Saturday, May 19, 2012

LCS - Mission Module Status

Setting aside the question of whether the LCS is a worthwhile program or not, the value of the LCS, as designed, was the ability to swap mission modules.  This flexibility at a tactical level would be the core of the LCS’ strength according to the Navy’s vision.  Well, it’s time for an assessment of the state of module implementation.

As a frame of reference, 24 LCSs have been procured or scheduled through FY2015.  That’s nearly half of the total anticipated build of 55 ships.  Therefore, it would be reasonable to expect that module development should be mature and production modules should be plentiful relative to the number of hulls in the water by FY2015.  If this were not the case, the LCS’s main design feature, tactical flexibility via swappable modules, would be nullified.

As of Mar-2012, the two MCM modules, 2 ASuW modules, and 1 ASW module have been delivered (1).  Note that these modules are partial, developmental modules intended for testing and evaluation. 



RAM Launched Griffon?
 
ASuW Module – The main component of the ASuW module was to have been the NLOS missile system for use in land attack and in anti-swarm (small boat attacks) defense.  The NLOS has been cancelled and the current replacement is the Griffon missile although work has already been initiated to replace it due to its unacceptably short range.  Further, the Griffon has no land attack capability comparable to the intended role of the NLOS.  Griffon is scheduled to be operational in 2015 and its successor in 2017.  Interestingly, Griffon has been test fired from a RAM launcher.  Whether this means that Griffon will be fired from the existing LCS RAM launcher, thereby diminishing the already minimal AAW capability or be launched from additional, dedicated, RAM launchers remains to be seen.

MCM Module – RAMICS was intended to provide a mine destruction capability but failed to perform and has been cancelled.  The unmanned surface vehicle and associated sweep system have also been cancelled.  The Navy is now trying out various adaptations of existing or developmental equipment but does not currently have a well defined module.  Given that this module is nothing more than a wish list of capabilities, any forecasts of IOC must be seen as pure wishful thinking.

ASW Module – LCS was originally designed to be a mothership to an array of off-board sensors carried by various unmanned air, surface, and subsurface vehicles.  Thus, the LCS would deploy its sensors and then stand off from the danger area.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this concept other than the fact that none of the anticipated unmanned vehicles and sensors have panned out.  From the GAO report (2),


“In 2008, the Navy took delivery of one partially capable ASW module at a cost of over $200 million, but subsequently cancelled plans to continue procuring the module and is redesigning it. According to program officials, the new design includes a variable-depth sonar and towed array, unmanned aerial vehicle, helicopter, and torpedo countermeasure.” 
So, the original ASW module, termed Increment 1 by the Navy, failed completely and the LCS is now moving towards on-board sensors and weapons in a module termed Increment 2.  This approach now dictates that the LCS operate in physical proximity to enemy submarines.  Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with this approach other than the fact that the LCS was not designed to stand into combat and is not considered combat survivable by the Navy.  Also, this now gets away from the original LCS design concept and makes the LCS a traditional frigate. 

I know, you’re asking yourself why we’re retiring the Perry class frigates which already exist and already have towed arrays, torpedo countermeasures, helos, Fire Scout UAVs, and anti-submarine torpedos?  Good question!


LCS Mission Bay - Anything To Put In It?

The module status summary points out both the strength and weakness of the LCS.  The strength is that modules can be continually developed over the lifetime of the seaframe.  Hence, the lack of any current, fully functioning module is not a permanent and fatal flaw.  On the other hand, the lack of any current, fully functioning module means that the LCS is just an incredibly expensive and virtually unarmed and non-functional seaframe until such time as a useful module becomes available.

The Navy attempted to jump one or more generations on the technology ladder and, not unexpectedly, failed totally.  The scramble is on now to find something, anything, that can be used as a module until such time as the envisioned modules become technically feasible, if ever.

The next major issue that has, so far, received little attention is the number of modules.  Current plans call for 55 LCS sea frames and 64 LCS mission modules:  16 ASW, 24 MCM, and 24 ASuW (3).  When we do the arithmetic, if all 55 seaframes have a module installed, that leaves just 9 modules available for swapping.  Given that the LCS will have at least two main bases, one in the MidEast and one in Chinese area, that means that there will be only four or five extra modules at each location for swapping and the odds that the desired module is in stock become very low; more so, if multiple LCSs wish to swap at the same time.  This issue, alone, almost totally invalidates the LCS concept of tactical flexibility.

In summary, none of the modules exist in finished form and the closest, probably the ASuW, is still four or five years down the road.  The MCM and ASW modules are probably looking at 2017 to 2020 for IOC of any useful version, at best.  Even when the modules become available, the limited numbers almost totally negate the LCS concept.


