Photo courtesy Dennis Griggs General Dynamics/Released

More than do the other military services, the U.S. Navy’s public image seems to rest on past conflicts. Americans generally have two pictures of the Navy: the first is from the Pacific theater in World War II, when immense carrier task groups dominated the oceans and supported amphibious invasions of enemy territory; the second is from the nuclear age, when ballistic missile submarines spent weeks below the surface, ready to destroy continents.

A New Fleet—LCSs
The Navy’s answer is the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), a small surface vessel designed for operations close to seacoasts. The Navy’s procurement plan, initiated in 2002, actually involves two different designs: the Freedom-class produced by Lockheed Martin and the Independence-class designed by General Dynamics. These ships are smaller than the Navy’s Perry-class guided missile frigates, which are rapidly moving into obsolescence, and are similar in concept to corvette (light frigate) designs that are in wide use by smaller navies and coast guards around the world.

LCSs are, however, more capable because they contain flight decks and hangars for two SH-60 Seahawk helicopters and well decks and stern ramps for handling amphibious vehicles—they can function as small assault transports. The ships will function in mine, surface and anti-submarine warfare roles with next-generation U.S. destroyer and cruiser designs—the DDG 1000 now in low-rate production and the CG(X)—though the new cruiser has been slated for cancellation in the defense budget recently sent to Congress.

Photo courtesy Dennis Griggs General Dynamics/Released

Two contracting teams have produced very different designs for the LCS fleet projected to number 55 ships. A Lockheed Martin team built the USS Freedom (LCS-1) at Marinette Marine in Marinette, Wisconsin. The LCS-1, commissioned in November 2008, is the prototype for Lockheed’s Freedom-class design. Lockheed is producing the second of the type, the USS Forth Worth (LCS-3), at Bollinger Shipyards in Lockport, Louisiana. The Lockheed concept utilizes a semiplaning steel monohull with an aluminum deck house.


A team headed by General Dynamics is building the Independence-class design, the USS Independence (LCS-2) commissioned in January 2010, and the USS Coronado (LCS-4) by utilizing an aluminum trimaran hull at the Austal USA shipyard in Mobile, Alabama. The two designs have different combat systems and will contain reconfigurable mission packages—modules for mine countermeasures and anti-submarine or surface warfare. The LCS-2 and LCS-4 feature maximum speeds well in excess of 40 knots. With both prototypes in service, down-select for the winning concept should occur this year—the winning contractor’s shipyard will build another 10 vessels through 2014. A second competition will select another shipyard to build five more LCSs in the winning design, and then these two facilities will compete for future production contracts until the program is complete a decade or more later.


A Controversial Program
The process is complicated, but the Navy believes this acquisition strategy will save money, despite significant cost growth. The service originally projected an LCS price tag of roughly $220 million per hull in FY2005 dollars, but the costs of each prototype design exceeded that: $600 million for the Freedom and $700 million for the Independence. As production rates increase costs should drop, but the program’s current cost cap set last October is $480 million per ship and includes potential adjustments for inflation and other unforeseen events. The LCS cost seems eye watering, but compared to most ship procurements it is relatively low.

Nevertheless, the LCS program has generated more than its share of controversy. In 2007, the Navy cancelled the original production contracts for the LCS-3 and LCS-4 due to cost overruns. A number of experts—including Senator John McCain, former Navy Secretary John Lehman, retired Vice Admiral and current Congressman Joe Sestak, House Armed Services committee member Gene Taylor and respected naval analyst Norman Friedmanall—denounced the program, citing botched contracting, flawed acquisition practices and numerous technical deficiencies. Congress has dogged the program, and the Navy has restructured its acquisition and production schedules more than once.

Photo courtesy Dennis Griggs General Dynamics/Released

Mission Specific
What is all the fuss about? The LCS is a surface combatant, incorporating digital networks, speed, agility, endurance for independent deployment and extended time on station, and low observability for overcoming littoral adversaries and complementing more traditional naval forces (by operating closer to shore where larger ships become more vulnerable and less effective). The winning design will serve with carrier strike, surface action and amphibious groups. It will also independently handle missions ranging from naval combat to diplomacy and presence and function cooperatively with U.S. Coast Guard ships and other allied naval vessels.

Photo courtesy Dennis Griggs General Dynamics/Released

The LCS was designed from the start to be truly network-centric, and it will function with both manned and unmanned vehicles to extend its effective radius and increase its capabilities. The Navy says it will utilize a wide variety of coordinated attributes including “technologically advanced weapons, reconfigurable modules, sensors, data fusion, command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR), hull form, propulsion, optimal manning concepts, smart control systems and self-defense systems” to defeat adversaries. Although the LCS can operate effectively at low speeds in shallow littorals and for economical transits for deployment, very high-speed maneuvering will be critical for combat against small submarines or missile patrol boats, for over the horizon operations and for special operations insertion/extraction missions.

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