The Littoral Combat Ship saga has been just another reminder of the Pentagon’s chaotic and illogical procurement strategy. Now, after studying alternatives to the over-sized jet boat after deciding that it was a indeed a flawed concept, the DoD has come up with the laughable decision to build a more complicated and expensive but still highly vulnerable version of the troubled ship.
After capping production at 32 hulls instead of the planned 52 hulls, the Navy was directed by the now outgoing Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to come up with a plan to replace the remaining 20 ships with something that is more survivable and packs a heavier punch in combat, more reliability would be nice too.
Even though so many answers to the littoral combat mission exist, both here at home and abroad, in what seems like an almost comically bad decision that could only come from the Pentagon’s backwards logic, Hagel and crew have announced that the remaining LCS buy will be replaced by... You guessed it — a more expensive and complicated LCS derivative! This ‘upgunned’ LCS as industry and the Navy like to refer to it, will be called the Small Surface Combatant, or SSC.
This not so new new ship will take the same Independence and Freedom class LCS designs, yes both of them, and will add armor, some new weaponry, upgraded countermeasures and sensors, and as a result, probably weight. Specifically a new 3D radar will be part of the this improved LCS, along with a multi-function towed sonar array, over the horizon surface-to-surface missiles, and a permanent sonar array.
Only areas of the ship that deemed critical would have armor added and the LCS’s existing, and apparently fairly impotent, electronic warfare suite will be upgraded along with the installation of a more robust torpedo and missile decoy system. Somewhere in there integrating Hellfire missile is also included, although this is already supposedly happening for the baseline LCS models as well. The addition of the Hellfire for surface warfare missions is a consolation prize to the now defunct and much more capable Non-Line-Of-Sight (NLOS) missile system that was envisioned in the original design.
Here are the changes to the original LCS designs needed to fulfill the near reaching SSC requirement:
Price-wise, this upgraded LCS is said to cost about $70M more than the first 32 ships and there have been some claims that adding all these capabilities and armor will not increase the ship’s displacement and thus its performance, which sounds ridiculous if not physically impossible. Seeing as the LCS’s original design was all about high-speed and shallow water operations, it seems ironic that this same hull is now being forced to take on so many additional components, many of which are more aimed at ‘blue water’ operations than ‘brown water’ operations. This conflict between the LCS’s design and its actual mission compromises the original LCS concept and just further confuses an already deeply confused defense program that has long been considered as an answer to a problem that really never existed.
The LCS’s very troubled ‘mission packages’ concept will continue on with the SSC derivative of the LCS, although anti-submarine warfare and anti-surface warfare will be their focus. What is missing entirely from this slightly more capable LCS concept is a vertical launch system for surface to air missiles and other advanced munitions. Thus, the re-badged SSC still lacks the ability to provide area air defense, yet alone self defense, against airborne threats at anything but very close ranges.
It was long thought that a replacement for the LCS, even if it was a highly modified existing LCS design, would field a VLS system that could, at the very minimum, sling RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles. This would give the SSC the ability to rapidly engage everything from high-flying fighters, to sea skimming supersonic missiles within about a two dozen mile ring around the ship.
A look at the outgrowth concepts of the LCS, the largest and most capable featuring a miniaturized version of the AEGIS combat system and vertical launch systems for firing full-sized SM-2 Standard surface-to-air missiles along with a slew of other upgrades, some of which are being included with the SSC requirement:
With the decision to make the SSC just an LCS with some bolt-on upgrades, the Navy ends up with is a Littoral Combat Ship that really is something between a true, small, high-speed littoral combatant and a under-armed frigate. A big, relatively short ranged, ‘blue water’ jet boat that cannot operate independently of the highly tasked AEGIS equipped Destroyers and Cruisers in anything but benign threat environments.
Considering that even advanced anti-ship missiles are now proliferating to non-state actors, what in one moment is deemed a low threat environment can turn into a medium-threat environment in an instant. Having a longer-range, higher-resolution air search radar may in some cases give the SSC earlier warning of an incoming aerial attack, but without weapons to engage these threats at a distance, surviving such an attack still depends solely on the Rolling Airframe Missile or SeaRAM close in weapons systems that are already installed on the LCS, along with some upgraded electronic countermeasures and decoys.
