The Next SSC? From top: Austal USA's Multi-Mission Combatant offering is based on the Independence-class littoral combat ship design. Huntington Ingalls hopes to offer a more heavily armed version of its National Security Cutter design; and Lockheed Martin has long been working on variants of its basic littoral combat ship design. This proposed variant is armed with Standard surface-to-air missiles, enhanced fire control and an Aegis combat system. (Lockheed Martin)
WASHINGTON — Ships that look like littoral combat ships (LCS), but armed with SM-2 surface-to-air missiles, bigger guns and Aegis combat systems. A grey-hull patrol frigate that takes the hull of a white coast guard cutter and increases its combat power.
With an eye to the international market, shipbuilders Lockheed Martin, Austal USA and Huntington Ingalls have worked to develop more heavily armed versions of ships already in production for domestic customers. Now, ironically, the proposals might have their best chance yet — as the choice to succeed the LCS as the US Navy’s next small surface combatant (SSC).
More than a decade of controversy has dogged the LCS program. Although most cost and schedule issues have been solved, critics still shower officials with now years-old complaints, even though the program is largely on time and on budget. Many critics decry the absence of permanently installed weapons, preferring instead more heavily armed ships.
Those complaints, in many ways, lie behind the Feb. 24 decision by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel capping purchases of ships built to existing LCS designs at 32, and requiring the Navy to evaluate the future of its SSC efforts. What’s needed, he said, is “a capable and lethal small surface combatant generally consistent with the capabilities of a frigate.” The results, Hagel said, could be modified versions of existing designs, a new design or continuation of the current ships.
The Navy formed a nine-member Small Surface Combatant Task Force in mid-March to perform the review. The results, Hagel directed, should be delivered in time to influence the 2016 defense budget. The group is aiming to complete its initial assessment by the end of July.
The task force so far has been tight-lipped. “They’ve basically put the cone of silence down,” said one industry observer. Only a few details have emerged.
On April 8, the service posted an intent to issue two requests for information (RFIs).
“The first RFI will request information regarding mature ship design concepts for SSCTF consideration,” John Burrow, director of the task force, explained in a statement. “The second RFI will request information on systems and technologies that could meet SSC capability needs more affordably.”
Navy sources said the RFIs could come out before the end of April.
Taken together, these developments represent a major opportunity for industry — an unanticipated chance to sell the Navy and the Pentagon leadership on a particular proposal, with the possibility of capturing a major shipbuilding program that could supplant the awkward, two-design nature of the LCS program with a single design that would also be attractive to foreign buyers.
Adm. Jon Greenert, chief of naval operations, told the task force to compare the LCS requirements and capabilities to the FFG 7-class frigate, a design dating from the late 1970s and favored by a number of strident LCS critics, particularly those associated with the Reagan administration of the 1980s.
Industry teams are hard at work trying to anticipate what the task force will look for. So who’s got the inside track?
There seems to be little likelihood a new design will be chosen. There is little money to begin a development effort, and a new design generally takes more than a decade to put into production and field. Critics already are frustrated that the LCS program has only one significant deployment thus far, after more than 12 years in development.
Fans of the FFG 7 are also likely to be frustrated. Even if a similar ship were chosen, hundreds of standards have changed significantly, virtually turning such an effort into a new-design prospect. No go.
Several foreign shipbuilders, such as Italy’s Fincantieri and Spain’s Navantia, might also be interested, but even though both existing LCS designs are derived from foreign sources, the likelihood a mature non-US design would be chosen is very low.
Political pressures for some sort of increased armament also seem to argue against the chance no major LCS design changes will be made.
The field of contenders, then, would seem to be limited to those with ships currently in production: Lockheed Martin, Austal USA and — perhaps — Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII).
All three shipbuilders have worked to develop their designs into more heavily armed versions attractive to foreign buyers. Eschewing the large mission bays of the US LCSs, Lockheed and Austal USA (taking over from General Dynamics, the original prime contractor for the Independence-class LCS) even developed designs carrying the high-end Aegis combat system fitted with lightweight SPY-1F radars, armed with missiles in vertical launch systems.
Those high-end LCS variants were aimed at potential customers like Saudi Arabia or Israel, and Norway and Malaysia in the past showed interest. To date, however, no foreign deals have been reached.
It’s unlikely, however, that the task force would choose an Aegis variant. More than a hundred Aegis cruisers and destroyers are in service or planned, and the system would likely drive the cost-per-ship over a $1 billion each, far too expensive to meet requirements.
Lockheed has never let up working to develop its Freedom-class LCS. Variants larger and smaller have been designed to appeal to foreign customers, and the designs are a familiar staple at naval defense expositions around the globe. The company seems to be best-positioned to make a comprehensive presentation to the task force.
Joe North, Lockheed’s vice president of littoral ship systems, has met frequently with US Navy officials.
“Most of them have seen our international variants, and actually given it a thumbs up,” he said April 10. “It looks like the right tonnage, and the performance is there.”
“Folks understand our hull, our structure,” he said. “The analysis done by the American Bureau of Shipping told us our structure was stronger and more survivable than a FFG 7. I think we’re already there in good shape.”
