The Independence Class provides a base to me for future Frigate as well as Cruiser designs. It was a good idea, but poorly executed.
The Littoral Combat Ship program has come under heavy criticism, and with good reason. But beyond the design flaws, production difficulties and huge cost overruns, the very concept of littoral combat ships, as envisioned and executed by the U.S. Navy has come under attack. A reexamination of this concept and its applicability to the modern naval battlespace seems warranted. It takes a certain amount of hubris for us armchair admirals to second guess the Navy, but we do have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, and it is an interesting and worthwhile intellectual exercise.
The place to start is in the past, before the LCS idea was hatched. The standard small warship that was and remains the lynchpin of most of the world's navies is the frigate. I am not referring to the expanded definition of today, where destroyers are labeled 'frigates' for political purposes. I am talking about warships in the 2500-4000 light ton displacement class.
The frigate is generally a blue-water oceangoing multipurpose vessel. For small navies, the frigate is their capital ship. For large navies, it is the lower-end inexpensive vessel that does the odd jobs which the larger combat groups and vessels cannot be bothered with. Since it frequently operates on its own, it must be capable of local air, surface and anti-submarine defense at the minimum. Because they also may have to support landings or attack shoreline targets, they usually have a medium-to-large caliber main gun. They also usually operate an armed helicopter for ASW, surveillance, targeting, SAR and hunting FACs or other small vessels.
While U.S. Navy frigates used to be reasonably well-armed vessels built to full warship standards, that changed in the 1970s with the Oliver Hazard Perry class of frigate. Those were built far more cheaply and with a lighter armaments load. They were focused more on ASW, getting away from the normal multipurpose paradigm. But they were still oceangoing frigates.
The end of the Cold War and the rise of terrorism and low-intensity conflicts as the primary area of operation for our military caused a rethinking of the mission and structure of our military in general. The Navy recognized the need to operate in the littorals was not being properly supported. Missions like anti-pirate operations, drug interdiction, coastal surveillance and supporting specops missions were becoming more prevalent, while traditional naval warfare missions were receding in importance. Also, smaller nations were waging asymmetrical warfare using sea mines, minisubs and swarm small boat attack strategies. The Navy was also facing a rapidly shrinking budget and numbers of ships, meaning it would have to do more with far fewer hulls.
The obvious solution seemed to be to go to a shallow-draft inexpensive vessel that was capable of performing all of these missions. The problem was that packing all that equipment into a smaller hull was not feasible or cost-effective. To get past that, our Navy copied the idea of mission modules from the Danish Navy Stanflex module concept. They even modularized some of the weapons systems so they could be swapped out as needed, depending upon current mission requirements. They added stealth features to increase survivability and allow somewhat covert operational capability. They made it very fast so it could cover a larger area, get to the scene of an incident much more quickly and better pursue faster vessels. Thus the littoral combat ship concept was born.
The problems became apparent as the vessels were designed and built, and the criticism started to mount. The vessel's armament fit was far too light for conventional naval operations, leaving it extremely vulnerable and not very combat capable. The modularized weapons took far too long to swap. The ships seemed to be a jack of all trades, but master of none by a long shot. And the cost overruns were positively obscene, leaving us with incredibly expensive small ships with very limited offensive, defensive and mission capabilities.
The first thing to do is to look at our needs. There are many that argue that the days of large naval battles are over forever, and what our Navy needs is essentially glorified coast guard vessels with a specops support capability. I believe this kind of thinking makes the classic mistake of preparing for the last battle instead of the next one. With our navy constantly shrinking and the navies of certain developing nations rapidly increasing in size, sophistication and capability, the idea of future conventional naval engagements is in no way out of the question. For this reason, I believe eliminating the powerful capabilities of the traditional frigate, as the LCS seems to have done, is a serious mistake. However, the additional littorals capability and mission flexibility the LCSbrings is also a needed thing.
Recent developments in ship design show that other nations have watched our LCS program and learned from it. One great example is Turkey's Milgem corvette and frigate program. Turkish naval architects have created a small, shallow-draft multipurpose oceangoing warship capable of operating in a littoral environment at a much more reasonable cost. We should be willing to learn from their example, as they have learned from us.
The LCS program has certainly provided some useful innovations. The tri-hull configuration of the U.S.S. Independence class has provided a much more stable platform with more deck space and low hull drag. The water jet propulsion system copied from commercial fast ferries is far faster than conventional propulsion. The mission module bay idea seems to work, and is being widely copied as we copied it from the Danes.
