Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Gators - The New LCS

We’ve already looked at the littoral battle zone and found that very concept of littoral is suspect.  That being the case, it logically follows that there is nothing necessary or unique about the LCS.  With that said, let’s do a change in direction.  Let’s say, for sake of further discussion, that there is a need for a littoral combat vessel.  Further, let’s say that the requirements are much as the Navy has laid out:  shallow water anti-submarine warfare (ASW), mine countermeasures (MCM), small craft surface warfare (ASuW), near shore strike support for ground forces, and special operations support.  These were the core functions that the LCS was supposed to fill.

How was the LCS supposed to have accomplished these functions?  Two key characteristics were to have been the foundation of the LCS’s capabilities:

  1. Modular mission packages tailored to a single function.
  2. Acting as a mothership to a host of remote controlled, off-board sensors, vehicles, and weapons.
There are a couple of key points that go hand in hand with the above two characteristics and that need to be recognized. 

First, the mission packages provided a single function because the LCS had neither the size nor the crew to accommodate multiple functions.  It’s not that the Navy thought a single function was superior to a multi-function platform;  it was simply a ship and crew size limitation.  The LCS was too small to handle multiple functions.  The Navy probably would have liked to build a bigger ship but one of the main constraints was cost.  Remember?  This was supposed to be a cheap $200M vessel.

Second, the mothership concept meant that the LCS would normally stand off from the battle zone after deploying the off-board devices.  Thus, the LCS did not need to be heavily armed or survivable because it wouldn’t be involved in actual combat.  We all criticize the LCS for being non-survivable in a combat zone but, to be fair to the Navy, it was never intended to be in one!

Austin Class LPD - A Better LCS?

As I said, let’s accept the LCS concept for the moment.  What do the above thoughts suggest as regards the ideal conceptual littoral vessel?  Well, ideally, it should be able (meaning big enough) to handle multiple functions simultaneously.  In fact, ideally, it should be able to handle all the functions simultaneously.  The vessel ought to act as a mothership to off-board devices that perform the bulk of the actual work.  That means it should have as big a flight deck as possible since the helos and UAVs are some of the main off-board devices.  Some type of well deck would be very useful for launching surface and subsurface off-board vehicles;  again, the bigger the better.  Further, it would nice if the vessel had survivability more typical of a warship.  Again, this implies greater size.  Bigger ships are inherently more survivable.  And lastly, it would be nice if the vessel didn’t cost much to build.

Clearly, the LCS doesn’t meet the requirements of the ideal vessel.  Is there any vessel that is large enough to perform multiple functions, has a large flight deck, has a large well deck, is survivable, and is cheap?  Hmmm …  Let me think …  Wait a minute!  It just hit me.  What about an amphibious ship (gator)?  Specifically, one of the many older gators that are being retired.  They are plenty big enough to perform all the functions simultaneously, they have enormous flight decks and hangars, they have entire well decks, they’re built to warfighting survivability standards, and they already exist.  We could convert retired/retiring gators to accept mission packages, handle and control remote devices, and launch unmanned vehicles.

Yeah, but one of the main features of the LCS is shallow draft and a gator doesn’t have that.  True, but remember that the operational concept of the LCS was that it was a standoff mothership.  Standoff means that it doesn’t have to go into extremely shallow water.  That was always one of the contradictions inherent in the LCS concept that puzzled me.  Besides, what is there in 15 ft of water that is of sufficient interest that would require the LCS to be there?  Subs?  No, even diesel subs don’t operate in water that shallow.  Mines?  Yes, but that’s what the off-board unmanned vehicles are for.  So, I see no tactical requirement for extreme shallow draft.

OK, but the LCS is designed and shaped to be stealthy.  No way a gator is stealthy!  Again, true, but remember that the LCS was intended to be a standoff mothership.  If the ship is standing off it doesn’t need to be stealthy.  Besides, the main point of the stealth requirement was to try and protect a non-survivable vessel.  Well, the gator is quite survivable and has sufficient size to accommodate as much protective weaponry as needed.

All right, I’m running out of objections but what about speed?  The LCS is blazingly fast and no gator can match that.  Correct and irrelevant.  The LCS is fast but no one has yet come up with a scenario in which the speed is tactically useful.

