The Littoral Combat Ship has come under light fire from Congress because they worry especially about findings by operational testers that the ships cannot survive a firefight. Norman Friedman, a consultant at Gryphon Technologies with more than 30 military books to his name, argues in the following piece that critics need to consider that “change is at the core” of the LCS design, marking a welcome change in naval design. He believes LCS marks “the most fundamental change in warship design” in decades. Friedman compares the just-launched LCS ship USS Little Rock with the history of its predecessor, a light cruiser built near the end of World War II, mothballed a few years later and later rebuilt as a guided missile cruiser at considerable cost. Before critics dismiss Friedman’s argument, bear in mind that his book, “The Fifty-Year War: Conflict and Strategy in the Cold War,” won the Royal United Services Institute’s Westminster Prize in 2001. The man knows his history, as well as the capabilities of the US Navy. Read on. The Editor.
Warships are built to last a long time, so when they are laid down they are in essence bets on the future. But legendary baseball great and sometime philosopher Yogi Berra had it right, “It’s tough making predictions… especially about the future!” The increasing cost of modern warships makes it even more important that these platforms are capable of changing as threats evolve or new breakthroughs in warfare emerge.
Lost in all the discussions and debate swirling around the design, engineering, construction, and introduction of the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) is the most fundamental change in warship design since the introduction of the Vertical Launching System or the AEGIS Weapon System decades ago, and that is the concept of modularity. One of the most important characteristics of the LCS program is its inherent modularity and how that will facilitate affordable and timely modernization of the LCS ships throughout its expected 30-year service life. As is often the case in these technical debates, a look at history is helpful in understanding and placing modularity into a 21st-Century context.
The history of the World War II-era light cruiser the USS Little Rock (CL-92) showed how right Yogi was; her life was full of operational and technical surprises. She was laid down in 1943 as one of a large number of light cruisers that were just showing how effective they could be in combat versus Japanese cruisers in murderous night gun battles in the Solomon Islands. By the time she was completed in June 1945, her mission had changed, and the same cruisers were now wanted primarily to protect aircraft carriers, the fleet’s main striking arm. The war ended, however, before Little Rock could see actual combat, and the world’s geo-strategic situation soon changed dramatically.
Amid the postwar political disorder, it mattered a great deal that the United States could deploy powerful cruisers. Little Rock spent the early postwar years patrolling the Caribbean and Mediterranean Seas – regions where the new Cold War was brewing. By 1949, however, money for defense was short and many cruisers like Little Rock had to be laid up. In 1943, very few observers could have imagined a nuclear world in which the U.S. Navy’s main priorities would be strike carriers and anti-submarine warfare, while general-purpose gunships like cruisers would no longer be essential.
The real surprise, however was that Little Rock was still valuable – because she was large enough to adapt to undertake new missions and to accommodate new technology. The new jets of the 1950s out-classed the shipboard anti-aircraft guns that had been so useful against kamikaze attacks in 1945, so the Navy led in the development of the first generation of ship-to-air guided missiles. It took a big ship to accommodate these new weapons, and in its inventory of war-built cruisers the Navy had exactly the right ships for this new mission.
Removed from “mothballs” in 1957, after three years of shipyard work and hundreds of millions of dollars in upgrades, Little Rock was re-commissioned in June 1960, as one of the first guided missile cruisers (CLG/CG-4) in the Fleet. Not only did she carry missiles, she was also large enough to be outfitted as a fleet flagship. Both the missiles and the flagship capacity made her extremely useful in the new Cold War.
Little Rock returned to the Mediterranean as flagship of the Sixth Fleet, the most powerful Navy flotilla in that turbulent arena. As such, she was present when war erupted in the Middle East in 1967. After the Israelis inadvertently attacked the Navy surveillance ship USS Liberty, Little Rock provided medical aid and other emergency assistance to the stricken U.S. warship. As a command ship, she served as the hub of NATO forces in the Eastern Mediterranean. Besides Mediterranean operations, in 1961 Little Rock steamed off Santo Domingo to provide command and control capabilities for U.S. forces trying to stabilize that country after dictator Rafael Trujillo was assassinated. The crises may have changed, but the United States is still vitally interested today in both of those regions in which the original Little Rock once steamed. Little Rock was decommissioned in 1976, after two separate naval lives and providing valuable service to the nation.
