Monday, October 24, 2016

Independence LCS Aviation

On a relative basis, the Independence variant LCS is a bit of an unknown.  In part this is because the class’ first operational deployment is only now being undertaken despite the class having been first commissioned in Jan-2010.  That’s six and half years without a deployment by a vessel of that variant!  So, we don’t have much operational data to look at.  Now, with the arrival of USS Coronado, LCS-4, in Singapore for a deployment, we’ll hopefully get some insight.

USS Coronado


One of the unknown aspects is the variant’s aviation capabilities.  Outside of brochures, there is little actual operational data.  It is being reported that the ship is operating two MQ-8B Fire Scout UAVs and one MH-60S Knighthawk/Seahawk helicopter on this deployment (1).  This is significant because multiple sources have reported to me that the Freedom variant’s flight deck, while large, is significantly understrength, structurally, thereby limiting the variant’s ability to operate numbers or weights of aircraft.  The structural strength was reduced early in development as a cost saving measure.  I have no reports as to the Independence variant’s flight deck structure so it’s interesting to note the simultaneous operation of two Fire Scouts and one Seahawk.  Of course, the Fire Scouts are the smaller “B” version rather than the larger “C”.  This is an arrangement and number that has not been operated on the Freedom variant, yet, as far as I know.  This may, possibly, indicate that the Independence variant’s flight deck strength and aviation capabilities are a bit more robust than the Freedom’s.

Fire Scout MQ-8B


Also of interest is the note that the Fire Scouts are equipped with the Telephonics Corporation AN/ZPY-4(V)1 radar.  Of course, radar performance data shows ranges on the order of 14 miles so this is not exactly AWACS type monitoring (2). 

We’ll keep an eye on this deployment – assuming no more engineering breakdowns! – and see what we can learn.


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(1)USNI News website, “Littoral Combat Ship USS Coronado Arrives in Singapore”, Mike Yeo, 18-Oct-2016,



24 comments:

  1. Its very disappointing that what is perhaps the vessel's biggest asset, its flight deck, is compromised too.

    With all the development hell that these things have been in, and the poor choices, I'm not even sure what need these ships are supposed to fill anymore. Let me see if I can get this all together:

    * It was started out as a littoral combat ship, and was going to 'dominate the battlespace' when in surface combat mode, and defend other ships from swarm attacks. It was also going to do ASW work in the littorals and MW work. Also, it was going to save hours off its bigger brothers by doing presence and anti piracy missions.

    However: Limited survivability, and questionable offensive capability with the loss of NLOS meant that 'dominating the battlespace' got curtailed. MW and ASW modules don't work. No in depth testing has been done as to its capability at ASW at any of the navy's ASW ranges. Range issues and reliability issues call
    into question the classes abilities to save hours off of other ship classes doing presence missions.

    * Now, its supposed to work under the Aegis (literally) of a 'Burke; working in 3 ship squadrons and using 'distributed lethality' to bring more punch to the fleet. Aviation assetts were to provide helps in targeting for the LCS and other ships. The size of the flight decks was listed as an advantage.

    However: The flight deck on the Independance class is compromised as to how much weight it can carry, making its size possibly less useful. Range and endurance issues still may be an issue in a larger theater
    like the Pacific. MW is still on the table, but still not working. ASW is still on the table, but still a
    question mark. Further, from some veterans I've spoken to, ASW isn't something you just 'switch to' but
    rather a skill you live to become more proficient at it. Presence missions are still on the table.
    Range and reliability issues still aren't solved.

    In the end, we're several years into the commissioning and still not sure that this ship can do what it needs to do. I'm really concerned that the Navy will end up looking at this as a >3000 ton ship and using it like a conventional Frigate; something it's not.

    It seems to me this is a large ship capable of doing patrol craft duties, but being shoehorned into higher end duties (ASW; ASCM ranged combat) because it's what is available. But it's too expensive and over qualified to do the patrol craft duties.

    I've heard arguments that to me are valid, that the Navy needs a low end vessel to do the 'cheap missions' that are currently being done by 'Burkes. To me, this is the 'presence' and patrol missions. The LCS can do these, but
    it'ts not as cheap as it could be if that is one of its major roles. Further, its powertrain makes it ill suited to them due to fuel efficiency, complexity, and possibly noise.

