Lockheed Martin has long been working on variants of its basic littoral combat design. This view shows a variant armed with standard surface-to-air missiles, enhanced fire control and an Aegis combat system. (Lockheed Martin)
WASHINGTON — Hardly anything is clear in Washington about what’s happening with the US Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program. Details are embryonic, discussions are just beginning, the whys and wherefores still unclear, memos and specific directions yet to be issued, and sensitivities still raw.
A memo issued Feb. 24 by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to the Navy’s leadership clarified his press conference remarks that day directing that “no new contract negotiations beyond 32 ships will go forward.” Hagel’s artfully-written dictum, however, has enough holes in every sentence to drive a battleship through, allowing for plausible deniability about a host of issues.
Navy officials, pressed for facts about a new “small surface combatant,” are offering virtually no details. Many admit they are waiting for further direction.
Out of the churn, however, several things are becoming clearer:
■- LCS is not being cancelled, despite the tenor and tone of Hagel’s press conference, numerous statements by acting deputy defense secretary Christine Fox, and dozens of media reports;
- The LCS program could continue beyond 32 ships, either with existing designs or with modified versions of one or both designs;
- The Navy will continue to build some sort of small surface combatant, whether or not it’s an LCS;
- There is no specific crisis driving these developments, other than Fox’s insistence on instigating action before she’s replaced in the permanent job by former Navy undersecretary Robert Work, a long-time champion of the LCS.
Hagel and Fox — who began the re-examination of the LCS program with a Jan. 6 classified memo to the services directing action on a number of Pentagon programs — are, however, giving the Navy an opportunity to re-evaluate the LCS program and fleet requirements roughly midway through the planned 52-ship buy. Responding to multiple critics of the LCS concept, Hagel directed the Navy to give him “alternative proposals to procure a capable and lethal small surface combatant, generally consistent with the capabilities of a frigate.”
Options for the ship, Hagel said, “should include a completely new design, existing ship designs (including the LCS), and a modified LCS.”
Hagel wants proposals relatively soon, “in time to inform 2016 budget deliberations.” That points to sometime in the fall, probably not beyond November at the latest, for options to be presented.
Hagel’s remarks sent a number of planning and design teams into action, trying to divine what the Navy and the Pentagon want and come up with viable options — no small task, given there is no official set of requirements for a new ship. The new effort doesn’t yet have a formal name, although some are calling it a “frigate study” or a “new small surface combatant study.”
It appears, however, that several assumptions might be made about the new ship:
- It will have more installed weapons and sensors and less modularity than current LCS designs;
- It may be bigger, to support better sea keeping and carry more fuel for greater at-sea time;
- Unit cost should be something close to the current ships, plus mission modules. That could come out to perhaps $530 million to $650 million — perhaps up to $750 million for more capability. Anything beyond that would likely be rejected. Lead ships will cost more.
The Navy is not starting completely from scratch. Vice Adm. Tom Copeman, commander of naval surface forces, recommended in a November 2012 classified memo that the Navy begin development of a new combatant between the capability of an LCS and the much-larger DDG 51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. A small surface combatant study group has been working within the staff of CNO Adm. Jonathan Greenert to develop concepts of what might be needed.
The group, led by director of surface warfare Rear Adm. Tom Rowden, could lead the new effort, with strong input from Copeman and other commands.
While nothing has yet publicly been spelled out, there have been growing calls within the Navy for a ship able to handle escort duties, a role for which the LCS is ill-suited. Such a ship would need an area air-defense missile system - likely using the Standard missile that arms all US cruisers and destroyers — and an effective anti-submarine warfare system, including sonars. The new ship would also need more range than the littoral ships — which need refueling every three or four days — to enable it to operate for extended periods at sea.
Hagel made no mention of providing funding to conduct a surface combatant study, and has offered no commitment of money to develop a new ship. It is not clear if the Navy would develop the new design or, as is more likely, depend on industry to come up with ideas.
There is also no word on whether this would result in a design competition, or what a specific time period would be needed to develop, approve, create detail designs, and procure the new ships.
The development effort will certainly require millions of dollars, whether or not it’s based on existing designs. Creating a new design would be far more expensive and time-consuming, and while Hagel included consideration of such a ship in his direction, there is no indication of what funding level he would provide.
Each of the LCS program teams, however, have long been at work coming up with variations of their designs, all with an eye on foreign sales. While no overseas deals have been concluded, ironically the US Navy now is perhaps the most interested to see what Lockheed Martin and Austal USA can offer.
“We’re definitely going to take a look at those,” Greenert said Feb. 25 about the LCS export designs.
Some years ago, both teams prepared design variants fitted with lightweight versions of Aegis, the Lockheed-produced combat system fitted on all US cruisers and destroyers and on a growing number of allied ships. The Aegis LCSs, created with Saudi customers in mind, largely dispensed with the modular concept that distinguishes US LCSs, replaced by built-in missiles, sensors and guns.
It is highly doubtful that the US Navy would be interested in an LCS fitted with Aegis, since it already operates more than 80 larger Aegis warships, and the system could drive the cost over $1 billion per unit.
Minus the Aegis system, however, the export designs could prove quite attractive. An added bonus would be that procuring even heavily-modified LCSs would make use of the growing support network being created for the ships.
“I’m learning as I look at all of our platforms that sustainment is the big cost,” Greenert said. “And we are building quite an infrastructure for the 32.”
Lockheed has done the most work on its export designs, under the “International LCS” and “Surface Combat Ship” banners. Displays featuring a family of Lockheed LCS-based designs are regular features of defense shows around the world.
Austal USA worked up its “Multi-mission combatant” LCS variant but had slowed its marketing campaign. Design work, however, may be revived after the Hagel and Fox memos.
Other US designs could form the basis of a LCS follow-on. Some groups have proposed new ships built to the Oliver Hazard Perry design, a 1970s effort that produced the last US frigate class, now being retired. A repeat Perry, the Congressional Budget Office has said, would cost about $700 million, although improvements would likely run that up to $800 million. Lead ships could top $1.2 billion.
Other groups have suggested modifying the Coast Guard’s National Security Cutter, but the Navy has shown no enthusiasm for that approach.
While the Navy may consider a multiplicity of designs, it is more likely the new ships will be variants of the current LCSs.
“Building off existing designs solves a lot of political problems if they can do that,” commented one naval analyst.
Also remaining to be seen will be the Navy’s acquisition strategy for buying the new ships. The final four ships of the current block buy contracts – up to LCS 24 - were to be requested in the 2015 budget, but a new scheme is likely to appear, along with a plan to purchase the additional eight ships.
It is also not clear whether any decisions have been made about continuing with both designs for the additional eight ships, and it would seem most likely that only one design will be chosen for the follow-on ships. That could also produce an intense competition for the new ship’s combat system, likely to be derived from the Lockheed Martin COMBATSS-21 system on Freedom-class ships, or the General Dynamics system installed in the Austal USA Independence-class.
“We owe the Secretary of Defense our best assessment on what the LCS can and can’t do in accordance with the attributes in the design and in the requirements in DOD testing to bring it into the fleet,” Greenert said.
“We have thirty-two ships and they have got to be delivered right and they have got to do the best they can. And so that is where I am headed.”