Let’s look at the functions that the LCS was supposed to have performed.

ASW was envisioned as being performed by helos and off-board, unmanned sensing vehicles.  Well, is there any better platform for hosting helos and launching unmanned vehicles than a gator with its huge flight deck, hangar, and well deck?

MCM, like ASW, was envisioned as being performed by helos and off-board, unmanned sensing and mine neutralization vehicles.  Again, is there any better platform for hosting helos and launching unmanned vehicles than a gator?

ASuW was envisioned as a combination of armed helos, onboard guns, and moderate ranged missiles (the now-cancelled NLOS).  A gator can host many helos and has the size to accept multiple gun and missile systems.

Strike support for ground forces was going to be limited to the NLOS system.  A gator has the size to accept 5” (or, potentially even larger) guns, missiles, and attack helos such as the Sea Cobra.  That represents far better support than the original LCS concept.

SOF support was going to be limited by necessity.  The LCS could operate RHIBs and one or two helos but had limited size for hosting SOF forces and no room for the extensive command, control, and communications that would, ideally, be needed.  A gator has all those things in abundance.

Well Deck, Flight Deck - What Could Be Better?

The Navy is furiously retiring gators.  Now, we could simply scrap them and replace them with multi-billion dollar LPD-17s and LHA-6s as we are currently doing or we could upgrade and convert them into a stopgap (or better!) littoral combat vessel.  But conversions are expensive, you say.  Well, they’re not cheap but compared to the cost of new LCSs which can’t do the job they’re meant for, anyway, or the cost of a brand new design multi-mission frigate which might be another alternative to the LCS, conversions are cheap.  The Navy could do a lot of conversions for what the remaining LCS program is going to cost.  Given the current budget limitations, conversions are a great way to get more life and acquire new capabilities at rock bottom prices compared to new construction.  Also, consider that the gators already have most of what’s needed:  large flight decks and well decks, space for guns and missiles, command and control functions, etc.  I suspect that the conversions wouldn’t even be all that extensive.  Heck, the concept has almost been proven already with the conversion of the USS Ponce to an afloat staging base.

C’mon, Navy.  This one’s a no-brainer.  Drop the LCS and convert the retired gators!


  1. One ship that the US Navy can consider as an Alternative to the LCS is the Royal Navy's Global Combat Ship, which is the Type 26 Frigate. It can do everything that an LCS can't do and even carry a Marine size platoon or a Special Ops Team.

    Here's Info on the Global Combat Ship

    1. Nicky, I'm not that familiar with non-US ships so thanks for pointing it out. It's an impressive looking design. Unfortunately, the US Navy seems pretty determined not to consider ships built by other countries. Oh well...

      Thanks for stopping by!

    2. The problem here is the US Navy has lost it's way in the Frigate Dept and the Royal Navy has a ship that can do as much as the LCS dose, but at a cheaper price. The GCS has mission bays and can carry a platoon of Marines or a special ops team. The price for a GCS is comparable to the US Coast Guard's National Security Cutter. I think the US Navy should kill the LCS and maybe make a deal with the Royal Navy for the GCS in return they buy into the JSF with the America class LHA

  2. The notion that operating near or even inshore is some type of new naval mission that requires a special ship called a littoral warship is part of why LCS is a failed design.

    I'd suggest using older amphibious ships as a mothership for smaller craft is fine conceptually, and it used to be a rather standard practice; however, using a large ship for many of these roles is neither useful, cost effective, nor warranted.

    The original choice to go with a corvette sized LCS was entirely flawed. See the following case study:




    I'd suggest what the USN requires is an actual patrol boat along the lines of the original Streetfighter concept, actual small and cost effective mine warfare craft, a general purpose frigate that among other things would do shallow water asw, and perhaps some modern monitors with 2 155mm AGS and very little else.

    The LCS speed requirement was actually so the ship can quickly sail back to port to swap modules. Given the USN is neither going go buy a lot of modules to allow this nor that swapping modules can be done quickly (the last USN report shows at least 96 hours to over a week) I'd suggest the entire conceptional construct for LCS has no basis in reality.