    I think the Navy would have been better off curtailing this to two, maybe four ships, and testing them to determine modularity and the use of its high speed. Maybe deploy them in RIMPAC early on. Beat on them to see what can be done. Then talk about next steps.

    I further think that if the Navy is going to value 'presence and patrol' missions, that there *is* a place for a flower type vessel. This appeals to my sense of being an economically efficient force, and not using $2Bn ships to handle $30K pirate vessels. You try for a ship of sufficient size, with high powered diesel engines, that will have good range and just enough speed. An optical 57mm gun is fine. No flight deck is needed. Build to commercial standards and try to get them for $100 million or less. This ships job is to stop pirates, show the flag, and allow the big navy to concentrate on being a Big Navy.

    Oh, and test the ship to see if the concept works before you go to production.

    That still leaves ASW and MW, but you make other ships for those.

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    1. Note that I stated that the Freedom variant's flight deck was structurally understrength. I also stated that I had no information, one way or the other, on the Independence variant's flight deck strength. While the Coronado's load of one -60 helo and two small UAVs is greater than I've seen for a Freedom class, it is still a light load. Whether that indicates a similarly understrength flight deck or not, I don't know.

      There are two limiting factors to aviation capacity. One is flight deck size (assuming the flight deck has sufficient strength which is not a safe assumption with the LCS) and the other is hangar size. You can have a flight deck the size of a supercarrier but if your hangar can only accommodate two helos, that's your max. I've never quite understood the need for flight decks the size of the LCS given that their hangars are small.

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    2. Any flight-deck weakness will be more likely expressed in the type of platform flying from the deck versus raw numbers of things flying from the deck. So, given any potential weight restriction, don't expect an MV-22 or a CH-53K to be working from an Independence Class right now unless in extremis. You don't want these platforms to suddenly sink a tire into the deck or something during a rough landing/takeoff.

      Regarding multi-helo operations on the deck, you'd need to look to NAVAIR and their conservative sometimes-healthy-and-sometimes-not concern for safety. I suspect NAVAIR rules are more the limiting reagent than deck strength.

      The other piece of the puzzle is the elevator. Done right, the elevator from the mission bay to the hangar could be a way to inject more Fire Scouts into the mix, but, sadly, the Fire Scout outgrew the elevator. Grow the elevator a bit, and suddenly things get more interesting given all the extra mission-bay space.

      And then there's available fuel. How much is there to support aviation ops?

      And then, of course, manning--the weakness that may render any modifications or added capability moot. If crew can't staff flight quarters, then, well, there's not much point in tweaking things to maximize the inherent capabilities of this platform.

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    3. "I suspect NAVAIR rules are more the limiting reagent than deck strength."

      I've talked to two LM LCS project engineers who each told me that the flight deck was structurally understrength due to cost concerns, as I stated in the post. A -60 is the max the deck can handle and additional UAVs have to have the load spread out across the deck. NAVAIR may impose additional limitations but the fundamental limit is the flight deck strength.

      As with the rest of the LCS capabilities, the flight deck could have been the basis of useful capabilities but appears to have been severely limited by unwise decisions during the design and construction process.

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    4. Ah, yes, I was focused on LCS-2. Apologies

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  2. Dagnabit. Mea Culpa. I had the two classes mixed up in my head. I did read the post.

    I think you wrote something awhile ago about not every class needing a flight deck. I'm more and more of that opinion. How much time, energy, and weight on these ships is devoted to aviation and what is the return?

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    1. Your comment was appropriate, just more so for the Freedom variant.

      Consider the LCS. If you took away the flight deck and hangar (and associated aviation fuel storage, parts storage, maintenance shops, pilot and mechanic berthing facilities, etc.), what size/cost would the resulting ship be? About half?

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  3. In 2014, Corrando (LCS 3) deployed with 1 MH-60R and 1 Fire Scout. Military.com reported that the LCS is "expected to routinely deploy with one Fire Scout and an H-60." If true, this would undercut Lazerus' recent post about the LCS's aviation capabilities.

    http://www.military.com/daily-news/2014/11/19/first-manned-unmanned-detachment-deploys-aboard-littoral-combat.html

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    1. To be fair, there may well be a difference between routine peacetime aviation deployments and combat. But, yes, it does make one wonder why the LCS was designed with such a large flight deck for just one helo and one small UAV.

