The Navy's 'Tipping Point'

By Admiral Robert J. Natter, U.S. Navy (Retired), and Captain R. Robinson Harris, U.S. Navy (Retired)

They range from deterring major power war, winning our nation's wars, prevention and containment of local disruptions to fostering and sustaining cooperative relationships, providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and countering modern-day piracy. 2 Moreover, the strategy calls specifically for "regionally concentrated, credible combat power" in the western Pacific and Indian Ocean/Arabian Gulf and "globally distributed, mission-tailored maritime forces," especially in the waters off the Africa and Latin America coasts.

All this means that we need a larger Navy than the one we have today, and we need highly flexible, adaptable ships that are affordable in numbers and equipped to be manned by smaller, more efficient crews. The demands on our Navy call to mind Lord Nelson's plea: More Frigates! And that's just what the LCS is—a frigate for the 21st century. The LCS shares several characteristics in common with previous frigates, but more important, several of its characteristics, addressed here one by one, are quite advanced over its predecessors.

Cost and Capability

Affordability. Frigates are typically acquired in large numbers. The U.S. Navy acquired 51 Oliver Hazard Perry (FFG-7)-class frigates in the 1970s and '80s at the average cost per ship for the last 25 ships of the class (CORT [coherent oscillator receive and track] versions) of $650 million dollars (Fiscal Year 2009 dollars), according to Dr. Eric Labs of the Congressional Budget Office. 3 At the commissioning of the first LCS, the USS Freedom (LCS-1) on 8 November, 2008 Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead appropriately stated that the current LCS Program of Record number of 55 is just "the floor" because of current and expected operational demands. That said, given likely constraints on future DOD budgets in general, and the Shipbuilding and Conversion, Navy (SCN) budget in particular, the LCS must be frigate-like affordable if large numbers are to be acquired.

So how does the LCS measure on the affordability scale? Although cost has grown considerably for both the Freedom and the USS Independence (LCS-2), such growth is not a surprise in first-of-class ships. 4 Moreover, many analysts agree that the eventual cost of an LCS sea frame will be approximately $500 million per ship once serial production begins, and that the amortized cost of mission packages per sea frame will be $58 million, for a total cost of approximately $558 per LCS. 5 This figure compares favorably with the $650 million cost of a CORT-version FFG-7 frigate. $558 million for each LCS represents 86 percent of the cost of a FFG-7, and the FFG-7 does not have nearly the mission flexibility of an LCS. The LCS is easily the most affordable ship in the Navy's shipbuilding plan.

Size/Accessibility/Speed. Given the importance that the current strategy assigns to forward presence, capability building, and collaborative exercises/operations, a U.S. Navy frigate must be of sufficient size to conduct routine transits across the sometimes stormy conditions of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. However, today's strategic environment also calls for a frigate capable of negotiating the relatively shallow littoral waters favored by pirates and drug smugglers. 6 Both LCS designs are large enough (approximately 3,000 tons) for bluewater operations, but have shallow draft (less than 14 feet) for maritime security operations.

Indeed, the ships' shallow draft (compared to current surface combatants) will more than double the number of ports it can access, from approximately 2,000 to more than 4,000. 7 Not only that, but the ships' high speed capability, over 40 knots, will allow them to move quickly from one hot spot to another. And unlike previous frigates, the LCS is well-designed and -equipped for special operations force (SOF) support. With these features, the LCSs can stand off well out of range and detection of target sites or bases ashore or ships at sea and quickly approach and support a tailored SOF unit deploying from their flight deck or embarked boats. In addition, the ships will satisfy maritime security, sea control, and presence missions, and they are also designed to embark interchangeable modular warfighting mission packages for antisubmarine and antisurface warfare and mine countermeasures. Accordingly, the LCS gets an up-check on the size scale for frigates.

Some have challenged the endurance or "dwell time" of the LCS. However, with its range of more than 3,500 nautical miles and with on-board provisions for a month, its endurance is appropriate for a frigate-size ship. 8 Similarly, some have challenged the LCS's damage control or survivability, especially with its minimally manned crew. Such concerns are understandable since the LCS represents a different approach to damage control, one that takes full advantage of today's technologies for remote monitoring and automation (much like that envisioned for the Zumwalt -class guided-missile destroyer). Previous damage-control approaches were based on the availability of large numbers of Sailors. The LCS damage control represents a new paradigm. That said, both LCS designs incorporate Naval Vessel Rules (NVR) requirements for ship survivability. In short, LCS survivability is appropriate, given its size, speed, and missions.

What Sets the LCS Apart

Several seminal characteristics distinguish the LCS from previous frigates and render it uniquely suited for the current strategic environment.

Open Architecture (OA). During a ship's typical 40-plus-year service life, about ten generations of electronic advances will be applicable for certain command, control, communications, computer, and intelligence (C4I) and combat systems and several advances in its HM&E (hull, mechanical, and electrical) equipment (possibly more, given the increased need for fuel efficiency and the pace of commercial technology). Open architecture facilitates upgrading a ship's capability by using commonly available, commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) computing hardware and open system software, thereby allowing more rapid and affordable updates to the combat system. OA permits combat capability upgrades without having to rebuild the entire system. It also means the system can accept upgrades from a broader range of suppliers, thereby increasing competition and reducing cost.

