Navy Plans New Future with 32-Ship LCS Fleet

The Navy will re-examine the future of its Littoral Combat Ship fleet following the Pentagon's decision to shrink it to 32 vessels.

Navy leaders say the service will re-examine the future of its Littoral Combat Ship in light of recent Pentagon direction to halt the buy at 32 ships and not acquire the full amount of 52 planned vessels.

Vice Adm. Joseph Mulloy, Deputy Chief of Naval Operation for Integration of Capabilities and Resources, said the Navy will work on alternative proposals for the ship in response to guidance from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

“I view this as a chance for the Navy to re-engage on what’s important to us on the last part of the class.  We know we need mine hunting, we know we need ASW (anti-submarine warfare), we know we need a few of what’s called the surface warfare module – but what do we really need? We are going to go back and take a hard look and respond to the Secretary of Defense in the fall,” said Mulloy.

Navy engineers, shipbuilders and requirements experts will conduct research, identify concepts and come-up with alternative design proposals for the LCS.

The alternative proposals, which could include a modified LCS or new platform altogether, were directed by Hagel – who said that new contract negotiations for LCS will not go forward beyond 32 ships.

“We must direct shipbuilding efforts toward ships that can operate in every region and along the full spectrum of conflict. At my direction the Navy will submit alternative proposals for a surface combatant consistent with the capabilities of a frigate. New ship designs and a modified LCS- proposal are due at this time next year to inform budget submissions,” Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon Feb 24.

Acting Deputy Defense Secretary Christine Fox added some detail to this in a speech Feb. 25, saying that Hagel also directed the Navy conduct a study with DoD’s testing agency of the ship’s capabilities and survivability.

The Navy had been planning on building 52 of the multi-mission, shallow water vessels which are now under development. Now, the service will go to work on new proposals and ideas designed, among other things, to improve the survivability of the ship.

When detailing his rationale for reducing the fleet by 20 ships down to 32 and asking the service to produce alternative proposals, Hagel and Fox both echoed criticisms often heard of the LCS program.

“We need to closely examine whether the LCS has the independent protection and fire power to operate and survive against a more advanced military adversary and emerging new technologies,” Hagel said.

Hagel also added that he was concerned that the Navy was relying too heavily on LCS to meet its goal of achieving a 306-ship fleet.

In recent months, Navy officials and senior leaders have countered these criticisms by saying the ship’s speed of 40-knots, combined with its sensors, weapons, aircraft and technology packages will bring substantial advantage to the fleet. They also emphasize that, while survivable, the LCS is not intended to function as a destroyer or heavy warship but rather perform littoral missions and bring next-generation mine-hunting, surface and anti-submarine technologies.

The LCS class consists of two variants, the Freedom and Independence – designed and built by two industry teams, respectively led by Lockheed Martin and an Austal USA-led team. Contracts were awarded to Lockheed Martin and Austal USA on December 29, 2010, for the construction of up to 10 ships each.

So far, the first three LCS ships have been commissioned and the fourth, the USS Coronado, is slated for commissioning in April of this year, Naval Sea Systems Command officials said.

LCS 5 and 6 launched in December of last year, and ships 7 through 16 are in some stage of production, Navy officials added. The Navy plans to wind up delivering 4 LCS ships per year.

In addition, Mulloy said LCS 3, the USS Forth Worth, is getting ready for a 16-month deployment which will include trips to Singapore and parts of Asia.  He said that the LCS is ideally suited for high-speed patrols and counter-piracy missions. Also, he added that with its shallow-water ability and multi-mission approach, the LCS can go places most other ships cannot.

“Right now if we want to go to Cambodia we have to have an ARS (rescue and salvage ships). [LCS 3] will be able to go to Cambodia and Bangladesh and bring a Naval presence to places that are difficult for us to go,” Mulloy said.