Navy's 'Cheap' Littoral Combat Ships Cost Nearly As Much To Run As Guided Missile Destroyers

The Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships continue to make waves, now due to their comparatively astronomical operating costs.

Littoral combat ships
U.S. Navy / Public Domain

The U.S. Navy’s supposedly inexpensive Littoral Combat Ships have added another item to their apparently never-ending list of problems with the revelation that the cost of operating the vessels is far higher than planned, comparing unfavorably even to a wildly more capable Arleigh Burke class guided-missile destroyer. As a result, the service is considering switching the upkeep of the warships from contractors hands’ to the Navy, which, in turn, would mean that their crews will have to be increased to cover maintenance demands. At the outset, the relatively small crew complement aboard these ships was a key selling point and was intended to bring overall costs down.

David B. Larter of Defense News reported this latest development in the LCS saga today. Budget data obtained by the publication reveals that the annual cost of running a single LCS is currently around $70 million, compared to approximately $81 million for an Arleigh Burke class guided-missile destroyer (DDG). 

U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Ace Rheaume

The Littoral Combat Ship USS Independence (LCS-2) underway off the coast of San Diego.

Specific figures were not provided for either of the two LCS subclasses (which are very different ships) or any of the different Flights of Arleigh Burkes. While it’s unlikely the current Flight IIA and future Flight III ships cost the same to operate as the earlier Flight I and II ships, the figures are bad news for the LCS program, whichever way you look at it.

After all, while the Burkes are well established in U.S. Navy service, and, beyond being far more prolific, they are also significantly larger, with the future Flight III variant having an estimated fully-loaded displacement of 9,500 long tons. By comparison the Independence class LCS has a displacement of 3,050 long tons, while the Freedom class design displaces closer to 3,450 long tons.

The Aegis combat system-equipped DDG-51 destroyer is also a far more capable warship that is loaded with advanced sensors and plans call for it to only become more so in the future. These ships also carry relatively huge arsenals of advanced weapons, in addition to their 5-inch gun, 25mm chain guns, 20mm Phalanx close-in weapon system (CIWS), and torpedo tubes, as well as their two MH-60R Seahawk helicopters. The Flight I and II destroyers have 90 cells for their missile vertical launch systems and the Flight IIA and III have 96 cells. These can accommodate various weapons, such as the SM-2 and SM-6 series of surface-to-air missiles and the Tomahawk land attack cruise missile.

Meanwhile, the LCS has no large vertical launch cells at all. Among the LCSs, only the USS Gabrielle Giffords has so far received the RGM-184A Naval Strike Missile (NSM) and this integration has not been without difficulty. USS Tulsa has at least some of the components of the NSM system and the Navy does still plan to add NSM to all Freedom and Independence class ships, eight of which will be carried on each. 

U.S. NAVY

Other weapons for the LCS include the an AGM-114L launcher and Bushmaster chain guns as part of the Surface Warfare Module, although it won’t find its way onto every hull, and the 57mm automatic cannon. Looking further ahead, there has been talk about adding laser weapons to the LCS hulls, too. The most capable weapons on these ships today are their MH-60R Seahawk helicopters and, in some cases, their MQ-8 Fire Scout drones.

Gilday confirmed that the original crew concept for the LCS — as few as eight officers and 32 enlisted sailors in the Independence class, for example — had the adverse effect of pushing up maintenance costs by requiring contractors to do more of the work while in port. He said the plan is now to bring more of the maintenance work in-house.

That might also be easier said than done. In recent years the Navy has struggled to meet its recruiting goals, forcing it to look at a variety of reduced and other novel crew concepts, as well as deployment mechanisms, to help ensure readiness. This also comes at a time when the service is planning to boost its fleet to provide as many as 534 ships and submarines, including various kinds of unmanned vessels

“So if you snap the chalk line today, the costs are pretty high, especially compared to a [guided-missile destroyer] DDG,” Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday said, at a recent media roundtable. “But what we’re trying to do is move from a contractor-centric maintenance model to a sailor-centric maintenance model or a Navy-centric maintenance model.”

U.S. Navy/Huntington Ingalls Industries

USS John Finn (DDG-113), an Arleigh Burke Flight IIA ship, conducts pre-delivery trials in the Gulf of Mexico.

“That’ll be a significant cost saving if we get to that point,” Gilday added. “Of course, we have to take a look at: If we do that, do we have adequate numbers of people on board the ship to be able to do that fully? If it needed to be a phased plan, how long it would take?

Boosting crew complements could bring other problems, too, not least finding the physical space to accommodate them, without losing valuable space for the mission modules. The numbers of sailors aboard each of the LCS vessels has already increased in the past, at least twice, the most recent being a response to changing requirements when the Freedom and Independence class ships were tasked with single missions.

Overall, however, Gilday sees the increased manpower on the ships as a sensible approach to leverage cost savings, provided that an adequate spare parts supply is maintained.

Meanwhile, the two LCS families still have other issues to contend with. The most recent major problem related to reliability, namely “a material defect” in the transmission’s combining gear on the Freedom class that officials said would have to be fixed before any more of the warships were accepted for service. When that issue was reported, back in January, 10 examples of the Freedom class had been delivered, with another five under construction or in the process of fitting out, and one more on order.

U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Anderson W. Branch

One of the Freedom class LCSs, USS Detroit (LCS-7) sails in formation with three Arleigh Burke class guided-missile destroyers: USS Lassen (DDG-82), USS Preble (DDG-88), and USS Farragut (DDG-99) while conducting maritime security operations in the Caribbean Sea.

Defense News reported today that prime contractor, Lockheed Martin, together with RENK AG, the original equipment manufacturer, has found a fix for the combining gear and Gilday said the Navy will begin testing it this month. In the past wider maintenance concerns led to discussions about using certain support ships as expeditionary maintenance bases afloat to help support LCS operations, something The War Zone discussed here.

Then there are ongoing concerns relating to the long-awaited mission modules that give each of the LCS vessels a purpose. Originally, it was planned that these mission modules could be switched out rapidly while in port before that idea was abandoned. Each ship now has a single mission module installed relatively permanently, but the anti-submarine warfare and mine warfare mission packages will still not be available until next year. 

On the other hand, there is still a possibility that some of the hulls will be retired, especially now that an entirely new class of more capable frigates, which uses a foundational design from an Italian shipbuilder, are on the horizon, offering the Navy access to a “true frigate.” The first two LCSs in each subclass, in particular, are at risk, since they are so different from their successors, meaning the Navy has planned on retiring these particular hulls entirely. However, one of these ships, USS Freedom (LCS-1) was recently deployed on a counter-narcotics patrol in the Eastern Pacific—officially its last patrol—although there has been some pushback to these retirement plans. 

Against this backdrop, the Navy is still realistically trying to figure out the mission for these warships, despite already having bought dozens of them. Part of this has involved optimizing the crew concepts for the vessels and reassessing maintenance requirements. It’s alarming that, despite all this, and the fact that these ships were built to rule the littorals, the LCSs have still not yet ventured into Central Command’s littoral-dominant area of operations. 

For many, the LCS has become something of a poster child for what's wrong with defense procurement, but the fact that these ships, envisioned to be cheap and ready to operate, cost as much to keep in the fleet as a destroyer, while struggling to even deploy on patrols, has taken that notion to a whole new level.  

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com