Examining the US Navy’s Plans for an LCS-based Frigate

An Independence-class LCS (foreground) sails with a Freedom-class LCS (background).

Update: As of mid-2017, the US Navy has decided to expand the scope of the frigate program, opening the door for non-LCS designs and investigating the possibility of higher-powered sensors and a heavier armament. While an LCS-based design is still a possibility, it seems that Navy officials are leaning towards a solution with more combat capability. Visit this USNI News article for more information on the new direction of the frigate program.

There are many defense programs which polarize experts. Perhaps the best example is the F-35, which is berated by many as an overpriced boondoggle and praised by others as a marvel of 21st-century technology. The United States Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) is another.

However, instead of dropping the LCS, the United States Navy (USN) plans to turn LCS seaframes into a class of “frigates” by making combat capability upgrades. This plan is highly contentious, as many argue that the LCS platform’s shortcomings cannot be rectified, while others contend that an LCS-based frigate is the cheapest and most effective option. This article will examine the USN’s plans and shed light on the strengths and shortcomings of the LCS-based frigate.

The Littoral Combat Ship program

The Freedom-class LCS (top) and Independence-class LCS (bottom).

The LCS, as its name would suggest, is intended to excel in shallow-water operations. LCS was first envisioned as a relatively small vessel capable of engaging a variety of littoral threats such as fast attack craft, mines, land units, and submarines. Rather than carrying a full complement of equipment, like a normal multi-mission frigate would, LCS ships have “mission modules.” Each mission module contains the gear necessary to perform a certain task; for example, the anti-submarine mission module has sonar arrays, while the minesweeping mission module adds a robotic mine discovery submersible.

In an unprecedented move, the USN also decided to produce two variants of the LCS, the Freedom-class and Independence-class, simultaneously. While procuring two different ships with virtually the same capabilities may seem like a nonsensical move, there was a solid motive behind the decision: ensuring competition. Instead of choosing one design, the USN procured both seaframes to force each shipyard to compete with the other and make continual improvements. Also, the USN had paid to develop both hull types, so most of the research costs were sunk.

The Freedom-class LCS, Lockheed Martin’s brainchild, is a semi-planing monohull vessel. The Independence-class LCS, designed by General Dynamics and produced by Austal USA, is a trimaran. Both displace around 3,000 tons, which is similar to a light frigate or a heavy corvette. LCS program requirements emphasized shallow draft, high speed, and modularity over combat performance, a decision that is clearly manifested in the specifications of each ship. Armament for the LCS consists of a single Mk 110 57mm gun and a Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM) close-in weapons system (CIWS). AGM-114 Hellfire missiles are part of the surface warfare mission module.

There are a few discrepancies between the Freedom and Independence classes. Most notably, the Independence-class has a 15,200 square foot “mission bay” while the Freedom-class’s mission bay is only 6,500 square feet. Armament-wise, the Freedom-class boasts a 21-round RAM launcher, while the Independence-class’s SeaRAM has only eleven rounds. Export versions of the Freedom-class also have optional Mk 41 VLS cells, which suggests that the USN’s Freedom-class boats could also be upgraded to this standard. The Independence-class LCS has an aluminum hull, which is extremely light but weaker than a steel hull.

Two Independence-class LCS vessels underway. Note the small bow-mounted Mk 110 cannons and the SeaRAM units at the rear of each superstructure.

By forgoing a high-end weapons suite, the ships are able to deliver capabilities not otherwise possible for a vessel of this size. Both classes are capable of sprinting at speeds of over 44 knots (51mph), which is phenomenally fast for a surface combatant of this size. They also have well-appointed aviation facilities capable of launching two MH-60 helicopters. Further, their large mission bays can embark armored vehicles as well as assorted cargo, allowing the LCS to double as roll-on-roll-off (RORO) ferry if necessary (of course, the Independence-class’s 15,200 square foot mission bay offers more cargo space than that of the Freedom class).

Further, the LCS’s “mission module” scheme allows for frequent and inexpensive upgrades to the vessels’ core equipment and sensor loadout. For example, rather than having sonar equipment built into the hull, the arrays are part of the mission module, so anti-submarine upgrades consist of re-designing one module and not the entire ship. By utilizing mission modules, the USN hopes to keep the LCS relevant despite the perpetual march of engineering progress that renders many electronics suites obsolete and necessitates costly modernization overhauls.