(1)   Congressional Research Services (CRS), Navy Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) Program: Background, Issues, and Options for Congress, Ronald O'Rourke, Specialist in Naval Affairs, April 6, 2012, p. 4

(2)   Government Accountability Office: Defense Acquisitions[:] Assessments of Selected Weapon Programs, GAO-12-400SP, March 2012, p. 110

(3)   CRS, p. 2




16 comments:

  1. How does speed and noise of the LCS design impact upon its ability to use what might be called conventional ASW equipment?

    Just as an example, the RN Type 23 with its Sonar 2087 towed array, Merlin helicopter, hull mounted high frequency sonar and Ultra Electronic torpedo defence system are all integrated into the ship in a non modular way and the ship itself is designed very much to compliment those systems, everything from the propulsion design to the type of propeller.

    That is a lot of kit to add onto the LCS and even if you can do it, are there design features of the LCS that work against effective deployment of the conventional ASW kit a box arrangement that the LCS seems to have been forced into.

    I am not sure we all appreciate just how far modern technology is pushing the effectiveness of modern SSK's or how fast that technology is proliferating.

    The question I am asking is, if there is a gap between the availability of a realistic capability using offboard distributed ASW sensors and when the LCS starts replacing your conventional ships, is the USN entering a period of great risk from submarines because it will have retired the traditional but effective kit and will be using the compromised new kit that is waiting for technology to mature before it can realise its potential?

    All this whilst the submarine threat continues at a pace.

    Is this a real risk, is it an acceptable one?

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  2. This post was left by Think Defence but for some reason failed to show on the blog. I've posted it here, verbatim.

    How does speed and noise of the LCS design impact upon its ability to use what might be called conventional ASW equipment?

    Just as an example, the RN Type 23 with its Sonar 2087 towed array, Merlin helicopter, hull mounted high frequency sonar and Ultra Electronic torpedo defence system are all integrated into the ship in a non modular way and the ship itself is designed very much to compliment those systems, everything from the propulsion design to the type of propeller.

    That is a lot of kit to add onto the LCS and even if you can do it, are there design features of the LCS that work against effective deployment of the conventional ASW kit a box arrangement that the LCS seems to have been forced into.

    I am not sure we all appreciate just how far modern technology is pushing the effectiveness of modern SSK's or how fast that technology is proliferating.

    The question I am asking is, if there is a gap between the availability of a realistic capability using offboard distributed ASW sensors and when the LCS starts replacing your conventional ships, is the USN entering a period of great risk from submarines because it will have retired the traditional but effective kit and will be using the compromised new kit that is waiting for technology to mature before it can realise its potential?

    All this whilst the submarine threat continues at a pace.

    Is this a real risk, is it an acceptable one?

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    1. Think Defence raises a very good point! I'll address it by first describing what makes a good ASW platform.

      The consensus best ASW platform ever built for the U.S. Navy was the Spruance class destroyers of the Cold War era. They were purpose built for ASW and incorporated machinery isolation to prevent engine and other mechanical noise from escaping the hull as well as the Prairie/Masker system that reduced noise external to the hull. In addition, towed array, helos, ASROC, and the best sonar available at the time made the Spruance class the quietest surface ship in the Navy and the best ASW platform possible. The key point is that the ship was purpose built for ASW and every design aspect was optimized for ASW.

      By comparison, the LCS was intended as a mothership to a host of off-board sensors and weapons. The sensors would be deployed and the LCS would stand off, out of range and danger from the sub. Thus, the LCS was not built with "up close" ASW in mind. To the best of my knowledge, it has no built in quieting, doesn't use Prairie/Masker, and operates monstrously noisy water jets. In short, it is as "unoptimized" for ASW as it could be.

      Thus, the move to place existing, conventional ASW equipment such as VDS, towed array, and so forth on the ship means that while the added equipment is perfectly adequate, the ship as a whole is not optimized for ASW and will, at best, be a less than optimal platform.

      Unfortunately, until such time as the promised "transformational" ASW module arrives, if ever, this is the best that can be done.

      Is this a real risk? Yes. While the Burke class DDG has a credible ASW capability, the LCS was intended to deal with the shallow water, diesel sub threat and now we have a less than ideal platform.

      Is it an acceptable one? Well, it's all we have so I guess it has to be acceptable but I wouldn't want to go sub-hunting on one!

      I'm not knowledgeable about the Type 23 but it sounds like the RN has the right idea! I'll trade you a Type 23 for an LCS?

      Thanks for checking in!

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  3. The Royal Navy is just going through a design phase for a Type 23 replacement called the Type 26 and although details are not wholly forthcoming it seems to be taking an evolutionary approach, migrating sensors and weapon systems from the Type 23 whilst providing space for future off board sensors as a growth route in the future.

    Seems very sensible to me

    http://www.thinkdefence.co.uk/2012/05/ok-ok-lets-talk-about-the-type-26/

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  4. I am starting to think we should largely scrap the ASW package. Relying on organic sensors that force an LCS to fight up close with is, as others have stated, a losing proposition.

