The Navy rolled out designs for new versions of the Littoral Combat Ship on Thursday that feature increased firepower for self-defense and more armor to protect sensitive structures, following a review that was required by outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to improve survivability of the vessels in hostile environments.

The new plan calls for keeping both variants comprising the LCS program, one a mono-hull ship produced by Lockheed Martin [LMT] known as Freedom, and the second a trimaran version provided by Austal USA called Independence.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert and Navy acquisition chief Sean Stackley outlined the new approach to reporters at the Pentagon late Thursday, after Hagel a day earlier informed the service of his approval for the new design.

The USS Fort Worth's (LCS-3) 57 mm gun. Photo: Defense Daily.
The USS Fort Worth’s (LCS-3) 57 mm gun. Photo: Defense Daily.

A key centerpiece is the addition of an over-the-horizon missile absent on the current LCS. It would also add a multi-function towed array for anti-submarine warfare, 25mm guns, and torpedo defense, while keeping the aviation capabilities that include MH-60 Romeo helicopters and unmanned Fire Scout helicopters, but shifting to the larger MQ-8C the Navy is developing. The Navy will also keep the 57mm gun on the ship’s fore deck.

It does not include a vertical launching system for firing a broad arsenal of missiles, a move some critics were suggesting. Greenert said, however, that a VLS would occupy too much space on the ship and be too expensive.

Hagel earlier this year truncated the Navy’s planned buys of the LCS from 52 to 32, and instructed the service to look at alternatives for the remaining 20 to meet the small surface combatant requirement. Hagel, echoing longstanding criticism of the LCS, questioned its survivability in future warfare environments.

Hagel gave the Navy the option of modifying the current LCS or looking to other hull designs, and the service choosing the former. Stackley said the Navy remained committed to both versions under the “duel source” model. He said the Navy intends to have the shipbuilders compete their versions for contracts but noted an acquisition strategy has not been finalized. He would not say whether the Navy wanted an even number of both variants going forward, which is how LCS procurement is currently aligned.

The new approach largely eliminates the mission module concept on the LCSs, which consists of three swappable mission packages for surface warfare (SUW), anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and mine countermeasures. The mine countermeasures role will be abandoned on the modified LCS program. Instead the ships will be more heavily oriented with expanded SUW and ASW missions plus greater air warfare capability. Stackley said there will be some “swing” flexibility between the SUW and ASW mission sets as commanders see fit that can be harnessed from the mission modules.

Hagel instructed the Navy to report back by May on its acquisition strategy for the next small surface combatant and on cost assessment and control. By then the Senate is expected to have approved President Barack Obama’s nominee to replace Hagel, Pentagon veteran Ashton Carter, who last served as deputy secretary of defense before leaving a year ago.

Stackley said the Navy estimates the new ships will cost less than 20 percent more–or about $60 to $75 million more– than the current LCSs, which are coming in for around $400 million. The Navy hopes to begin procurement of the new version by as early as fiscal 2019, just as production of the current LCS configuration nears its end.

The new design calls for increased electronic warfare capabilities, better air radar and decoy systems as well as decreasing the ship’s detectability.

The Navy’s holdover name for the new LCS is the Modified Littoral Combat Ship. Greenert said the service has not settled on new nomenclature or whether it should be referred to as a frigate.

The Navy set up a task force following Hagel’s announcement earlier this year to review all of the alternatives and examine ideas submitted from industry at the service’s request.