Monday, September 10, 2012

LCS - Conceptual Origin

The current issue of the Proceedings has an article about the origins of the LCS (1).  The article is nothing less than fascinating and incredibly damning for the Navy.  I urge you to find a copy of the magazine and read the article in its entirety. 

The author claims that the LCS concept was conceived as a result of a series of war games in the mid-1990s and that he was involved in, and conducted, the games and has intimate knowledge of the results as they pertain to the LCS.  I have no way of verifying these claims but neither do I have any reason to doubt them.  I also have no idea what agenda, if any, the author is pursuing.  I say this because there must be other, contrary viewpoints and perspectives about the early development of the LCS.  If not, it paints a picture of a Navy that is stupid beyond belief.  With that said, I'll take the article at face value and will comment accordingly. 

A Good Concept Gone Bad?

The article is stunning in its articulation of the extreme deviation between the conceptual LCS and the actual LCS that resulted.  I came away from my reading with an intense feeling that the conceptual LCS was almost spot-on as regards the requirements for a littoral combat vessel and that, had it been implemented, would have made an incredibly effective platform for littoral combat.  Further, the article states that many of the problems now being seen with the LCS were clearly identified and understood even at the earliest conceptual stage.

Here, then, are some specific comments and observations from the article.

  • A smaller, expendable ship was needed to avoid exposing the high end Aegis ships to unnecessary dangers, especially early in a conflict.
  • A mine hunter/eliminator ship was needed that could operate in a moderate threat environment and protect itself while conducting mine countermeasures (MCM).
  • LCS was envisioned as a multi-role vessel capable of surviving in a low to moderate threat environment on its own and in a high threat environment when operating under the Aegis umbrella. 
  • Speed was seen as desirable but not at the expense of a comprehensive combat suite.
  • Helos were recognized as important and possibly constituted the main battery of the ship.
  • Gun armament was needed in the 57 mm – 76 mm range along with a medium range (unspecified) air defense missile and medium range (again, unspecified) anti-ship missile.
  • The LCS was seen as providing a counter-battery fire capability, particularly as regards shore launched anti-ship missiles.  The ability to destroy the shore based launching platform before it could reload/refire or move was seen as a primary function.
  • The modular concept was considered but recognized to have severe problems that would preclude successful implementation.  Specifically, the infrastructure required to support modularity was seen as complex, expensive, and highly susceptible to enemy attack (in war games, attacks occurred at, or prior to, the outbreak of hostilities).  Module swap times were optimistically estimated at a few days (we now see that the required change-out time is on the order of a few weeks) but even this was seen as unacceptable to the local commanders.  In addition, single purpose, modularized ships were found to have no efficient mix of capabilities that would satisfy the ever changing, and rapidly changing, mission requirements.
  • It was noted that the LCS would have to operate in pairs in a high threat environment, even though under the Aegis umbrella.
  • Aluminum should not be used in construction.
  • Crew size should not be reduced to the point that maintenance, watchstanding, damage control, and other functions would be compromised.

The article summarizes the LCS preferences derived from the war games with the following statement.

“The operational commander preferred a single, multi-warfare-capable LCS, smaller than a modern destroyer or frigate, that had ASW, surface-warfare, and counterbattery capabilities as well as a forceful self-defense capability that made it reasonably survivable in moderate to high threat situations.  The area in which a highly specialized LCS seemed most justifiable was in mine countermeasures …”
I’m most struck by the concept of a littoral vessel providing suppression and counterbattery fire against shore based anti-ship missiles.  What a useful capability that would be in the Mid East!

The above descriptions of the conceptually desirable LCS have little in common with the vessel that actually was built.  The concept’s multi-function, survivable, shore-dueling, expendable ship would have made for a very effective and useful platform.  Instead, the Navy built a single purpose, non-survivable, minimally manned, underarmed vessel that, currently, has been deemed by the Navy’s Perez report to be unable to fulfill any of its core missions. 

How did the Navy move from a pretty good concept to the useless vessel it now has?  Who made the decision(s) to ignore the conclusions of the war games?  Unfortunately, the article does not discuss that portion of the LCS program history.  I’d love to know how the program veered so far off course and what the thought process was along the way. 

