I think I’ve made my contempt for the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program pretty clear. What started as a pretty good idea for a cheap, almost expendable platform for use in constricted waters like the Persian Gulf, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and parts of the Western Pacific, instead grew to to be a 3000 ton jack of all trades. Every shop in the Navy that had anything to do with designing or (eventually using) the LCS put in its two cents worth into the configuration, and the good idea fairy showed up a time or two as well.
Instead of a simple patrol or fast attack craft, suddenly, the LCS was supposed to tackle the Anti-Surface Warfare, Anti-Submarine Warfare, and Anti-Mine Warfare roles. All on one vessel, and oh, yeah, can you make it go almost twice as fast as most warships? Oh, and don’t spend a lot of money!
The Navy has steadfastly denied that either of the two variants of the LCS are a replacement for the FFG-7 Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates. But it is quickly decommissioning the “Figs” with no replacements, while buying fairly large numbers of similarly sized vessels- that is, the LCS.
To be honest, the LCS really isn’t a replacement for the OHP class. The OHPs were the culmination of a long, long line of designs dating from the Destroyer Escorts of World War Two intended for “Ocean Escort.” The Navy has never been able to afford all the destroyers, cruisers and other high end ships it wants. Accordingly, the high end ships like destroyers have been tasked to the screening of fast carrier task forces, and a series of lower cost, slightly slower, more austerely armed ships were built to provided escort to transatlantic convoys or to amphibious task forces. Since the Navy hasn’t had to send convoys to Europe in a long time, these frigates have also been used for a hodge-podge of other secondary purposes. For instance, enforcing the blockade on Iraqi oil after Desert Storm meant that a lot of ships had to be approached and often boarded. And the Figs spent a lot of time doing this. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, they supported interdiction efforts to prevent smuggling or attacks on Iraqi oil terminals. They are also often tasked to support anti-drug operations in the Caribbean.
A few years ago, with the Cold War pressure to maintain the ability to escort convoys to Europe eased by the demise of the Soviet Union, and with increasing maintenance costs, the Navy decided to remove the Figs guided missile launcher. This reduced operating, manning and maintenance costs, but left the Figs woefully inadequate for Anti-Air (AAW) or Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW). In effect, the Navy ended up with really big patrol boats. And the LCS will be more of the same.
The US Navy has never really liked small patrol boats. Partly this is just a bias toward large ships, and partly it is a perception that smaller vessels can be bought quickly if a real need for them develops. But every generation or so, there is pressure on the Navy to buy smaller, relatively cheap patrol vessels. In the 60s, it was the Asheville class, in the early 80s, it was the Pegasus class, and in the 90s, it was the Cyclone class. In each case, the Navy bought a small number of ships, then promptly ignored them and tried to forget about them. But even if the ships weren’t ideal, that didn’t mean they weren’t useful. The Cyclone class are some of the busiest ships in the Navy, supporting operations in the Persian Gulf.
So the Navy finds itself today without a decent frigate or patrol boat, and with the overcost, gold plated LCS program that is sucking up shipbuilding dollars, but mostly sitting pier side and streaking rust. What should be done?
1. Cancel the LCS program.
2. Build a modernized FFG-7 class frigate
3. Buy a modern, low cost patrol boat.
The LCS buy should be cancelled, and the existing ships used as test beds for the “modular mission” concept. It may well be that customizing the outfit of a ship is the way of the future, but the technology isn’t developed to the point of being ready to deploy. Quit throwing good money after bad because of an insane obsession with speed. Speed costs money, and it also costs a lot of design compromises that limit the utility of the ships.
The Navy desperately needs a large number of frigate type vessels for escort of convoy or other low end missions. The current fleet of Figs is old and getting older, and refitting them for continued service would be costly and only add a few extra years to their service lives. As ships age, problems with corrosion and wear and tear on their propulsion systems, plumbing and wiring become more and more expensive to fix. But the basic FFG design is sound. The most critical shortcoming of the current FFG design is the lack of a guided missile system, and CDR Salamander shows us that a fix for that issue is already available. While the Frigate Upgrade Program hasn’t been trouble free, the heavy lifting has already been done. And incorporating it from the keel up in a new build would be even easier than trying to refurbish an old ship. My personal preference for these notional new-builds would dispose of the Mk13 launcher, and increase the Mk41 VLS system from 8 cells to 16. With a mix of say, 32 RIM-162 ESSM and 8 SM-2 missiles, if that isn’t enough local air defense, you shouldn’t have a Fig there anyway. You need a DDG-51 Burke. But even if we just keep the 8 cell launcher and go with a mix of 4 SM-2 and 16 ESSM, I’d be satisfied. It’s a heck of a lot more air defense than they have now. The unused magazine space where the Mk13 used to be installed could be used for berthing space or some other purpose. The open deck space where the Mk13 used to be could be used for a Mk38Mod2 25mm gun. And building new would allow for modest upgrades in the ships electrical generation and wiring, as well as allowing networking be built in from the start, rather than being squeezed in as an afterthought. The key concept here though, is to be utterly ruthless in restricting the cost growth of the ship. The idea is to buy a low end warship, so whenever faced with the choice of adding capability and cost, or accepting a limited capability, the program manager MUST accept limited capability.
Much like the LAARA program can provide 80% of the capability at 20% of the cost, a small but well supported patrol boat program would let the Navy perform many of its missions in constricted waters at low cost. By not using high end ships for simple missions like Search and Rescue, Vessel Board Search and Seize (VBSS) and such, the Navy can let those ships focus on performing their main wartime missions, and stop spending precious dollars having a billion dollar warship chasing pirates armed with AK-47s. One excellent example of a good patrol boat is the Australian Armidale class patrol boats. The Australian Navy has a long history of using patrol boats along its extensive northern coast. We could learn a few lessons from them.