    I hope that someday we'll actually be able to field the transformational distributed ASW sensors as originally planned, but my guess is it'll be at least a decade.

    The best we can probably use for LCS-ASW in the short term is as a fast, constantly moving base for MH-60Rs - which seem like they will be excellent ASW helicopters.

    My recommendation:

    - Reconfigure the mission module bay as additional storage for helo spare parts, Jet A, lots of sonobuoys, a spare ALFS or two, and extra lightweight torpedoes. Maybe even extra aircrew and maintainers.

    - Ditch everything else ASW-related except maybe a robust torpedo detection capability.

    - Deploy in hunter-killer team of 1 DDG to 4 LCS-ASW. DDG provides escort, sort of like WW2 hunter-killer groups.

    Is it ideal? Hardly. But 4 LCS and a DDG working together could stay mobile which is really their best defense, while operating their 8+ MH-60Rs around-the-clock.

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    1. You're describing using the LCSs as simple helo sources. Hmmm .... A fair thought. Along those same lines, if you're looking for a platform that can operate multiple helos in the ASW role what about one of the many amphibious ships that are being retired or have recently been. What better helo-centered ASW platform than that? What do you think?

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    2. The problem in using an amphibs as a ASW helo carrier is that it is rather slow and fairly easy for an enemy to target and kill. And you put all your helo 'eggs' in one 'basket'... which then has to be escorted. It kind of get back to why we needed S-3 on carrier - to push the ASW fight out from a big target.

      I should preface as that I am NOT a fan of LCS. I think like many folks on this site, I'm just trying to make the best of this poop sandwich.

      But in looking at LCS seaframe, there are actually four qualities that we probably ought to leverage:
      (1) relatively inexpensive (compared to a DDG);
      (2) high dash speed;
      (3) a spacious mission bay (no modules yet);
      (4) a big hangar and ample helo deck.

      In ASW fight, I could see deploying LCS in packs to present the enemy with multiple targets. Dash them around periodically to complicate the subs targeting solution. Add in a DDG for AAW defense.

      Rely on helos to provide a mobile offensive ASW circle around each LCS. Use missions bay as a "helo Home Depot" (extra fuel, spare parts, weapons, buoys, crews, maintainer) to get the maximum utility from the embarked helos.

      Note - if the weather goes to crap and you can't fly helos, you pretty much have to wait it out. I haven't quite figured that part out...

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  5. The problem with relying on just helo for ASW is two fold

    1st, endurance. The limited endurance and high fuel usage of helicopters means that in reality, you need an awful lot of fuel, crews and maintenance to maintain a persistent presence. Not sure that even the roomy LCS has enough space to sustain medium endurance rotary ops although like you say, that would at least be part of the solution.

    2nd, helicopters only have relatively short duration equipment, sonobouys or dipping sonar. So do they bring the range of sensors that an ASW frigate can bring, variable depth active/passive arrays and hull mounted high frequency sonars that are fitted to conventional ASW frigates? Helicopters are just part of the jigsaw.

    I know you are trying to make the best of a bad job but I think there has to be an acknowledgement that muddling through like this is far from opitimal and when facing a credible submarine threat, is that enough?

    ASW operations involve listening, 'sprint and drift' maneuvers and using helicopters to localise and destroy the submarine and all these involve going in harms way with a vessel that is probably the noisiest thing in the area by a long way.

    Could the USN be in a position where it has to rely on allies, not only for much of the MCM mission that it does now, but also for ASW?

    I can't believe that it wants to, but that might be the de facto position you find yourselves in.

    Can't believe no one is shouting from the rooftops about this!

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  6. ThinkDefense - no arguments from me! As I've said, I'm just trying to optimize the 'qualities' of LCS and make the best of a bad situation.

    The LCS seaframe simply isn't designed for the traditional ASW operations as you describe. It was designed to use off-board sensors, which aren't ready for prime-time.

    I'd think the concept I describe - augmented with a wide-area multi-static search capability (P-3/P-8) might work. It's definitely not optimal, but nothing on LCS is.

    PS - I'm all for cooperating with our allies whenever possible. Many of them (Japanese, British, Australians) still take ASW very seriously. But we can't always rely on their foreign policy objectives aligning with our own.

    PPS - Lots of people are shouting about LCS, but no one in leadership from USN apparently wants to listen!

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  7. One of the commenters at Think Defence just posted this on our discussion on the Type 26...

    NAVSEA’s Integrated Warfare Systems office had been working with the British Royal Navy to develop software for a continuously active sonar, streamed by a towed array mounted on a ship. The Brits, operating from Type 23 frigates, “have been doing demonstrations at sea with the sonar for about five years,” Ailes said.