In June 2013, the keel of a new USS Little Rock was laid. The latest incarnation is the Navy’s ninth Littoral Combat Ship (LCS-9), and her design reflects the great lesson of her predecessor’s life; ships last, but the world and missions can change quickly. The first Little Rock was never conceived to be re-built with entirely new weapons and electronics for new types of missions; no one could have imagined what those might be in 1943. The ship was worth re-building because she was large enough, fast enough and had a great deal of hull and machinery life still left in her. The second, latest iteration of Little Rock, on the other hand, is a very different proposition already. Change is at the core of her design. LCS-9 is conceived from the keel up to carry weapons and sensors that would be installed by placing standard shipping containers on board and connecting them to a “plug-and-fight” combat system.
Right now, the mission options are what might be expected for the littoral arena: anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, and mine countermeasures. To support those options, the new Little Rock can carry helicopters – manned and unmanned – and she can launch unmanned surface and underwater craft. She is designed to connect not only with craft she may launch, but also with other off-board sensors and systems. Both the unmanned vehicles and the off-board systems will undoubtedly become more and more important over her lifetime. We don’t know exactly what new missions she may be called upon to perform at a future date, but we do know that adapting to changing missions cannot take three years of shipyard work and hundreds of millions of dollars before she is ready to confront those changing operational demands.
As the new Little Rock is designed and built, the Navy remembered the lesson of the past: change is inevitable, and the service must build ships that can change as needed. Accordingly, the new Little Rock will be able to swap in-and-out tailored mission packages quickly – on the order of days if not hours—vice months or years.
The other lesson of the two Little Rocks is that the sea does not change. There is a reason the cruiser Little Rock spent years in the Mediterranean in both of her incarnations, and a reason she also spent time in the Caribbean. The sea is still the main way in which the United States connects with the rest of the world – and in a globalized world, we cannot lose that intimate contact. It is the primary way in which the United States supports its friends and Allies abroad, because only by sea can we move masses of material, including airplanes.
The new Little Rock is a littoral combat ship because more and more of the action at sea is likely to be in the littorals – that strip of land influenced by what happens offshore, and the strip offshore influenced by what happens ashore. That means mine warfare, anti-ship missiles and diesel-electric submarines – operational problems the containerized, modular LCS systems are intended to surmount.
If the modularity concept is so important, why then have the LCS mission modules taken so long to develop and field? The short answer would seem to be that the overall LCS program was uncertain until the decision was ultimately made to pursue the 20-ship contract. Why press ahead on mission packages when the basic hull itself and the need for 45-knot speed were in question?
It would appear that the program is now at the point where the Navy can place increased focus and resources on modular mission packages. If successful, these packages will be available to support matter-of-fact upgrades, as well as respond to unforeseen advances in technology, for Little Rock (LCS -9) and her sister ships. In short, modularity is a terrific idea and – apart from aircraft carriers, which are inherently modular – the LCS is the only modular ship we have. We need to get it right. Modularity is the future.
In many ways Yogi Berra was right, predicting the future is tough. But Little Rock LCS-9 and her sisters will have the flexibility to respond to — if not anticipate — unforeseen change and take on new missions that we can only dimly forecast today.
Norman Friedman is an analyst in Gryphon Technologies’ TeamBlue National Security Programs. His recent naval works include “Network-Centric Warfare: How Navies Learned to Fight Smarter in Three World Wars;” “Seapower as Strategy; Terrorism, Afghanistan, and America’s New Way of War;” Naval Firepower; and his two-volume histories of Royal Navy cruisers and destroyers. He also wrote five editions of the encyclopedic “Naval Institute Guide to World Naval Weapon Systems.” He is not consulting for either the Navy program office overseeing LCS or for the companies building the ships.