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LCS: Quick Swap Concept Dead

U.S. Navy Revising Ships’ Operational Plans

Jul. 14, 2012 - 12:50PM   |  
By CHRISTOPHER P. CAVAS   |   Comments
(Lt. Jan Shultis / U.S. Navy)
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The original idea for the littoral combat ship (LCS) envisioned modular mission packages that could be rapidly swapped, so one ship could change missions easily from mine warfare, for example, to anti-submarine warfare over the course of a single deployment.

But instead of taking just days to make the switch, it’s now apparent it could take weeks. An LCS assigned to a particular operation will likely operate in a single “come-as-you-are” configuration, requiring additional ships equipped with other mission modules to provide the flexibility the concept once promised.

That’s one conclusion among many following a series of Navy exercises and reports intended to take stock of LCS. Other conclusions criticize the ship as failing to match capabilities inherent to the ships it would replace. The assessment aims to figure out what the ship can and can’t do, how it should be employed, what kind of support it will need, and what changes must be made to man and fight the ships without wearing out their small crews.

These include a classified study ordered by Adm. Mark Ferguson, the vice chief of naval operations; two war games carried out by U.S. Fleet Forces Command (USFFC) in Norfolk, Va.; and the ongoing operating experiences of the two ships already in service.

The assessment comes as LCS transitions from an acquisition and shipbuilding program into a deployable fleet asset. The first two ships are now ensconced at their home port in San Diego, and the third LCS is about to be delivered. A fourth ship arrives in 2013.

The classified study, known as the OPNAV report (referring to staff reporting to the chief of naval operations), was headed by Rear Adm. Samuel Perez. Beginning in January, Perez and a 10-person team looked at all aspects of the fleet’s “readiness to receive, employ and deploy” the LCS.

USFFC in January conducted a “sustainment war game” to understand the issues and risks in manning and supporting an LCS across the Pacific Ocean — a key concern with the Freedom, the first LCS, scheduled to deploy to Singapore in the spring of 2013. It will be the first time an LCS has operated outside the Western Hemisphere.

Another war game, focusing on operations and war fighting, was held in mid-June. The results of that effort are still being analyzed, Navy sources said.

While the Navy would not release the OPNAV report, a number of sources familiar with both LCS and the report said it lays out in greater detail the problems and issues confronting the entire LCS effort, including the concept of operations (CONOPS), manning shortages, maintenance and training concerns, modularity and mission module issues, and commonality problems between the two LCS variants.

It also cites problems with how the LCS is perceived in the fleet, how leadership presents LCS capabilities, and the need to effect changes in virtually every operational area.

“As I looked at some of the draft documentation to say how we’re going to run LCS, what I thought we needed to do was a rebaselining, understanding how much information we’ve generated on how we’re going to operate these ships, and take that and build a foundation,” said Rear Adm. Thomas Rowden, OPNAV’s director of surface warfare, during an interview at the Pentagon. “I will call this a concept of employment, or CONEMP.”

Rowden is leading the work to coordinate and compile the LCS analytical efforts.

“The reality of it is, it’s time to step back and say, what did we get wrong here?”

CONOPS

Planners originally envisaged the LCS as a replacement for the fleet’s frigates, minesweepers and patrol boats, but the new assessments conclude the ships are not equal to today’s frigates or mine countermeasures ships, and they are too large to operate as patrol boats.

The LCS, according to the assessments, is not able to fulfill most of the fleet missions required by the Navy’s primary strategy document, the “Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower,” and included in a 2011 revision of the LCS CONOPS document.

Equipped with a surface warfare or maritime security mission package, the ships were judged capable of carrying out theater security cooperation and deterrence missions, and maritime security operations, such as anti-piracy.

But the LCS vessels cannot successfully perform three other core missions envisioned for them — forward presence, sea control or power projection missions — and they can provide only limited humanitarian assistance or disaster relief operations, sources said.

The shortcomings are well known in the fleet, prompting a perception that service leaders are looking for missions to fit LCS, rather than the other way around.

A key LCS failure identified by the OPNAV report, sources said, is its inability to effectively defend against anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), a weapon carried by hundreds of small, fast-attack craft operated by virtually all potentially hostile navies. These weapons include C-801 and C-802 Chinese missiles, Russian SS-N-2 Styx missiles, European weapons such as the Otomat and Exocet, and U.S.-made Harpoon missiles.

