Since its publication in April’s Proceedings, I’ve been pleased that “It’s Time for a ‘Sea Control Frigate’” has helped start a discussion about a new small surface combatant (SSC) on message boards, the blogosphere, and social networking platforms. The article describes how a modified version of the Coast Guard’s National Security Cutter with improved survivability features and combat systems could offer a terrific supplement to the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). With the attention the article received, various readers had questions concerning some ideas brought up, so I’ve taken the time to address them.

Analyzing Cost and Production

Many asked how the projected cost for the ship could cost $800 million with the last national security cutter price costing $735 million. Surely the upgrades mentioned in the article are greater than $65 million. They are indeed. However, what was probably missed is that the $735 million order for the last NSC was for a single ship – economies of scale can drastically reduce the cost per unit due to various efficiencies gained. For example, when the Coast Guard ordered several at a time, pre-NSC #5, the cost was substantially less. My math: the 2006 per unit cost for an NSCs (in a bulk order) was $584 million – when we account for inflation, it goes up to a current value of $650 million, or $85 million less than the last single contract. (The Coast Guard had to order the later ships one by one because it wasn’t written into the budget at the time –and it was uncertain if the 7th and 8th NSCs would even be funded). Thus, a procurement cost of $684 million, which is used in the article and various other official reports, is an average between all the ships. Most likely a base hull would be even less than this, as the price doesn’t include the initial hull design costs (this was incorporated into the NSC program), there are increased economies of scale, and various items included in the NSC price are not be needed on a navy frigate (eg: the complex stern boat launching apparatus). While I estimated $800 million by adding the cost of a VLS, an upgraded 76mm gun, a new radar, and various survivability upgrades, in accordance with navy and congressional reports, a fixed price will likely creep closer to the $900 million mark due to inflation over the next few years and other add-ons the Navy incorporates (this would happen with all of navy shipbuilding though).

Ship Force Numbers and Value Metrics

The latest LCS estimates are at $550 million per ship including mission modules vs. $800 million for a sea control frigate. Assuming we have the same budget to work with, and we’re deciding between a basic LCS only, we’ll either have to choose between 20 LCSs, or 13-14 frigates. This led many to question if it’s worth having a lesser amount of warships for the same price. First of all, for the most part, comparing these numbers are like apples and oranges – who cares about the amount of a certain ship if they can’t do the missions that we need them to do, especially cost efficiently? However, as much of a red herring the argument is, politically, it’s still hard to rationalize, especially since many elected officials find it easier to talk about our ship count in terms of our budget, vice a thoughtful debate on capabilities and requirements. In contrast, one good metric to take into consideration is the average number of ships at sea on missions per day. 20 LCSs on a 3 crews-2 ships-1 deployed plan, averages 20 total days a quarter of underway time on assignments, or 4.5 ships per day. 14 stateside frigates on a traditional deployment cycle average 32 days a quarter out to sea on assignments, or 4.9 ships per day. This means that despite a lesser amount of ships, the sea control frigate still has more underway time doing planned missions than the LCSs. I calculated this data from the class average of underway hours per quarter, and verified this by known historic and planned deployment operational schedules for frigates/destroyers and littoral combat ships.

At first, this may seem contradictory to statements made by officials like Rear Admiral Rowden, who recently claimed that 26 forward deployed LCSs equate to 120 CONUS-based single-crewed ships. This kind of statement is misleading. The Admiral is correct for certain missions and events like foreign nation cooperation and training, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), vessels in distress or under pirate attack, counter-narcotics operations, and little-to-no notice popup missions like special ops support. For example, let’s take an earthquake in a Southeast Asian country. The LCS is perfectly fitted to get underway immediately from Singapore, speed to the location, and provide necessary humanitarian assistance, all within hours. However the same can’t be said about the majority of tasking and deployments that have requirements already defined by combatant commanders relating to sea control, like naval escort, focused operations, and deep-water anti-submarine warfare. These missions all require more consecutive days-at-sea, which helps explain the reason why, by design, the LCS averages less mission days per ship than frigates and destroyers.

