The USS Montgomery, one of the Littoral Combat Ship vessels which have been plagued with problems. Photo: AFP/Alexandra Seeley/US Navy

The US Navy is at the start of a process to dump the Littoral Combat Ship fleet and replace it with heavily armed frigates based on the highly successful FREMM system developed by France and Italy. 

This is good news for US deterrence capabilities in Asia, since the LCS lacked combat capability and could perform no useful role in defending US allies in the region.

Even before a decision was reached to scrap the LCS, its deficiencies were on parade for all to see.

Billed as an “urban street fighter” naval ship, it was anything but that. Lightly armed with an unproven and problematic 57mm Swedish gun manufactured by Bofors, the only other foreign deployment was in Mexico’s Navy. 

There the gun proved incapable of firing for more than seven seconds and required 10 or more minutes to cool down before it could fire again.

Most of the world’s navies have opted for the robust Oto Melara (now incorporated into Leonardo SpA) 76mm compact or super rapid gun system. That gun system can now be used with the Italian Navy’s DART to shoot down incoming naval sea-skimming missiles.

The Oto Melara 76mm DART missile is fired from this super rapid 76mm system. Photo: supplied

There are two versions of the Littoral Combat Ship. One is built in Wisconsin by Lockheed Martin teamed with Fincantieri’s Marinette Marine. The other, with an entirely different hull design, a trimaran, is built by Austal USA in Mobile, Alabama.  Austal delivered its 12th trimaran LCS to the US Navy on June 29th.

The Lockheed Martin design is a derivative of a super-fast ship built by Fincantieri called the Destriero, which was a yacht sponsored by Aga Khan IV specifically to cross the Atlantic Ocean in record time.  The hull is steel and the superstructure is aluminum.

The trimaran version is all aluminum. Both ships use different propulsion systems, different combat systems, and require noticeably different types of support.

Yet both LCS types are large, actually sized as frigates despite the billing of an urban street fighter. Both are lightly armed and any idea these vessels could approach littoral ports or harbors seems far fetched. 

In fact, the Navy studied the survivability of both LCS versions and concluded neither would survive in combat.

It is useful to compare the LCS with its nearest competitor, Taiwan’s Tuo Chang (Tuo River) trimaran corvette. While both LCS versions weigh in between 3,000 and 4,000 metric tons, the Tuo Chang weighs only 567 tons. 

Tuo Chang has a crew of 41, the LCS has a “minimal” crew size of around 90, but requires another 20 or more to man the various plug and play “mission packages” that the LCS carries around.

One key difference is that Tuo Chang is built to defend Taiwan so it does not need long range reach. The LCS is a blue water system that can make very long sea runs. In fact, Taiwan calls the Tuo Chang a “carrier killer” since it is optimized to go after China’s new aircraft carriers, two of which are now operational.

China is building two more aircraft carriers in addition to Liaoning, a refurbished ex-Soviet carrier. Handout.

Another key difference is that Tuo Chang is much better armed and can bring the fight to the enemy.  The LCS, by comparison, is practically toothless. It is confined either to launching small combat units on RIB boats or to carrying out less-than-combat missions such as sea mine detection and some anti-submarine warfare type missions.

LCS has been plagued by multiple problems including hull cracks, leaks, engine failures, corrosion issues, and problems managing the diesel and turbine engines.  The program has also faced serious cost overruns and delays. 

The US Navy previously slashed the program by 23 ships (from 55 to 32). Even so, the Navy claims 70% availability for these ships.

But by far the biggest issue facing the Navy has been how to use the LCS. Aside from “show” patrols including in the Pacific, mainly out of Singapore, and anti-piracy operations (that required US Coast Guard contingents on board in addition to the crew), the ship has never been used in any serious operational patrols, as in the Persian Gulf or the Taiwan Straits.

It also has been less than a comforting sight to see an LCS out of commission, as it was in Singapore, because of engine problems.

The FREMM frigate is even bigger than the LCS, coming in at 6,700 tons. The US Navy selected the French-Italian design and the contract for the new ships, called FFG(X) has been won by the Wisconsin-based Fincantieri Marinette Marine Shipyard.

Fincantieri is Italy’s largest shipbuilder for both commercial and military ships including Italy’s aircraft carriers the Cavour (2008) and the Garibaldi (1985). The Cavour is being modified to carry the F-35B.

FREMM is a very heavily armed powerhouse. The Italian version, called the Bergamini class, comes either as a multipurpose platform or as an optimized anti-submarine warfare frigate.

It isn’t clear if the US Navy will have two different types of FFG(X) or if it will opt to use some of the plug and play modules adapted to the LCS for FFG(X).

The Italian FREMM type is equipped with two optimized 76mm super rapid guns that can fire the DART missile. DART is a type of guided ammunition housed inside a standard 76mm ammunition canister. 

When DART is fired, the outer housing drops off and the missile, with a special fragmentation warhead, can fly considerably farther than a standard 76mm round. More importantly it has control fins and can be steered to intercept a target such as an incoming missile. 

The Italian Navy Bergamini class FREMM frigate, ITS Federico Martinengo. Photo Credit: OCCAR/Facebook

Multiple DARTS can be launched and guided at the same time, making the DART able to deal with swarming attacks of missiles.

The Italian FREMM also carries the OtoBreda 127 mm gun system that can fire Leonardo-developed Vulcano guided rounds against shore or surface targets. Like DART, Vulcano is a fin-stabilized long range round with canard control and terminal guidance.  Available in different versions, these rounds have a range of 90 to more than 100km.

The Italian FREMM also is equipped with anti-ship and long-range missiles made by MBDA and MU-90 advanced lightweight torpedoes made by WASS (now part of Leonardo).

The huge difference between the LCS and the emerging FFG(X) is the onboard fire power of the FFG(X) and its ability to strike at enemy ships and land-based facilities over fairly long distances.

The US will dump two iron-hulled and two catamaran LCS ships (the first four to enter service) in 2021. As the FFG(X) goes into service, depending on the weapons the US Navy selects, the remaining LCS will be phased out, ending an unhappy chapter in US navy attempts to modernize its fleet.