The problems with the LCS that led to grotesque price inflation include trying to integrate composites such as carbon fiber into the ships. The goal of reducing crew size through automation led to extremely expensive and complex systems. They probably went a little overboard on this (no pun intended). They used fewer off-the-shelf systems, which exploded development costs and created long program delays. There was also an effort to totally remake program management and procurement procedures from the keel up that ended up vastly increasing costs, but that is beyond the scope of this discussion.
Now that the problems are made clear, the question is what is the solution?
First, costs must be reduced. It seems plain that the trend of shrinking budgets will continue for the foreseeable future. Expensive ships will be built in smaller numbers. Fleshing out the number of hulls at the lower end seems the only way our navy will be able to maintain the necessary coverage over the vast areas it operates in.
Second, the ships need to be able to not only defend themselves adequately, but to be able to engage and destroy the reasonably sophisticated enemy vessels that are becoming prevalent even in third world navies. It must obviously be able to deal effectively with the other prevalent threats in the modern naval environment, including AShMs, submarines, minisubs and swarm small boat attacks. Furthermore, since landing SEAL and Marine teams and operating inshore is included in the mission, it must be able to provide fire support for troops and suppressive fire when attacked by shore-based ordnance.
Third, the vessels must maintain the 'green water' and multimission capability of the LCS.
Looking at these basic requirements, I think the corvette-sized hull of the LCS is a bit too small to carry the needed equipment. Frigate-sized vessels have been the multimission standard for so many years for good reason. I would hazard a guess that a hull between 2500 and 3000 tons light would be the sweet spot. Again, the tri-hull configuration with water jet propulsion seems to have good advantages. Tri-hull water jet commercial ferries have been being built inexpensively for decades now, so that should be quite feasible. With the requirement to operate helos and UAVs, the larger and more stable flight deck this design offers is highly desirable. The LCS program R&D has produced warship water jet propulsion systems that are quiet enough at lower speeds to allow effective ASW operations. If we stay away from super-expensive composites and stick with steel and aluminum, using modular construction techniques we should be able to mass produce these hulls far cheaper than our present LCSs.
So far as weapons, I do not see getting around the need for VLS missile cells. With even corvette-sized vessels in third world navies carrying stealthy and/or supersonic AShMs, and the prevalence of modern fighter-bombers delivering precision guided ordnance from standoff distances, a RAM launcher Is just not enough. Self-defense length Mk.41 cells with quad-packed ESSMs seem to be the minimum realistic air defense system. A 16-cell fit should be perfectly feasible for the size of vessel we are talking about. I think even tactical length cells might be feasible, which would allow the use of SM-2 and ASROC, greatly improving the size of the defensive sphere around the vessel and obviously improving all-weather ASW capabilities.
Another system I would like to see installed is VLS Harpoon. The Harpoon Block II has already been tested and certified for VLS operation in self-defense length Mk.41 VLS cells, though our Navy canceled the purchase. A tri-hull vessel could be fitted with a few below-deck Mk.48 short VLS two-cell packs in the outer two hulls for ESSM and Harpoon Block III. That would eliminate the vulnerable quad-pack Harpoon deck launchers. I would hate to see a lucky hit from a shore gun set off one of them. Also, with Harpoon launchers come the land attack capability of the SLAM version of that missile, a valuable addition to the arsenal of a littoral combat ship. This all pretty much off-the-shelf stuff, so the costs should not be high.
The main gun on the LCS is the Mk.110 57mm gun. This is a very capable gun for smaller vessels. It is good for anti-ship, anti-small boat and anti-air use, and has a limited shore bombardment capability as well. With a larger frigate-size vessel, I would go for a larger main gun, the Oto Melara Compact 127/54 mount. With the Vulcano ammunition, the range of this gun in shore attack fire missions is amazing. Its anti-surface capabilities are well-proven, and have gotten even better with precision guided shells. With frag ammo detonating just over the target, it would shred small boats. It also has a significant anti-air capability, especially against helicopters. It is another relatively low-cost off-the-shelf system.
The LCS uses the 30mm Bushmaster autocannon as a secondary gun system. Tests with Phalanx and other systems have shown that autocannon do not do too well against small boat swarm attacks unless they throw larger caliber shells that can spray out a cloud of heavy fragments. Such shells are also useful in the CIWS role, and for counter-shore battery fire when close in-shore. A pair of 35mm Millenium gun mounts, one on each side of the ship would fill this niche nicely. They are lightweight, compact, and require no deck penetration. They can fire short bursts at a 1000 rpm rate of fire, four times the rate of the Bushmaster. Their prefragmented rounds put out a large cloud of heavy fragments, and their HE rounds are quite destructive. And again, it is an off-the-shelf system. Of course there would also be some deck mounts like the Mk.38 25mm mount and/or .50 HMG pintle mounts.