That’s not to say the 3-2-1 cycle isn’t the right method with the LCS. On paper, minus the sea swap trap, it’s actually a smart plan that saves money and optimizes the ships very well. It’s also necessary to have a flexible warship forward deployed for the reasons stated above, but only for quick back and forth missions in the littoral environment, not sustained blue-water deployments. If we do end up purchasing LCS variants, most of these ships will regrettably end up getting pulled from the presence and shaping missions they were designed for to support these missions.

Determining Feasible Designs

Sea Control FrigateEarlier this month, a request for information (RFI) came out that asked the shipbuilding industry on input for a follow-on to the LCS from mature designs, which led many readers to ask what’s actually on the table. The context of the RFI may seem like it’s targeting a number of different ships and shipbuilders, but it’s in fact just a formality required in the consideration process for any future acquisitions; there are actually only a few possibilities here. The foreign contender with the best shot, if any, is Norway’s Fridtjof Nansen-class frigate because of its past relationship working with NAVSEA and Lockheed Martin. Although any proper frigate is preferred over the LCS because it’s better optimized for operating in blue water environments, I’m partial to the sea control frigate because of its large flight deck and hangar spaces, which gives it the flexibility to support drones and manned helicopters together, something that will likely become the norm within the next 30 years. However, the truth is because of the timeliness of the request and decision making process, together with the red tape that a foreign design has to go through (which was touched on in the original article), it’s probably too late in the process already to even consider a foreign design, regardless or not if it meets what the Navy’s looking for. This is unfortunate; we’ve essentially locked ourselves in a box by not starting this process earlier (or coming up with an organic solution for that matter).

There are several different variants of the LCS that are likely to be considered alternatives– most concepts have been pitched publically in some manner, mostly to international navies under the banners of “International LCS” and “Surface Combat Ship”. These variants could include similar features to a sea control frigate, such as a Mk 41 VLS supporting ESSM and ASROC, a CEAFAR or SPY-1F radar and fire control system, other survivability features, and for the LCS-1 class, an upgraded 76mm gun. However, there are still some problems with this: unlike the NSC hull which was built with reserved spaces that can accommodate a VLS and other systems without hull modifications, a variant of the LCS would likely require design changes more substantial than any NSC-derivative. One industry news source remarked that an international LCS design pitched to Israel that incorporated some of the above mentioned weapons features had an estimated cost of over $700 million (this was in 2008, so it would likely be even more today). Another claimed a rough order-of-magnitude cost would be $800 million, equivalent to a sea control frigate. However, the price pitched to the Navy by Lockheed or Austal might not even matter – with the trends of the LCS shipbuilding program, it’s possible that whatever price is proposed will balloon up even further. This is probably not a risk the navy would want to already take for a program already under heavy scrutiny for its ever-rising costs, especially with a fixed-price option on the table for a sea control frigate. Secondly, it’s likely that no design changes will be able to offer an improved endurance and range; therefore, even with upgrades in weapons and survivability, it would still be ill-suited for blue water missions. Moreover, the manning structure and contractor reliance wasn’t made to accommodate long lasting blue-water missions either, which means even some small casualties that are normally fixed by a DDG/FFG ship’s force could and throw off an entire mission; something probably not ideal for optimizing the readiness kill chain.

SSC graphThis leads us back into re-examining the numbers. With the same budget, an up-armed LCS design with a higher unit cost reduces the number of LCSs that are produced. For example, an improved LCS costing $650 million each (which by all estimates are very optimistic) buys only 17 ships, three less than planned. As the LCS cost continues to increase, the ship price per unit gap continues to close, until its relatively the same price.

Posted by LTJG Zachary Howitt in Navy, Proceedings
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  • Ken Adams

    Your cited source for deployed / operational days underway is not really sufficient to the claim you make. It provides a 3-year average of hours underway and inport per quarter for individual ships and for each class, but does not distinguish between underway purposes (e.g., training, testing, inspections). Are you sure that you’ve compared apples to apples here?

    • Zack Howitt

      Hi Ken – yes and no. There are even other things that affect historic underway days, like the engine problems LCS-1 encountered in Singapore, but I tried to account for these here. You are correct that underway time does not distinguish between training, testing, and inspections, however I strictly used this as a secondary source to establish a trend and back up other data in schedules I compiled. From everything available I could find, regular deployment cycles give you more days out doing specific set missions. 3-2-1 cycles give you more presence time, which is also good, just in a different way. The point I am trying to make is you can’t mix and match by applying the 3-2-1 rationale to blue water missions. If you have a counter-source or information that says something else, I’d love to see it.