(1) United States Naval Institute Proceedings, “Birth of the Littoral Combat Ship”, Captain Robert Powers (Ret), Sep 2012, p.42


  1. I haven’t read the article, but your synopsis and other articles I’ve read on the LCS’s tortured development all suggest that the ship was to be different things to different people. Some saw it as a floating Swiss army knife. Others as a small, expendable ship that could operate in “green” waters close to shore, extending the Navy’s reach and sensing. A variation of this was an anti-swarm ship able to defeat boghammars that threaten a battle group. The UAV/UUV mother ship was another concept.

    The problem is no one in the Navy nailed down which of these ships the LCS was to become. All of these ideas place conflicting demands on the design. A modular ship able to swap out mission packages needs high speed and minimum armament. A small expendable ship doesn’t require large manning or robust hull structure.

    Blending all the possible missions of the LCS made for a lightly built ship that is nearly the size of a frigate with high top speed, short cruising range, small crew, and little armament.

    I am curious what the “medium range” SAM and ASuW missiles were in this notional LCS that was wargamed. How could a small ship carry something like Sea Sparrow and Gabrieland still be small? That has been a problem with USN planners for 80 years: they think it is easy to design a ship that bristles with weapons or capabilities and fits within a smaller hull than is possible. Naval architects had to put the reality to the wargamers’ concept. And not surprisingly, it grew in tonnage.


    1. As a point of interest, the conceptual LCS in the article was pegged at around 2500 tons with an extreme upper limit of "less than a Burke". This was identified as a necessity for self-deployment across oceans. Today's LCS at around 3000 tons actually is in line with the original concept size.

      As an aside, of all the characteristics that went into today's LCS, speed is consistently identified in articles and by two program engineers that I've talked to as far and away having the most negative impact on the LCS. The last few knots of speed required mammoth increases in size and weight of the engine machinery, intakes, exhausts, etc. leaving the ship overweight and with far less internal volume than was originally planned.

      Interestingly, almost all the "let's make a new LCS" concepts from the manfs and various design engineers have the speed reduced to 30 kts or so with correspondingly smaller machinery requirements.

    2. I agree with how disproportionate the top speed requirement had on LCS. But the portside modular demand had a large, but mostly hidden impact on both LCS designs. Because the LCS was the first USN ship able to change payloads/weapons while docked overseas, the hull had to withstand the removal and addition of large “blocks” in its hull, while in the water. That differs from the Spruance, Meko series, and any other flexible design that needed a drydock to support the ship while a VLS block was added or removed. In addition, the RO/RO deck, which helps with the modular concept, also demands yet more volume and structure. That’s how the LCS can be the size of a frigate and have only a 57mm, RAM, and NLOS designed into it. The simple fact is a more tailored design, like the Perry, can carry a lot more sensors and weapons. While the Perry is larger in displacement than either LCS, it still has much more weapons and sensors than the LCS could carry even if the ASW package was a reality. And the Perry has shown itself to be able to take a lot of damage and stay afloat.


  2. Another problem is that the military fell a little to much in love with remote operated vehicles in their various forms. In particular to the idea that such vehicles will be much smaller and cheaper then manned vehicles. But in order to get something that has range, endurance, capability of a manned anti-sub, anti-surface, anti-mine etc vehicle you need a unmanned vehicle that is closer to the size of a manned vehicle. So trying to create such a system and get it to fit into a few conex boxes is doomed to failure and now the LCS is without its modules.

    If you want a remote operated vehicle that equals the performance of an F-16 then its going to be close to the size of an F-16 in order to get the speed, range, carrying capacity of the F-16. It will be smaller since it does not need a pilot but not that much smaller. The same with a sub hunting ROV, especially one that the mother ship is suppose to sit back out of danger. Such a vehicle needs to handle full size waves, currents, winds plus carry good sensors and even weapons to deal with a full size sub. The same problem exists with anti-mine especially since the LCS is not non-magnetic and has to stay away from the mine field which means the mine hunter has to have more speed, endurance, communication capability and sea keeping.

    As to anti-surface there is doubts about the ability of a full size Burke to handle swarm attacks so a much smaller ship with a weaker armament who when fitted for anti-surface must rely on module and conex size equipment is probably not going to shine.

