The U.S. trimaran USS Independence
The U.S. trimaran USS Independence
USS Freedom on sea trials in February 2013 before her first deployment
USS Freedom on sea trials in February 2013 before her first deployment

The littoral combat ship (LCS) is either of two classes of relatively small surface vessels designed for operations near shore by the United States Navy. It was "envisioned to be a networked, agile, stealthy surface combatant capable of defeating anti-access and asymmetric threats in the littorals",[1] although their ability to perform these missions in practice has been called into question.[2]

Littoral combat ships are comparable to corvettes found in other navies.[3][4] The Freedom class and the Independence class are the two LCS variants. Each is slightly smaller than the U.S. Navy's earlier Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate but larger than Cyclone-class patrol ships. Each has the capabilities of a small assault transport, including a flight deck and hangar for housing two SH-60 or MH-60 Seahawk helicopters, a stern ramp for operating small boats, and the cargo volume and payload to deliver a small assault force with fighting vehicles to a roll-on/roll-off port facility. Standard armaments include Mk 110 57 mm guns and RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missiles. They are also equipped with autonomous air, surface, and underwater vehicles. Possessing lower air defense and surface warfare capabilities than destroyers, the LCS concept emphasizes speed, flexible mission modules and a shallow draft.

The first littoral combat ship, USS Freedom (LCS-1), was commissioned on 8 November 2008 in Veteran's Park, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.[5] The second ship, the trimaran USS Independence (LCS-2), was commissioned on 16 January 2010, in Mobile, Alabama.[6] In 2012, ADM Jonathan W. Greenert stated that the LCS would be deployed to Africa in place of destroyers and cruisers.[7] In 2013 and 2014, the Navy's requirement for LCS ships was progressively cut from 55 to 32 vessels in favor of a newly proposed frigate more capable of high-intensity combat.[8] In late 2014, the Navy proceeded with a procurement plan for enhanced versions of the LCS and upgraded older ships to meet the program's 52-ship requirement;[9] the modified LCS will be redesignated as FF or frigate.[10][11] In December 2015, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter ordered the Navy to reduce planned LCS and FF procurement from 52 to 40, and downselect to one variant by FY 2019.[12]

In July 2017, the Navy released a request for information for a new multi-mission guided-missile frigate that can perform the same roles as the LCS while having better offensive and defensive capabilities. Almost any existing design that can be adapted to FFG(X) requirements can be considered, extending beyond versions of the two LCS hulls.[13][14] In April 2020, it was announced that Fincantieri Marinette Marine had won the contract with its FREMM multipurpose frigate-based design.[15]

Design features

The concept behind the littoral combat ship, as described by former Secretary of the Navy Gordon R. England, is to "create a small, fast, maneuverable and relatively inexpensive member of the DD(X) family of ships". The ship is easy to reconfigure for different roles, including anti-submarine warfare, mine countermeasures, anti-surface warfare, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, homeland defense, maritime intercept, special operations, and logistics. Due to its modular design, the LCS will be able to replace slower, more specialized ships such as minesweepers and larger amphibious-type assault ships.[16]

Port-aft view of an Independence-class LCS
Port-aft view of an Independence-class LCS

Most of the mission modules' functions are performed by carried vehicles such as helicopters or unmanned vehicles such as the Spartan Scout, AN/WLD-1 RMS Remote Minehunting System and MQ-8B Fire Scout as part of the Navy's goal to "unman the front lines". Performing functions such as sonar sweeps for mines or submarines as well as launching torpedoes against hostile submarines at a distance from the ship is less risky.[17] Placing sensors on remote vehicles allows the LCS to exploit concepts such as bistatic sonar.[18] DARPA's Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (TERN) program aims to build a medium-altitude long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle (MALE UAV) that can operate from LCS-2 and can carry a payload of 600 pounds (270 kg) out to an operational radius of 600–900 nautical miles (1,100–1,700 km).[19]

A 2010 report by the Pentagon's director of operational test and evaluation (DOT&E) found that neither design was expected to "be survivable in a hostile combat environment" and that neither ship could withstand the Navy's full ship shock trials.[20] The Navy responded that the LCS is built to a Level 1+ survivability standard and that the ships will rely on warnings from networks and speed to avoid being hit, or if hit be able to limp to safety.[21][22] ADM Jonathan Greenert said that the crew would "conduct an orderly abandon ship" if their ship was struck by enemy fire, an action that might not be necessary on other vessels in the same circumstances. The ships were designed to minimize vulnerability with modern automated damage control systems to perform its mission, then withdraw from the area under its own power.[23]

The combat abilities of the LCS were said to be "very modest" even before the cancellation of the XM501 Non-Line-of-Sight Launch System.[24] The Independence variant reportedly has better helicopter facilities and more internal space while the Freedom variant is said to be better able to launch and recover boats in high seas. Admiral Gary Roughead said that a mix of both types would be "operationally advantageous".[25]

Aerial view of USS Freedom
Aerial view of USS Freedom

In April 2012, Chief of Naval Operations Greenert said, "You won't send it into an anti-access area", rather groups of two or three ships are intended to be sent into areas where access is jeopardized to perform missions like minesweeping while under the cover of a destroyer. The LCS main purpose is to take up operations such as patrolling, port visits, anti-piracy, and partnership-building exercises to free up high-end surface combatants for increased combat availability.[7] Navy Secretary Ray Mabus clarified that the ship could operate in combat areas while under the protection of other warships.[26] The LCS's utility against high-tech enemies would be when working with and being covered by destroyers, like they do with aircraft carriers. With destroyers providing extended air and missile defense, the cheaper (one-fourth the cost of a destroyer) and more numerous LCS can sweep for mines and deploy more sophisticated submarine detecting sonar. Following the decision to arm the LCS with anti-ship missiles, Navy wargames showed the adversary's risk calculus was radically changed, devoting more reconnaissance assets to trying to locate the smaller ships and sustaining heavier losses.[27]