Heavy automation is employed in both LCS designs. The Russian Grigorovich-class frigate, roughly equal in displacement to the LCS designs, has a complement of around 200 persons. In comparison, the LCS has a core complement of around 85 for basic duties and aviation as well as fifteen for mission module operation, yielding a total complement of around 100 crew. Because sailor payroll accounts for a significant portion of vessel lifecycle costs, the LCS’s automation is projected to yield significant savings. However, this sparse crewing arrangement has also lead to a number of serious mishaps, forcing the USN to re-examine how it trains and rotates LCS crews. These remedial measures mitigate the cost savings that automation was supposed to provide.

Doubts over survivability

The Freedom-class LCS USS Freedom returns to Pearl Harbor after participating in RIMPAC.

Despite its small-frigate displacement, the LCS is hardly more lethal than a support ship. The 57mm cannon would have difficulty engaging anything larger than a small patrol boat, while the SeaRAM unit has a meager five-mile range and is useful for self-defense only. Other small frigates such as the Grigorovich-class are armed with medium-range surface to air missiles, supersonic cruise missiles, modern air search radars, a full electronic warfare and decoy complement, etc.

The innate survivability of both LCS designs is also a concern. The vast majority of USN warships adhere to stringent survivability standards which enable them to withstand missile strikes, mine detonations, massive fires, etc. The USN’s Survivability Instruction 9070.1A establishes the standards by which surface ship survivability is judged; major surface combatants, such as destroyers and aircraft carriers, all conform to level three, which is the highest level. Many amphibious warships and utility vessels adhere to level two. The LCS has a survivability rating of level one, the lowest level possible for a non-commercial USN warship. Level one is sufficient for tankers and assorted utility vessels, which never venture into combat zones, but for a major surface combatant to possess level one protection is worrying, especially considering the LCS’s poor defensive capabilities.

It is also unclear exactly how the LCS vessels will fare in combat. Designed primarily for low-intensity operations and littoral utility, the LCS in its current configuration would be highly vulnerable to threats such as anti-ship missiles and submarines (if the anti-sub mission module is not equipped). The number of fielded anti-ship missiles has been growing rapidly; in contested regions such as the Pacific, it seems that any conflict would almost certainly involve the employment of such missiles. This has lead many to conclude that the LCS would be easy prey in a war with near-peer competitors such as China or Russia. While the SeaRAM CIWS units do provide some amount of defense against such threats, it is clear that the LCS is more susceptible to missile attack and weaker once hit than the US’s other surface combatants.

Frigate conversion

USS Freedom is replenished by the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard.

As it became clear the LCS could not match the combat capabilities of the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate it was intended to replace, the USN made plans to procure a new frigate. The Secretary of Defense Ash Carter also requested the combined LCS and frigate buy be cut from 52 ships to 40.

The USN explored four options for the new frigate. Option one: a slightly-modified LCS with a more capable combat system, a new over-the-horizon missile, and various small improvements.  The government refers to this option as the “minor-modified” LCS. Another option was a heavily-modified LCS with a totally reworked combat system, additional vertical launch cells, and other major additions. The third option was to build a class of frigates based on a pre-existing design specification. Lastly, the USN also considered ordering its own clean-sheet frigate design.

The USN explored four options for the new frigate. Option one: a slightly-modified LCS with a more capable combat system, a new over-the-horizon missile, and various small improvements.  The government refers to this option as the “minor-modified” LCS. Another option was a heavily-modified LCS with a totally reworked combat system, additional vertical launch cells, and other major additions. The third option was to build a class of frigates based on a pre-existing design specification. Lastly, the USN also considered ordering its own clean-sheet frigate design.

According to the USN, the comprehensive report was produced and, after much deliberation, the minor-modified LCS won out. The USN analysis concluded that the minor-modified LCS could deliver the capabilities needed while costing significantly less than the alternatives. The minor-modified LCS could also be produced more rapidly than the other options because it would utilize the hot LCS production lines with only minor alterations.