    If they ever get the mine warfare module to actually work I'd suggest that mine warfare being a slow deliberate process that we don't need an X however many millions of dollars module on a $500+ million dollar ship. If we no longer require purpose built mine warfare craft fine then stick the module on a fishing trawler or any other cheap vessel.

    The ASW module both doesn't add any significant capability to LCS, according to the most recent USN report on the matter, but the USN also finds requiring LCS to come to a complete stop to deploy the equipment unacceptable.

    The surface warfare module of 3nm range missiles is of course a total joke. None of these modules belong on any ship.

    A mothership for patrol craft, mine warfare craft, and other small vessels is a fine idea. As a mothership for remote underwater vehicles I'd suggest a Gator is far too large. These should be operating from smaller vessels. I also don't think we want Gator's doing anti surface warfare nor naval gunfire support. If it uses helicopters (manned or unmanned) for either of those tasks fine but we still need ships for those missions as well.

  3. With the current lift capability in the amphibious ships being barely able to handle the 2.0MEB requirement, diverting ships to a different role makes no sense.

    If you utilize retiring LPDs, how much service life does a 40 year old, steam propelled LPD have? I am not thinking a whole lot.

    If you utilize the two retiring LSDs, no problems except there are only two. If you want any more, you are shorting the lift requirement, especially for LCACs, but then you still end up with only about a dozen total. And they don't have helo support facilities so adding them reduces your flight deck to the same as a LCS.

    The two retiring LSDs being used as support ships for MCMs, PCs, EOD, etc makes a lot of sense. Using them in replace of LCS, not so much.

  4. Another problem with using amphibs for this is that our "cheapest" amphib still costs nearly as much as a Burke. Consequently we can barely afford enough for the USMC mission, let alone having enough to take over the LCS tasks.

    Also, while very flexible, amphibs devote a lot of their space and payload to carrying Marines and their kit. Maybe we could develop an amphib-derived mothership, rather than a straight LPD-17.

    For lifting USVs/UUVs, we could also just use a commercial hull such as a platform support vessel.

  5. Guys! Seriously, did you all read the post?

    First, this post was written from the point of view of the Navy, not me. The opening paragraph said that I disagreed with the littoral concept but that, as a thought exercise, we would look at the littoral vessel as the Navy does. They believe that a single, multi-functional (via modularity) vessel is required for littoral warfare. Fine. After discussing it a bit I then proposed using retired gators as stopgap LCSs in place of continuing the LCS buy.

    So, now where are we in this discussion? Would a gator be the ultimate littoral answer? Probably not but its better than the current LCS (that was the point of the post). Some of you have mentioned that we don't have enough gators right now to be taking some away for the LCS role. I said retired, remember? I'm proposing using gators that are headed for scrapping. The fleet loses nothing. Some of you allude to cost of new gators. I said retired, remember? They're already paid for. They only need conversion and upgrading which is way less than new construction of further LCSs.

    How much life is left in retired gators? I said stopgap, remember? I'm guessing 10-15 years with conversion and upgrade. For example, the LPD-4 Austin class which was just retired served an average of 41 years (some more, some less). With upgrades and conversions we can surely squeeze 10-15 more years out of them while we rethink our entire littoral approach and develop the next generation of whatever.

    Reread the post and then comment. Do you have a better, near term solution for the Navy (not new construction which would take 10-20 years to hit the fleet)? The Navy wants an LCS. What do you propose giving them if not the LCS?

    1. Interesting concept. I also think the littoral concept is inherently flawed - or at the very least outdated.

      Aren't amphibs inherently manpower intensive? Would it be possible to convert an amphib to run on a skeleton crew?

    2. Skeleton crew? I hope not! One of the major self-inflicted problems the Navy has is minimal manning which has lead to insufficient maintenance and inadequate manpower for damage control. I would make no attempt to try to get by on a skeleton crew.

      That said, you raise a great point. Much of the manning on a gator is devoted to supporting the embarked Marines - providing mess, laundry, medical, etc. That won't be needed on an LCS gator. Another large chunk of manning is devoted to the helos and planes in the form of pilots, crew, and maintenance techs. While some of that would still be present, I don't visualize needing anywhere near the same number of aircraft. Combine those inherent reductions in manpower with some judicious use of automation and I would think a significant reduction in manpower would be possible although I wouldn't even hazard a guess what it would be. Of course, some of that reduction would be offset by the addition of the new functionality but I think a sizable reduction would still be possible.

