In the late 1990s, the U.S. Navy decided it needed a small, cheap vessel to extended its reach into crowded, chaotic near-shore “littorals.” The result was the Littoral Combat Ship, a 3,000-ton warship roughly the size of a European corvette. The Navy contracted with two companies to build competing LCS designs: Lockheed Martin’s mono-hull USS Freedom (pictured) began trials in 2008; General Dynamic’s trimaran USS Independence will do so this year.
Freedom was designed with a “hybrid” propulsion system with diesel engines providing 10,000 horsepower for cruising, and 100,000-horsepower gas turbines for sprinting. “These are the largest marine gas turbines in the world — essentially the engines of a 777 jetliner,” said Operations Officer Tony Hyde. “The diesels we have [are] locomotive engines.” On her trials on the U.S. Great Lakes last fall, Freedom demonstrated an astonishing capability. By combining both propulsion suites, she could reach speeds approaching 50 knots. Most warships can make only 30 knots.
Commander Don Gabrielson, Freedom‘s captain, said the ship’s high speed means she can respond quickly to littoral threats, such as smugglers and pirates in small boats, plus rival navies’ high-speed combatants. But that advantage has its cost. Freedom gobbled higher than expected quantities of gas and diesel during her trial period, and the Navy acknowledged that an LCS would consume more fuel, per ton, than most other ships, increasing the need for support from logistics ships or shore bases.
Speed also means extra construction costs, according to retired Admiral James Lyon, former commander of the Pacific Fleet. “Overall costs of the LCS are largely driven by the speed requirement of 50 knots,” Lyons wrote in The Washington Times. “It can be safely assumed that between 30 percent and 40 percent of the current hull, mechanical and electrical … costs are directly attributed to the speed requirement.”
The price of each Littoral Combat Ship is expected to top $500 million, versus the original target price of just $200 million. The cost increase has caused Congress, so far, to fund just one LCS beyond the two already built. The earlier plan was to already have around 10 LCS in service or under construction, for an eventual total of at least 55.
Gabrielson seems to think high speed is worth the cost, but Lyons and other disagree. “It is not transparently clear what a 50-knot capability (as opposed to 30 knots) confers in the threat today of Mach 1-plus air and surface launched guided-stealthy missiles plus 70-plus-knot torpedoes,” the retired admiral wrote. “Furthermore, in any type of seaway, the ship will not operate at 50 knots nor will it operate at 50 knots in 20 feet of water unless the intention is to dig a trench in the seabed.”
Ronald O’Rourke, a naval analyst with the Congressional Research Service, said the Navy had not done any rigorous analysis to support LCS’s speed requirement.
Indeed, the experience of the United States’ other major maritime service appears to corroborate Lyon’s criticism. The U.S. Coast Guard has long focused on littoral operations. And yet its major warship, the 4,000-ton National Security Cutter, makes just 28 knots. Despite this, some U.S. officials believe the Navy should buy a version of the NSC, which is slightly cheaper than the LCS, for its near-shore operations. “This is an affordable ship (without Navy making wholesale changes in the design) which is exactly the type of vessel necessary for 80 percent of the Navy’s core missions,” Representative Gene Taylor said of the Coast Guard cutter.
Apparently conceding Taylor’s and Lyons’ points, the Navy is now reportedly looking at reducing the speed requirement for future copies of the LCS. “It’s all about the cost,” one unnamed analyst told Reuters. But if critics are right, it’s about utility, too. In the littorals, speed might not be everything.