Another Course Change for LCS
The Navy has scrapped “3-2-1” crew manning of the Littoral Combat Ships (LCSs) in favor of a Blue-Gold crew concept. It also will permanently assign mission modules to hulls and dedicate four
hulls to research and development (R&D). These changes resulted from a program review initiated by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson that coincidently was announced shortly after the third and fourth LCSs suffered catastrophic engineering casualties.
As Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden, Commander, Naval Surface Forces, explained, “the thing we’ve learned in this program [LCS] is it takes continual assessment. You have to have continual feedback from the crews, the ships, the fleet commanders to determine what works and what doesn’t work.”
This is not the first course change for the LCS program. The following is a review of previous course corrections:
• Begun as “Streetfighter,” as envisioned by the late Vice Admiral Art Cebrowski and Captain Wayne Hughes, U.S. Navy (Retired), the LCS concept quickly grew from that small, agile combatant to a 3,000-ton, helicopter-carrying, ocean-basin crossing, frigate-sized warship.
• After much deliberation, the Navy down-selected from three competing designs to two, rather than one.
• The Navy announced a “bake-off” to reduce from two hull types to one.
• The “bake-off” gave way to a plan to acquire both variants in quantity, despite the fact the designs had different hulls and disparate mechanical, electrical, and combat systems.
• The Navy chose a 3-2-1 crewing concept and initially assigned three crews to two ships, with one LCS deployed forward and the other stateside for maintenance and training. The crew not on board a ship undergoes specialized training and relieves the deployed unit to maintain a sustained forward presence. Just prior to R&D deployment of the USS Freedom (LCS-1) the core crew size increased by ten.
The latest program changes are a move in the right direction but do not go far enough. Abandoning the 3-2-1 crewing concept in favor of a Blue-Gold paradigm and eliminating the requirement to swap mission modules are sound ideas. But pursuing an antisubmarine warfare (ASW) module for LCS is not a good match. The two variants are loud, cannot conduct shallow-water ASW with the proposed ASW system, and are not meant to operate in deep water.
The Freedom variant should be dedicated to antisurface warfare (ASUW). We should replace her 57-mm gun with as many vertical launch system (VLS) cells as possible. The LCS-1 combat system should be enhanced to employ SM-2s and the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM). The Navy also should accelerate development of a vertical launch antiship cruise missile for LCS and other platforms.
The Independence (LCS-2) variant should be dedicated to mine countermeasures (MCM). There are too many unanswered questions concerning the flammability of this variant’s aluminum construction to put these ships in harm’s way in an ASUW role. The Navy should remove the LCS-2’s 57-mm gun and install two 30-mm gun mounts. The 30-mm gun has almost as good a probability of kill as the 57-mm, and this would increase commonality with the USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000) class and eliminate the 57-mm from the Navy’s inventory.
Both LCS-1 and LCS-2 would make for flawed frigates. Neither was designed for blue-water operations, and many of the recent engineering problems point to serious concerns about both variants’ reliability and combat fragility. The Navy should end production of the LCS variants after the 26 hulls for which it has contracted, and develop a true multimission frigate.
Because the Navy squandered the opportunity for the long development time associated with starting a ship class design from scratch, the new frigate needs to be based on an existing hull. Candidates include the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Security Cutter or Offshore Patrol Cutter and possibly even the Oliver Hazard Perry (FFG-7) design, which still is widely popular overseas. The new frigate also needs to use existing weapon and combat systems. Candidate capabilities include a 76-mm gun, VLS, a hangar to house an MH-60R helicopter and a small unmanned aerial system, an active sonar, a passive towed array sonar, and a close-in weapon system.
To paraphrase a Winston Churchill observation about America and apply it to the LCS, the LCS program eventually will do the right thing after trying virtually everything else.
Captain Cowden is a surface warfare officer currently assigned to the military faculty of the Naval War College and is the author of The Naval Institute Almanac of the U.S. Navy (Naval Institute Press, 2005).