    1. DJF, you make a very good point about size although it applies more to planes than ships. A manned plane only has to support a person for a very short period of time whereas a ship must provide support for extended periods, meaning berthing, laundry, food, etc. So, a conceptual unmanned sub could be significantly smaller than a manned version, at least from that perspective. Still, your points are well taken.

      In more general terms, the Navy, in trying to field remote controlled unmanned vehicles, attempted to leap one or two generations ahead on the technology curve. This has never worked in human history and it is the height of arrogance and stupidity that the Navy believed they could do it. Technology is built on small steps taken in progression with lessons learned every step of the way. The Navy believed that they could skip all the lessons that needed to be learned along the curve and, predictably, failed miserably.

      All of the whiz-bang, near magical, remote, unmanned vehicles can, and will, someday be a reality but not today. There's a valuable lesson to be learned from this that can be applied to the Navy's autonomous unmanned combat aircraft (UCLASS)- take it slow and learn the lessons along the way and you'll ultimately get there faster. Encouragingly, there are signs that that is happening and whoever's in charge is showing some patience and wisdom.

    2. I agree that an evolutionary vice revolutionary approach is historically the more successful way to implement a new technology. But I'm not sure that its fair to say that the Navy has tried to leap-ahead in fielding it's unmanned systems. At least not in all cases.

      Take a look at MQ-4C BAMS. The aircraft itself is a direct copy of the USAF MQ-4 Global Hawk, taking into account all the lessons learned (and mistakes made) in that program.

      Perhaps more importantly, there was already a institutional community in place to operate BAMS. BAMS is in many ways a logical progression for the USN maritime patrol aviation. P-3 guys already have an awful lot of experience in extended range, overwater flight ops. Providing them with a long-endurance UAV makes a lot of sense, and appears to be going quite well.

      I think the lesson to be learned is that if you are going to field a new capability, it probably pays to tread where others have tread and to build upon exisiting communities. LCS tried to go it alone with its panalopy of UAVs, USVs, and UUVs, with no clear institutional knowlege on how these things worked. And failed quite spectacularly.

  3. Anyone interested in the history of LCS should read the following case study:

    As far as the reliance on unmanned vehicles I'd note the most problematic aspect of LCS was building the ship before the mission modules were finished. The assumption that they'd get them all to work was a huge mistake. As of now none of the modules actually do work and the added cost of all the modules is another hidden cost of LCS that isn't presented in the budget docs.

    The entire conceptual underpinning of LCS is entirely flawed. The USN doesn't need a weakly armed and under manned corvette to fill out the fleet but actual general purpose frigates, cost effective mine warfare ships, and actual patrol boats. In other words the original plan. When the USN decided to ditch the family of ships and use the corvette for all missions there seems to have been very little proper analysis or threat assessment.

  4. I am waiting for a remake of the "Sand Pebbles" in the years ahead featuring the LCS as she steams in Chinese waters in the turmoil following the overthrow of the Communist regime. Jake Holman, the spotless snipe operating a computer screen, to be played by a Brad Pitt type assisted by assorted voluptuous female sailors.

  5. The LCS is no bad ship if you see it as a very light helicopter carrier. Helicopters are the workhorses of the US navy and do things such as MCM, attack surface targets and hunt submarines. The helicopter is the Swiss Army knife. Helicopter carriers until the introduction of the LCS were big ships with slow flying aerial assets that had to be protected from danger. The LCS is the lightest and most forward helicopter carrier yet developed. It could be cheaper with less other capabilities and better maintenance, but the basic design is fine as soon as you see the platform that enables the helicopter to do the work.

    1. Anon, the LCS is the furthest thing from a light helo carrier. It is only rated for a single Seahawk type helo due to flight deck structural limitations. That's a near billion dollar ship to carry only one full size helo.

      Given a single helo, the maintenance truism is that if you have one helo, you have none. They're always down for maintenance. It's just a fact of operating helos.

      Also, the helo has been found unsuited for the MCM role due to a lack of power for towing sensors.

      The LCS is a complete bust as a helo carrier.


Comments will be moderated for posts older than 7 days in order to reduce spam.