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    2. A) "routinely deploy with 1 MH-60 and 1 Firescout" does not mean limited to. DDGs and FFGs have routinely deployed with just 1 H-60 in the past. That was limited by conditions external to the ship design.

      B) The Navys management of drone integration has been abysmal. The AF, Marines (even with their small budget) Army, Homeland security, and CIA are all lightyears ahead of the Navy in drone integration. Navy drone purchases (outside of those for the USMC) in numbers projected for the next decade are minuscule. You can't put drones on ships in numbers when they are essentially a boutique endeavor. Navy TVOL drones for the next decade will number less than 70 under current plans, helicopters number somewhere above 800.
      C) aviaton capabilities are not just about numbers of airframes. What is more important is number of flight hours averaged across conditions. With the ability to organically support long endurance UAVS + traditional helos x deck space x hangar space x sea state usefulness due to deck configuration (primarily height above WL but also length of deck as a ratio of WL length + over all waterline length) the LCS should be very aviation capable. They should be as much was compromised in their design to achieve that capability. That being said, the Freedoms will never equal the Independences. Its hard to beat a hull that has as low a weight to surface ratio as the Independence class.

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    3. "the LCS should be very aviation capable."

      There is absolutely no evidence to indicate that will be the case and there are several bits of information suggesting the opposite. That's kind of the point of this and several other posts. The structural weakness of the flight deck (Freedom class - Ind. class is unknown), the limited crew size for aviation ops, the demonstrated small aviation dets, the instability issues (again, Freedom - Ind. unknown) which suggest aircraft movements must be carefully balanced, and the non-existent (or negative) weight margins all combine to suggest that aviation capabilities will be quite limited. These bits of information are not definitive as regards aviation capability but are certainly suggestive of significant limitations.

      That doesn't mean the aviation capabilities can't be expanded but the evidence to date suggests otherwise. We'll have to wait and see if other information develops.

      On a related note, the MQ-8B has an endurance of 8 hours and around 100 mile range. The MQ-8C has an endurance of 12 hours and a range around 150 miles. Those are not exactly "long endurance" UAVs where the term long endurance generally suggests 24+ hours. This kind of fairly short endurance/range also suggests that the LCS will never be a significantly capable aviation platform. Now, if they develop a better UAV that assessment can change.

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    4. CNO, I'm not sure where you got those range numbers but Northrop Grumman website lists the ranges for the MQ-8B and C variants as 600nm and 1,200nm respectively.

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    5. "ranges for the MQ-8B and C variants as 600nm and 1,200nm respectively."

      Recognize that range and radius are two different things even though people tend to use the terms interchangeably. Range is the straightline, one-way, max distance the aircraft can fly. It sometimes includes external fuel tanks as well. Radius (combat radius) is the distance the aircraft can fly out, do something combat-ish, AND RETURN. Thus, at best, radius is half the range since you have to return. Also, radius encompasses time on station. For a surveillance aircraft, a typical mission might be to fly out to a point and hover there for a few hours conducting surveillance. So, that's a long winded way of saying that the numbers I cited are actual combat radius. Wiki, for instance lists similar numbers.

      Hope this makes it clearer.

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  4. Essentially you're correct. Having a big pretty deck doesnt mean squat if you dont have facilities to service/house more than one asset at a time.
    So, with that in mind, not sure what the planning was when they designed it. Or the extremely close tolerances when it came to total supportable weight, whatever that is, but everything ive read says theres zero room for mission creep. A larger hanger, with a smaller flight deck, would have made for a far more versatile asset.

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    1. Just one of many questionable design decisions about the LCS!

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  5. Where in reference (2) do you get justification for 14 nm range limits?

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    1. The various data graphs are scaled for 12-14 miles.

