LCS is one of US DoDs pet projects. A floating version of F-35, it was an attempt to make an affordable ship capable of doing almost every mission that surface warship could be expected to do – except maybe imitating submarines or transforming into a mecha-Cthulhu and rolling inland to take out a set of targets by sheer power of awesome. And no, Mr. Hagel, this is not a challenge. Major arguments used to defend it are, like with F-35, economic benefits and not miltary usefulness. Instead of picking a better design, or better yet incorporating good characteristics of each design into new ship, it was decided that both designs will go into production – allegedly to increase production rate and decrease cost by making contractors paranoid about getting dumped in case one of them decreases cost and other doesn’t. But either variant is hard to cancel due to political consequences of one of shipyards loosing the work share.
LCS is supposed to clear out mines, hunt submarines, interdict drug traffic, provide humanitarian relief. It is assumed that it will be capable of performing all these missions effectively due to modules which will enable ship to change between mission-specific configurations – something already done by Denmark. But it seems more and more to be like seagoing variant of F-35.
For starters, LCS is – like the F-35 – riddled with problems. Each LCS costs 440 million USD, but both are plagued with cracs and corrosion. Costs are likely to increase as numbers are cut. Ships have problems with guns, and carry helicopters incapable of defending them from submarines. On LCS-1, something failed, on average, two out of every three days. It had 80 systems failures during 60-day maiden voyage, and it is suffering cracks that limit it to 15-20 knots depending on state of the sea – well below 45-50 knots stated as its top speed. And this top speed requirement came at heavy price, being responsible for almost all issues to be discussed (and when asked about it, Navy admirals only said that „speed is life“. People, LCS is not a scout aircraft, it is warship, and speed, though useful for helping ship deal with enemy missiles, cannot replace good armament or sound design. If you disagree, take a look at how entire „battlecruiser“ concept turned out for British.). Worse, many cracks on one side of the ship are mirrored by cracks on the opposite side of the ship, indicating that cause of these cracks are design issues. All four engines have failed on both voyages it made, and shaft seals failed, leading to flooding. On May 21, USS Freedom (LCS-1) had to return to port soon after leaving due to sediment in lube oil system, and it also had problems with seawater leaking into the system, with air conditioning systems and with large number of civilian contractors assigned to it in order to fix problems. And like the F-35, large number of units are planned to be acquired long before testing is complete. In May 2012, the US Navy report disclosed that the ship had failed 14 of 28 inspection tests. 30 mm and 57 mm guns have reliability problems, including possibility of going offline while ship is travelling at high speeds – which means that ship designed to rely on high speed to survive has reduced fighting capability exactly at these speeds. Torpedo radar doesn’t function, leaving it defenseless against submarines while in littoral waters.
But even if all problems are solved (technically, first two ships are prototypes, that is R&D vessels), it will – like the F-35 – be a very ineffective weapon. Both LCS versions are unsurvivable, being designed to outrun threats – but this tactic is not valid due to their size, far larger than Swedish Visby class. Namely, LCS displaces around 3.000 tons, whereas Visby displaces 640 tonnes. Yet only threat LCS might handle effectively are swarms of RPG-armed pirates in inflatable boats – and any US Coast Guard cutter can do that. It does not have equipment for anti-submarine warfare, relying instead on already-mentioned helicopters which themselves aren’t much more useful in that mission.
LCS can carry two H-60 helicopters or four MQ-8B drones helicopter drones, or some mix of these (1 helicopter and 2 drones an usual mix) as well as surface and sub-surface drones. Current modules in development are for mine warfare (MIW), anti-submarine warfare (ASW), and anti-surface warfare (ASUW). MIW and ASW modules are simply sensors with drone- or helicopter- -launched weapons, and ASUW module is specialized for defeating speedboats, offering only two 30 mm guns and 45 Griffin missiles. Permanent armament consists of 57 mm automatic gun, 4 .50-cal machine guns and close missile defense system. As US Navy is planning procurement of 52 LCSs and 64 mission packages (16 ASW, 24 MCM, 24 SUW), there is actually very little advantage to LCS’ modularity. However, since planned number of ships is unlikely to be built, modules might provide advantageous – assuming that number of modules is not cut.
Comparatively, Visby class carries heavier armament than LCS – 57 mm gun, 8 anti-ship missiles and 4 torpedo tubes; compare to LCSs 57 mm gun, 4 .50 cal machine guns, 2 30 mm guns (Freedom-only) and up to 45 miniature missiles only capable of handling small torpedo boats (these missiles are arguably a good idea, but not if they’re intended as heaviest armament on a warship – unless said warship is planned as a COIN ship). Visby also has a helicopter pad and can reach 35 knots. It is also very hard to detect on radar (though this characteristic is of questionable utility in both ships as submarines are greatest danger to surface vessels).
Even British Type 26 frigate is expected to cost half as much as LCS, while being outfitted with cruise missiles, helicopters, submersibles, and being able to carry out all missions associated with LCS. Russian Stereguschy class frigate is, at 2.200 tons, 30% smaller than LCS and costs 20-25% as much at most, yet it carries 100 mm automatic gun, 14.5 mm machine guns, Gattling-type CIWS, S-400 medium-range SAMs, SS-N-25 anti-ship missiles – which, while subsonic and shorter-ranged than Harpoon are considered more capable than Griffin – 533 mm anti-ship torpedoes, 324 mm anti-submarine torpedoes and a helicopter. Chinese Houbei class fast attack boats cost 40 million USD and displace 220 tons, yet they carry missiles that outrange any weapon that LCS has.
It was expected to cut costs by having a relatively small crew, but Navy had to add sailors as crewmembers’ workload was too exhausting at planned crew levels. Which is a good idea even without factoring in exhaustion, as damage control on a ship is manpower-intensive – “advanced technology” simply can’t replace personnel. This however means reducing its speed, which is supposedly a key to ship’s survivability. It also can’t swap weapons quickly. And while its armament is only capable of handling already-mentioned small boats, it is not survivable even against these, as it is built to commercial standards in effort to cut costs.
Modules, another cost-cutting measure, were intended to be swappable within day or a two – instead, process can take weeks. This idea however was already successfully implemented in European navies – like Danish Navy’s “Standard Flex” series of weapons modules.
This is not to say than US Navy might not be able to salvage some use for these ships. But they are unlikely to ever reach combat capability of foreign ships of similar or smaller tonnage without heavy rebuilds, and will never provide same capability-for-cost ratio.
As one commenter on a certain forum put it: “LCS is basically a 3,000 ton light frigate that has the armament of a Boston Whaler combined with the sensor outfit of the Staten Island Ferry. However, all of that doesn’t matter because it can go very fast for the ten minutes it takes to run out of fuel.” It is hard to find a better summary of the ship. In actual combat, LCS will be nothing more than a high-speed target (“fast food”) for enemy ships and submarines. But it remains in production due to political clout of contractors producing LCS variants, both of which employ large numbers of people in important industries and districts.
And apparently most news are so bad that US Navy has to be forced to give information on LCS. Not that it is the only Western ship with crapload of problems, but still. And LCS is only an indication of greater problems in US military procurement: no ship since Adams class DDG met design and contract specifications; Spruance class, though coming close, still required modifications and CG 47 required concrete poured into lower parts of the ship in order to be stable enough as to be seaworthy. Similarly, USAF was only saved by Boyd and acolytes, and even then F-15 turned out somewhat overweight and F-16 got definetly overweight, and as of F-16C filled with useless AtG equipment (you want AtG, take A-10 or F-15E).