The ships are planned to have a 3:2:1 manning concept. That is three ship crews, and two hulls for each ship that is on station at any time. The other ship and other two crews who are not on deployment will either be preparing for deployment or in rotation in or out of theater. The result is a 50% reduction in ships and a 25% reduction in crews (and smaller crew sizes) than traditional deployment practices.[28] The ships were predicted to fall short in manning.[29] The Navy has deployed ships with berthing modules in the mission bays in order to carry the crew required for operations.[30][31][32] However the ships are designed with sufficient headroom to change from 2-high bunking to 3-high bunking, which would allow crew sizes of 100 if needed.[33]

The LCS is the first USN surface combatant class in a generation to not use the Aegis Combat System, though Aegis-equipped variants have been offered to foreign customers.[34] They have suffered from problems in their communications and radars and will require refits in these areas.[35] Neither LCS class is able to defend itself effectively against anti-ship cruise missiles, which are commonly employed in the littorals,[36] but does have survivability via its ability to disperse in shallow waters better than larger warships.[37]

Mission modules

Trimaran hull of an Independence-class LCS
Trimaran hull of an Independence-class LCS

The LCS is reconfigured for various roles by changing mission packages, each of which includes mission module equipment (weapon systems, sensors, etc.), carried craft and mission crews.[38] Modules include Anti-submarine warfare (ASW), mine countermeasures (MCM), surface warfare (SUW), and special warfare missions.[39] The MCM and SUW modules are planned to reach initial operating capability in Fiscal year 2014, and the ASW module in FY2016.[40] Module changes were envisioned to allow a single LCS to change roles in a matter of hours at any commercial port allowing it to rapidly optimize effectiveness against a threat. A report from the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV) on a January 2012 sustainment wargame reportedly stated that, possibly for logistics reasons, the mission module changes may take as long as weeks, and that in the future the navy plans to use LCS ships with a single module, with module changes being a rare occurrence.[36] In 2014, Independence switched from mine to surface warfare modes in 96 hours on short notice.[41]

In an 8 September 2016 announcement, the Navy revealed a radical change in operations and organization plans for the LCS. Of the 28 Flight 0 ships built or on order, the first four, two of each class, will be turned into training ships and the remaining 24 will be divided into six divisions of four ships each; three divisions of the Freedom-class based at Naval Station Mayport, Florida, and three divisions of the Independence-class based at Naval Station San Diego, California. The new organization does away with the LCS's signature interchangeable mission module concept, with each division being tasked to fulfill one of the three mission sets. Crewing is also changed into a more simplified two-crew "blue/gold" model, like that used on submarines and minesweepers, where ships cycle to forward deployed locations with the two crews swapping roles every 4–5 months; aviation detachments will also deploy with the same LCS crew, creating an arrangement of a core 70-sailor crew to conduct the warfare mission and a 23-person air detachment.[42][43]

Surface warfare

In addition to the ships' organic weapons systems, the surface warfare package includes two 30 mm gun systems, a counter-boat missile system, two 11-meter rigid hull inflatable boats (RHIBs), and weapons deployed from MH-60 helicopters and MQ-8 Fire Scout UAVs.[44][45] The surface warfare mission module is intended to deal only with small boats and is called the "best swarm killer in the surface fleet".[46] It includes two 30 mm gun mission modules manufactured by Teledyne Brown Engineering, Inc.[47] The Navy's proposed budget for FY 2015 includes funding for the Surface-to-Surface Missile Module (SSMM) for the first time.[48]

In January 2011, the U.S. Navy recommended the selection of Raytheon's Griffin missile to replace the NLOS-LS missile, lowering the LCS's missile range from 25 miles (40 km) to 3.5 miles (5.6 km).[39][49] The packages were to be deployed in sets of three, with 15 per set for a total of 45 missiles. Initial deployment of the Griffin was set for 2015, a longer-ranged version was to enter service around 2017; however, procurement was canceled after the missiles were judged to be "too lightweight".[50][51] An enhanced Griffin and the Sea Spear were considered likely competitors for the increment 2 missile.[52] The Navy chose to integrate the millimeter wave radar-guided AGM-114L Hellfire missile to increase the LCS's standoff firepower, and defense against swarming fast attack craft.[53] Navy use of the Hellfire gives access to the U.S. Army's existing stockpile of 10,000 missiles. The Hellfire is an interim decision, the Navy is interested in developing a longer-range version.[54][55] An LCS can carry 24 Hellfire missiles in its Surface-to-surface Missile Module (SSMM), using M299 vertical launchers mounted within a gas containment system; the SSMM design does not facilitate at-sea reloading.[56] The Hellfire is slated to be operational aboard the LCS by 2017.[44] A longer-range missile with an over-the-horizon engagement capability is planned to defend against fast attack craft, ships, and patrol boats by 2020 as part of the surface warfare package Increment 4.[44]

Norwegian company Kongsberg Defense & Aerospace proposed equipping LCSs with their radar-evading Naval Strike Missile, presenting scale models of the Freedom-class with 12 NSMs and the Independence-class with 18 NSMs.[57] In July 2014, the Navy confirmed that it would test-launch the NSM from Coronado to evaluate feasibility, the first time an LCS fired a surface-to-surface missile. The NSM has a range of 100 nmi (120 mi; 190 km), greater than the Harpoon anti-ship missile, but LCSs lack long-range fire control systems to detect targets at this distance.[58] On 24 September 2014, the NSM was successfully fired at a mobile target. The LCS's modular design makes it possible to add weapons and sensors as part of the warfare suite. This could mitigate lethality criticism of the LCS, which is oriented toward asymmetric swarm boat threats rather than comparable surface combatants.[59]

In September 2015, the Navy issued a directive to install an OTH missile on Freedom and Coronado for their next deployments in early and mid-2016. The exact missile was not specified, but sources say it will be both the Harpoon and NSM, each ship equipped with only one model of missile. The directive calls for up to eight missiles, likely in two quad packs, to be installed on box launchers as a standalone system without requiring full integration into the LCS combat system.[60] On 19 July 2016, Coronado conducted a live-fire missile test of a Block 1C Harpoon missile; although the missile missed the target, the test validated the ability to launch Harpoon missiles from the forward deck of an LCS.[61] In May 2018, the Navy selected the NSM as the LCS's OTH missile.[62]