    3. Sorry - bad term! But I think you know what I meant.

      Marines & helos aside - myamphibs are pretty manpower intenstive in terms of ship engineering, operations, and maintenance. Automation (applied smartly) would probably be the way to go.

    4. CNO sorry but your assumptions about recycling or repurposing old Gators has some fundamental flaws in it. First let me say I served on two Gators, second I surveyed three more for conversion.

      USN amphibious ships notoriously lack good M&R in the later years of their life cycles and hence are pretty much worn out right before decomming. Gators by their mission nature are labor instensive needing large crews and their systems are worked hard as in worn out.

      For reasons I don't agree with the USN mounts bare minimum weapons on its amphibs making them large easy targets in the littorals. Hence all the discussion of stand off distance ranging from 12 to 250 nmi. To bring a modern Gator inshore one needs full time coverage by another warship and probably big bucks to improve ship self defense.

      Ponce had a minimal (~$50 mil) conversion to extend its life about 4 or 5 years. Now really significant improvements were done AND the ship has a very limited mission statement. I would call that cheap.

      And the REAL problem is the USN is terribly conflicted as to what an AFSB really is. Is it a big warship, is it a module mothership ship, is it a SOLIC support ship, is a major sealift and/or logisitcs ship? The USN doesn't know and is still scratching its head. What I do know is repurposing the MLP to AFSB future is NOT a cost effective solutions.

    5. leesea, so your point seems to be that gators aren't in good enough shape to use for further work when they get to the end of their lives? That's what upgrade/conversions are for. You can replace any system on a ship. For that matter, you can replace structural members, deck plating, and hull plating. It's just a matter of money. Given the $600M cost of new LCSs, that's a fairly substantial pool of money that would be available for upgrades. Of course, if the cost of upgrading to a desired level is prohibitive then it just can't be done. I suspect that a few hundred million dollars would suffice.

      Your point about lack of armament is addressed by including more weapons in the upgrade. Once you take away the amphibious assault function there's lots of hull and deck space available for adding weapons.

      Did that address your concerns?


  6. Near term you keep the existing mine warfare craft and add additional capability through remote vehicles on cheap vessels like fishing trawlers. Additionally replace the Cyclone class immediately (assuming they can't have their life extended) and start buying a larger patrol/missile boat.

    The main thing to do is slow the retirement of our frigates while starting a new general purpose frigate program. LCS isn't going to be replaced near term and that's fine given none of the modules currently work and thus the ships do not add much capability. The only real utility of the ships is that they carry two helicopters. The destroyers and frigates we retired early all did as well. A new frigate can carry two.

    If there actually is a dire pressing near term need buy a dozen MEKO's from Germany if we can't either develop a frigate quickly and/or can't build it efficiently at home.

    I'd suggest the entire littoral aspect of LCS is both totally overstated and ill serves our Navy. We don't need under armed single mission frigates but actual general purpose frigates that can perform blue and green water missions.

    If there really is a dire need for littoral capability use patrol and missile boats. It's what the rest of the world uses, along with corvettes, and we can have more near term. Using a couple old Gators to support them would be fine, as mentioned. When LCS was called streetfighter it was a 500 ton vessel and we don't require years to develop one.

    1. OK, so you want to replace the LCS with dedicated MCM vessels and build/buy patrol/missile boats and frigates. I have no problems with that although it requires many years of additional waiting, design/R&D costs, and new construction so it doesn't provide any immediate solution. The Navy has shown that they're incapable of building any new ship, no matter how small, quickly. I guess the most immediate aspect of your solution is to buy MEKOs. Even so, it would probably be several years before the first was available. Still, if it provided a comprehensive solution, it would be worth the wait!