Navies that can launch ASCMs include those of China, North Korea, Iran and Syria. The weapons have taken on an added dimension since 2006, when the Israeli corvette Hanit was hit by a C-802 launched by a Hezbollah shore battery in Lebanon.

The U.S. Navy’s requirements document for the LCS says it must be able to operate offensively in multithreat environments — areas that would include the Arabian Gulf or the Yellow Sea — but until a solution is found, the assessments call for a CONOPS more consistent with the ships’ capabilities, and suggest the need for studies to increase LCS combat power.

The Navy is continuing to look at ways to increase the ship’s weaponry and lethality. A major gap is for a weapon to replace the Non-Line of Sight Launch System (NLOS-LS), a surface-to-surface missile program canceled in 2010 that was to have given the LCS a prodigious capability.

“I certainly have asked to take a look at Harpoon, if we can take the weight,” Rowden said. “Also looking at the Griffin,” a small weapon being purchased for a trial installation on the Freedom. “There are some other missiles that we’re looking at, but those are the two I can talk about right now.”

The Harpoon is currently the Navy’s standard surface-to-surface missile, carried on destroyers and cruisers. But adding such a missile would probably mean removing something else to compensate for the additional weight. The Griffin is much smaller, but doesn’t pack the Harpoon’s punch.

Rowden also has asked the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) to study replacing the 57mm gun on both LCS designs with a 76mm weapon, similar to the weapon on today’s frigates.

“It’s a larger gun, more range, certainly gives us a better opportunity to engage the enemy,” Rowden said of the 76mm.

The trouble with that weapon is that it can fit on Freedom LCS 1-class ships, but not on the narrow bow of the trimaran Independence LCS 2-class. “I don’t know if we can get it on both hulls,” Rowden acknowledged.

Range is still another concern, because of capacity for both fuel and crew provisions. Although the original CONOPS called for ships to operate at sea for at least 21 days, the ships have storage capacity to only carry enough food for 14 days, according to sources familiar with the classified report.

Module Issues

The sustainment war game and the OPNAV report also discuss serious issues with the exchange of mission modules, detailing the reasons why the quick-change concept isn’t working.

“The logistics of mission package exchanges are more complicated and time-consuming than currently reflected” in the CONOPS, according to an unclassified assessment of the January war game obtained by Defense News.

The modules are considered the primary armament of the LCS. Each of the modules now in development — mine warfare, surface warfare and anti-submarine warfare — includes the module equipment, a 15-person module crew, an MH-60 helicopter with an aviation detachment of 25 people, a mission package exchange team and the ordnance required for the mission.

“Choreographing the preparation and movement of all elements to arrive in theater at the same time is a complex task and subject to potential delays,” said the war game assessment.

The LCS CONOPS calls for the swap-outs to happen OCONUS — outside the continental United States — and requires that planning for a swap needs to begin “anywhere from 30 to 60-plus days depending on the OCONUS destination,” according to the assessment.

“At present, storing mission packages in CONUS and conducting on-demand mission package exchanges OCONUS appears untenable,” the assessment read.

Suggested fixes, such as storing mission packages at a forward operating station or aboard prepositioning ships, help with the time-distance challenges, but manning and infrastructure requirements would increase.

Other problems, according to the assessment, include command-and-control issues over who has the authority to mandate a module exchange, how the request is communicated and how long a request needs to be routed and approved.

Recommendations from the war game include holding a “stand-alone event” to evaluate the exchange processes, refine timeline estimates and explore alternative methodologies.

Other recommendations include: Each mission package needs to be incorporated into the Navy’s Global Force Management planning process, an effort that includes individual ships, squadrons and units; and a cost-benefit analysis should be conducted to study forward-basing of mission packages, and the CONOPS should be revised “to more accurately reflect the logistics timeline.”

Eventually, all the effort will be gathered into the concept of employment, or CONEMP, document.

“It is not going to be a static document,” Rowden declared. “We’re going to be inputting things, and as we learn things we’re going to make modifications to keep it relevant and reflect experience.

“We’ve got folks from Fleet Forces Command, Pacific Fleet, Naval Surface Forces, Naval Air Forces, NAVSEA, OPNAV and the manpower assessment team all working together to try and understand what we’ve observed and what we have learned so we can have a good, informed document with respect to this concept of employment,” Rowden said.

“My gut tells me we’ve got to get the manning squared away, then the training, sustainment and maintenance will flow from that as we move forward,” he added. “We’ll get to a better place to say these are the things we need to do to maximize the availability and capability of the ships.”

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