A process called acoustic rapid COTS insertion, or ARCI, has evolved over the past eight years in the U.S. Navy submarine community. ARCI separates the electronics life cycle from the life of the platform, i.e., a process that ensures that the ship's electronics suite does not become antiquated before the hull's service life is reached. A similar program for surface ships in the U.S. Navy, the rapid capability insertion process (RCIP), is also designed to ensure that new technologies are investigated and assessed against ever-changing war-fighter requirements, and then, in a process open to all competitors, tested to determine the best.

The Navy's LCS program mandates that the ship must be OA compliant, and that will ensure that the ships can be easily and affordably upgraded to remain relevant and capable throughout their long service lives. OA most positively distinguishes the LCS from previous frigates. 

Modules, Interoperability, and Unmanned Vehicles

Modularity. The Navy's program mandates that the LCS will be modular. This term has at least two meanings when applied to Navy ships. First, it is an approach to ship construction, and it is perhaps best known in the Blohm+Voss GmbH design and construction of the MEKO frigates. This approach allows sections of the ship to be removed and replaced. But a Canadian contract report states that, "It is interesting to note that although MEKO naval ships are modular in design, there is little evidence that modularity is actually being used in the operation and support of the vessels." 9

Modularity also refers to the creation of interchangeable components or parts of complex systems linked together to perform desired tasks or missions through a set of common standards and interfaces: Think LEGO TM toys.10 Specifying "common standards and interfaces," the modules will provide the LCS with potential benefits in terms of mission flexibility, upgrades, and overall cost. As noted by The Lexington Institute, the benefits of "going modular" range from ease of technology refreshment to a decrease in total ownership cost and increased operational readiness. 11

The most successful example of naval ship modularity is the Danish Navy StanFlex concept, now more than 20 years old and present in four classes of ships. This system consists of a set of exchangeable, mission-oriented containers designed to a common standard for electrical and physical connections on board a ship. These containers are integrated into the Command Management System through a common data bus. With approximately 90 containers deployed on more than 20 ships, the system provides a multiplier effect that significantly increases the effective size of the Danish fleet. 12

A similar modular concept was specified for the LCS, and it is expected to provide the unique ability for the large number of these ships (more than 55) to be mission-optimized. Given the speed with which the LCSs can race to designated ports for mission package exchange in less than 24 hours, LCS will bring a new level of flexibility to the Fleet. Indeed, the ability of the LCS to "mass" for missions such as naval mine warfare and special operations support is unmatched in naval history.

Interoperability. Another key to the success of the LCS program will be interoperability. A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power highlighted the fact that since no single Navy can expect to have sufficient resources simultaneously to perform multiple independent and different missions in the many needed locations, the need for collaboration and cooperation will be more important than ever. This in turn demands interoperability, i.e., the ability for ships of different navies and coast guards to operate together and especially to be able to share information.

Further, as many nations have already discovered, this cooperation requires communicatios with shore facilities and non-traditional maritime partners whose communication systems and protocols are significantly different from those of traditional naval services. In addition to the basic need for traditional communications, the U.S. Navy faces the need for sharing of information in a usable and open manner for planned and unplanned events such as disaster assistance, counter-piracy, drug interdiction, search and rescue, and border protection. 13

Our Navy must find ways that make it easier to share both classified and unclassified information more easily and affordably. This is becoming especially apparent in the area of Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) where the ability to share information across navies, coast guards, disparate maritime security forces, nations, and jurisdictions is critical to developing a comprehensive common operating picture. 14 This will require integration of diverse sensor feeds with attendant applications that exploit these new capabilities. Fortunately, today's technology will facilitate this capability in the LCS.

Unmanned Systems. Our Navy's recent Unmanned Surface Vehicle (USV) Master Plan states: "Unmanned systems have the potential, and in some cases the demonstrated ability, to reduce risk to manned forces, to perform tasks which manned vehicles cannot, to provide the force multiplication necessary to meet this threat, to continue to accomplish our missions, and to do so in a way that is cost effective." 15 Unlike previous frigates, the LCS program from the outset was designed to take full advantage of and to rely on unmanned air, surface, and undersea vehicles.

The use of unmanned vehicles in naval operations is not new. In Unmanned Systems, Edward Lundquist writes, "World War II saw the first experimentation with Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs). Canadians developed the COMOX torpedo concept in 1944 as a pre-Normandy invasion USV designed to lay smoke during the invasion—as a substitute for aircraft." 16 Following World War II, USVs were developed and used for purposes such as minesweeping and battle damage assessment (BDA).

Today, the LCS program includes the requirement for the operation and support of remote-controlled sensors. Each ship is expected to be equipped with up to three Fire Scout unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), as well as unmanned surface vehicles, and the semi-submersible, unmanned remote multi-mission vehicle (RMMV) that deploys sensors for precise minehunting or for littoral antisubmarine warfare.

