while we could argue about the most cost-effective mix of ships, the 87 Aegis ships mentioned earlier are already purchased. We have them. They’re ours. Spending a bunch of money on redundant capabilities is silly, and that seems to be what most want to advocate for.

What the Aegis ships aren’t is cheap. They have high operating costs, and there’s plenty of flagwaving missions or antipiracy operations that could be done by a ship without all the fancy, expensive bells and whistles. Playing “Plane guard” and fishing pilots who had to eject from a botched carrier landing doesn’t require a fancy radar or lots of missiles. Hunting pirates off the horn of Africa doesn’t require any fancy systems either, just seakeeping. So the best compliment for a big fleet of highly-capable Aegis ships is a bunch of austere, cheap-to-operate corvettes with good seakeeping.

Good seakeeping is important, and is the major cost driver. Seakeeping is a function of structure, and I’m being imprecise and lumping in range as well. America, as you probably know, is separated from regions of trouble by large oceans, and anything sent to those troublesome regions has to first cross those pesky oceans. And yes, seakeeping eats up space that could be otherwise filled with weapons. If our ships could sail ten miles from our coast and find trouble, we could pack them to the gills with weapons and not care how stable they are. But that’s not the situation we find ourselves in. So no, we can’t just build a few Pegasus-class fast attack craft and call it a day.

So that is how we get to the LCS, more or less. It has a deck gun, a SeaRAM installation, and a helicopter hangar. It can accept a few other mission modules. It can handle a number of basic tasks, including to sail to not-so-hot regions flying an American flag. The one thing I don’t get is the overly high top speed of the ships. I wouldn’t have designed that in, since it drives costs up. Even so, they’re good ships for what they’re designed for: complimenting the rest of our highly-capable surface fleet.

13 thoughts on “Reconsidering the LCS

  1. Chris Bradshaw

    The problem I see is that the LCS isn’t just a 1 for 1 replacement for the OHP frigates. It is also a replacement for the Avenger class MCM ships, the MH-53E airborne mine countermeasures helicopter, and the Cyclone class patrol craft. Mine warfare is a huge deal for the USN if we want to breach contested A2AD zones established by Iran or China, both of which have tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of easily deployable naval mines poised to be laid in some of the world’s most important shipping lanes.

    We’re only procuring 8-10 MCM modules for the LCS to replace 12 dedicated Avengers and 28 MH-53E helos, and the new MCM LCS modules are individually LESS capable.

    “We’re funding these new systems that, when you look behind the curtain, are not as capable as the systems that they are replacing,” said Bob O’Donnell, a retired Navy captain who directed the service’s program office for mine warfare in the years following the first Gulf War. “Even if the new systems meet all their operational targets, they won’t be as good as the ships and helicopters we’ve had in service for decades.”

    These LCS crews will be trained for a variety of missions instead of pure MCM, which means fewer, individually well-trained crews on less expendable metal hulls, instead of the much lower signature wood/fiberglass Avenger hulls. This leaves a massive gap in MCM capability that won’t be fixed for years to come.

    If you just want a cheap basic ship to show the flag, just take an affordable Coast Guard Famous class cutter, stick a CIWS on it, and paint it grey. There’s no need to spend 700 million dollars on an LCS when the Navy has so many other good uses of cash.

    1. Fishbreath

      Little spoiler: we’re going to talk up the Legend-class proposals for FFG(X) on the next podcast. We both like it as a cheap flag-waver.

  2. Chris Bradshaw

    Are you fellows not really concerned about mine warfare? It may be less glamorous than AEGIS and the LSRAM, but it is very dangerous. Mining Japan’s harbors arguably brought it to its knees more effectively than the bomb, all because they neglected their mine warfare capability. Let’s not make that mistake.

    1. Fishbreath

      If you’ll pardon the pun, it has a tendency to slip beneath our notice. Maybe we’ll talk about it on a future podcast.

    2. parvusimperator Post author

      Well, mine warfare is a concern, yes. Admittedly here I am defending the “LCS Concept” a.k.a. “An American Naval Corvette” from the standard attacks it gets, namely that it isn’t an OHP replacement and it needs “MOAR SAMZ!!!!!1!!1” or somesuch.

      It does have a pretty cool UUV drone payload option, as do some of the Burkes.

  3. Chris Bradshaw

    I’m not one of those folks who believe that the LCS should be an air defense ship in addition to everything else, but the big kicker here is opportunity cost. For the dollar and political capital value sunk into this project, I really think we can and should have done better.

    The surface warfare module is a joke. Two 30mm autocannons and a hellfire missile launcher + 2 rubber boats is going to set back the US taxpayer 23 million. A Wickes class destroyer from World War 1 has more anti-surface capability than that, especially when taking into account the fact that the Hellfires aren’t even ready yet and the cost doesn’t include installation. Failure.

    The ASW module also doesn’t really cut it, being just barely over the adequate Key Performance Parameters (KPP) threshold and not even available until 2021. If you’re going to make a dedicated ASW boat for the coastal mission, it needs to be cheap, decently acoustically stealthy, and reasonably capable. The LCS is none of those things. Failure.