In January 2020, the Navy reported that a Lockheed Martin 150 kW High Energy Laser and Integrated Optical-dazzler and Surveillance (HELIOS) would be put on USS Little Rock (LCS-9) for her upcoming deployment. The laser is part of a risk reduction effort to contribute to a layered laser defense effort, as well as boost the LCS's lethality to counter fast-attack craft and UAS.[63]

Anti-submarine module

The anti-submarine module had its focus changed from stationary to en-stride systems (while the ship is moving) that are useful in the open ocean as well as in coastal areas.[39] One of the items to be added is a "torpedo detection capability" so that the ship can know when it is under attack.[64] Thales has sold one CAPTAS 4 low-frequency active sonar to the U.S. Navy to be towed behind the LCS, with a potential order of 25 units.[65] The USN will test a combination of this unit, derived from the Sonar 2087 on British Type 23 frigates, with the TB-37 multifunction towed array found on U.S. warships.[66] As of September 2013, deployment of the ASW module is planned for 2016, but the 2013 sequestration cuts could push this back to 2017.[67]

The Thales 2087-towed sonar will give the LCS an ability to detect diesel-electric submarines while on the move, even better than destroyers and cruisers; because submarines can hide based on how sound is refracted through the temperature, salinity and pressure profile, the variable depth sonar can pierce that layer better than a hull-mounted sonar. The sonar is paired with a torpedo decoy under development. To destroy submarines, an MH-60S helicopter will deploy the Mark 54 Lightweight Torpedo.[68] Submarine detection is achieved by using an active VDS and passive Multi-Function Towed Array (MFTA); the active sonar sends out an acoustic signal to analyze the return, while the passive sonar simply listens through the water for noise signatures.[69]

A wargame held by the Naval War College demonstrated the possibility of using the LCS in open water operations to assist carrier battle groups and guided missile destroyers. The LCS was found to be more useful in open water operations than previously considered. The wargame found that an LCS operating the ASW package could perform the mission, which freed up a destroyer that would normally perform the mission to contribute to the lethality of the strike group. Submarine hunting ability is increased by the combination of a destroyer's towed array and hull-mounted sonar and an LCS's variable depth sonar.[37]

In July 2015, the Navy awarded three contracts to reduce the weight of the package elements down to or below 105 metric tons total to meet mission package weight requirements. Since both elements are mature and fielded (the VDS on Royal Navy Type 23 frigates and MFTA on Arleigh Burke and Zumwalt-class destroyers), the systems cannot be overhauled and other weight reduction ideas need to be implemented like lightening sensors and using composites in the handling system.[70] Plans for the package shifted dramatically in 2011 when it was decided not to use the RMMV, used in the MCM package, in favor of an "in stride" capability. The ASW elements were chosen as cost-effective COTS sensors, so weight reduction needs by between 15 and 25 percent have been planned for since their selection for integration onto the LCS.[71]

Mine countermeasures module

A Fleet-class unmanned surface vessel during testing. The USV will be used for both MCM and ASW.
A Fleet-class unmanned surface vessel during testing. The USV will be used for both MCM and ASW.

The Mine Counter-Measure (MCM) module is designed to provide minesweeping, remotely detecting and bypassing mines, as well as minehunting, detecting and then disabling. It was envisioned to perform "influence" minehunting via acoustic and magnetic signatures rather than contact or mechanical minehunting. The MCM module includes the Airborne Laser Mine Detection system, the Airborne mine neutralization system, the AN/AQS-20A underwater towed sonar, the remote minehunting system, the Coastal Battlefield Reconnaissance and Analysis system, and the Knifefish, a Surface mine counter-measure unmanned undersea vehicle. Cancelled module features include the Organic Airborne and Surface Influence Sweep System, and the Rapid Airborne Mine Clearance System.[72] The final increment IV MCM module will not have an EOD team or an in-stride capability to neutralize discovered mines; neutralization is preceded by post-detection mission analysis.[67]

The first increment of the MCM module included three systems: the helicopter-deployed airborne laser mine detection system (ALMDS); the airborne mine neutralization system (AMNS); and the remote minehunting system (RMS) composed of the remote multi-mission vehicle (RMMV) paired with the AQS-20A sonar. The ALMDS detects mines near the top of the water, and the RMS will detect them below the waterline. To destroy mines, the AMNS is lowered by the helicopter and guided by an operator on board to neutralize it. Increment two will be the coastal battlefield reconnaissance and analysis system (COBRA) mounted on the MQ-8B to search beaches and surf zones.[68]

Increment three will involve adding the Fleet-class unmanned surface vessel (USV) with the unmanned surface sweep system (USSS), a cable towed behind the boat. Each LCS will carry two, and they will be used for both MCM and ASW. It will mimic the acoustic and magnetic signature of a ship to fool magnetic and influence mines into detonating; introduction is expected in 2017. The final increment will be the Knifefish unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) to find and detect buried mines in 2019.[68]

In February 2016, the Navy announced they were halting procurement of the RMMV due to reliability issues, with the existing ten RMMVs to be upgraded to increase reliability.[73] The upgraded RMMVs will be fielded in 2018, and testing will be conducted to see if the Fleet class common unmanned surface vessel (CUSV) can tow the AQS-20A, and if successful will be used for minehunting by 2020. If the Knifefish UUV can have its endurance increased, the vessel will take over the mission from both systems.[74]

Irregular warfare and amphibious modules

The Navy included an irregular warfare package in its 2012 budget request to Congress.[75]

Californian congressman Duncan D. Hunter wrote that the purchase of 55 LCS units was made at the cost of 10 fewer amphibious vessels.[76] Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Joseph Dunford said in 2011 that the LCS is one of the platforms under consideration to help close the gap in amphibious shipping.[77] In August 2014, USS Coronado demonstrated the ability to rapidly stage and deploy Marine Corps ground units, including operations by two Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadrons (HMLA) that conducted day and night deck-landing qualifications. The Independence-class LCS's features of high speed, a large flight deck to support UH-1Y Venom and AH-1W Super Cobra helicopters, and reconfigurable mission bay can support air and small-boat employment and delivery of ground and air forces; a small Marine ground unit can be carried within an embarked mission module.[78] In 2014, Marine Corps General John M. Paxton, Jr. claimed several deficiencies in using an LCS for amphibious operations as a substitute platform for an amphibious assault ship, including the ability to operate in difficult sea states, survivability in contested waters, limited flight deck and berthing space, and command and control limitations.[79]

