by Enrico Petrucci

In the past three months, the U.S. Navy has decommissioned four ships with only a few years of service by placing them in reserve. All Littoral Combat Ships of the Freedom Class: the USS Sioux City placed in reserve after not even 5 years, the USS Little Rock (whose decommissioning was just announced) after almost six years. And the USS Mikwaukee and USS Detroit with 7 years of deployment.

These decommissionings are just yet another chapter in the saga of the Littoral Combat Ship, a new type of naval unit that in the US Navy's intentions was to revolutionize the Third Millennium Navy. LCSs were to replace the old missile-launching frigates with smaller units somewhere between the corvette and the coastal patrol vessel. Units that could be quickly reconfigured for different roles, but that not even two decades after the first LCSs were set up reveals the limitations of a program as reasonable in theory as it is limited in practice.

Such a cautionary tale that serves as both a warning about the changing nature of contemporary defense scenarios, both geopolitically and technologically and industrially. A story with a positive reflection also for one of the champions of the Italian defense industry: the LCSs will be replaced by the new Constellation-class frigates built in the shipyards of Marinette Marine, Wisconsin, taken over in 2009 by Fincantieri and based precisely on the Italian-French FREMM-class frigates.

Littoral Combat Ship and Zumwalt class

The Littoral Combat Ship program was born in the early 2000s when the U.S. Navy saw the military environment radically changed since the days of the Cold War. These are the times of the War on Terror, new security threats between asymmetric wars and "rogue states," and to replace the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates introduced since the mid-1970s, a radically new concept is being considered.

A new type of unit, Littoral Combat Ships, for a new type of warfare. Capable of operating in coastal waters and that can be rapidly reconfigured for different kinds of operations: antisom, surface warfare, mine chasers, and support for amphibious operations. All through a modular architecture of armaments, sensors and equipment, reduced manning, and a strong focus on automation. Another crucial element of LCSs is the speed of at least 40 knots, 10 more than that of a normal frigate, since in the context of asymmetric warfare one of the main threats is speedboats and attack barges, including ground effect craft such as the Iranian Bavar 2. And it is precisely speed that will become one of the "critical parameters" of LCSs both at the propulsion level for the Freedom and at the hull level for the A new type of unit, Littoral Combat Ships, for a new type of warfare. Capable of operating in coastal waters and that can be rapidly reconfigured for different kinds of operations: antisom, surface warfare, mine chasers, and support for amphibious operations. All through a modular architecture of armaments, sensors and equipment, reduced manning, and a strong focus on automation. Another crucial element of LCSs is the speed of at least 40 knots, 10 more than that of a normal frigate, since in the context of asymmetric warfare one of the main threats is speedboats and attack barges, including ground effect craft such as the Iranian Bavar 2. And it is precisely speed that will become one of the "critical parameters" of LCSs both at the propulsion level for the Freedomand at the hull level for the Independence..

The LCS affair is intertwined in the U.S. Navy's plans with another of the newly designed units for naval warfare in the third millennium: the futuristic Zumwalt-class destroyers. Intended to replace the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers that entered service beginning in the 1990s, 32 were planned. Only 3 were completed, and the other 29 canceled and replaced by just such a revamped version of the Burkes. The reasons for the return to the past? The cost of the program (more than twice as much for a Zumwalt as for a Burke), the markedly cambered hull, which favors stealth characteristics over seakeeping in some rough sea conditions. And the firing capability, both in total embarked missiles and the AGS, Advanced Gun System, guns. Another epic fail, a cannon running out of bullets: the 155-mm Long Range Land Attack Projectile GPS-guided munitions intended for the AGSs had a cost comparable to that of a Tomahawk missile and in fact led to the discontinuation of the AGS/LRLAP program. After evaluation of the installation of railguns, electromagnetic cannons, another discontinued program, it was decided for the Zumwalts to replace the unusable AGS cannons with Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon missile launchers.

Indipendence and Freedom

The U.S. Navy began experimenting with the LCS concept with the Sea Fighter (FSF-1), laid down in 2003, a SWATH configuration catamaran, a concept later taken up for some types of fast ferries. In 2004, contracts were awarded to Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics to build the first experimental units of their respective LCS designs. General Dynamics' one, built with Australia's Austal was of an aluminum trimaran that would become the Independence class, with even hull numbers. At Lockheed Martin in concert with Marinette Marine the more conventional Freedom class with semi-planing steel hulls, identified by odd hull numbers. Initially the idea was to make two units for each class, and define a single program winner.

Instead, they opted in 2010 to build 10 units of each class, but harmonizing the electronic systems on board, since development costs having already been paid by the Pentagon. A choice that plausibly displeased no one, but which did nothing to reduce development and lineup costs, even taking into account the problems that will plague the two classes Indipendence and Freedom. Partially contenting the taxpayers was the idea that the Indipendence trimarans were better suited to deep blue, offshore operations in the Pacific, and the Freedom to Persian Gulf waters (also accomplice was the high-strength steel hull, better suited in coastal threats).

