By Loren Thompson
On November 1, 2001 — only weeks after the 9-11 attacks — the U.S. Navy proposed a new family of surface combatants. There would be a new destroyer equipped with long-range guns for supporting Marines ashore, a new cruiser designed to greatly improve fleet defense against airborne and ballistic threats, and a fast “littoral combat ship” to perform demanding missions in the shallow water near coastlines. Collectively, the proposed warships represented the most far-reaching transformation of the Navy’s fleet since the advent of nuclear power.
However, like several other initiatives begun under the rubric of military transformation during the Bush years, the Navy’s plans for a new family of surface warships gradually came unraveled. The land-attack destroyer was terminated due to high costs, with only three of the originally planned 32 ships now expected to join the fleet. The missile-defense cruiser didn’t even get that far before the service gave up. And now Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is signaling that the smaller littoral warship is in trouble too; he has proposed that only 32 of the relatively inexpensive vessels be bought rather than the planned 52, and directed the Navy to begin looking for alternatives.
(Disclosure: Companies engaged in building both versions of the Littoral Combat Ship contribute to my think tank, as do builders of potential alternatives; some are consulting clients.)
This is a big problem for the Navy, because each of the new ship classes was designed to meet emerging operational requirements beyond the capability of existing warships. For instance, the missile-defense cruiser would have provided much greater power output and tracking precision against maneuvering ballistic warheads being developed by China. But at least in the case of the destroyer and the cruiser, the Navy changed its mind early enough to find alternatives before emerging threats became critical. In the case of the littoral warship, the Navy never doubted the need for the ship and so Secretary Hagel’s change of course is coming late in the game — too late, in fact, to do anything other than upgrade the existing design.
The Littoral Combat Ship is the fastest vessel in the U.S. fleet, and the first new surface combatant in decades suited to operations near enemy shores. (Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Littoral_combat_ship)
Before explaining why that is so, it is first necessary to describe what the Littoral Combat Ship is. It is actually two different types of ships, an aluminum trimaran and a more traditional steel “monohull” designed around the share principles of speed, modularity, versatility and low cost. The basic idea is to replace frigates in shallow-water operations with faster vessels that can conduct anti-mine, anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare while also dispatching small units of Marines or special operators ashore. To hold down costs, missions would be performed using warfighting modules that could be switched out depending on where ships were deploying and why. Most operations would be conducted using helicopters, unmanned aircraft, or small boats carried on-board.
By relying on interchangeable warfighting modules and greatly reducing the crew size through automation, the Navy was able to reduce the life-cycle cost of each littoral warship to a fraction of what more conventional warships would cost. Further savings were realized by giving the new vessel less firepower and defenses than conventional warships, since those features were deemed less critical in dealing with the kind of threats for which the new class was mainly configured (terrorists, pirates, mines, etc.). Secretary Hagel has correctly stated that the Littoral Combat Ship would not fare well in a major engagement with the future Chinese Navy; however, it would provide a fast and highly maneuverable solution to shallow-water challenges almost anywhere outside the Western Pacific.
Secretary Hagel’s concern is not about the technical problems that always attend the development of new combat systems. Rather, he is focused on the capabilities of a fleet in which one out of six warships would be Littoral Combat Ships if the program of record as it currently stands is executed. With the Pentagon’s strategic focus shifting to the Western Pacific and the sea services inevitably taking the lead role there, he doesn’t want the fleet to be under-equipped for combat with what one day may be a world-class adversary. However, it is important to keep in mind that five out of six U.S. warships would be far superior to anything China currently has, backed up by the most capable air force in history (the Air Force and Navy are working on how to cooperate more closely in the Pacific).
Which brings me to why the Navy doesn’t have many options if the littoral warship is prematurely terminated. First of all, most of the warships in the present and planned fleet aren’t well suited to littoral operations. They are too slow, they are designed for missions in deep water, and they are very costly to operate. It just doesn’t make much sense to send a billion-dollar Aegis destroyer with hundreds of sailors on board to deal with Somali pirates, terrorists in speedboats, or free-floating land mines. Even if such vessels could operate successfully near enemy shores, it would be dangerous to put valuable naval assets within range of land-based anti-ship missiles. Aegis warships have impressive defenses, but the closer they are to shore the less time they have to react.