The Navy’s justification for doubling down on the LCS debacle after finally turning away from the failed concept earlier this year is mainly based on cost, commonality and protecting America’s fledgling shipbuilding industry. Although the projected cost figures for the enhanced ‘up-gunned’ LCSs are yet to be proven, going with a design in production, even if it is a poor design to begin with, represents a lower risk than developing a new ‘clean sheet’ design. Additionally, commonality between the LCS and SSC is a nice plus. Yet protecting the industrial base by having two shipyards produce two different solutions for the same mission requirement really does refute the Navy’s commonality claims.
Balancing what is really a jobs program and some vague strategic cache of keeping America’s shipbuilding industrial base up and running to a certain arbitrary level does nothing to help the fact that the ships these yards are building may not be the best weapon system for the challenges the Navy faces, yet alone for money being spent. Finally, some of the other ship designs that were competing for the SSC bid were outgrowths of existing designs as well, although, in certain cases, they would be built by yards that already have other programs underway, so their survival is not dependent on winning the SSC bid alone.
Like the LCS before it, the SSC is the same old big jet boat with some new additions that should have been included on the LCS in the first place. Now, under Hagel’s announced choice, we will have 32 LCSs that are lacking in many aspects that their slightly upgraded SSC cousins aren’t. Yet the SSC version of the LCS still pales in comparison to a proper modern frigate that is survivable in low and intermediate, or even in some cases high threat environments, and is able to provide area air defense while robustly protecting itself from airborne threats.
The Ingalls Shipbuilding FF4921 Enhanced Patrol Frigate, based on the USCG’s National Security Cutter, would have had the proper mix of capabilities to satisfy the SSC requirements and operate independently in at least medium threat level combat environments. The FF4921 EPF concept includes a compact 12 cell Mk56 vertical launch system, each containing a single RIM-166 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile. The even more capable FF4923 version Enhanced Patrol Frigate concept, one of a series of options Ingalls Shipbuilding has proposed, would pack a full 16 sell Mark 41 vertical launch system and an upgraded radar and combat information system.
The addition of a Mark 41 VLS would allow the Enhanced Patrol Frigate to carry either the long-range SM-2 ‘Standard’ surface to air missile or four Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles per launch cell. For example, a mixed load could see the FF4923 pack ten SM-2s and 24 RIM-162 ESSMs or any mix the mission requires. Additionally, anti-submarine missiles could also be carried in the FF4923’s VLS system, providing long-range submarine engagement capabilities.
A ship like the FF4923 would be capable and survivable enough to be able to assume some of the more rudimentary missions that the US Destroyer fleet is currently burdened with, all at a much lower cost. Even area air defense and escort duties could be performed in medium threat environments. This would America’s allow AEGIS equipped ships to concentrate on more complex missions and ballistic missile defense. Although the FF4923 may be more expensive than a LCS turned SSC, other force structure combinations exist that would provide more flexibility and value than an all LCS derived small surface combatant force. You can read about what the US could potentially get if it cancelled the LCS and the SSC outright by clicking here.
With all this in mind, the question still remains: What really is the Littoral Combat Ship, including the ‘up-gunned’ SSC version of it? Is it a really big and expensive Corvette or is it a stripped down frigate? And if the SSC version of the LCS is required than why on earth are we buying 32 baseline versions to begin with? The Pentagon has become all about fitting a mission into a weapons concept and not the other way around. After over a decade of clumsy progression and ongoing design faults, as well as even many of its supporters now admitting that the LCS concept is flawed, it is troublesome to see that the Pentagon is still unable to let go of the LCS concept once and for all. Quite the contrary, they are doubling down on it.
The truth is that the US Navy does not need a giant speed boat. If they want to build a true Littoral Combat Ship with sub hunting and anti-mine warfare capabilities they should procure something like the stealthy Swedish Visby Class Corvette and invest more heavily in true small multi-role gunboats. What the Navy does need is a modern surface combatant that can survive on its own without being tethered to much more expensive and elaborate warships and that has the range to stay in the fight for the long haul. One that can provide control not just of the sea around and below it, but also of the air above it for many miles as well. Sadly, the pimped out Small Surface Combatant version of the impotent Littoral Combat Ship concept is still not that ship.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com