WASHINGTON — Since its inception in 2001, the US Navy's Littoral Combat Ship program has been described as needed to replace the fleet's frigates, minesweepers and patrol ships. But the ship's place in the line of battle continues to be debated.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus thinks one of the reasons the ship is misunderstood is the nontraditional LCS designator. He directed an effort to find a more traditional and appropriate designation for the LCS and several other recent ship types, such as the Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV), the Mobile Landing Platform (MLP) and the Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB).
The first of the types to be redesignated is the LCS.
"If it's like a frigate, why don't we call it a frigate?" he said Jan. 14 to a roomful of surface warfare sailors at the Surface Navy Association's annual symposium just outside Washington.
"We are going to change the hull designation of the LCS class ships to FF," Mabus said, citing the traditional hull designation for frigates. "It will still be the same ship, the same program of record, just with an appropriate and traditional name."
Mabus has long been irked by the habit in recent years of applying program-like designations to ships, and LCS is an example. In the Navy's designation system, the first letter sometimes is the key to the overall role of the ship, and "L-class" ships are widely considered to be those involved in carrying Marines and their equipment for an amphibious assault. LCS is the sole exception — a ship the Navy counts as a surface combatant, not an amphibious lift ship.
"When I hear L, I think amphib," Mabus said. "And it's not an amphib. And I have to spend a good deal of my time explaining what littoral is."
Redesignating the ships as FF puts the ship squarely back in the surface combatant category, and is appropriate, since the Pentagon direction in developing the modified LCS was to make it more "frigate-like."
Navy sources said it was intended to designate only the modified LCS as frigates, but many of the upgrades intended for those ships are to be backfitted into earlier LCS hulls, blending the types. Mabus said the designation definitely will apply to the modified ships, and will likely be extended to all LCSs.
Navy sources said a decision on what hull numbers the ships will carry has yet to be made. There are several possibilities — if the ships pick up with the frigate series, the next number available is FF 1099.
The fleet's last guided-missile frigates (FFGs) will be decommissioned in September, and the next number in that sequence is FFG 62. But unlike the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates being phased out, the LCS doesn't carry an area air-defense missile such as the Standard missile — the basis for the "G" — so the FFG series isn't entirely appropriate.
The Navy also could decide not to change the hull numbers but simply change the designator — something that was done in the late 1970s when new Aegis guided-missile destroyers were redesignated as cruisers without changing the numbers.
Ship redesignations are happen from time to time for a variety of reasons. The first Ticonderoga-class cruisers, for example, started out as guided missile destroyers (DDG) and were changed to guided missile cruisers (CG) just before construction began to reflect their higher cost and the need for more experienced officers.
Until the 1970s, US Navy frigates were ships larger than destroyers but smaller than cruisers. In 1975 all frigates were redesignated either as cruisers or destroyers, while the fleet's destroyer escorts and ocean escorts were changed to frigates. That move brought the US into line with all other foreign navies, where frigates are considered smaller than destroyers but larger than corvettes or patrol boats.
Mabus said he would announce additional designation changes in coming weeks.