In 2001, the U.S. Navy started the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program to replace the aging FFG-7 class scheduled for retirement by 2020. The concept was to use existing commercial ferries, modify them for naval use, customize them selectively with mission packages and buy 55 ships to replace the FFG-7 class and 14 mine countermeasures ships. All of this would be done inexpensively.
The plan has not worked. First came the problem of affordability. Initial cost goals were about $100 million per ship. By the time the program was approved, it had risen to over $200 million. After several congressionally approved price increases, the estimated cost is now about $500 million each plus the cost of mission packages, which could be $100 million each.
The concept was to tailor the ships with a mine countermeasures, surface warfare or anti-submarine warfare equipment suite. Initial designs have not proved successful.
Most recently, the mine countermeasures package testing was terminated because it could not be towed by the helicopter. Using a metal ship for this mission is a break with experience relying on wooden or fiberglass ships for magnetic signature reduction.
The anti-submarine package is also in flux. The surface warfare package seems superfluous. Why should a combatant ship need additional surface warfare weapons? The overall status of these packages resulted in the fiscal 2013 Defense Authorization law transferring decision authority from the Navy to the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
Two ship designs were built using research and development funds. Both have been evaluated as not survivable in the operational test process. That is unprecedented for a combatant ship.
Several U.S. Navy ships have been attacked in littoral waters. The Stark was hit by air-launched missiles, the Roberts and Princeton by sea mines, and the Cole by a maritime improvised explosive device. All were damaged but returned to service.
It is very likely that neither LCS design would have survived these events due to structural, damage control and firefighting limitations.
Problems have been discovered in testing that appear to be routine new-design problems that will be solved. One possible exception is the hull cracking observed in one design. This may be a fabrication issue or a more serious design flaw.
Deployment is in process with probable utilization in the pirate-infested Strait of Malacca area. This will be a good application for these ships with probable success.
Since program inception, the maritime world has changed. Submarines are becoming more numerous as Russia, China, India and others expand their fleets. Piracy has returned as a major way of raising funds for Islamist activities.
The U.S. Navy has concluded that an arrangement using the Ponce amphibious transport dock has been successful in recent mine countermeasures drills. The follow-up plan is to build a ship to perform military sealift operations and operate mine countermeasures work, obviating the need for an LCS mine countermeasures package.
Given the current state, it appears the LCS is an expensive corvette. It will be quite satisfactory in law enforcement and other homeland security missions with the Coast Guard, pirate control, special operations and other low-intensity events. Procurement should be limited to roughly 20 ships.
It will not be a replacement for the task-force capable, ASW and broad range of missions the FFGs performed. A new ship is needed.
A new frigate should make maximum use of proven fleet-tested components, resisting the urge of technology advocates to explore the limits. For fuel efficiency, it should be a long, narrow ship similar to the FFG and have an efficient propulsion system. Using half of the power plant from a DDG Aegis destroyer will provide adequate power for more than 28 knots.
Other machinery should use DDG components as practical. Combat systems should emphasize the proven DDG ASW system. Air defense should be based on in-service radar and weapons.
Communications and interconnectivity must allow this ship to operate as part of a carrier task force, releasing DDGs for missions fully utilizing ship capabilities. Operating costs will be much lower than a DDG due to efficient hull and propulsion design. Crew will be less than the FFG due to sensible automation.
Going simple is a challenge, but last year several friends of the Navy produced a report on developing such a ship. This group included military and civilians with more than 200 years of combined experience in surface ship design, acquisition and logistic support spanning all surface combatant classes produced since the DD-963.
Design could be started in fiscal 2014 with lead ship commissioning seven years later. Ships would be built using the proven competitive leader-follower process with multiple contractor participation from very early in the design process.
We believe the lead ship will cost about $1 billion with follow ships about $700 million each (about the same as the last FFGs in current dollars). This funding is available by terminating remaining LCS-related R&D and using planned LCS production funds for the frigate.
The Navy must end the illusion that the LCS is really a combatant ship and return to design and management practices that produced successful classes — DD-963, FFG-7, CG-47 and DDG-51 in a new multimission frigate.
Everett Pyatt was assistant U.S. secretary of the Navy (shipbuilding and logistics) and Navy acquisition executive, 1984-89.