Littoral combat ships - lessons learnt from the US

Less than a fortnight after the 2013 federal election, the new Defence Minister David Johnston indicated that the protection of Australia’s exports through maritime security would be a major Defence priority. In order to achieve this, the Minister claimed that ‘our navy needs a suitable mix of high-end war-fighting capabilities’ and accordingly, consideration should be given to acquiring littoral combat ships (LCS). This article summarises the US experience of acquiring LCS and outlines some key benefits and challenges the US has faced.

The US LCS program

In November 2001, the US Navy announced it would acquire a fleet of new surface combatants, including LCS. The LCS would meet the Navy’s requirement to provide a high-speed, relatively cost-effective capability to engage in surface and antisubmarine warfare (SUW/ASW), as well as mine countermeasures (MCM). Unlike larger ships with a multi-mission capability, the LCS is essentially a framework which houses an interchangeable mission package, which can be swapped out depending on the mission requirement.

The Australian connection

The West Australian shipbuilder Austal opened a US-based shipyard in Alabama during 2001 (Austal USA), from which it bid to design and build the LCS in partnership with General Dynamics. The contract to build an initial allocation of LCS was jointly awarded to Austal/General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin, who would each build their own unique designs as part of a mixed-fleet of LCS.

The benefits…

The Austal-designed LCS has an aluminium hull, where reduced weight allows for greater speed and fuel efficiency. Its trimaran design also provides increased stability, while its wide beam (width) can support two helicopters. The LCS is also significantly cheaper and requires far fewer crew than larger surface combatants (such as air warfare destroyers) and accordingly provides a more flexible and agile capability. For example, LCS can perform a range of missions, varying from maritime patrols, countering terrorism, piracy and smuggling, humanitarian relief, search and rescue and other mission-specific combat roles through the ASW, SUW and MCM mission packages.

During the Senate armed services subcommittee hearings in May 2007 Admiral Michael Mullen declared that ‘the LCS program remains of critical importance to our navy’, while Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute has stated that ‘the need for the LCS is so obvious that only a fool could fail to grasp its value’.

…and challenges

With development lasting more than a decade, the LCS has faced frequent obstacles to becoming a reality. For example, one of the key criticisms outlined by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) in both a 2010 report and testimony to the House Armed Services Committee is that the Navy’s haste in procuring the LCS and adjoining mission packages has compromised appropriate development and testing benchmarks. The GAO has specifically stated that the Navy accepted the first two LCS in an incomplete and technically flawed state. Reference was also made to underperforming weapons systems—meaning the LCS would require a well-armed escort for anything more than low-threat operations—as well as potentially lengthy delays in swapping out mission packages within the LCS frame. Full testing of the LCS is expected to be completed in more than five years time, when the Navy would have already purchased more than half of its planned number of LCS. The argument by Navy officials that the fast-paced procurement is necessary to limit cost growth also seems to conflict with reporting that shows the LCS cost projections more than doubled from 2006–2010, to just under half a billion dollars per ship.

The first LCS, USS Freedom, is currently undertaking a nine month deployment operating out of Singapore, which follows former US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta’s statement in mid-2012 that the number of US Navy vessels in the Asia-Pacific would be increasing to 60 per cent of its total fleet. However, the USS Freedom’s initial deployment has suffered multiple mechanical setbacks, a situation possibly linked to insufficient testing prior to its deployment.

On Australia’s agenda?

Previous Defence White Papers (DWP) have canvassed various maritime requirements which the LCS could deliver. For example, the 2009 DWP indicated the Government’s decision to rationalise multiple capabilities into a fleet of approximately 20 Offshore Combatant Vessels. However, the 2013 DWP was less prescriptive and emphasised the need to acquire a proven capability—at least in the short term. The Abbott Government’s plan to release a new DWP within its first 18 months in office will provide a further opportunity to assess whether the LCS would be a suitable option for Australia’s maritime security and domestic shipbuilding industry.  


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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