Bring on the Frigate: LCS Is Outgunned, Outclassed

Adversaries and Allies Are Building Better Ships Cheaper
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“I am most anxious for the arrival of Frigates...” - Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson

The future of the littoral combat ship is anything but certain.

In January, Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense Christine Fox issued a classified memo ordering the Navy to reduce planned purchases of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) from 52 to 32. In a preview of the FY15 defense budget proposal, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel backed that decision saying he was “concerned that the Navy is relying too heavily on the LCS to achieve its long-term goals for ship numbers.” Hagel directed that the Navy begin studying “alternative proposals to procure a capable and lethal small surface combatant, consistent with the capabilities of a frigate.”

Navy leadership, including Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, continues to defend the LCS. Indeed, many navalists have been quick to point out that one option for a “lethal small surface combatant” to replace the LCS might be an updated LCS.

By now, LCS’ problems have been well-rehearsed.

Cost. Originally proposed as a low-cost alternative to expensive destroyers, LCS was supposed to cost $220 million per ship. But according to last year’s budget proposal, the Pentagon estimates that upcoming LCS purchases will cost more than $500 million per ship. Over the life of the program and accounting for the cost of mission modules, the cost could approach $700 million.

Survivability. A report by the Pentagon's director of Operational Test and Evaluation found that neither LCS design was expected to “be survivable in a hostile combat environment” and that neither ship could withstand the Navy's ship shock trials. Civilian wargame scenarios have shown serious survivability problems for littoral combat ships in solo patrol roles against Chinese equivalents in Philippine waters.

Range. Tests show LCS is only capable of sustaining 14 days at sea, not an originally planned 21. On her first overseas deployment to Singapore, USS Freedom (LCS 1) had to undergo extensive propulsion system repairs after breaking down and drifting until towed into harbor.

Weapons Capacity. The LCS is the case exemplar of the Navy’s payload-centric model, a platform designed to carry three basic mission-focused modules: surface warfare, mine countermeasure, and anti-submarine warfare. Only one of these, the surface warfare module, is in service.

Though the simplest and most tested, the surface warfare module has been the most criticized LCS mission package. As the United States confronts more advanced anti-access/area-denial technologies and a growing Chinese fleet in the Western Pacific, concern has grown about the U.S. Navy’s surface warfare capabilities. As Acting Deputy Secretary Fox said recently, “Niche platforms that can conduct a certain mission in a permissive environment have a valuable place in the Navy’s inventory. Yet we need more ships with the protection and firepower to survive against a more advanced military adversary. Presence is important – presence with a purpose, and with capability.” Though she never mentioned it by name, that “niche platform” was the LCS. Simply put, LCS simply is not a credible surface combatant at a time when the Navy needs more of them.

Most concerning is LCS’ lack of a credible anti-ship missile. The Navy originally planned a non-line of sight (NLOS) missile launcher for the LCS with a 25-mile range, but the program was cancelled. Now the LCS is armed with the Griffin missile, with just a 5-mile range. This is completely inadequate for a face off with a major surface combatant, especially Chinese vessels whose anti-ship missiles have a range of 100-150 miles.

The Navy “Hoplite” system, touted as potential replacement for the Griffin, may not be available until 2035. Other estimates have suggested a missile could be available by 2019, or that smaller standard anti-ship and anti-sub missile packages already in service could be adapted for the LCS. The full-size missile vertical launch cells now in service for Harpoon anti-ship missiles on the Perry and Burke class frigates would probably not fit on the LCS.

As the Pentagon and the Navy consider the future of the Littoral Combat Ship and its possible replacement, two key facts must not be ignored. First, LCS is outgunned by the ships it would likely face in combat. Second, our allies are building better ships than the LCS, and they’re doing it cheaper. Whatever course the Navy charts beyond 32 LCS, it must literally add better bang for the buck.

LCS’ Potential Opponents Are Better Armed

The problem with the LCS surface warfare package is simple: its potential opponents, with the exception of very small patrol boats, have longer-range anti-ship missiles and most have more effective and higher caliber guns.

China. The People’s Liberation Army Navy’s closest equivalent to the LCS is the Type 056 Jingdao class. Helicopter and UAV-capable, the Type 056 is twice as big with only 3 feet more draft. In addition to a 76 mm main gun, its C-803 anti-ship missile can reach targets more than 150 miles away. In addition to a 76 mm main gun, it has stealthed surfaces that may provide reduced radar detection possibilities.

China also has built 20 Type 054 frigates, which are also larger and have more missile capability than the LCS.

Even if the LCS avoids Chinese frigates in blue water and remains in the littorals, it may come up against some of China’s 83 fast missile boats, the Type 022.  With their Australian-designed wave-piercing catamaran hulls, the Type 022 carries the same C-803 anti-ship missile as its larger counterparts. China also has about 130 older fast missile boats with C-801 through 803 “silkworm” long range missiles.

Iran. Like the Chinese, Iran deploys the C-801 and C-802 missile for anti-ship use on fast attack boats, fighter jets, and shore installations. Their Thondar-class fast attack boats (renamed Chinese Houdong-class missile boats) carry two C-802 missiles (with up to 20 times the range of a Griffin)as well as 23mm and 30mm Gatling type weapons comparable to the LCS’s primary anti-boat weapons at shorter ranges.

Russia. Russia’s military modernization extends to its Navy, which has begun accelerated construction under a newly streamlined shipbuilding system. This includes the new Russian Steregushchy-class corvette (designated by NATO as a frigate). At 2,200 tons, it’s about 30% smaller than an LCS and costs only 20-25% as much. But compared to LCS, it carries a bigger 100mm gun and far more capable SS-N-25 anti-ship missiles in addition to surface-to-air missiles, close-in defense systems, torpedoes, and a helicopter. 