In 2014, the U.S. Coast Guard began advocating the LCS as a tailor-made platform for drug interdiction missions. Under pressure from Navy vessels retiring, the Coast Guard will suffer a surface vessel shortage for intercepting smuggling ships in the Caribbean area, forcing the Navy to examine other platforms for drug interdiction. The Coast Guard noted that the LCS has previously performed this task, and pointed towards its high speed and embarked helicopters to run down fast smuggling boats; the Navy plans to base 10 Freedom-class ships at Naval Station Mayport, Florida which could be tasked to conduct interdiction missions.[80]

Developmental history


During the late 1990s, the U.S. Navy realized its Cold War-era cruisers and destroyers had been designed for open-ocean warfare and would be vulnerable in shallow coastal waters, where they would face dangers from high-speed boats, missile-firing fast-attack craft, small submarines, sea mines, and land and air-launched anti-ship missiles. The Navy's official solution was the DD-21, a large coastal warship that could absorb hits. Two Navy strategists, retired Captain Wayne Hughes and Vice Admiral Art Cebrowski, refined an opposing Streetfighter concept for a 1,000-ton small, specialized, and heavily armed vessel costing just $90 million (2001 dollars). Being small, light and numerous, the Streetfighter was envisioned as a "single-serving" ship to be abandoned once it suffered battle damage deemed "fatal" to the ship, made possible by its low cost. The concept of a manned expendable warship was contentious and the idea was not picked up. When Donald Rumsfeld was made Secretary of Defense in early 2001, he promised transformational approaches and doing jobs with fewer people. In October 2001, Cebrowski was assigned to head the Pentagon's new Office of Force Transformation, shortly after which Admiral Vernon Clark cancelled the DD-21 and replaced it with a "family" of ships, including the littoral combat ship, being motivated to produce ships cheaper and faster to increase fleet size. Clark declared the LCS was his "most transformational effort" and number-one budget priority in 2003.[81]

The Navy committed to the $15 billion (2003) program in advance of rigorous analysis or clearly defined purpose, appearance, or survivability. Proponents typically pointed to its speed, asymmetric littoral threats, and impact on the U.S. shipbuilding industry. The LCS suffered from requirements creep, adding more missions and equipment, potentially rendering it too complex and expensive to use. When it was decided the ship would not be expendable, the original concept of a small, cheap, simple coastal warship became bigger, more expensive, and more complicated, with a smaller crew due to automation. The task force assigned six different missions which had been previously performed by individual ships: submarine and mine hunting; combating small boats; intelligence gathering; transporting special forces; and counter-drug and piracy patrols. Each ship would be big enough to sail across the Pacific alone, embark a helicopter, have a minimum 40 knot top speed, and cost $220 million. The Navy was only willing to build one type of ship; the task force, realizing that it was virtually impossible for one vessel to fill all roles, advocated a large hull to cover the mission range through modularity, organic combat power, and unmanned systems. Empty space was left for weapon and sensor mission modules costing $150 million. When the first production contracts were awarded in 2004, no mission module worked outside of a laboratory. Fast, cheap construction was emphasized, solving problems with technology.[81]

Freedom, the first LCS, on commissioning day
Freedom, the first LCS, on commissioning day

In 2003, the Navy launched its first experimental LCS, Sea Fighter, designated as fast sea frame or FSF-1.[82] In 2005, the SWATH-hulled Sea Fighter entered service as an experimental vessel using mission modules.[83] As the Oliver Hazard Perry, Osprey, and Avenger classes were reaching the end of their lives, the U.S. Navy released the LCS requirement. In 2004, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics and Raytheon submitted design proposals. It was decided to produce two vessels each (Flight 0) of the Lockheed Martin design (LCS-1 and LCS-3) and of the General Dynamics design (LCS-2 and LCS-4). After these are brought into service, and experience gathered on the design's usability and efficiency, the future design for the class would be chosen (Flight I). The ultimate decision was to fund both designs as two variants of the class. On 9 May 2005, Secretary of the Navy Gordon R. England announced that the first LCS would be named USS Freedom. Her keel was laid down on 2 June 2005 at Marinette Marine, Marinette, Wisconsin.[84] The contract to build the ship was managed by Lockheed's Maritime Systems and Sensors (MS2) division, directed by Fred Moosally.[39] On 23 September 2006, LCS-1 was christened and launched at the Marinette Marine shipyard.[85] On 19 January 2006, the keel for the General Dynamics trimaran, USS Independence, was laid at the Austal USA shipyards in Mobile, Alabama. LCS-2 was launched 30 April 2008.

Budget overruns and deployments

In 2007, the U.S. Navy canceled contracts to build LCS-3 of Lockheed Martin and LCS-4 of General Dynamics and Austal USA, citing failure to control cost overruns.[86] Subsequently, the Navy announced a new bidding process for the next three ships, the winner building two ships and the loser building one.[87] In the 26 September 2008 U.S. presidential debate, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) cited the LCS as an example of botched contracting driving up costs unnecessarily.[88] In March 2009, then-Secretary of the Navy Donald C. Winter announced that LCS-3 would be named Fort Worth after Fort Worth, Texas,[89] and the fourth ship would be named Coronado after Coronado, California.[90][91] The contracts for LCS-3 and LCS-4 were renewed in early 2009.[92][93]

