The U.S. Navy's Littoral Combat Ships USS Freedom, rear, and USS Independence maneuver during an exercise off the coast of Southern California. Whatever the future holds for the LCS program, it's becoming less likely the service will continue to buy both variants after 2015. (U.S. Navy)
WASHINGTON — Whatever the future holds for the U.S. Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program, it’s becoming less likely the service will continue to buy both variants after 2015.
The successor may either be the Freedom-class or Independence-class designs now being built, an up-gunned, multimission variant of the current ships, or a completely different type of ship, according to senior Navy officials familiar with high-level thinking.
The up-gunned, multimission variant would perhaps be similar to the “international” versions that both builders have developed to entice foreign customers.
A recommended re-evaluation of the next flights of LCSs — beyond the 24 ships now delivered, under construction, on order or with contract options — is only part of a classified memo, “Vision for the 2025 Surface Fleet,” submitted late last year by the head of Naval Surface Forces, Vice Adm. Tom Copeman, to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert. The Navy’s current plans call for building 52 littoral combat ships, so if the service opted to go in a different direction it would essentially cut the LCS program of record in half.
Copeman, according to several sources familiar with the document, also recommended against building the DDG 51 Flight III destroyers, a modification of the Arleigh Burke class to be fitted with the new Air Missile Defense Radar (AMDR) under development to replace the SPY-1 radars used in Aegis warships. The AMDR, designed with higher power and fidelity to handle the complex ballistic-missile defense mission, will require significantly more electrical power than the current system. And, while the AMDR apparently will fit into the DDG 51 hull, margins for future growth are severely limited.
Instead, sources said Copeman recommends creating a new, large surface combatant fitted with AMDR and designed with the power, weight and space to field “top-end energy weapons” like the electromagnetic rail gun under development by the Navy.
The new ship could also be developed into a replacement for today’s Ticonderoga-class missile cruisers in the air defense mission of protecting deployed aircraft carriers — a mission Copeman says needs to be preserved. All flattops have a “shotgun” cruiser that accompanies them throughout a deployment, but the missile ships are aging and, by 2025, only four will remain in service to protect the fleet’s 11 carriers.
The Navy prefers cruisers over destroyers for the role because of the bigger ships’ extra missile fire control channels, their more senior commanders and a better ability to tow the carrier should it be disabled.
While recommending against the Flight III, Copeman would continue building the existing DDG 51 Flight IIA variant until a new design is available.
Copeman also recommends increased reliance on new mobile landing platforms (MLPs) and afloat forward staging bases (AFSBs) to project Marine Corps power. Two MLPs are under construction, and the Navy plans to build two AFSBs, modified versions with a flight deck, hangar and increased accommodations. The Navy and Marines also are considering a number of variations of the ships.
Also recommended, sources said, is a replacement for today’s dock landing ships limited to capability and capacity actually needed, rather than the expensive San Antonio-class LPD 17 amphibious transport dock ships (LPDs) being built. Shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls already is proposing a scaled-down LPD, dubbed LPD Flight II, that keeps the LPD 17’s big hull but dispenses with many of the 17’s more expensive features and larger superstructure.
Copeman, in the vision memo, also calls out the need to consider a replacement for the venerable SLQ-32 electronic warfare system employed on nearly every Navy surface ship. The fleet, sources said, needs a better “soft-kill” capability able to deal with enemy missiles that are constantly being improved and fielded in ever-increasing numbers.
The fleet also needs a better anti-surface missile with increased range and the ability to destroy an enemy warship, yet not too expensive. Copeman also called for more credible ship-launched anti-submarine weapons.
The vision memo does not yet represent any program changes or decisions, although it does put these issues into the official ring of discussion.
“The SURFORCE commander’s ideas have begun a dialogue and debate, which CNO welcomes,” Capt. Danny Hernandez, Greenert’s spokesman, said March 15. “One idea in particular informed changes to the MLP-AFSB design so it can better accommodate small scale force operations.”
Major Changes for LCS
Separate from the vision statement, the Navy has been strongly considering a downselect to a single LCS combat system in 2015, doing away with one of the program’s most glaring inefficiencies. Consideration of a downselect to a single design also has been underway. Lockheed Martin makes the monohull Freedom-class ships and Austal USA builds the aluminum trimaran-hulled Independence-class ships.
Copeman’s call to re-evaluate the LCS program seems to take the discussion several steps further. Critics have long called for something other than the existing designs to answer the Navy’s need for a smaller-than-a-destroyer, relatively inexpensive, surface combatant, even as the service’s top leaders have strongly advocated going forward with the existing ships.
Budget pressures are only adding to the need to neck-down on the program and reduce current and future costs.
Sources familiar with the thinking behind the vision said Copeman is not necessarily advocating for an entirely new ship, but would consider a modified version of the existing designs. The new ship would drop much of the modularity inherent in the LCS concept, which is intended as a reconfigurable, single-mission ship fitted with mission modules tailored to specific functions such as anti-mine, anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare.
While the LCS concept envisions several types of modules, the Navy’s most pressing need is to field a mine countermeasure module to replace aging minesweepers and their equipment. With 24 littoral combat ships in service, and with a mature mine warfare package, fleet planners will have considerably more anti-mine capability than is currently budgeted.
The new ship, sources said, could have a 16-cell vertical launch system able to launch surface-to-air or surface-to-surface missiles, an improved sensor suite and more installed power. Such a ship might be 500 to 1,000 tons larger than the roughly 3,000-ton Freedom and Independence ships.
Another option for a medium-sized surface combatant could be for a scaled-down DDG 51, perhaps without an Aegis system.
Several European frigate designs would seem to answer some of the requirements, but a foreign design is not being considered at this point, although that is a possibility.
A key requirement would be to keep the cost of the new ship roughly where today’s LCS-plus-mission packages are, somewhere in the $600 million to $700 million per ship range or less, one source said, although no cost figures are presented in the vision memo.
Better capabilities at lesser cost is a driving theme of the vision, sources said — a concept in line with numerous public statements by top Navy officials. Affordability of the fleet’s 30-year shipbuilding plan long has been in question, and the new vision seeks to add more adaptable designs to the fleet while not driving up costs.