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  6. In defense of the LCS-2 variant, the Navy only had one (Independence) until 2014 when Coronado was commissioned. LCS-2 was largely tied up in mission package testing from commissioning through 2015. The LCS-2 variant does have a larger flight deck and hangar than the LCS-1. The big reason, as I understand it, for this LCS deployment being the first with multiple air units (manned and unmanned), is a general fleet shortage in rotary-wing assets, including the FireScout B.

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    1. The LCS-2 being tied up doing mission package testing is just another in the seemingly endless string of poor decisions associated with the LCS program. The LCS-1 and -2 were supposed to be the prototypes from which the lessons learned would be fed back into the production cycle. Instead, in the case of LCS-2, the ship never deployed and there were few lessons to feed back into the production which has led to largely unimproved subsequent ships which likely contain most of the same flaws as the original. The mission package work could have been largely performed on any auxilliary vessel and only needed the actual LCS once all the major bugs had been worked out. A very questionable decision.

      Regarding the number of aviation assets on the LCS, this may be another questionable decision. The LCS (-1 or -2 variant) aviation capabilities should have been thoroughly wrung out very, very early in the production/development process. In other words, whatever the max aviation complement is, it should have been assembled and thoroughly exercised early enough to feed back lessons into the subsequent vessels. Even with a shortage of assets, if we couldn't scrape together a couple of helos and a couple of UAVs (or whatever the numbers) for testing of the ship class that will make up a third of our combat fleet, then we're badly mismanaging our fleet, our development programs, and our acquisitions. To wait until a decade into LCS production to begin comprehensive aviation testing (if that's even what we're doing now) is irresponsible on a grand scale!

      Setting aside the "worth" of the LCS, the tasking of the type, the lack of prototyping feedback, and the myriad manning/maintenance/deployment decisions associated with the program are questionable, at best.

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    2. I agree that the testing process for the two LCS did not go as planned. The program was largely paused from 2007-2009. Much of the mission package equipment was caught up in the sea frame pause, and was either paused as well, or lost, as was the case with the Army NLOS missile, the MH-60 helicopter-based sweep gear, and ultimately the Remote minehunting system. Operational testers demanded that LCS mission package equipment be tested on the LCS sea frames (for accuracy,) so the option of testing them on an auxiliary was not possible. The basic LCS aviation facilities are good and testing has proven such. A shortage of assets allowed for only one helo on the last Fort Worth deployment. The current Coronado deployment was designed around the employment of multiple Firescouts, so that is why only one manned helo is included this time.

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    3. "Operational testers demanded that LCS mission package equipment be tested on the LCS sea frames (for accuracy,) so the option of testing them on an auxiliary was not possible."

      This is utterly false - not your statement, but the concept embodied in the statement. I have no idea what led the Navy to decide that the LCS seaframe was mandatory for module testing but, for sake of discussion, let's accept that it was "operational testers", whoever/whatever they might be, who demanded the presence of the seaframe. Unless the operational tester was the CNO or SecNav or some such, the Navy was free to say no. Instead the Navy went along with a bad plan.

      Now, let's look at the module testing. What has been tested over the last several years? It's not the complete module, it's the individual module components. It's the individual sonars, unmanned vehicles, helo based lasers, etc. The individual components don't need to be physically on board the LCS to test their individual performances - a sonar in the water doesn't care whether it was housed on the LCS or some generic auxiliary vessel. An individual component doesn't need to have been stored on the LCS to test its mean time between failures. It's exactly that kind of testing that has constituted the bulk of testing the last several years.

      From the sounds of it (meaning DOT&E reports), most of the individual components should never have made it out of laboratory testing!

      So, component testing doesn't require the seaframe.

      Let's dig deeper. Let's recall the concept of a module. As the Navy has told us repeatedly, the module is independent of the seaframe. In theory, you could put the module on any vessel (or shore facility!) that had the proper electrical and utility hookups. So, the LCS seaframe wasn't needed during testing even if the Navy had been satisfied that all the individual components were ready. The module could still have been tested on an auxiliary vessel.