In April 2009, the Navy announced its revised procurement plan that three ships be funded in the FY 2010 budget; officials also hinted that the Navy may not down-select to one design for further orders, pointing out complementary features of the two designs.[94] Former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman called for fixed-price contracts to be adopted.[95] Pressure mounted in Congress for the Navy to control the cost: in June 2009, during a hearing of the House Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee, Subcommittee Chairman Gene Taylor, D-Miss, said that other contractors would be keen to build LCS as the subcommittee added language requiring the Navy to open bidding if either lead contractor walked away from the offered $460 million fixed price contracts.[96] In response, the Naval Sea Systems Command conducted a study on whether reducing the top speed requirement from 40 knots to 30 could help keep the ships under the price cap.[97]

The Congress asked the Navy to study improvement programs on existing ships in place of the LCS program. In June 2009, Vice Admiral Barry McCullough, USN testified in a Senate Armed Services Committee meeting that the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates and Avenger-class minesweepers were too worn out to cover the gap if the LCS suffered further delays.[98] Retired Admiral James Lyons, USN called for a $220 million common design with the U.S. Coast Guard's National Security Cutter (NSC) program to save costs and meet "limited warfare requirements".[99] A Huntington-Ingalls study found that the NSC would be a better match for the listed mission set while lacking the LCS's mission modules to perform many missions.[100]

In May 2012, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems released a study that showed seven LCS can more efficiently perform anti-piracy patrols in the Western Indian Ocean than a fleet of 20 conventional ships for a quarter of the cost.[101] To help reduce cost of each ships, in September 2009, Navy Acquisition Chief Sean Stackley and Vice Admiral Barry McCullough indicated that only one contractor would be offered a fixed price contract in 2010 for up to ten ships,[102] followed by an offer to build five additional ships of the same design as the first contract to the secondary builder.[103] The Congress agreed with the Navy on this plan.[104] On 23 August 2010, the U.S. Navy announced a delay in awarding the contract for 10 ships until the year's end.[105]

FY2010 budget documents revealed that the total costs of the two lead ships had risen to $637 million for Freedom and $704 million for Independence.[106] On 16 January 2010, Independence was commissioned in Mobile, Alabama.[6]

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that deploying the first two ships will delay the overall program because these two ships were not available for testing and development so changes may have to be made in the second pair of ships during construction instead of in advance.[107] The U.S. Navy responded that "Early deployment brought LCS operational issues to the forefront much sooner than under the original schedule, some of which would not have been learnt until two years on."[108]

In 2013, Under Secretary of the Navy Robert O. Work explained that cost overruns were partly due to the shipbuilders' bidding to American Bureau of Shipping commercial standards, the Navy changed this to Level I survivability standards for greater crew survivability, although the ships were not expected to operate after being hit.[109] The Navy acknowledged that their failure to communicate clearly that the experimental and developmental nature of the first two ships caused a perception that the overall LCS program was in worse shape.[110] A GAO report in July 2014 found that the annual cost to operate an LCS was $79 million, compared to $54 million to operate a larger frigate. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus pointed out that new vessels traditionally start off costing more to operate because of difficulties with building and testing ships simultaneously; GAO reports of new warships since the 1960s support this claim. As more littoral combat ships are built and enter service, Mabus said operational costs will decline to acceptable limits.[111] On 2 November 2016 the Pentagon blocked publication of cost overruns on both designs.[112]

On 2 December 2016, it was reported that the GAO was critical of the LCS's ability to complete a navy requirement of 30 consecutive days underway without a critical failure of one or more essential subsystems. DOT&E Michael Gilmore states that the current LCS fleet "have a near-zero chance" of meeting this requirement.[113]

Building both designs

Instead of declaring a winner out of the two competing designs, the U.S. Navy in November 2010 asked the Congress to allow for the order of ten of each design.[114][115][116] U.S. Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) said that the change was made because both bids were under the Congressional price cap.[117] Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said that unlike the possibility of splitting orders for projects like KC-X or the General Electric/Rolls-Royce F136, the Pentagon had already paid the development cost for both designs so there was no further development required for both designs and have them compete for future orders.[118]

In December 2010, the Government Accountability Office identified some problems with the designs including extremely long crew training time, unrealistic maintenance plans, and the lack of comprehensive risk assessment.[119] On 13 December 2010, both production teams extended their contract offers until 30 December in order to give more time for the Navy to push through the plan. The Navy would be forced to award the contract to only one team if it failed to secure Congressional approval. The Navy budgeted $490 million for each ship while the Congressional Budget Office projected a cost of $591 million for each ship.[120][121] Navy acquisition chief Sean Stackley testified to a Senate panel that the actual price range was $440 to $460 million.[122]

A day before the offer's expiration, both Lockheed Martin and Austal USA received Navy contracts for an additional ten ships of their designs; two ships of each design being built each year between 2011 and 2015. Lockheed Martin's LCS-5 had a contractual price of $437 million, Austal USA's contractual price for LCS-6 was $432 million. On 29 December 2010, Department of Navy Undersecretary Sean Stackley noted that the program was well within the Congressional cost cap of $480 million per ship. The average per-ship target price for Lockheed ships is $362 million, Stackley said, with a goal of $352 million for each Austal USA ships. Government-furnished equipment (GFE), such as weapons, add about $25 million per ship; another $20 million for change orders, and "management reserve" is also included. Stackley declared the average cost to buy an LCS should be between $430 million and $440 million.[123] In the fiscal year 2011, the unit cost was $1.8 billion and the program cost $3.7 billion.[124]

USS Coronado is rolled out in 2011
USS Coronado is rolled out in 2011

In May 2012, Robert Work said that the two designs may each be best suited to different theaters, the LCS-1 design being better suited for the enclosed waters of the Middle East, while the LCS-2 design for the Pacific Ocean's open waters. In order to increase commonality, the Navy will force both types to use the same combat system electronics.[125]

The handoff from General Dynamics to Austal of management for the Independence-class led to a 13-month schedule slip as the company struggled with building the JHSV ships at the same facilities.[126] In May 2013, the GAO called for a pause in ship construction until issues with the sea frames and modules were resolved.[127] In August 2013, the USN revealed plans to reduce the procurement rate in 2016.[128]