Other organizations arrived at different conclusions. The Government Accountability Office (GAO), for example, recently produced a report chiding the USN’s current plan. The report asserts that the USN’s report’s methodology lacked rigor and questions the notion that the minor-modified LCS can fulfill the frigate role. Also questioned are the USN’s cost estimates: the GAO believes that the USN has underestimated the cost of the minor-modified LCS and is concerned that the program, as currently planned, will lack congressional oversight. The USN shot back, asserting that the GAO’s analysis demonstrates “a misunderstanding of serial production.” Despite questioning the USN’s execution of the program, the GAO never outright proclaimed that the minor-modified LCS was not the best option.

Before examining current plans for the minor-modified LCS, it is important to remember that Congress has not yet made a binding decision regarding whether to cut the LCS buy and funding for the frigate is not guaranteed. The minor-modified LCS option is under active development, favored by the USN, and agreed to by the majority of government officials, so it seems likely to proceed. Nevertheless, Trump’s administration could still advocate for a drastic change in direction or even a wholesale cancellation of the program.

Minor-modified LCS: improvements and shortcomings

USS Independence as viewed from a helicopter.

The minor-modified LCS, as currently conceived by the USN, will improve on the current LCS specification in a few key areas. Most noticeably, the minor-modified LCS would add an over-the-horizon surface-to-surface missile system such as Kongsberg’s Naval Strike Missile or Lockheed Martin’s Long-Range Anti-Surface Missile. The current LCS has no capability to engage another major warship at range, so an over-the-horizon missile is critical to enhancing its lethality. AGM-114L Hellfire missiles would also be standard, whereas current LCS only carry Hellfires as part of the surface warfare module.

The minor-modified LCS would also bring many combat systems up to speed with other USN surface combatants. Its air search radar would receive an upgrade, and equipment such as sonar, usually part of the anti-submarine module, would be standard. Decoys and electronic warfare systems would be upgraded to the type currently found aboard cruisers and destroyers, and armor would also be added, although this may not bring the minor-modified LCS up to 9070.1A level two standards, as many of the LCS’s survivability shortcomings are inherent to the hull design.

While these modifications would bring LCS lethality up to standard, defensive capabilities would still be lackluster. The most glaring omission is that the minor-modified LCS outline does not include an anti-air missile upgrade. For a 3,000+ton modern frigate, which the minor-modified LCS would be if produced, this is highly unusual. The GAO report makes the same observation, noting that area air defense is generally accepted to be one role of a modern frigate and that the minor-modified LCS would have no such capability. Between the SeaRAM CIWS and the improved decoys and radar, self-defense capabilities would be somewhat improved, but relying on SeaRAM for self-defense is not ideal. CIWS such as SeaRAM are intended to be part of a robust layered self-defense system, not a standalone solution, because the short range of such systems leaves no margin of error. Because of SeaRAM’s short range, the minor-modified LCS would still be unable to escort other vessels or secure areas of operation against air attack.

If the minor-modified LCS plan goes ahead, a critical question is whether or not the USN should downselect to one LCS variant for production. A downselect would probably reduce costs, as research and development resources would be more focused. However, a downselect would also mean the end of either Austal USA or Lockheed Martin’s production of LCS seaframes, which would certainly mean layoffs at the losing shipyard. Currently, the USN plans to hold a contest sometime in 2018 and award all frigate contracts to the winner.

While both the Freedom- and Independence-classes have a shot at victory, the Freedom-class has advantages over the Indepdendence-class. Perhaps the largest: its hull is already configured to accept an Mk 41 VLS system, which could be used for launching whatever over-the-horizon missile is chosen. If he USN were to add an area surface-to-air missile capability at some later time, the Freedom-class’s VLS-ready configuration would facilitate that transition more smoothly than the Independence-class. Also, the Freedom-class’s steel hull is significantly more survivable than the Independence-class’s aluminum hull.

Whatever direction the program takes, the controversies seem unlikely to subside, as every proposed solution has its detractors. Perhaps the largest threat is that Trump’s administration could save hundreds of millions each year by cancelling the program altogether; this would require the USN to go back to the drawing board and find another way to fill its small-ship capability gap. Any positive or negative press the LCS receives during this interval could also have a significant impact on the program’s direction. In any case, the outcome of this program will eventually shape the face of American surface warfare, and especially littoral warfare, for the next few decades. Watch for a final decision sometime within the next year.

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