For ASW, the LCS has no dedicated ASW weapons. Recent developments have seen the fielding of lightweight dual-purpose torpedo/anti-torpedo systems that I think would be an excellent addition to these ships. Also, the Russians put anti-sub rocket systems on all their ASW vessels, from small patrol boats right on up to the Kirov-class nuclear powered cruisers. These are quite effective in the shallow water littorals environments these new ships would be expected to operate in. Bofors makes a 375mm ASW rocket launcher system, which again would be an affordable off-the-shelf solution. They might even be able to come up with other rockets for anti-mine warfare, as the Russians have with theirs. Perhaps they could even have a shore bombardment rocket, as the Italians did with one of their multipurpose naval rocket systems.
For sensors, there are myriad choices available right now that would be compatible with all the weapons systems described here.
The ability to launch and recover RHIBs will of course be required, as well as accommodations for troops. This is one place where configurable spaces are useful. Larger compartments with movable partitions and removable folding bunk systems would be very useful. Such spaces could be set up as bunking quarters, hospital wards or storage spaces, as the mission requires.
A mission module bay should be retained as well. This has proven to be a good idea. I do think it needs to be improved somewhat, as current systems leave a lot of wasted space between modules, which is an inefficient use of valuable real estate within the hull.
So far as using these ships for mine clearing, I am not convinced that is a good idea. They lack the explosion-resistant, low metal content construction of dedicated mine hunters, making them vulnerable. I think that keeping a fleet of dedicated mine hunters is well worth the extra cost.
There is one other thing that I think is desperately needed, but is lacking on the LCS. That is armor. I know this seems contrary to the idea of an inexpensive ship. Armoring a vessel is costly, and it adds a lot of weight. But these ships are supposed to operate in close to the shore. They will at times be in range of even light autocannon and HMGs when traversing narrow straits between islands and coming in-shore to pick up exfiltrating teams in small boats. Critical areas of the ship need to be protected. With modern lightweight composite armor, this should be quite doable. To leave these ships completely unarmored and vulnerable to even light weapons fire seems crazy to me.
These ships must also be up to full warship construction standards so that they can take damage from heavier weapons and survive. It is a growing trend to use commercial instead of military construction standards to save money. For vessels like these who will go well into harm's way, I think that would be a terrible mistake.
So those are my admittedly inexpert thoughts on what our Navy's lower-end vessels could look like. Comments, criticism, ridicule and your own ideas are welcome. Have at it.
Last edited by Ought Six; 07-15-2012 at 09:17 PM.
The Independence Class provides a base to me for future Frigate as well as Cruiser designs. It was a good idea, but poorly executed.
LCS is basically a big corvette - it's not meant to be an ocean-going escort for other ships, or to hunt SSNs in blue-water scenarios, or defend against intensive missile attack. Compare it to the mission and capabilities of other ships in its class.
Why an OTO 5-inch? It's not used on any other American ship, and it's a heavy and complex weapon. The Bofors 57 is perfectly suitable for dealing with boats and can help in air defense.
Why Tac-length VLS and two Milleniums? Millenium isn't USN issue, it's expensive and makes logistics more difficult, and heavier stuff is best left to destroyers. Two of them is overkill on a ship that is supposed to be low-cost above all.
The Bofors rocket launcher is obsolete. No one has been putting them on ships since the 80s. A better alternative would be something like the SAAB ASW-601 multipurpose launcher.
I'm always taken aback that they didn't take any of the successful frigate concepts in Europe and slightly modify it. So many great ships in the 4000 tonne range to choose from.
Why don't they use their modular design theories on a frigate? Would allow bigger modules too. Of course, the main battery should be a fixed part, and not removable from the the hull. But that solves that one argument. Just imagine a frigate with a customizable weapon load out.
----------Shore bombardment and low-cost long range anti-surface capability. They are widely used on frigate-size vessels, and use standard USN ammo.Why an OTO 5-inch? It's not used on any other American ship, and it's a heavy and complex weapon. The Bofors 57 is perfectly suitable for dealing with boats and can help in air defense.