The issues

Both classes, as state-of-the-art vessels, were burdened from the beginning with several problems that compromised their operational use. The Independence -class aluminum trimarans initially manifested galvanic corrosion issues to the hull. Problem completely solved with new treatments starting with the third unit (the first two units of the class, Independence and Coronado have already been decommissioned between 2021 and 2022). This was compounded starting in 2019 by evidence of cracks in the hull-deck junction on the Coronado. Cracks that have manifested themselves in 5 other units of the class and related to sailing at speeds in excess of 15 knots in force 4 sea conditions, so much so that the sixth unit the Omaha has had speed restrictions imposed on it.

The more conventional Freedom class with their steel hulls have not been tormented by hull problems, but they too have had several problems relative to the propulsion system. Both classes make use of hydrojets, but the Freedom trimarans are based on a CODOG, combined diesel or gas system, in which a diesel engine is used for cruising speed and a gas turbine for high speeds. The faster Freedoms are based on a CODAG system, in which both types of engines can be coupled to the axles. After a number of breakdowns suffered to the Milwaukee, Fort Worth and Detroit's transmission, in 2021 the U.S. Navy identified a design flaw in the units' transmission that led to both the suspension of deliveries of the existing units (later resumed) and the upgrading of the other units.

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Another criticism of the LCSs of both classes is the 57-mm gun, which is considered more suitable for coastal patrol vessels than for the frigate role that the LCSs would also fill (a type of weapon also chosen to limit costs). And the other significant limitation is that of the crew considered too small for the ship's operational needs. As reported by local TV channel WGRZ (NBC affiliate) quoting naval analyst Chris Cavas and commentator on the CavasShips podcast:

The Navy was told to operate this ship with a crew of 40. Nobody ever said we could do it with 40. They were told to make it work with 40. It turns out that you can't..

Attempts to decommission

As early as 2013 and 2014, when two units of each class had already entered service, the U.S. Navy began to retrace its steps. The 55 LCS program was reduced to 36 units, and there were plans to return to "conventional" frigates. In 2017, the US Navy announced the new FFG(X) program for frigates effectively relegating the Littoral Combat Ships to patrol, corvette and mine countermeasure roles. Proposals were made in 2018, with 2020 announced as the winner Fincantieri Marine Group, already engaged in building the Freedom, with the design derived from the Italian-French FREMM.

What one would not have expected is that despite the fact that the LCS program is still in place (with the paradoxical situation of having in 2023 both new variants and new LCS divestments) the U.S. Navy is trying to bring its termination as quickly as possible. First by giving up the interoperability of mission modules and configuring each unit permanently.

And then seeking to decommission as many LCSs as possible, partly because of assessments that in fact LCSs, especially the Freedom, are unable to compete with the growing Chinese threat. This is also in light of an intelligence leak, picked up by Business Insider among others and confirmed by Fox that at the naval shipbuilding level China would, considering total tonnage, eclipse U.S. industrial capabilities 232 times to 1!

In 2020, the U.S. Navy proposed to decommission the first two units of each class, a proposal limited to the two prime movers. Then in 2021 plans were made to retire three Freedom class and the Coronado, Independence class second unit, from service, and eventually only the latter. Finally in March 2022 it was decided to place all nine Freedom from active duty to reserve. Then in May 2022 the idea of transferring the Freedom to allied navies came up. As of 2023, only four Freedoms had been decommissioned, and for four others the sale was again ventilated. Even for two Independence class, USS Jackson (LCS 6) and Montgomery (LCS 8), the U.S. Navy has proposed decommissioning while fanning the flames of foreign sale. An attempt blocked by Congress, which does not want to leave the Navy unequipped at this stage.

A cautionary tale

Regardless of how the story of the Littoral Combat Ships will end, and whether at least the newer units will be able to complete the initially planned 25 years of service at least, the affair is illuminating from a technological-operational point of view. Too many innovative, almost technology-demonstrator elements in operational units that then failed to ensure day-to-day operability. And likewise, as highlighted by the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the fact that even game changer technologies must always be dropped into an operational context made up of production and maintenance.

Another element to emphasize on the national industry level, given that the LCSs will be replaced by a derivative design of the FREMMs, is the importance of having operational and state-of-the-art means for its AAFs with a view to enhancing its industry also in the promotional vision of the defense sector. Moving from the navy to the air force is precisely what analyst and lecturer Gregory Alegi pointed out in an interview with La Stampa also taken up by Il Post regarding the tragedy that occurred in Turin in the accident caused by an aircraft of the Frecce Tricolori that resulted in the death of a little girl. Frecce Tricolori that are not only a vehicle for promoting the national idea, but also a tool for promoting their industry. And speaking of Frecce Tricolori, it is a pity that the occasion of the Air Force Centenary could not have become the occasion for the handover from the Aermacchi MB.339 to the new Leonardo M.345, initially planned in 2017 but then always postponed (starting with the Renzi government in 2014) for budget reasons. Introduction expected to arrive in 2024 but still with no definite dates announced.

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Essayist and popularizer, among his publications Alessandro Blasetti. Il padre dimenticato del cinema italiano (Idrovolante, 2023). With Emanuele Mastrangelo Wikipedia. L’Enciclopedia libera e l’egemonia dell’in­formazione (Bietti, 2013) and Iconoclastia. La pazzia contagiosa della cancel culture che sta distruggendo la nostra storia (Eclettica, 2020).