March 2, 2015

The All-New, All-Too-Familiar Small Surface Combatant

In January of last year Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel ordered the Navy to explore alternatives to the much-maligned Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). At the time, options for an alternative Small Surface Combatant (SSC) included an “up-gunned” version of the current LCS designs, a foreign design, or an entirely new ship. The Pentagon made its choice in December, and the new LCS will be a lot like the old LCS—only more expensive.

The LCS program has been a mess from start to finish. The ship was supposed to be a light, fast successor to the Navy’s frigates, with different modules used for surface warfare, antisubmarine warfare, and minesweeping. The Navy was supposed to choose between two competing designs for the ship—one designed and built in Wisconsin by Lockheed, with another designed by General Dynamics and built by Austal USA in Mobile, Alabama. Instead of choosing between the two, the Navy decided to purchase both. Questions about the ship’s design, capabilities, and strategic utility have swirled ever since. At one point, the aluminum-hulled Independence, built by Austal, even began disintegrating due to a design flaw.

The main knock on the LCS however has been its survivability due to its light hull and lack of armaments, both of which were measures meant to increase the vessel’s speed and reduce its price. Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert defended the ship, arguing that even the Navy’s destroyers were not invulnerable and asserted that the LCS could withdraw if damaged, implying that its speed would enable its escape if necessary.

The upgraded version will have increased armor, upgraded 3D radar, a new anti-ship missile, and towed array sonar. Like its predecessor, it will also feature a modular design, but it will only maintain two of the modules—for surface warfare and anti-submarine warfare—while doing away with its minesweeping module. While the Navy claims the new design will allow the ship to operate independently, questions about survivability will remain due to the lack of a vertical launch system for air defense using a variant of the Navy’s Standard Missile.

As defense reporter David Axe suggests, the features in this design make the new LCS very similar to the Perry-class frigate—the ship the old LCS was designed to replace.

The new SSC will complete the final twenty deliveries in the original LCS purchase of fifty-two. But it will not come cheap. Beyond problems with its survivability, complaints about the LCS have largely centered on its cost. The average cost of the existing LCS designs has been around $500 million. The up-gunned version will add about $60-$75 million dollars to the price of each of the last twenty. The LCS was meant to be a lighter, faster, and less expensive alternative to steel destroyers. Now it seems like an awful hefty investment to essentially end up where one started.

The problem with that expense is not just related to the LCS itself. The biggest challenge the U.S. Navy faces in the future is anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, such as anti-ship missiles. These capabilities will make it difficult for other surface combatants to come to the aid of an LCS that has found itself in harm’s way. Moreover, as the Navy seeks to develop a long-term strategy for operating in A2/AD environments, continued investments in the LCS crowd out funding for development of undersea capabilities that are better suited for operations in contested areas.