Lockheed’s US LCS has three internal mission zones. With its variants, North said, the company has produced versions with two zones or even one, filling the spaces with permanently-installed equipment. “We’ve done both in modelling tests to prove the hull and stability and performance,” he noted.
The company has also looked at using different propulsion plant layouts. The existing design uses two large Rolls Royce MT30 gas turbines along with diesels to produce speeds of around 46 knots. The turbines are somewhat unique; aside from the Freedom class, only the three stealth destroyers of the Zumwalt-class use the engine. The Freedom plant also has been criticized for being overly complex, prone to problems and adding to maintenance requirements.
North, understandably, defends the plant. “People say our design is complex,” he said. “The crew will tell you they find it very flexible — there are a lot of operational things we can do because we’re not slaved to a single engine or shaft, and we can do a lot of cross-connecting.”
That said, the plant is ripe for redesign and cost reduction.
“I could definitely reduce cost in the propulsion plant if that was a tradeoff they wanted, if they don’t need 40 knots,” North said. “I can swap out with General Electric LM2500 gas turbines, becoming common with the rest of the fleet, reduce the plant and take weight out. We’ve already laid that out.”
The 118-meter long Freedom design has been scaled up as big as a 140-meter design, North said, and the hull is able to carry Standard SM-2 surface-to-air missiles in 16-cell vertical launch systems (VLS). All the SSC contenders expect the Navy to ask for SM-2 capability. Lockheed — like Austal USA and Ingalls — also suggests replacing the 57 mm gun with a 76 mm weapon.
North stressed repeatedly Lockheed has looked at multiple combinations of weapon installations on the basic Freedom design.
“The Israelis armed that ship to the teeth,” he said. “If there was anywhere we could put a weapon, we did.”
Compared with Lockheed’s relentless LCS marketing, Austal USA, maker of the Independence-class, has been less active in recent years. General Dynamics Bath Iron Works handled much of the earlier work to develop a “multi-mission combatant” variant, but the division dropped out after GD backed out as prime contractor, leaving its Advanced Information System division to handle the combat system.
Austal USA insists it’s very much in the SSC game.
“We are a design house,” company president Craig Perciavalle declared April 8. “We do the LCS and the Joint High Speed Vessel.” Austal USA, he said, is eager to present its ideas to the Navy.
“The multi-mission combatant (MMC) was a collaborative effort with GD,” he acknowledged, referring to an Aegis-fitted variant. “But we’ve picked it up of late. We’re re-evaluating the MMC — that’s a pretty good place to start.”
Austal USA isn’t changing the ships’ dimensions so much as looking at different configurations, Perciavalle said.
The Independence design “has the technical ability to add whatever the Navy wants,” he noted. “Just tell us, and we can get it in.”
The Independence hull can be fitted with two eight-cell VLS launchers, Perciavalle pointed, giving 16 SM-2 missiles. Like the Freedom, the ship can be fitted with sonars, and heavier radars.
The Independence class is noted for its large, single mission bay and relatively huge flight deck. Those traits continue to make the design attractive to a good portion of the Navy’s surface warfare community.
On the outside looking in, but just as eager to get in the SSC game, is Huntington Ingalls. The shipbuilders aren’t part of the LCS program, but Ingalls believes it has a viable candidate with patrol frigate (PF) variants of the large National Security Cutter in production for the US Coast Guard. Like Lockheed, the company’s PF designs have become familiar at international naval expositions, but a deal has remained elusive.
At the recent Navy League Sea-Air-Space exhibition in early April, Ingalls was aggressive in presenting its PF as a SSC candidate.
“It’s a lethal warship we’re offering,” declared Christie Thomas, Ingalls’ director of business development for the National Security Cutter/Patrol Frigate program. “It has a proven hull and propulsion plant that makes it affordable.”
The ships have real combat power, she insisted.
“We bring a quantum step up in lethality over FFGs,” Thomas said. Like the LCS variants, the ship can carry SM-2 missiles in VLS launchers, up to 16 cells, and can accommodate Harpoon and Vertical-Launch Antisubmarine missiles.
Although designed originally to Coast Guard standards, which often emphasize seakeeping over combat survivability, the PF is enhanced to meet Navy requirements, she said.
“We’re trying to make the ship cost-effective, without major hull changes,” Thomas said. “We’re flexible, we can do a lot of different things with the hull form. We have a lot of [design] margin, and know the ship will have to grow [over time].”
Thomas noted the Coast Guard’s combat system — supplied by Lockheed — has many components in common with the Freedom LCS. “It was built with Navy missions in mind.”
The three contender-hopefuls share similar challenges — not only of a technical nature, but of perceptions and even prejudice.
Many LCS critics complain of the lightly-armed nature of the ships — a natural consequence of their original requirement to provide space and weight for mission modules, not for installed weapons and sensors. Regardless of the technical qualities of their gunned-up LCS presentations, Lockheed and Austal USA will have to convince skeptics their ships can come closer to more traditional ideas of a useful warship.
Ingalls has dual challenges. Like the LCS builders, the company needs to show it can make the PF a creditable warship. But many naval officers and officials balk at considering a “white hull” ship designed for the Coast Guard and not to the Navy’s more exacting combat standards.
Getting people to overlook those preconceptions and take a closer look at a design’s capabilities will be as much as challenge as fitting in more missiles and bigger guns.