Operational issues

A 2012 report by Rear Admiral Samuel Perez, USN, found that the ships lacked the manpower and firepower to complete the missions required by regional combatant commanders. The report found that the LCS is "ill-suited for combat operations against anything but" small, fast boats not armed with anti-ship missiles. It also found that the excessive beam (width) of the trimaran Independence-class ships may pose a "navigational challenge in narrow waterways and tight harbors".[129] The report also found that the contractor-based maintenance scheme for the ships had led to poorly supervised and unaccountable contractors leaving problems unresolved. As contract workers are required to be American, they must be flown out to any foreign ports visited by an LCS.[130] A special panel was appointed to investigate "challenges identified".[131] Twenty more bunks were installed to allow for a larger crew.[132]

In 2013, Captain Kenneth Coleman, the U.S. Navy's requirements officer for the program, identified the LCS as being especially vulnerable to tactical aircraft armed with standoff anti-ship missiles.[133] Vice Admiral Thomas H. Copeman III is reported to be considering an upsized "Super" LCS,[134] with space to install needed firepower, because he noted that the 57 mm main gun was more suitable to a patrol boat than a frigate.[135][136] Austal's vice president for sales, Craig Hooper, suggested that the ships should instead be used for UAV operations.[137] Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has called the lack of identified missions for the LCS "one of its greatest strengths".[138] The various modules all use the same Internet Protocol formats.[139][140] In 2013 Congressional auditors found that the ships lacked robust communications systems and a USN review "uncovered classified deficiencies" in the ship's cyberdefenses.[141]

At a hearing on 25 July 2013, the House Armed Services Committee's seapower subcommittee argued with Vice Admiral Richard W. Hunt on how the LCS would be employed if tensions with North Korea or China led to a confrontation in the Western Pacific. Hunt said the ships are designed in accordance with the Navy's survivability standards, and that the LCS would be used during the initial phase in the theatre and sense the environment before hostilities occur. Detractors claim the LCS is not survivable enough for long-range threats that China possesses; LCS ships are built to the Navy's survivability category Level I+, higher than Level I patrol craft and mine warfare ships, but lower than the Level II Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate they are replacing. The Navy has said the LCS was designed to pull out of combat upon sustaining damage.[142] The baseline LCS seaframe designs, however, boast a better air and missile defense capability than the partially disarmed and now retired Perry class, which somewhat counters claims that LCS is "unsurvivable".[143] Other observers suggest that the ships' lifecycle costs and resilience challenges result from the optimal-manning concept, which increases the Navy's dependence on contractors and diminishes opportunities to monitor and repair engineering systems during operations.[144]

The deployment of USS Freedom was seen by the Navy as an opportunity to test the ship and operational concepts in the real-world. The Navy was about to conclude a war game at the Naval War College to examine ways of exploiting LCS capabilities in Western Pacific and other scenarios. Hunt added that the anti-submarine warfare (ASW) mission package would play an important role in protecting aircraft carriers and amphibious ships, and the mine countermeasures (MCMs) mission package would also provide necessary port security and waterway patrol capability following combat operations.[142]

A Government Accountability Office report in April 2014 found that several U.S. 7th Fleet officials thought the LCS was more useful in the Persian Gulf, but not suitable in the Pacific theater as they lacked the speed, range, and electronic warfare capabilities. The first two vessels from each maker were found to be overweight and not meeting performance requirements for endurance or sprinting over 40 knots. Navy leaders contend that the LCS's shallow draft is well suited for Pacific operations due to the many shallow-water ports, typically difficult for larger warships to access. The GAO report recommended the Navy consider buying fewer ships of the type if its limitations prevent effective use in the Pacific theater.[145][146] The GAO also found that both designs were overweight and underperforming.[147]

Small surface combatant (SSC)

USS Coronado (LCS-4) (right) passes USS Rushmore.

On 24 February 2014, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel directed the Navy to submit alternative proposals for a new surface combatant comparable to a frigate that can operate in all regions under conflict conditions. In response to Pentagon direction to halt LCS purchases at 32 ships, the Navy is re-examining the vessels' role, such as whether they have enough protection and firepower to survive against advanced adversaries, and alternate proposals which included a modified LCS or a new platform. The Navy requires the class' roles of counter-mine, anti-submarine, and surface warfare provided by modules. Proponents point out that the LCS was not designed to function like destroyers but for littoral tasks like high-speed patrols and counter-piracy missions, moving at 40 knots and within shallow water where other ships cannot.[148]

Hagel was concerned that the LCS would make up one-sixth of the Navy's 300-ship force. The 2013 DOT&E report on the two LCS ships questioned their survivability as their requirements did not include features for sustained combat operations unlike other Navy surface combatants. A new ship class would need built-in anti-submarine and surface warfare mission features, as opposed to swappable mission modules.[149] On 27 March 2014, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus defended the LCS's survivability and the need for 52 small surface combatants before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Greenert explained that the LCS meets or exceeds survivability and recoverability standards, was as survivable as a frigate, and was more survivable than mine countermeasures and patrol craft; susceptibility has to be improved upon, and he would consider modifications to increase survivability and flexibility.[150]

The navy continued to look into improvements for the last 20 ships of the 52-ship LCS procurement, that would increase the capabilities to that of a frigate. It was reported that the navy was considering four different options as "leading contenders" for the role of this new frigate. The first being the Legend class (National Security Cutter), in use by the U.S. Coast Guard. Another being the group of three Freedom-class variants of differing size, (both shorter and longer than the current Freedom class). The third was a once hinted at "international" version of the Independence class, that could be AEGIS-equipped, and lastly, an American-built version of the Spanish Navy's F-100-class frigate.[149]

On 30 April 2014, the Navy issued two requests for information (RFI) to industry to give the LCS task force follow-on designs to Flight 0 ship models. One RFI was for design concepts and information on cost and lethality, and the other was for specific systems and technologies. Mission areas consisting of anti-air, surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare, and mine countermeasure missions will offer a range of mission and capability options based on the threat environment that will drive design work and costs. Options for the proposed small surface combatant were a modified version of the LCS, an existing alternate ship design, or an entirely new design.[151]