Our Allies Have Built Different, Better, Cheaper Ship Classes

Unlike the LCS program, our allies are building frigates or fast patrol boats, not a hybrid. Many NATO frigate classes currently in service and under construction boast better armament, size, and survivability. Our allies are building patrol boats with stealth and long range anti-ship missiles that surpass LCS. Many of these ships are much less expensive than the LCS. Even those ships with similar unit cost have much higher survivability and capability than LCS.

Denmark. In January, Defense News heralded Denmark as the “clear leader” in constructing highly flexible frigates at an affordable price, “developing two classes of highly innovative ships designed to [carry] out coalition operations while equipped to swing from high-end to low-end missions.”

Those ships are the Iver Huitfeldt class frigate and Absalon flexible support ship. The two ship classes share a common, large, highly efficient hull. While the Navy now believes it will take weeks to change LCS modules, the Danish ships can accept new modules in a matter of hours. The ships are about double the size of LCS, but also have over twice the range – an impressive 9,000 nautical miles at 15 knots.

T.X. Hammes at the National Defense University has detailed the significant advantages of the Huitfeldt over LCS.

It is vastly more lethal. It carries two 76mm guns, one of which can be replaced with a 127mm gun with longer range. It also has several additional guns for close-in defense. The Huitfeldt carriers 16 Harpoon II anti-ship missiles with a range of 75-80 miles.

The Huitfeldt boasts impressive anti-air warfare capabilities, including 32 SM-2 Block IIIA missiles, 24 Evolved Sea Sparrow RIM 162B anti-air missiles, and four Stinger missiles. As Hammes notes, the Huitfeldt’s maximum anti-air engagement range is over 20 times that of the LCS.

The Huitfeldt has all the anti-submarine capability of the LCS with one major difference – that capability is organic, and does not require a separate mission module.

The Absalon is remarkable for its flexibility. It can carry up to 200 troops, 7 main battle tanks, fast missiles boats, or an entire hospital. Like the Huitfeldt, it too has larger main guns and longer-range anti-ship missiles than the LCS.

So how much are these ships with all their added capabilities? The Huitfeldt costs $332 million per ship, exclusive of weapons. Depending on the estimate, the Absalon runs at about $225-270 million each. And this in a highly advanced economy with unionized shipyards.

United Kingdom. The mainstay of the Royal Navy’s frigate fleet for the last 25 years has been the Type 23 frigate. Originally designed as an anti-submarine vessel, the Type 23 has proven highly versatile. It is equipped with a bigger main gun, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, greater anti-air defenses, and significant built-in ASW capabilities. It is also highly survivable as a result of design changes during the Falklands War. Each of these ships costs about $216 million.

The Type 23’s successor, the Global Combat Ship is planned to enter service in 2021. Its costs will be much closer to the LCS, but it will have more advanced capabilities.

Norway. Norway has purchased frigates and fast stealth boats with greater capability than LCS. The Nansen class frigate is more like a small destroyer with capabilities similar to an American Arleigh Burke, including Aegis radar systems. Even with its heavier armaments and more advanced sensor and surveillance capabilities, Norway’s five Nansen class frigates cost $480 million per ship.

Norway’s Skjold  class coastal corvettes carry a 76 mm main gun and anti-ship missiles with a range of over 115 miles. With extremely shallow draft, these stealthy ships provide even greater access to littoral waters than LCS, and tops out at 60 knots. Stealthy, speedy, and comparably armed, the Skjold costs just $125 million per ship, one-fourth to one-sixth the cost of an LCS.

Sweden. The Swedish Navy has built five of the stealthed Visby class fast patrol corvettes. It carries the same 57mm gun as LCS, but also carries built-in anti-submarine capabilities including torpedoes and depth charges. The Visby is armed with RBS-15 anti-ship missiles with a range over 150 miles. It’s extremely stealthy with a radar-deflecting hull, and is available in larger anti-mine and anti-submarine variants. The Visby has the same top speed as the LCS, but is only one-fifth its size. And , of course, it’s much cheaper than the LCS at just $180-250 million per ship.

Germany, France, Italy. While a number of U.S. allies are producing more capable ships for cheaper, Germany, France, and Italy are producing similarly priced ships with considerably more capabilities.

Germany’s F125 frigate has been designed with crisis management and stabilization missions in mind. The ship can transport up to 50 special forces troops and their equipment, which can be deployed on two helicopters or four speed boats. The F125 costs approximately the same as LCS, but it’s significantly more lethal than the LCS, with a 127mm main gun, eight Harpoon anti-ship missiles, and a special capability for tactical fire support against land targets.

France and Italy are building a common frigate design, the European multipurpose frigate (FREMM). The FREMM is slightly pricier than the LCS, but has much capabilities including a larger main, longer-range anti-ship missiles, land attack cruise missiles, anti-air missiles, and built-in anti-submarine torpedoes. Each FREMM cost approximately $700-750 million.

Stop, Reset, Redesign: We Need Frigates

As the Navy confronts a dangerous maritime environment and a strained shipbuilding budget, the LCS is not the ship America needs. It is outgunned by our enemies and outclassed by our allies. And as Secretary Hagel makes the case for capability over capacity, it’s strange that the main argument from LCS proponents is that the ship stabilizes the Navy’s fleet around 300 ships. “Presence is the purpose,” says Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. Unfortunately when it comes to the LCS, presence seems like a euphemism for a capacity over capability. 

Capability containers and missile modules are fine, but the example of our allies demonstrates that a more lethal combatant with more organic capabilities is possible at an affordable price. We should accept nothing less.

In 2008, Senator John McCain said of the LCS, “We need to fix it, or find something else. Quickly.” His conclusion still stands. 

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