  • I would think it would be smart to take the NSC Design and build a Patrol Frigate based on the NSC design. You can even pair them with the LCS Corvette and use NSC frigate to command and control the LCS corvette.

  • Chesapeakeguy

    ‘Perpetuating the art’ and science of ship design must be a priority for our military. BUT, some other approaches to maximize the ‘bang with the bucks’ should be looked at as well. Why not pursue an “Arleigh Burke” variant WITHOUT the Aegis suite attached? With the ability to ‘slave shooters’ to the platforms that are doing the actual directing of an action, having a non-Aegis hull with all the OTHER attributes of the “Burkes” seems like something worth exploring. The Aegis ‘system’ alone adds something like $600 million to $900 million per ship (depending on the sources that I have been able to find). The “Burke” hull might offer some possibilities for contributing significantly to the littorals requirements that are all the rage now as well as to the ‘blue water’ (battle group) operations they currently perform. Placing ‘waste guns’ of a smaller caliber (57mm to 76mm) than the main gun is one such option (for the littorals). Facilitating small boat launching for boarding ops should not be that difficult to implement. I am not saying or implying that such a variant would be CHEAPER than these other proposals, and certainly a “Burke” is not going to ‘fit’ within the size constraints of a classic frigate design. But it will offer MANY more useful options to the Navy, and NOT require the time and resources to swap out ‘modules’ for certain missions (as is the case for the LCS) while offering the very same requirements (and then some) that these frigate proposals present. Plus, the option WILL exist to convert the platform to an actual Aegis ship if the Navy deems that desirable and frees up the time and money to do so. Given the estimates always presented about ship costs, especially new designs, no one can realistically expect that a new frigate will come in significantly under a billion dollar price tag per unit, after all the R & D and other ancillary costs are factored in. The LCS was supposed to be a CHEAP, EXPENDABLE asset when first proposed. I don’t think ‘cheap’ can be associated with that ship, not yet anyways. And it does not appear to offer much in the way of real flexibility in a truly timely manner, i.e., it cannot be rapidly deployed from, say, a mission of patrolling the Malacca Straights to joining a carrier or amphib group to contribute to their air and anti-sub defense. But for bang for the buck, in providing capabilities and much more in the way of commonality with the most numerous existing platforms in the surface fleet, a “Burke” variant warrants serious consideration. To me anyways.

    • Zack Howitt

      Hi Chesapeakeguy, great comment. I agree with some stuff you say. I mentioned the burkes without aegis option in the Proceedings piece, and it’s definitely a possibility, but i’ll echo on some downsides to it: Burkes have a manning requirement of approx 300 sailors vs. sc frigate with half the number, the fuel cost for burkes are greater than 3x the cost for a sc frigate, and i’m not sure I agree that taking aegis out would reduce the cost by up to $900 million. Aegis is pretty integrated into the Burkes, and scaling back aegis from the DDG wouldn’t eliminate the requirement for a supplemental system. I also disagree that a frigate would exceed $1B – A bulk order for a plain NSC without coast guard features costs $650 million in today’s money. No hull modifications are needed to put a 16 cell VLS on and a SPY-1F or CEAFAR radar. Then you add some survivability features. Certainly doesn’t exceed $1B, and more in the $800 million range (maybe $900 million range when you add inflation). Your point’s still very valid though and worth noting though – thanks for posting..

      • Chesapeakeguy

        Zach, you make some good points as well. But I think the “Burke” design is going to be with us for a long time, a very long time. Subtracting the Aegis components will certainly facilitate some redesign, which is never cheap. But, without Aegis manning requirements will go down to some degree. Also, I don’t see any reason why technological advances that reduce the need for actual sailors, as they come on line (as they are being applied to the LCS for example), cannot be looked at for built into ships (“Burkes”) that are under construction (retrofits and overhauls might be problematic). None the less, it’s all about bang for the buck, and utility via versatility. A non-Aegis equipped “Burke” will still be able to contribute to it’s original mission profile, which is mainly battle group/area air defense and anti-sub warfare. I will have to see any projected cost estimates for a new ship design met before I will believe them. In recent years, virtually NO new ship proposal has come in on, much less under, budget. The “Burkes” are a tried and proven platform. It does make sense to produce a platform that can be shared by both the CG and the Navy for certain missions and requirements they have. I never read or heard that any attempt had been made to see if the “Perry” class or “Spruance” class ships the Navy discarded might have had some utility and service-life left as CG vessels. A mix of “Burkes” with both Aegis and without would represent the ultimate in the ‘high-low’ mix that has served this nation quite well. You gotta have some ‘Indians’ to go along with all those ‘chiefs’. Numbers matter.