    Regarding MCM, the UUV drone is sexy and space-age, but it has a tested clearance rate in optimal conditions of 1-2 trial mines an hour, which is likely to be halved in unfamiliar and chaotic conditions against unfamiliar foreign mines. Yes, someone already thought of adding more Knifefish UUVs, but there isn’t enough room in the mission bay. The rest of the components like the Barracuda Mine neutralization system and the Unmanned Influence Sweep System (UISS) aren’t even close to IOC readiness, and are likely to push the costs up even further. Failure.

    To put our mine challenge in perspective, Hungry Korea, Commie China, Russia, and Iran all have hundreds of thousands of mines. We deployed 277 dedicated minesweepers in support of D-Day against far less sophisticated mines on a beach that the Nazis didn’t even expect us to hit, and we still lost several dozen ships to mines, including a cruiser and a half dozen destroyers. If you attribute landing ships lost to unknown causes to mines, that number could rise into the hundreds. This stuff is dangerous.

    It is worth noting that the modules have been under development since sometime around 2003. Now, some 15 years later, not a single module exists in an operationally useful form. Operational modules are not expected for another few to several years and then another few years will be required to actually manufacture the modules, plus more time to install the damn things and train crews. We are burning through LCS seaframe life spans without any modules to equip them. It is now approaching the realm of possibility that some LCS vessels will retire without ever having had a functional and useful useful module equipped.

    1. Fishbreath

      For my part, I’ve always thought the mission module setup was dumb and unlikely to work in any practical sense. (I don’t recall if we’ve slammed the LCS for that in particular here or on the podcast—we’ve written so many hit pieces on it it’s a little hard to keep track.)

      You’re right to say that it’s an opportunity cost thing. For the time and money sunk into the LCS project, I feel like we could have built a little ASW corvette class, new minesweepers, and maybe some ASuW missile slingers. (Not that we have any good anti-ship missiles to mount on them; that’s something we need to write about.)

      Parvusimperator has talked me around on the notion that not everything needs to be an AAW ship; it’s fine to slap on a few SeaRAM setups for point defense and maybe a wee little VLS setup for ESSMs to pop incautious aircraft. The US Navy already has VLS tubes coming out its ears.

    2. parvusimperator Post author

      I agree with not liking the modules. The surface module gets you literally nothing you don’t already have with the deckmount 57mm and the helo.

      And I’m not sure how ASW-y I would go with the corvette. Maybe some acoustic optimization, but probably not a ton to keep costs down. Common hulls, dammit! Helo should be sufficient, and maybe a towed array.

      Perhaps a design sketch is in order.

    3. Chris Bradshaw

      You might be able to put it on the same fiberglass hull that you would be building a seagoing MCM ship on. A single helo on a surface combatant means no helo when you need it, so why not build ASW task groups around a large commercial hull used as an ASW helo carrier? Obviously that would be target priority 1 for an OPFOR SSK, so you could stuff it with extremely buoyant cork to allow it to take a torpedo. An air group of say 10 helos and a small number of UAVs in support of a group of expendable, light ASW corvettes seems like a good basis for a sub-hunting group.

  4. Chris Bradshaw

    Regarding AAW, the big limitation isn’t missile tubes or radar, but crew time. There are 300 men and women on a Burke, and together they have to master ASW, AAW, CIWS use , ASuW, land attack, and now the ABM role. Each of these sophisticated systems is only getting harder to master every year with new iterations of software and hardware, and the amount of crew time allocated to learn is shrinking. Those are huge shoes to fill, especially when secondary tasks like training with allies, humanitarian aid, anti-piracy… are added to the mix. It’s no wonder that our sailors are pulling 20 hour workdays to handle all of these responsibilities and are falling asleep on the job to the point where we’re losing ships to collisions with civilian traffic.

    If you want a crew to be good at AAW, train full time, have enough dedicated people for the job, and don’t spend valuable man hours and taxpayer dollars doing other things. The same goes for ASW, ASuW, and ABM. A specialized platform and crew will outperform a generalist every time.

    I’m completely in agreement with you fellows that we need a dedicated ASW corvette, a dedicated 21st century minesweeper, and perhaps a missile boat with the new AGM-158C LRASM. It’s a nifty, low-observability networked missile, although it is a bit slow.

    1. Fishbreath

      On the 21st-century minesweeper topic, I’m doing a little reading on the LPH-2-type amphibious assault ships for a retro procurement post. I didn’t know that USS Inchon was converted to a mine countermeasures support ship, providing basing for the helicopters and support and repair for the Avengers. With the Tarawas end-of-lifed, maybe there’s room to resurrect that concept.

  5. Chris Bradshaw

    I’d love to see some innovation in the MCM space, and experimentation with the Tarawas. The problem was that the USS Inchon was a mothership for MH-35E choppers… which are also being retired. Soon we won’t have any minesweeping helicopters, so there’s a gap that needs to be filled. For now, surely we can put together a modernized Avenger and roll out new systems for it as they mature and become reliable, rather than go for the concurrency nonsense that the LCS has adopted.


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