      Ultimately, once the component and generic module level testing was complete and every individual piece worked and the overall bundle worked then, yes, you'd install it on the LCS for a final test but we're nowhere near that point, yet, for either the ASW or MCM modules. The ASuW module (is a rubber boat and a couple of machine guns really worthy of being called a module?) is complete enough for seaframe testing and, indeed, has been installed. However, even that has been a poor decision. The 30 mm guns failed repeatedly during testing and should have been tested on an auxiliary vessel and had the bugs worked out prior to installing on an LCS. Of course, given the almost non-existent capabilities of the ASuW module, it's almost irrelevant.

      So, the Navy's decision to remove the LCS-2 from operational testing where it could have provided valuable feedback into the construction process and, instead, dedicate it to module testing was clearly not a mandatory decision but, instead, a badly flawed mistake. No one forced them to do it that way, they simply made a bad decision.

      I would urge you to see the Navy's decisions for what they are, good or bad. Too many people blindly buy into the Navy's decisions without ever questioning them.

      To say that "the option of testing them on an auxiliary was not possible" is false. The Navy chose not to test on an auxiliary but it was certainly possible and, in my opinion, the preferred choice. You can agree or disagree with my conclusion but don't give the Navy a free pass for their decisions. Hold them up to logical scrutiny! That's what I try to do on this blog and, discouragingly, all too often the Navy's decisions (minimal manning, deferred maintenance, force structure, extended deployments, you name it) have been found wanting when examined under the light of data and logic.

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    4. Dr. Gilmore at DOT&E has a great deal of power and influence with members of Congress and they together demanded that LCS mission module components be tested on the sea frame. having the sea frame matters in that the testers wanted to see how the sea frame performed while the modular equipment was attached. To them, the performance of the whole system was what mattered.

      I will be the first to admit that the Navy probably tried too big a "great leap forward" with LCS (and DDG 1000 and CVN 78 for that matter,) but that is what our civilian bosses demanded and so the Navy saluted smartly and tried to carry on with the programs. Some of the LCS module equipment was in effect "bench tested" in the labs with nominal successful results, but was ultimately not successful at sea. The RMS falls into this category. In the spirit of "jointness", the Navy was asked to accept joint equipment like the Army NLOS missile and paid a price for that when the Army cancelled the program.

      The test results from one test (in this case the LCS-2 variant small boat engagement) should not be construed as "final" or an indictment of the LCS mission module concept. It takes time to get any weapon system, even those installed on a ship already, from initial testing to final operational capability. AEGIS ships take years from system light off to successful engagement.

      There are a number of false LCS stories out there, usually the result of one test that gets trumpeted to the media out of context.

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    5. Let's be scrupulously exact here. Dr. Gilmore has not told the Navy to instantly take every lab prototype and bolt it onto an LCS for testing. What Dr. Gilmore has said is that when the Navy feels the module is ready for testing, it needs to be tested end to end, on the seaframe, and under realistic conditions, and according to Navy supplied specifications. It is the Navy who claimed that the modules are ready for that level of testing so DOT&E tested them accordingly. The responsibility for testing the individual components prior to the claim of readiness is/was the Navy's. The Navy consistently failed to test the individual components adequately and has, instead, ?falsely? claimed readiness for complete module level testing. None of the DOT&E findings of individual component failures were such that they could only have been determined with seaframe mounted testing. The -20A sonar that failed to meet its specs did not fail because it was housed on the LCS. It failed because it was a flawed component that was not adequately tested as an individual component by the Navy. Almost all of the DOT&E failure findings of the modules could have been found by testing the components on an auxiliary vessel.

      Dr. Gilmore's "demands" came about only because the Navy claimed module readiness. There was no need to tie up an LCS for component testing which is what the vast majority of the testing has been. DOT&E's involvement has been periodic, limited, and occurred only at the Navy's insistence that the modules were ready for testing.

      I've followed this very carefully from day one. Too many people want to blame DOT&E for "delaying" Navy projects when it's the Navy that is solely to blame. DOT&E tests what the Navy gives them. DOT&E doesn't make up specs, tactics, or operational scenarios - the Navy does. DOT&E simply tests what they are asked to test. That the test results may not be what the Navy wants to hear is not DOT&E's fault.

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    6. "The test results from one test (in this case the LCS-2 variant small boat engagement) should not be construed as "final" or an indictment of the LCS mission module concept."

      I'm not sure what you're referring to here?

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