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Plug-and-Play Warships
By George F. McClure

Planning to refight the last war has been an often-repeated mistake. But the U.S. Navy is getting out front with the development of a new ship class capable of modular reconfiguration to cope with various threats. The new ship is called the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). At least fifty-five of these ships are planned, expected to be 17 percent of the total future fleet.

The plug-and-play terminology is borrowed from computers, where drivers for various accessories are already included, making reconfiguration easy.

It is instructive to see how the Navy, which had become dependent on budget-busting billion dollar ships, arrived at the requirements for a smaller, faster ship.

The advent of terrorists using the littoral, the edge of the sea, as their operating space made it imperative to control the brown and green water, and not just the deep blue water that had historically been the Navy’s principal operating area. The littoral is where most of the world’s population lives, where much of its wealth is generated, and where lines of communication for ocean-borne cargo begin and end. Expeditionary military forces must pass through this area, to secure objectives, and supporting naval forces must operate there.

The bombing of the USS Cole (DDG-67) while refueling in Aden, Yemen, by suicide bombers in an explosive-laden boat, on 12 October 2000 provided one example of the need for shallow water deterrence.

For years, the Navy had worked in joint and combined forces with other branches of the service, but the need was now identified to provide the tools to allow “the Joint Force Commander to exploit the discontinuous battlespace that characterizes modern warfare.” Recurring themes were increased speed, precision, shared awareness, persistence and employability. [Ref. 5]

Studies concluded that adding all desired capabilities to large combatant ships made them very expensive, and the loss of one was hard to replace with another one. An Arleigh Burke-class destroyer (such as the Cole) costs about $1.3 billion. Small combatants might be considered expendable; the cost should be lower if they were equipped in modular fashion, to match the current mission. The larger numbers that could be deployed would offset an enemy’s attempts to deny us access to the littoral areas.

After World War II, meeting the need for amphibious operations depends largely on “vertical envelopment” – moving forces over the littoral from large helicopter carriers offshore to designated landing zones ashore. Most landing ships and smaller landing craft were gone by the late 1970s. Riverine warfare with Swift boats in Vietnam provided some brown water experience, but green water operation remained a challenge.

Requirements evolved

Games at the Naval War College, undertaken for the Strategic Studies Group (SSG), where small combatants were equipped with either an antisubmarine warfare module or a mine countermeasures module, showed that they were surprisingly survivable, since any enemy didn’t want to risk loss of a more expensive platform (submarine or large combatant) to go after them. The SSG saw that more smaller ships could be networked for greater effectiveness, and that the use of unmanned vehicles (UVs) with off-board sensors, and modularity could provide mission flexibility.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) could deliver strikes ashore while unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs) could hunt for submarines and mines, making the fleet’s combat power more survivable. Distributed unmanned sensors would contribute to more effective battlespace knowledge than would be possible with sensing around single hulls.

With the increasing incidence of piracy in the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean we have been using billion-dollar ships to track pirates and deliver humanitarian aid. [Ref. 1] These are missions suited to the LCS, as are antisubmarine patrols in constricted waters such as the Persian Gulf and at strategic choke points such as the Strait of Hormuz, or the Strait of Malacca (between Malaysia and Indonesia), where quiet diesel-powered submarines may be masked by sounds from cargo ships and tankers. Adversaries may attempt to use anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategies against U.S. forces, which can be countered by the LCS. [Ref. 2]

The Taiwan Strait crisis of 1995-96 could be replayed; the Chinese have been building a fleet of submarines intended to reinforce their claim on Taiwan. These could be countered with LCSs equipped with antisubmarine warfare mission packages.

As the requirements for the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) evolved, they were to be equipped with an onboard helicopter and to have a small radar cross-section for low detectibility. Various mission module packages could be swapped in and out to match deployments. A top speed would be at least 45 knots.

Admiral Vern Clark, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) from 2000 to 2005, became a proponent of the LCS concept. Cost of the ship, without mission modules, was to be $220 million. The ship would have open architecture, just as the PC does, and include standardized interfaces to accommodate various modules – making it the first “plug-and-play” ship designed for the Navy. The basic ship is called the seaframe. A need for at least 55 LCSs has been identified.

In the second Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) in 2001, ADM Clark realized that the Navy had more missions than budget. After decommissioning all Spruance (DD-963) class destroyers and five guided missile cruisers (well before the end of their expected 35-year service lives), to free up resources to build up the fleet over the long term, the fleet numbered 288 ships at the end of 2004.