On the proposal's due date, ship designs were submitted by Lockheed Martin, Austal USA, Huntington Ingalls Industries, and General Dynamics Bath Iron Works, and separate combat systems proposals were submitted by Lockheed, Raytheon, and General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems (GD AIS); ship and combat systems responses were limited to 25 and 15 pages respectively. Lockheed's response was a variant of their Freedom-class LCS; different upgrades included an advised increase in length to 125 m (410 ft), vertical launch systems for Standard Missile 2 missiles or the Standard Missile 6, and the SPY-1F Aegis radar or an Air Missile Defense Radar derivative. Austal USA submitted a modified Independence-class ship, adding permanently installed systems like a towed array sonar, torpedoes, vertical launch anti-submarine rockets, and aviation capability to support the MH-60 helicopter in place of mission modules. Like Lockheed's submission, it has a VLS for Standard missiles, a 76 mm gun in place of the 57 mm gun, and can take on an Aegis or ADMR radar. Huntington Ingalls submitted a larger, more heavily armed National Security Cutter. General Dynamics also made an unspecified response.[152]

Results from the Navy task force on LCS upgrades, capabilities, costs, and alternative options were completed by 31 July 2014 for the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) to review.[153][154] The Navy senior leadership briefed top Pentagon officials on proposals for the new SSC on 6 October 2014. A decision is to be made by February 2015 in advance of the 2016 budget submission.[155] On 12 December 2014, a joint statement was issued by the Secretary of the Navy and Chief of Naval Operations endorsing SSCTF recommendations for a modified LCS to complement the planned 32 LCSs for a 52-strong Small Surface Combatant fleet.[156][157]

On 11 December 2014, Hagel accepted the Navy's recommendation to base the 20 SSCs on more powerful versions of both existing LCS designs. The SSC shall have an improved 3D air defense radar, air defense decoys, better electronic warfare system, over-the-horizon anti-ship missiles, multi-function towed array sonar, torpedo defenses, additional armor, and displace less than Flight 0 vessels. The SSC will focus on anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare; mine countermeasures will be handled by existing LCS ships. Although not designed for modularity, it will maintain the ability to carry mission modules and LCS mission package equipment, including 30 mm and 57 mm cannons (upgrading to a 76 mm gun would have had marginal benefits for increased costs), Hellfire missiles, 11-meter (36 ft) RHIBs, and the ASW variable-depth sonar. Current plans lack vertical launchers for Standard missiles; the SSC is planned to be able to operate alone. The over-the-horizon surface-to-surface missile will likely be in the Harpoon Block II class. Other enhancements include spaced armor, installation of Mk 38 Mod 2 25 mm chain guns, improved decoy systems, the SeaRAM missile interceptor, a "lite" version of the Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program (SEWIP), and improved signature management through degaussing. An SSC will cost $60–$75 million more than a Flight 0 LCS, with procurement to begin by 2019. Hagel also directed the Navy to study which improvements could be added to LCSs; completed ships cannot accommodate all changes, more can be added to incomplete ones, the final number and mix of each type has yet to be determined.[9][158][159][160][161][162][163][164]

The decision was made on SSC upgrade features to prioritize over-the-horizon surface and ASW capabilities with a greater degree of self-defense, not anti-aircraft or missile defense, which will be left to large surface combatants. Although a 3D radar is included in the designs, a VLS was absent from the hulls, contrary to what naval experts suggested and industry submissions contained. Adding a vertical launch system was evaluated, but was determined to be too heavy and large and requiring long and costly changes; modular aspects of the ships may allow for the addition of the smaller Mk 56 VLS for the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile. When emphasized on ASW, the ships will combine the fixed multi-function towed sonar array with the mission package's variable depth sonar to have "the most effective ASW sensor platform in the Navy". For SUW, the key addition is the inclusion of an over-the-horizon anti-ship missile; the Navy is looking at potential systems that could compete with the Harpoon Block II. Aside from lethality changes, the service also intends to have a common combat management system for both variants.[165]

In January 2015, the Navy announced that the up-gunned LCS will be reclassified as a frigate, since the requirements of the SSCTF was to upgrade the ships with frigate-like capabilities. Hull designations will be changed from LCS to FF; existing LCSs back-fitted with modifications may also retroactively earn the FF label.[10] The Navy is hoping to start retrofitting technological upgrades onto existing and under construction LCSs before 2019.[166] In order to free up weight to include the new systems, the frigates will remove certain items from the LCS that will no longer be needed, such as the crane and other handling equipment needed to launch and recover the RMMV for the MCM mission package, which the frigate upgrade does not have.[167] In order to accommodate the changes while using the same hull designs, the original LCS high sprint speed has been dropped for the frigate to optimize it for survivability and lethality; it will also deploy two 7-meter RHIBs rather than the 11-meter RHIBs previously used.[168]

A report released in September 2015 indicated that the first 24 ships would retain the basic design principles of the LCS program, with upgrades where needed. This group would be considered "Block 0" and also retain the "LCS" designation, for the time being. Ships 25 through 32, "Block 1" would include significant upgrades and design changes, inline with the intended capabilities of the last 20 ships of the total 52-ship procurement, these being the new "Frigate" class. The new frigates will be larger, have increased defensive and survivability capabilities and more permanent missions packages, as opposed to the original modular design.[169]

On 14 December 2015, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter ordered the Navy to reduce the planned procurement of LCS and FF ships from 52 to 40, and down-select to one variant by FY 2019. This cut is to reallocate funds to other priorities including buying more F-35C Lightning II and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters, SM-6 missiles, accelerating Flight III Arleigh Burke-class destroyer DDG-51 acquisition, and expanding development of the Virginia Payload Module (VPM) for the Block V Virginia-class submarine. Though fewer ships will be available in some instances, those needs will be met by higher-end ships to ensure forces in various fleets have the capabilities and posture to defeat potential advanced adversaries.[12][170]

In February 2020, media reports stated that the U.S. Navy, as part of its fiscal 2021 budget, has proposed to retire the first four LCS ships in 2021 as part of a cost-savings measure. If approved, these would be USS Freedom and USS Fort Worth from the Freedom-class, and USS Independence and USS Coronado from the Independence-class. This plan has yet to be approved by Congress.[171][172][173]