The other problem, which almost nobody seems to have noticed, is that the Navy doesn’t have the money to build another class of warships in the next decade, once it has spent a decade designing, developing and testing some alternative to the Littoral Combat Ship. The reason why is that beginning in 2021, the service will be constructing successors to the Ohio class of ballistic-missile submarines, the most survivable part of the nation’s nuclear arsenal. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs rightly describes nuclear deterrence as the joint force’s most important mission, and the Navy can’t delay any longer in building Ohio replacements because existing subs will need to retire.
Problem is, nobody has figured out how to fit the subs, which cost $5 billion each, into a naval shipbuilding budget that only averages about $15 billion annually. If the current plan to build 52 littoral warships stays on course, the program will be wrapped up before serial production of the missile sub commences. But if there is a ten-year delay while the Navy develops something better, then the successor will be ready for production at precisely the time when there is no money available to build it. (This same dilemma explains why the Navy should continue building its latest amphibious docking ship rather than trying to develop something different to replace aging amphibs; money that can be found today to build more amphibs will be unavailable once sub construction ramps up in the next decade).
The obvious answer in the case of the Littoral Combat Ship is to upgrade the existing design with improved firepower and defenses. For instance, the range of the Griffin missile currently used on the warship could be doubled by substituting Longbow missiles, and the range of those in turn could be doubled with a modest development effort. A stripped-down version of the Aegis air defense system along the lines Lockheed Martin LMT -0.16% has proposed for overseas buyers of the littoral ship could greatly enhance defenses against overhead threats. I don’t want to minimize the engineering challenges associated with such modifications — more weight means less speed — but mods would consume a lot less time and money than starting over.
The bottom line on building warships is that you get what you pay for. So if you are building a warship for high-end combat with a world-class adversary, then you’ll probably need to spend over a billion dollars per vessel just to assure it has a reasonable chance of surviving. However, it simply isn’t feasible to populate the entire U.S. fleet with warships of that caliber. The price-tag to build and operate such a fleet would be astronomical. A division of labor is indicated in which different classes of warship are configured for different levels of danger. Thus, Secretary Hagel got it right last week when he raised the possibility of simply “up-gunning” and modifying the Littoral Combat Ship to improve its survivability, rather than starting over.
Japan gained permission from the United States on Mar. 4 to design its version of a littoral combat ship to be built with US assistance, according to China’s Global Times. The newspaper sees the project as a counter-measure to the PLA Navy’s Type 056 corvette.
According to the Tokyo-based Nippon News Network, the US ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy and Japanese foreign minister Fumio Kishida agreed to carry out the joint development of the Japanese littoral combat ship in accordance with the Security Treaty between the two countries. The media outlet reported that the vessel is likely to be designed based on the US Independence-class littoral combat ship with a trimaran hull.
The range of the Independence-class littoral combat ship is estimated to be 10,000 nautical miles, with a top speed of 58 miles/hour (93 km/h). It is capable of carrying one AGM-175 Griffin precision kinetic effects munition, one BAE Systems Mk 110 57 mm gun, four .50-caliber guns and one Close-in Weapon system. In addition, the flight deck of the littoral combat ship can hold two MH-60 Seahawk helicopters.
Liu Jiangping, a Chinese military expert, told Global Times that the littoral combat ship will be a threat to the ships of the PLA Navy operating in the East China Sea, particularly the Type 056 corvettes and the Type 022 missile boats in the littoral area. The Japanese ship will be capable of conducting minesweeping, air defense, anti-submarine, anti-ship, naval blockade, amphibious assault and special operation missions off the Chinese coast.
Japan’s Kyodo News said that the Japanese version of the littoral combat ships will be commissioned by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force in just six years. This could pose a significant challenge to Chinese warships or maritime security vessels patrolling the East China Sea, according to Liu. The ships can also be used to attack inland river regions in China while conducting joint patrol missions with their American counterparts in the South China Sea, he said.
Liu Jiangping 劉江平
PLA Navy’s Type 056 corvette
China’s Houbei-class Type 022 missile boats