SAS12: LCS modules may never be ‘final’

The Navy's mission module maven says the changes and additions are a strength, not a weakness.

People often ask Navy Capt. John Ailes, program manager for the littoral combat ships’ mission modules, when they’ll reach “final capability.”

“The exciting thing is, when we get asked, one answer is … never,” he said.

The modular nature of LCS means almost anything an engineer can dream up, within reason, can work. Meanwhile, shipbuilders Lockheed Martin and Austal USA don’t need to pause construction because the Navy wants a new sonar, or other new equipment; instead, by moving in parallel, the Navy can phase things in as they become available, Ailes said.

“People say, ‘Hey, you’re changing your story,'” — that’s because the story does change, he said. The PointPoint decks of yesterday wouldn’t have included General Dynamics new Knifefish unmanned sensor, for example, and the ones of today may not reflect whatever new gizmo is still in the lab.

So if you follow the Navy and you get confused or mixed up about what equipment LCS is supposed to carry and when, that’s just how the program is going to be, it seems. In fact the anti-submarine warfare module apparently is up in the air as the Navy re-thinks what it wants — of which more in a moment — and although the suface warfare module soon could get the surface-to-surface missile it needs for standoff attacks, that’ll only be a stopgap before the introduction of a second (or third) missile down the line.

The Navy plans to field a repurposed Griffin air-to-surface missile as LCS’ ranged weapon; Ailes said testing is going well because the missile is so “mature.” It needed a new missile after the Army killed its Non-Line Of Sight missile, which the Navy had been counting on plugging into LCS. So the fleet will buy enough Griffin missiles and launchers to outfit one ship, and it will give those weapons to the ship it thinks most needs them, based on its mission.

Meanwhile, the Navy is gearing up to begin a competition next year for LCS’ next surface-to-surface missile, Ailes said, one with “longer range and greater autonomy,” although it isn’t clear yet compared to what. Despite Navy officials’ bullishness about LCS’ “modularity,” the ships’ compartments were designed for NLOS, so that, plus their aluminum topside construction, will likely limit the size and weight of the weapons they’d be able to carry.

All this means it’ll be several more years before the Navy has an actual program to develop and buy missiles that it can field across the LCS fleet. Likewise with the putative ASW module, which the Navy brass opted to restart after developing an earlier model that it decided it didn’t like. The concept for the new equipment will take advantage of the ships’ high speed — 40 knots or better — and introduce a new way for surface ships to hunt submarines.

In addition to a towed array, Ailes said the Navy wants a continuously active variable depth sonar, one an LCS can trail out at speed and use to search for submarines as it stays on the move. Navy officials have been talking for a few years about how convenient it would be for a few LCSes to go ahead of a strike group and screen the route of submarines, taking the first pass at a corridor that a carrier’s escorts could then search again with their own sonar. But LCS’ anti-submarine kit isn’t scheduled to come together until 2016, so it may not actually deploy until after the new missile.

The mine countermeasures gear, however, is working well, Ailes said proudly. In tests with the USS Independence, sailors have shown they can use their helicopter-mounted sensors to find mines (despite what you may have read in the New York Times) and the Navy is looking forward to more testing when Independence gets to its new homeport in San Diego. The mine gear has its major operational evaluation in 2014, Ailes said, and he seemed confident it would be ready by then.

One potential challenge, Ailes acknowledged, is the endurance of an LCS’ sailors.

“Can this crew operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and at what point does that become a limiting factor?” he asked. But Ailes also said that “When we really do it” — as in, hunt for mines — “it’ll be multiple LCSes.”

And when will that be? No word. The timeline for actual, real-world relevance of LCS is hazy and — significantly — almost beyond the limits of the recent Future Years Defense Plan. At one time, the Navy said LCS would operate in multi-ship “surface action groups;” they’d be more like a “fighter squadron” than a traditional task force. Today no one seems to know when that vision could actually become practicable, and the Navy seems more than content to wait however long it takes.

In the meantime, the world of LCS is getting excited about the USS Freedom’s trip to Singapore next year, which officials are again characterizing as a “deployment,” as with the “early deployment” in which the ship changed homeports from Florida to California. (The Navy has not, however, billed the Independence’s move to California as a “trial deployment.”)

Ailes said the Freedom would take a “module” to Singapore very similar to the one it took to San Diego, apparently not a “demonstration” module as the Navy said earlier. If it’s like the one the ship used before, it could include extra small boats for a beefed-up boarding team, which could comprise sailors who’ll be forced to sleep in “berthing modules” carried in one of the ship’s mission bays. The Freedom did not have enough racks of its own to accommodate the extra people.

Many of the other details about the Singapore mission don’t yet appear final, but officials with Lockheed Martin — which not only built the Freedom, but has the contract for some of its maintenance and logistics support — said Friday they were already planning now for the trip.