On 18 June 2021, Naval News reported that, in a report to Congress, the Navy planned to inactivate Fort Worth, Coronado, Detroit and Little Rock in Fiscal Year 2022 and put them on the Out of Commission in Reserve (OCIR) list.[174] In the final budget Congress forbade the Navy from retiring the three Freedom class ships in Fiscal Year 2022.[175] By May 2022, the Navy shifted its plans to decommission nine LCS warships in Fiscal Year 2023, citing their ineffective anti-submarine warfare system, their inability to perform any of the Navy's missions, constant breakdowns, and structural failures in high-stress areas of the ships.[176]

Foreign sales

Saudi Arabia and Israel both expressed an interest in a modified version of the Freedom variant, the LCS-I,[177] but Israel dropped out of this project in favor of a new frigate design to be built in Israel.[178] Interest by Saudi Arabia in LCS continues however. Media reports indicate that Saudi Arabia could buy two to four ships of Lockheed Martin's Freedom-class LCS variant as part of the Saudi Arabian Naval Expansion Program II—a program to modernize the nation's oldest warships operating in the Persian Gulf.[179] On 22 May 2017, as part of an arms deal between the United States and Saudi Arabia, the acquisition of four Multi-Mission Surface Combatant (MMSC) ships based on the Freedom-class LCS was announced.[180]

The Taiwanese navy has also shown interest in procuring U.S. littoral combat ships, to replace aging Knox-class frigates.[181]

Japan will design its own version of the Independence-class.[182] The warship concept was unveiled in the defense trade-show MAST Asia 2017.[183]

The Royal Malaysian Navy has also built its littoral combat ship based on the Gowind-class design, named Maharaja Lela-class frigate.[184]

List of littoral combat ships

First ships of each class of littoral combat ships, USS Freedom and USS Independence, maneuver together during an exercise off the coast of Southern California, 2011
First ships of each class of littoral combat ships, USS Freedom and USS Independence, maneuver together during an exercise off the coast of Southern California, 2011

As of December 2019, a total of 35 littoral combat ships are planned, including 16 Freedom-class ships and 19 Independence-class ships.[185] Ships are assigned to either Littoral Combat Ship Squadron One,[186][187] based in San Diego Ca., or Littoral Combat Ship Squadron Two,[188][189] based in Mayport, Florida.

List of littoral combat ships
Hull Name Variant Commissioning Decommissioned Homeport Builder Notes
LCS-1 USS Freedom Freedom 8 October 2008 29 September 2021 not applicable Marinette Marine Decommissioned 29 September 2021 in San Diego, CA[190]
LCS-2 USS Independence Independence 16 October 2010 29 July 2021 not applicable Austal USA Decommissioned 29 July 2021 in San Diego, CA [191]
LCS-3 USS Fort Worth Freedom 22 September 2012 Naval Base San Diego Marinette Marine
LCS-4 USS Coronado Independence 5 April 2014 14 September 2022 not applicable Austal USA Decommissioned 14 September 2022 in San Diego, CA [192]
LCS-5 USS Milwaukee Freedom 15 November 2015 Naval Station Mayport Marinette Marine
LCS-6 USS Jackson Independence 5 December 2015 Naval Base San Diego Austal USA
LCS-7 USS Detroit Freedom 22 October 2016 Naval Station Mayport Marinette Marine
LCS-8 USS Montgomery Independence 10 September 2016 Naval Base San Diego Austal USA
LCS-9 USS Little Rock Freedom 16 December 2017 Naval Station Mayport Marinette Marine
LCS-10 USS Gabrielle Giffords Independence 10 June 2017 Naval Base San Diego Austal USA
LCS-11 USS Sioux City Freedom 17 November 2018 Naval Station Mayport Marinette Marine
LCS-12 USS Omaha Independence 3 February 2018 Naval Base San Diego Austal USA
LCS-13 USS Wichita Freedom 12 January 2019 Naval Station Mayport Marinette Marine
LCS-14 USS Manchester Independence 26 May 2018 Naval Base San Diego Austal USA
LCS-15 USS Billings Freedom 3 August 2019 Naval Station Mayport Marinette Marine
LCS-16 USS Tulsa Independence 16 February 2019 Naval Base San Diego Austal USA
LCS-17 USS Indianapolis Freedom 26 October 2019 Naval Station Mayport Marinette Marine
LCS-18 USS Charleston Independence 2 March 2019 Naval Base San Diego Austal USA
LCS-19 USS St. Louis Freedom 8 August 2020 Naval Station Mayport Marinette Marine
LCS-20 USS Cincinnati Independence 5 October 2019 Naval Base San Diego Austal USA
LCS-21 USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul Freedom 21 May 2022 Naval Station Mayport Marinette Marine
LCS-22 USS Kansas City Independence 20 June 2020 Naval Base San Diego Austal USA
LCS-23 USS Cooperstown Freedom 6 May 2023 Naval Station Mayport Marinette Marine
LCS-24 USS Oakland Independence 17 April 2021 Naval Base San Diego Austal USA
LCS-25 USS Marinette Freedom Marinette Marine
LCS-26 USS Mobile Independence 22 May 2021 Naval Base San Diego Austal USA
LCS-27 USS Nantucket Freedom Marinette Marine
LCS-28 USS Savannah Independence 5 February 2022 Naval Base San Diego Austal USA
LCS-29 USS Beloit Freedom Marinette Marine [193]
LCS-30 USS Canberra Independence Austal USA
LCS-31 USS Cleveland Freedom Marinette Marine [194]
LCS-32 USS Santa Barbara Independence 1 April 2023 Naval Base San Diego Austal USA [193]
LCS-34 USS Augusta Independence Austal USA [193]
LCS-36 USS Kingsville Independence Austal USA [195]
LCS-38 USS Pierre Independence Austal USA [195]

Note: The Navy has yet to place orders for 17th, 18th, and 19th Freedom-class variants. Should that occur, they will be entered on this list as "LCS-33", "LCS-35", and "LCS-37".

See also


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