The current CNO, ADM Gary Roughead, stressed the Navy’s need for these flexible ships:

“Shortly after I came in to my position, we cancelled two littoral combat ships because I thought the cost was just going out of control. And that ship is incredibly important to our future. It is a ship that is going to serve us very, very well regionally, and in the types of missions that we'll be performing. And whether you look at LCS-1, which is a mono-hull design, or the LCS-2, which is a trimaran, they have incredible potential. The capacity on board, the volume that exists in that design, the aviation capability, the modularity of the mission packages that we can rapidly change is significant. But also significant for those ships is speed, and speed matters.” [Ref. 5]

Contracts were awarded in 2005 and 2006 for the first four LCSs, two each with two hull designs: a semiplaning monohull from the Lockheed Martin team and an aluminum trimaran hull from the General Dynamics team.

The first two have been placed in service: Freedom (LCS-1) from Lockheed Martin, and the Independence (LCS-2) from General Dynamics. LCS-1 was launched in Lake Michigan; it started further operational test and evaluation at Little Creek, Norfolk, Virginia, in the spring of 2009.

Freedom (LCS 1)

Independence (LCS 2)

LCS 2, built in Mobile, Alabama, is undergoing further outfitting there.

Specifications for the two versions show similarities and differences. http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/ship/lcs-specs.htm Schematics dramatize the differences. http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/ship/lcs-schem.htm

Because of cost overruns and new requirements imposed during construction the first LCS cost, exclusive of mission packages, rose from $220 million to nearly $400 million. A stop work order (after the first two) was issued while the Navy reviewed its requirements so that the cost could be driven back down. The order was later rescinded. After the first four LCSs are delivered, the plan is to complete squadron testing then down-select to one seaframe design. The contract for the next ten ships will be a fixed-price type.

In parallel, work is proceeding on Mission Packages. 

Currently, three mission packages are under contract: Mine Countermeasures (MCM), Anti-submarine Warfare (ASW), and Surface Warfare (SUW). http://www.dtic.mil/ndia/2005expwarfare/landay.pdf See http://www.minwara.org/Meetings/2003_08/Minwara-PEO%20LMW%20slides.pdf for the deployment concept/vision. The Marine Corps may want to add a module for close in-shore fire support with rockets. This capability existed in the Korean War and WW II, through the LSMR (Landing Ship Medium Rocket). 

Detailed Navy Planning for the LCS

LCS-2 is undergoing industrial post-delivery availability, for installation and certification of combat systems in Mobile, before proceeding to Norfolk for operational test and evaluation. The first four LCSs will eventually be home ported at Naval Station, San Diego.
Three mission packages have been rolled out: MCM, ASW, and SUW. Specially trained crew members come with each mission package. They are accommodated with other crew members in the seaframe. Mission packages are made up of modules that include specialized interfaces.
Each LCS has two crews, a Blue and a Gold, permitting the ship to remain on deployment longer, while crews are rotated back home for leave and further training.
Contracts for LCS 3 and 4, the Fort Worth and Coronado, were awarded in FY2009 for delivery in 2012.
The plan is to down-select to one ship design in FY2010, then award a fixed price-type contract for ten ships, two each in FY2010 through FY2014. Part of that procurement will be a data package permitting the Navy to have flexibility in the award of the next contract, for five more ships after the ten, in FY2012. A separately competed contract will be awarded then for the five combat systems (to be installed on the five LCS), all to be delivered by 2015.

Navy Program Management

An update on the program, according to Commander Victor Chen, of the Navy’s Public Affairs Office:

  • LCS 2 will conduct some of its industrial post-delivery availability in Mobile, Ala. The full plan for testing and evaluation is still under review by the Navy, but it is expected that the ship will transit to Norfolk at some point for post-delivery [test] and evaluation.

  • Mission packages are made up of modules and dedicated crew to run the modules once they are integrated into the seaframe.

  • The plan is to down-select to one ship design in FY2010, then award a fixed price-type contract for two ships in FY10 with options for two additional ships in FY2011 through FY2014. Part of that procurement will be a technical data package permitting the Navy to open a competition in FY2012 for up to an additional five ships, which will be awarded to a different shipyard.

