We know the LCS concept is both controversial and marred with strange capability gaps and quality control issues, but the piece linked above, written by Michael Fabey over at Aviation Week, really gives us a raw view into this troubled program. The article mainly deals with the USS Freedom (LCS-1), but the conceptual issues with the Littoral Combat Ship also spill into the USS Independence (LCS-2)/Independence Class as well, although there are capability differences between them. The fact that there are two distinct variants of the LCS concept also begs the question: If one class is riddled with structural and availability issues why not just build the alternative class alone? Do we really need two types of a ship this size that cannot even be used for air defense or large-scale offensive strike? The Navy should just pick the better of the two and be happy that the whole Littoral Combat Ship initiative has not been cancelled in full, as it’s utility and innovation seems to be decreasing as the validity of its original concept of operation and construction erode.
I have to be honest here, I have never been a fan of the LCS concept. Like the Joint Strike Fighter, it forces a lot of varied capabilities into a single over-engineered system that seems to miss the whole picture of what a “fighting ship” should be. Why not just build, license, or purchase a Perry Class sized frigate with room for a couple interchangeable mission modules, a small vertical launch system for air defense and ground attack missiles, and a ramp at the back for special forces to drive their rigid inflatable boats up onto while the ship is underway? Does 20kts of extra speed really matter that much in an age of over the horizon warfare, anti-ship missiles, and aerial attack? Are the LCSs really planning on going into “battle” using their speed? It sounds so archaic. They are massive targets for goodness sake not fast attack cigarette boats!
It seems like the US Navy needs a multi-mission fighting frigate and instead they have built a militarized ferry with minimal survivability or offensive punch. Why not just build a good all around frigate for missions that do not require an AEGIS cruiser or destroyer and purchase cheaper ferry derived craft such as the “Sea Fighter” or even better, Visby class corvettes, for true littoral warfare tasks.
I seriously think there needs to be a new term for when US military leadership so desperately pushes a new concept and then sticks to it even when it’s very philosophy begins to be proven highly flawed. It may be innovative and it may offer some limited new capabilities and efficiencies but at what cost monetarily and to the overall combat punch of our surface warfare inventory? Maybe it’s just the warrior spirit inside our Generals and Admirals, which I admire, but sometimes an idea seems good and logical, but turns out to be the opposite. The best way to get out of a developmental hole is to stop digging!
A domestic alternative to the LCS is Ingalls Shipyard’s surface combatant variant of the National Security Cutter currently in service with the US Coast Guard. This ship concept is named the Patrol Frigate 4501/4921. The Patrol Frigates would feature lower operating costs and a more traditional approach to ship design to lower risk. Many of the same systems that are featured on the LCS would be included in the Patrol Frigate, including a large flight deck and hangar, missionized equipment areas, and launch and recovery ramp for small boat operations on the stern, but it would also boast a 3D air defense radar and 12 to 24 cell vertical launch system for air defense and ground attack missiles. The National Security Cutters have been performing well for the Coast Guard and have proven their worth on a surprisingly large array of missions. Further, studies have been done pitting the Patrol Frigate against the LCS and the results are eye opening. The bottom-line is that Patrol Frigates would bridge the gap between the LCS, Perry Class Frigates that have all but disappeared from US Naval Ports, and the powerful AEIGS class of cruisers and destroyers currently in inventory. Furthermore, the Patrol Frigate provides for more robust unitary operations and combat survivability when compared to the LCS it aims at upstaging.
America has maintained undisputed naval supremacy for the better part of a century. In the end one has to ask themselves does the opportunity cost being spent on the LCS help or hurt our chances of maintaining this supremacy in the future? I would say in the long run it will hurt it. It is a ship with an identity crisis and our Navy would be better served by more traditional and cost-effective modern multi-mission ship that is capable of surviving in medium threat environments, such as the Ingalls Patrol Frigate, or a similar system that is commercially available from our allies. If missions remain unfulfilled in extremely shallow depth environments or for unique tasks that such a frigate cannot perform, then purchase the specific assets you need to perform those tasks instead of a less effective and vulnerable one size fits all solution that costs the better half of a billion dollars.
SIDE NOTE: I know there has been a lot of naval ship news lately, I am kinda on a ship kick I guess, and yes the F-22 Oxygen flap editorial should be up soon. Thanks for all the emails asking for it, I just thought it was to dynamic a time to post on the subject as it was changing rapidly and I wanted to talk to a few sources inside the USAF first.