----------If there was some existing weapon system that could do the same thing, I would agree; but there is nothing between the 20mm Phalanx and 57mm Mk.110. Two of them on a frigate-size vessel is a perfectly normal fit.Why Tac-length VLS and two Milleniums? Millenium isn't USN issue, it's expensive and makes logistics more difficult, and heavier stuff is best left to destroyers. Two of them is overkill on a ship that is supposed to be low-cost above all.
----------Thanks for the correction on that one.The Bofors rocket launcher is obsolete. No one has been putting them on ships since the 80s. A better alternative would be something like the SAAB ASW-601 multipurpose launcher.
How does it exactly "work" when not a single Multi-Mission Module actually exists?The mission module bay idea seems to work, and is being widely copied as we copied it from the Danes.
Not a single MMM will actually be deployed until 2016 and even that is already a big IF, seeing as how funding for the modules has been cut several years straight, dating back from Bush years.
Some very good points. This obsession with multirole everything is ridiculous IMO. Jack of all trades, master of none.
Why can't they just have a baseline hull and middle/froward superstructure and diversify from there. I.E in place of the ASW variants hanger and helipad, the minesweeper can have a rear ramp and ROV facilities. The shore gunfire support version can have a couple of extra cannons instead. The AAW version could have more VLS tubes and better sensors.
Pardon the crude MS paint, but something like this:
Introducing spare parts and training for a foreign system used by only one platform. If you're unnecessarily going to swap out the excellent Bofors, the more realistic option would be an OTO 76mm.----------Shore bombardment and low-cost long range anti-surface capability. They are widely used on frigate-size vessels, and use standard USN ammo.
There's Mk 38 mounts for that. And two CIWS isn't a standard fit for a boat of this size, especially not in the USN.If there was some existing weapon system that could do the same thing, I would agree; but there is nothing between the 20mm Phalanx and 57mm Mk.110. Two of them on a frigate-size vessel is a perfectly normal fit.
Don't the USCG use the 57 as well? Do they buy their own ammo or do they get it from the Navy?
----------The 5" gun is standard in our Navy. To move to the Oto Compact on future larger ships as well would not be a bad decision. It gives fantastic capability with much less weight.Introducing spare parts and training for a foreign system used by only one platform. If you're unnecessarily going to swap out the excellent Bofors, the more realistic option would be an OTO 76mm.
----------.... which would in no way fill the stated requirement.There's Mk 38 mounts for that.
----------I remember reading an interview with the Captain of the U.S.S. Stark. He was talking about how he desperately tried to turn the vessel in time to bring the Phalanx system to bear after the incoming missile was detected, but did not have time. A ship like this is going to have to defend itself against saturation attacks by AShMs, and in other cases swarm small boat attacks. In both instances, simultaneous attacks from all directions are a likely scenario. All-around protection simply cannot be provided by a single mount on the rear of the ship.And two CIWS isn't a standard fit for a boat of this size, especially not in the USN.
The Millenium gun is designed to be a low-cost system. It is significant lighter than Phalanx (3200kg versus 5600kg). It takes a very small amount of deck space. I am not seeing the problem here.
Last edited by Ought Six; 07-15-2012 at 10:54 PM.
On the topic of the Coast Guard, I am increasingly of the opinion that any LCS discussion needs to include this service. I have been following the LCS program closely now for a number of years and always thought that one of the strongest arguments for the program was that the USN spends a lot of its time doing missions that its current fleet of very capable surface combatants are poorly suited for. For example, LCS defenders will often point out that using a a Burke class destroyer to patrol off Somalia is a poor use of a high end asset. That in reality, the LCS will probably spend most of its career showing the flag, doing counter narcotics, and piracy patrols. Thats probably true, but does that mean that the Navy needs LCS, or that the Coast Guard is too small?
Using law enforcement missions to justify buying a class of ships for the Navy seems backwards to me. Maybe what really needs to happen is for the Navy to examine its role in taking what should legitimately be Coast Guard jobs. One of the biggest problems that is being faced off the Horn of Africa is that piracy is basically a legal issue, how to proceed in dealing with captured/suspected pirates a major headache. In the South China Sea, and the waters near the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, you may notice the coast guards of nations involved playing a major role. These are places that the LCS is going to be sent, but I really wonder if a bigger, more muscular, and globally deployed Coast Guard might not fill those roles a lot better than what the Navy has in mind. Then the Navy could focus entirely on building WARships, because despite what Bob Work says, Im not entirely certain that LCS is one.