While seemingly endless pages are written about electronics and weapons for ships and aircraft, the reality is that well over half of the U.S. Navy's budget is allotted to military personnel and sustainment. And technologically complex ships are increasingly exacerbating the problem because of their demand for a crew trained in such skills. Adding further to the picture, the Navy will have to compete with the private sector (and the other military services) for that limited talent pool. But technology is a double-edged sword. That is, technology has the capability to reduce military personnel costs, and unmanned vehicles are an important part of that technology. The use of unmanned vehicles for operational advantage and to reduce manpower costs will positively distinguish the LCS from previous frigates.

Matched to Today's Strategic Environment

Flexibility is the hallmark of a frigate, the utility infielder and outfielder of any Navy. As this is being written, newspapers and television news channels are abuzz with multiple stories about piracy. It is anyone's guess what the topic du jour will be next week or next month, but what is clear is that we live in a dynamic and uncertain environment. Who knows when or where the next natural disaster, terrorist attack, or mining of a strategic choke point will occur? What is clear is the need our nation and our Navy have for a large number of highly flexible frigates with bluewater and littoral capability. The LCS will provide the U.S. and international navies a ship that can better satisfy the multipurpose operating needs of today's environments than any other ship afloat. This is all because of its affordability, size/accessibility, open architecture, interoperability, modularity, and its unmanned vehicle-friendliness.

The LCS is significantly different from previous frigates and a period of CONOPS experimentation will be required to sort out the best way to employ these fast, minimally crewed, focused mission ships. Indeed, it was just such an experimentation process that evolved into today's carrier flight operations. So, our Navy's LCS fleet is now putting to sea. Years from now these authors are convinced that this fleet of very capable, fast, flexible, and agile ships will be widely known as the U.S. Navy's 21st-century frigate.


1. See CDR John Patch, USN (Ret.), "Jack of All Trades: The LCS serves too many masters with too many roles," Armed Forces Journal, September, 2007. CDR Patch also argues for more frigates, but concludes that LCS is too expensive, and he is skeptical that a "focused mission" ship can fulfill the diverse missions currently envisioned for the LCS. The authors address both points in this article.

2. A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, Department of the Navy, October 2007.

3. Dr. Eric Labs, Congressional Budget Office, letter of 1 December 2008.

4. Robert W. Work, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, letter of 24 November 2008.

5. Dr. Eric Labs, Congressional Budget Office, letter of 24 November 2008. See also Emelie Rutherford, "After Major FY-08 Budget Cut . . . Navy Seeking $113M for Littoral Combat Ship Mission Modules in FY-09," Inside the Navy, 3 March 2008.

6. See multiple articles on piracy in the December, 2008 issue of USNI Proceedings .

7. The shallow draft feature was espoused by Commander U.S. Seventh Fleet (then VADM Natter) in an official requirements message to USCINCPAC in 1997.

8. Commander Fleet Forces Command (Admiral Natter) specifically spelled out the requirement for LCS to be able to transit across the Atlantic unrefueled.

9. "Modular Capabilities for the Canadian Navy's Single Class Surface Combatant: A Perspective on Flexibility," Defence R&D. Ottawa, Contract Report, DRDC-CR2006-004, February 2006, p. 8.

10. Lexington Institute, "Modularity, The Littoral Combat Ship, and the Future of the U.S. Navy," November 2006, p. 1.

11. Ibid.

12. Joris Janssen Lok, "New Danish Combat Support Ships Offer Greater Flexibility for NATO Operations," Jane's International Defense Review, June 2006, pp. 78-85.

13. "Securing Canada's Ocean Frontiers: Charting the Course from Leadmark," NDHQ/CMS. Ottawa, May 2005, pp.19-20, 35-6, 40.

14. Deputy Under Secretary of the U. S. Navy Marshall Billingslea recently said, "Our focus on MDA is driven by our recognition that all future conflicts will be fought in an information-ized environment where knowledge is king, where speed of decision-making is crucial, and where precision target of fleeting targets is mandatory." Emelie Rutherford, Defense Daily, 4 September 2008.

15. "The Navy Unmanned Surface Vehicle (USV) Master Plan", Dept of the Navy, Washington, DC, 23 July 2007. p.1

16. Edward Lundquist, "A Transformation at Sea: Littoral Combat Ship Will Rely on Unmanned Systems," Unmanned Systems, Vol. 20, No. 5, Sept/Oct 2002, pp. 26-30.

Admiral Natter retired from the U.S. Navy in December 2003 following assignments as the first Commander Fleet Forces Command and Commander Seventh Fleet and Atlantic Fleet. He heads a public and government advocacy firm, R. J. Natter & Associates in Washington, DC.

Captain Harris is director for Advanced Concepts for Lockheed Martin Integrated Defense Technologies and is a member of the Secretary of the Navy's Naval Research Advisory Committee. He also served as executive director of the CNO Executive Panel and commanded the USS Conolly (DD-979) and Destroyer Squadron 32.




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