Now that the Navy has unveiled a plan to upgrade the Littoral Combat Ship hulls to make both variants more lethal and survivable, as demanded by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the service will shift toward working through the details to outline an acquisition strategy and identify areas for industry to compete for adding the new capabilities.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert and Navy acquisition chief Sean Stackley revealed the new plan on Thursday to complete the requirement for 52 small surface combatants, after Hagel earlier this year truncated the existing LCS program to 32 ships.

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.

The remaining 20 ships will feature key upgrades to the Lockheed Martin [LMT] monohull Freedom variant and Austal USA Independence trimaran version. Throughout the LCS program, the Navy has asked both firms to compete for the ship contracts, a formula Stackley said the Navy plans on keeping for the final 20 ships.

“Absolutely there will be competition. This program has been based on the benefits of competition. That’s how we have been able to bring the price down,” Stackley said, adding the Navy will continue to employ the “duel source” approach.

Stackley said the Navy is still looking at how it will structure a competition, and would not say whether the remaining 20 ships will be evenly split between Lockheed Martin and Austal USA. So far that’s been the case with the LCS program, with each company producing 12 of the 24 ships under contract or already delivered.

“The details in terms of ‘are you going to split it 50/50 etcetera?’–too early to make those calls,” he said.

Stackley said the Navy does not plan to compete on a “ship to ship” basis, and wants the savings associated with the multi-year block buy awards currently used on LCS.

Key aspects of the upgraded LCS will be an over-the-horizon missile absent on the current LCS, and it will also have a multi-function towed array for submarine hunting. The Navy wants to add 25mm guns and torpedo defense, while keeping the aviation capabilities that include MH-60 Romeo helicopters and unmanned Fire Scout helicopters, and shifting to the larger MQ-8C Fire Scout the Navy is developing with contractor Northrop Grumman [NOC]. The new design calls for increased electronic warfare capabilities, better air radar and decoy systems as well as decreasing the ship’s detectability. In another change, the Navy wants to replace the Rolling Airframe Missile Guided Weapon System (RAM) for missile defense to the more capable SeaRAM, both built by Raytheon [RTN]. The Navy will keep the 57 mm deck gun on the fore section of the ships.

The USS Coronado (LCS-4): Photo: U.S. Navy
The USS Coronado (LCS-4): Photo: U.S. Navy

Going forward, Stackley said, the Navy will sort through which new capabilities should be competed among industry, which can be leveraged from other programs and transferred to the new small surface combatants, or in other cases will work with the prime contractors to determine solutions.

“It’s going to be a case by case basis,” Stackley said. “So the answer might be for a particular system that we know what capability we want. Rather than go out with a fresh competition we are going to use a system that is already common to other Navy ships. In that case what we are going to do is leverage those other contracts and not go out with a fresh contract.”

“In other cases we might determine … there are some other alternatives out there that are very attractive, and for other right reasons, we are going to run a competition for this program, for those systems, and that would be a separate, standalone competition,” Stackley added.

In additional instances, Stackley said, the Navy will look to the prime contractors to come up with solutions, such as for an improved degaussing system designed to minimize the hull’s magnetic field and thereby reduce radar detectability.

The new approach largely eliminates the mission module concept on existing 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 under the new program.

Greenert said the Navy will instead rely on the anti-mine capabilities being developed in the missile modules for the first 32 ships to continue to meet the mission requirement.

Stackley said, however, even though the new ships will largely have fixed mission sets for SUW and ASW, the Navy will still need the capabilities in the SUW and ASW mission packages to beef up those warfare aspects as needed, and is retaining enough modular flexibility to do so.

“We have up-gunned the ship,” Stackley said. “Also, in doing so, we have maintained a degree of modularity that allows the fleet to determine whether a particular ship needs to concentrate on ASW or surface warfare. So we’ve kept a swing capacity for specific mission desires that the fleet commander might assign to it.”

USS Freedom (LCS-1) during a to Singapore in 2013. Photo: U.S. Navy
USS Freedom (LCS-1) during a to Singapore in 2013. Photo: U.S. Navy

“That swing capability for ASW or surface warfare, existing elements of the mission modules, the mission packages, are to evolve as the threat evolves without having to bring the ship into depot,” Stackley said. “So the modular concept that remains with the first 32, it still has great value to the Navy.”

Hagel approved the Navy’s new plan a day before Greenert and Stackley met with reporters to announce it. Hagel instructed the Navy to report back by May on its acquisition strategy and a cost assessment and control plan.

Hagel also told the Navy to examine the possibility of introducing or back-fitting some of the new capabilities onto the first 32 LCSs, a notion Stackley and Greenert said the Navy is looking at, while not ruling out integrating the entire new complement of capabilities before the 33rd ship in the small surface combatant program.

“We’re looking at that,” Stackley said. “We certainly believe that we can incrementally introduce some of these capabilities. We are also looking at the ability to back fit. Since these features, these capabilities, are tailored for the LCS already, back-fitting is very doable.”

“It becomes a question of maturity of the design, and the availability of funding and a determination of what the right mix of ships would be,” he added.

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. 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.

Following Hagel’s order in January to truncate and review of the existing LCS program, the Navy established a task force to look at alternatives to beef up the ship or pursue an entirely new small surface combatant. Earlier this year the Navy asked industry for ideas and reviewed hundreds of different approaches and reiterations of the design to arrive at its new plan.