Does anybody remember those littoral combat ships the US Navy started developing in 2001? Yup, those smaller marine vessels initially planned to be more agile to protect larger ships and nearby landmasses located within the littoral zones of the sea.
Nope? You don’t remember them? Well, that’s probably because the US Navy literally called them floating piles of garbage. If you did remember them, it’s either you served on one, or you heard of its infamous instances of issues that plague the vessels.
Whatever the case may be, let’s review how we got to this point in time and determine if these combat ships got any better.
Beginning Of The End
The beginning of the end was essentially the start of the program. But hey, the end has to start somewhere, right? US Navy cruisers and destroyers were designed specifically for open-ocean warfare during the Cold War.
For our US Navy veterans out there, you might remember when former President Truman had sent you to the Philippines along with the US Seventh Fleet, specifically at Subic Bay, or your adventures along the Korean Peninsula and their bodies of water. Whatever the case may be, you would remember that your ships were for endurance at sea and naval combat at over the horizon distances. Then the Navy decided that it could no risk these ships in close to shore or constricted bodies of water(Littorials) and needed purpose build ships that could.
The US Navy wanted to develop a combat ship smaller than a frigate but bigger than a patrol boat to ply these waters. And to clear mines, and to lay mines, and to do anti-submarine wafare, and to conduct Special Operations missions, and, and, and. So what was originally an okay idea to build a small combatant for a single purpose, it turned into about eight ideas. While they were at it The Navy would kick off the Destroyer for the 21st Century Project or the DD-21. This was part of the Surface Combatant for the 21st Century Research and Development Project in 1994 that would eventually yield the Zumwalt class destroyer. A ship that looks as if they finished the build on a Lego warship and then realized they forgot to put weapons on it. Most of the benefits talked about in the Zumwalt class is how little fuel it uses and how small the crew can be. All of this saves the Navy and the taxpayers money, but is what we do? Build ships that save money? Or do we build ships that are tough, lethal, and able to steam haze gray and underway for long periods of time.
Another idea within the project was retired Cpt. Wayne Hughes and Vice Admiral Art Cebrowski’s altered Streetfighter concept, a smaller but heavier armed vessel that could be abandoned if it incurred heavy damage. Essentially, it was your disposable film camera, but a ship version that you could throw away once you were done with it. Needless to say, it was deemed unnecessary and scrapped.
But Cebrowski wasn’t done. He had been picked to head the Office of Force Transformation under Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, in 2001. During this time, the DD-21 was canceled and replaced because of political reasons (because the program was identified with the Clinton administration). However, several reports said that there was a string of debates happening within the US Navy, specifically about the Streetfighter concept that was proposed earlier by Hughes and Cebrowski. It was also said to be way over budget and some of the promised high-tech systems that were supposed to go into the vessel were nowhere near ready to go to sea operationally. With the program canceled, the DD-21 became the DD (X) under the Future Surface Combatant Program (FSC) and became the Zumwalt class destroyer. The re-proposed Streetfighter concept eventually became the littoral combat ship (LCS).
So this is how we got to the next wet, hot mess the Navy decided to jump into with both feet. Admiral Vernon Clark, who was now responsible for the program, said that the LCS was the most transformational effort he had made and even pushed for its funding, where the US Navy got $15 billion to do so. Initially, the US Navy wanted the ship to be developed with multiple functions: combatting smaller ships, counter-drug and piracy patrols, submarine hunting, mine hunting, and a transportation ship for special forces. Further conceptualization and planning began. With this, they scrapped the idea that it would be disposable and made it bigger so it could sail through the Pacific ocean, thus not really making it a coastal vessel after all. As the roles piled up, so did the costs. What was once a $90 million coastal ship was now a portly $220 million vessel according to estimations at that time.
Eventually, Lockheed Martin in 2004 would submit proposals against General Dynamics and Raytheon, which Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics would win. The USS Freedom (LCS-1) and the USS Independence (LCS-2) would be made in 2005 and 2006, respectively. The USS Freedom is a high-speed single-hull ship designed by Lockheed Martin, and USS Independence is a trimaran from General Dynamics.
As of February 2022, there are 28 active commissioned ships, with several in construction. These LCS are divided into the Littoral Combat Ship Squadron 1 (LCSRON ONE) in San Diego and the Littoral Combat Ship Squadron 2 (LCSRON TWO) based in Mayport, Florida.
Why Is It Horrible?
First, it was the organizational problems from the beginning. Transfers of command and ship reorganization efforts made it difficult for the littoral ships to develop and maintain. Plus, during development, they didn’t really know where to place the ship and what purpose it would eventually serve. Later, the US Navy soon realized it couldn’t do perform all those roles with one small ship designed to do the job of the larger ships it was going to replace, which cranked the debates up again about what this ship was really for.
These development problems would eventually show when the Pentagon conducted a performance review of the LCS fleet. It reported that the LCS was not survivable at all in high-intensity combat, with it being described as having “analogous” capabilities, which limited its effectiveness. Along with these problems arose another set of deficiencies such as radar system deficiencies, artillery control defects, anti-ship missile deficiencies, engine problems, and self-defense deficiencies which literally rendered it semi-useless as a combat ship made to deter anti-ship missiles and it is supposed to function independently in high-threat environments from larger fleet units. Its lack of any defensive capabilities also made it a sitting duck to enemy water and air attacks. So, to defend the LCS in littoral waters traditional destroyers and frigates would have to go in with them to cover them.
It was said that a single hit could render it incapable of combat, losing its propulsion leaving it vulnerable to other forms of damage out on the sea. So, in practice, it would be the kind of disposable vessel originally envisioned but rejected by the Navy, but it ended up getting what it didn’t really want in the LCS anyway after huge expense.
Just how bad was it? The Navy pulled the sea chocks on building any more LCS vessels; that’s how bad. In nearly 2 decades of continuous development, the US government lessened its original acquisition of the LCS from 55 to 35. Instead, it announced it would spend the money on 20 new missile frigates.
Aside from being in maintenance all the time, each LCS also costs three times more than it was initially was supposed to. It may be good on gas and have small crews, but you have to pay a Rolls Royce price to get Toyota Prius like performance.
“Initially the Navy aimed for each ship to cost $220 million, but the Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimates procurement costs for the first 32 ships is currently about $21 billion, or about $655 million per ship—nearly triple what they were supposed to cost. The program’s three mission packages, according to the latest select acquisition report, add about $7.6 billion,” said the Project on Government Oversight in 2016.
Amidst the ship’s total cost, it lacked the combat survivability that any Navy ship required. Lethality issues were also later discovered, and it had numerous technical failures in all of its three mission modules. In 2018, the Navy announced that it would be abandoning the whole multi-mission swappable mission module altogether.
According to the US Navy’s website, there are currently 9 LCS Freedom variants and 13 LCS Independence variants. With most of them requiring a myriad of maintenance work amidst all the restructuring programs it undertook, I guess it’s safe to say it’s a hard-knock life for the LCS. Perhaps Tyler Rogoway from The War Zone described the state of the vessel accurately and succinctly. The LCS doesn’t stand for “littoral combat ship”; rather, it actually meant “little crappy ship.”