  • Navsea3601

    Now that the early NSC’s have a patrol or two under their belts, perhaps posting only the most recent data would be more predictive of future NSC or PF/FF performance. Something along these lines: NSC #2 in 2014 conducted a CD counter drug deployment: 100 days away from homeport (Alameda): 75 days underway; 3 port visits, 4 go-fasts intercepted, 2 sunk, 38 prisoners taken aboard, 18 tons of cocaine recovered when jettisoned. 1 manned helo and 2 UAV’s carried onboard throughout patrol. 4 surface gun ex’s conducted against towed tgt’s, and 2 anti-air UAV destroyed while utilizing 57mm gun live fires. Or something along those lines, revealing the u/w reliability and success of basic platform. Hopefully, NSC’s will be have far more on-station presence than LCS-1 had on her first deployment.

    • One thing it struck me is that the NSC has more at sea time than the LCS and can be on station alot longer than the LCS.

  • Tony

    What do you think happens to the COST and SPEED of a semi-planing non-displacement LCS-1 hull when you put a 76MM gun, VLS, SPY-1F, Harpoon, and a hull sonar on it, and at what fuel consumption rates? I know, so does L-M, so does the Saudi Navy, and so does NIPO – go ask them, then decide (correctly) to stop wasting time talking about this option.

  • Tony

    One thing that has always struck me is how much more expensive NSC is compared to LCS, when they have essentially the same non-mission module-equipped combat systems/capability, while NCS is much slower and doesn’t have the re-configurable mission spaces.

    • The one thing the NCS has is the range and can stay on station longer than the LCS.

  • mcwhite

    Dear Lt Howitt, I apologize for the delay in responding to your article. Thanks for writing it and great job! I envy you being able to correspond with HII for example and get results. I have some questions. Instead of the 16-cell Mk 41 and the 57mm, would it be possible to install a 32-cell Mk 41? I like the old idea of the 32-cell A Module being able to switch with a 127mm module (now I’d design a 155mm AGS-L module) or a LaWS laser module in 5 years or a Railgun module in 10 years. Rather than the CEAFAR/SEAMOUNT combination, would the TRS-3D+SPQ-9B combination suffice, with CEC for longer-range tracking from offboard? Some sort of illuminator-designator would still be necessary, correct, perhaps the same if one is ever installed on the LCS hulls, similar to the TRS-3D+CEROS combination for the STANFLEX 300? For the 30mm cannons amidships, what about making those mounts LCS module stations instead, so if other modules are ever designed (ESSM like STANFLEX or a NLOS replacement like Jumper) the Sea Control Frigate can take advantage? I like removing the Harpoons and TTs from the fantail, but what about going even further and making the fantail and space under an extended helicopter landing pad into a full Mission Deck like the LCS? Did you discuss lengthening the ship with HII, as discussed in “Where are the Frigates” for the FFG-7? It would add some space and weight reserve as well as endurance. The most extreme idea I like would be use the lengthened hull to replace the LM2500 with the MT30 of the LCS-1 and the Zumwalt to increase horsepower and MW for future weapons? It might be worth it over 20 hulls and 40 years to have that increase.

    • Zack Howitt

      thanks for the reply. good thoughts. 32-cell is not possible, unless you want to change/extend the hull, which would increase unit + design costs + time. you would also have to consider strike vs tactical length in the VLS. i doubt there is room for LCS module stations. CEAFAR or SPY-1F would work best since it’s optimized with the ESSM. i haven’t looked into CEROS. my configuration can’t support a full mission deck, unless, again you against the hull. but small mission modules are still supported (vds, miw, specops, etc)