    An advanced development model of the Thales Captas-4 VDS system was delivered to the U.S. Navy at Brest, France, on July 25, according to NAVSEA, and should arrive in the U.S. in early September [2011]. In place of the type 2087 sonar used by the Royal Navy, the U.S. version will use the TB-37 multifunction towed array, feeding an enhanced version of the SQQ-89 sonar processing system.

    Land-based testing of the system, NAVSEA said, will run through mid-2012, followed by at-sea testing of the system aboard a chartered commercial vessel operating for the LCS Mission Package Support Facility at Port Hueneme, Calif. A VDS competition is planned to follow the test program, Ailes said, with an award planned for 2014

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  8. Forgot to add, that quote was from an April 2012 GAO report on the LCS which you might find interesting, or depressing, depending on your perspective!

    http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL33741.pdf

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  9. Just as the LCS is not optimal for ASW, I grant that neither would a converted amphib. As with the LCS, I'm just trying to think of ways to make the best of a bad situation.

    Here's a further thought about shallow water ASW. Due to the large amount of background noise in the littorals, passive sonar and current towed arrays will, by all accounts, be only marginally effective. Active sonar will be the preferred approach. Unfortunately, active sonar is very short ranged by comparison. I think that's one reason why the LCS was envisioned as using off-board sensors and standing well out of the danger area. Putting ASW sensors on a non-ASW-optimized LCS, or any other vessel, for that matter, is just asking to have the ship sunk because it will have to approach so close to the sub to detect it.

    Whatever ship, be it LCS, converted amphib, or something else, is going to have to stand off unless it has been designed from the keel up to conduct ASW. There are no good options at this point, only less bad ones.

    I wonder what has been the RN experience with shallow water ASW and what tactics they've worked out?

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  10. During the Cold War the RN more or less turned itself into a specialist deep water ASW outfit and without sounding too jingoistic I think it was recognised as the pre-eminent navy in that role, combined with the RAF Nimrod. So Type 23, the Merlin helicopter, various bits of Sonar development, torpedo defence and the Nimrod all combined to make it a formidable anti submarine force. I think its main job at the time was to stop Russian subs coming out of the UK Faroes Greenland Iceland gap to ensure they could not disrupt flows of US forces coming over the Atlantic to counter a Russian advance into Western Europe.

    During the same time, the Scandanavians and Germans were specialising in shallow water ASW for the Baltic and to prevent Russian flanking incursions into Norway and Sweden so they were the undisputed king of the hill in shallow water ASW.

    Since then of course, things have changed and I understand we have been doing a great deal of cooperation with these nations to develop on both a technical and doctrinal level.

    As for the equipment, there are many issues that mean some of these traditional deep water tactics dont work as well but there is a lot of expertise in Europe that is being developed to counter the threat of shallow water SSK's

    I have been reading about bistatic sonar, using underwater surveying tools to conduct rapid environment assessments that provide ASW forces with a highly accurate silt layer and underwater geography picture and even using the other ships (mostly those that don't know they are being used) in the area to generate sonar returns.

    The Thales CAPTAS 4 VDS that it looks like from above the USN has bought is basically a version the Sonar 2087 the RN has been using for 5 years. We are still fitting them to the Type 23 and will retrofit to the Type 26 when it comes on stream so I guess the RN still thinks it has a role.

    All very bloody clever stuff!

    Do you think there is an element of 'not invented here' with some of the stuff that is going on with ASW in the USN?

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    1. @ThinkDefense

      How are British going to cope with loss of RAF Nimrod capability?

      Nimrod has a unique mix of speed, range, and sensors which will be very hard to duplicate from a surface ship or even the Merlin helo.

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  11. Think Defence - Yes, I'm sure there's an element of "not invented here" at play although considering how much the U.S. has learned from the RN I would hope it's minimal at least in that regard (we wouldn't have carriers, for instance, if it wasn't for the RN!). I suspect a larger concern is the fear that foreign (non-U.S., from our perspective) sources of equipment are not secure sources. Depending on the source country, we could find ourselves short of equipment, parts, support, etc. due to factors we have no control over such as the local economy of the source country or changes in political climates. I think it's felt that U.S. sources are more reliable and, therefore, preferred. There may also be a concern with the security of classified data. We can make very sure that U.S. companies can't disseminate classified data (leaks still happen, of course) whereas we have little legal influence over foreign companies and countries. This is all just speculation on my part. I've never heard anyone in a position of authority say any of this.

    You might want to consider doing a guest article here on the subject of shallow water ASW if that's an area of knowledge for you? Things like active vs passive, detection range as a function of water depth, the survivability of helos in a contested littoral area while attempting ASW, continuous active sonar benefits vs making oneself a continuous target, background noise vs open ocean background noise, impact of bottom clutter, impact of shorter detection ranges on tactics, and so on. Think about it!

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