      I do have one question for you. Many people favor the small patrol/missile boat, citing the fact that many other countries are moving in that direction. However, they overlook one very important aspect and that is that fact that every other country that operates patrol/missile boats does so in their home waters or very near. My question is how do you see US patrol/missile boats getting to and from the operational areas, generally on the other side of the world, and how do you see support, fueling, maintenance, crew relief, etc. being provided so far from home ports? Will doing so be cost effective? Understand, I'm not saying that patrol/missile boats are a bad idea or that they're not feasible. I'm just pointing out that I have yet to talk to anyone who's gone to the trouble of thinking the transit and support issues through. What are your thoughts?

      Is it possible that the size of the LCS was, in part, influenced by the transit/support issues?

    2. The size of the LCS was driven by self-deployment and payload requirements.

      Sorry for the earlier reply. I typed up a response at work and didn't read through your post as well as I should have.

      I can see value in patrol boats that are forward deployed to hot spots. Cyclones operate out of Bahrain. We could in theory deploy small combatants their as well, or Japan/Okinawa, South Korea, or perhaps even Taiwan.

      I wonder about the utility of these vessels though.

      I'd prefer to have vessels that can at least carry a small helo, like a navalized MH-68, MH-65, AW159 or UAV.

    3. CNO I am one who thinks the USN needs at least two new classes of small combatants. I distinquish between those with a patrol/prescence role as in modern OPV like River class; and those with full combat functions as in FAC(M)s like Ambassador III class.
      Sealift of those type ships is NOT a problem and done routinely by Flo/Flo method semi-submersible ships like Dockwise operates.
      The real trick would be to forward deploy (skip the to/from drill the USN uses too much) with support from a fwd logistics ship aka tender. That ship could I would should be a less expensive naval auxiliary. All of the above type ships have existing designs in service. Which the USN studiously avoids.

  7. I agree that old amphibs are a short term solution to the LCS problem. But I know many of those ships are very worn out.

    We need to halt the decommissioning of the Perrys and give them an upgrade. Same for the MCM/MHC ships. (And as a side benefit, it would actually bump up the Navy's total ship number past 300)

    A modified NSC is a good replacement if on the small side.

    I like the LPD-17 as a mothership surrogate for two reasons. First, it has a lot of room for the personnel and equipment. And second, when a better surface combatant type comes along to handle the UAV/UUV/USV systems and networks, the Navy will have relatively young gators to replace old Whidbey Island class ships as they are retired.

    But buying more San Antonios would be a lot more likely if the Avondale shipyard hadn't craptasticly put themselves out of business.


    1. WGM agree with all of above EXCEPT assertion that LPD17 is good baseline for anything else. At over a billion per and being built in a shipyard with many problems to include Ingalls, I would not but any more LPD17 or ships based on her hullform.

      The Danish Absalons or Singaporean Endeavors are much more flexible ship designs and 1/4 and 1/2 the cost respectively.

      USN could buy two or three instead of LPD17.

  8. No I do not want to replace LCS with mine warfare craft but rather not have LCS replace our existing mine warfare craft. The USN currently home ports these craft overseas in both Japan and Bahrain. We operate various types of small craft in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere. If a small vessel is required, or the most cost effective solution, then yes we need to either have them forward deployed or be prepared to transport them.

    Conceptually LCS was originally a 500 ton missile/patrol boat and was called Streetfighter. The current patrol boats we operate, the Cyclones, are smaller, lightly armed, and ending their service lives. They need replacement and the notion that they're going to be replaced by LCS is simply ridiculous. There are additionally all manner of craft and boats that we operate overseas from USCG harbor patrol boats, SOCOM, etc.

    The main issue is that smaller craft are used when required and when it's cost effective. Whether it's a patrol boat or frigate they're not operating alone and have myriad other assets supporting them.

    While I'm not advocating buying a foreign design or having it build overseas if a new frigate was going to take us 5 years to begin construction and cost $800 million we need to at least compare that to foreign construction.

    My general point is that we need general purpose frigates for myriad missions and that when required they can also operate just fine in the littoral's.

  9. Good article on USNI regarding analytical grounding of LCS - and whether it meets the original intent.


  10. Amphibs as littoral mothership is not a new idea:


    1. Interesting report. I hadn't heard of that one. The Navy certainly went in a different direction!

      Remember, though, that the post was about using retired gators as immediate, stop-gap replacements.

      Thanks for stopping by!