  •  The winner of the FY10 award will also be required to deliver five additional combat systems, which will be integrated into the five FY12 ships.

  • There will be at least two suppliers, to keep the price down through competition.

Navy Transformation

In 1945, at the end of World War II, the U.S. Navy consisted of 6,768 ships of all types – the largest naval force in history. By 1950, the Navy had shrunk to 634 ships; it dropped to 521 ships in 1981. Currently there are 283 ships in commission, the smallest number since 1916, but this will shrink to 215 ships in 2020 before new platforms come online to help reach the desired long-term strength of 313 ships. [Ref. 4, 5]

The transformation of the U.S. Navy from its goal of 600 ships during the Reagan administration to its present goal of 313 ships will take advantage of technology to move from single-purpose ships to flexible response platforms capable of meeting a variety of threats.

Some Applications

One recent example (8 April 2009) of the need was the hijacking of the merchant ship MV Maersk Alabama by pirates in the Indian Ocean enroute to Mombasa, Kenya. The Alabama carried U.S. registry. This was the first case of piracy against a U.S.-registered ship since the early 1800s. The pirates were overcome by U.S. Navy SEAL snipers air-dropped to the USS Bainbridge (DDG-96), an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, which had sped to the scene.

The value of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to naval operations was proven in Kosovo, where they were used extensively to conduct surveillance of surface ships and coastal areas, where they successfully identified Yugoslav naval vessels, surveyed potential landing areas for the U.S. Marines, and targeted coastal defense radar sites. [Ref. 6] The LCS can carry and operate two SH-60 Seahawk helicopters or several UAVs.

Anticipating the needs of the future is always difficult. A futurist view is found in 7 Deadly Scenarios , which includes one scenario (Chapter 6) with disruption of just-in-time global trade. The LCS figures prominently in the response to efforts to interdict the transfer of goods and energy through constricted sea lanes. [Ref. 7] (page 228)


  1. “Naval Transformation Roadmap,” Introduction, http://www.navy.mil/navydata/transformation/trans-pg01.html

  2. Robert M. Gates, “A Balanced Strategy: Reprogramming the Pentagon for a New Age,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2009 http://www.foreignaffairs.com/author/robert-m-gates

  3. Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., “The Pentagon’s Wasting Assets: The Eroding Foundations of American Power,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2009 http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/65150/andrew-f-krepinevich-jr/the-pentagons-wasting-assets

  4. CNO Admiral Gary Roughead, “The Future of the U.S. Navy,” hour-long video, http://video.aol.co.uk/video-detail/admiral-gary-roughead-on-the-us-navy/1894556016

  5. Government Executive Leadership Breakfast with CNO, transcript, Sep. 15, 2009. http://www.govexec.com/dailyfed/0909/091509transcript01.htm

  6. Value of Navy UAVs proven in Kosovo. http://csis.org/files/media/csis/pubs/kosovolessons-full.pdf (page 331) “Air and Missile Campaign in Kosovo,” 9/17/2003

  7. Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., 7 Deadly Scenarios: A Military Futurist Explores War in the 21st Century. New York: Bantam Books, 2009. The Strait of Malacca is traversed by more than 70,000 ships per year, carrying almost a quarter of the world’s seaborne trade. At its narrowest point it is less than 2 nautical miles wide. Mines placed by militants could block this artery.

  8. Wired – "Debating the Navy’s 'Plug-and-Play’ Warship'" - http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2009/08/debating-the-navys-modular-warship/

  9. Naval Transformation and the Littoral Combat Ship, Robert O. Work, 2004 –Seminal study concluding that networked small combatants have an important role to play in future naval warfare, and the reconfigurable Littoral Combat Ship may make important warfighting contributions as part of the Navy’s 21st century “Total Force Battle Network” (TFBN). http://naval.review.cfps.dal.ca/forum/forum3document.pdf

  10. Thomas P. M. Barnett, The Pentagon’s New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-first Century, New York: Berkeley Books, 2004. Good discussion of asymmetrical warfare; how transformation must take into account the Global War on Terrorism.




George F. McClure is Technology Policy editor for IEEE-USA Today’s Engineer and the IEEE Vehicular Technology Society's representative to IEEE-USA's Committee on Transportation and Aerospace policy. As an officer in the naval reserve he served on active duty aboard ship in the U.S. Atlantic Fleet.

Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.

Copyright © 2009 IEEE

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