In a tacit acknowledgement of the criticism of its latest generation of small surface combatants, the Navy has decided to spend an extra year reviewing its upgraded "frigate" Littoral Combat Ship variant before committing to production.
In testimony delivered Wednesday, R. Adm. Ron Boxall and R. Adm. John Neagley said that the Navy has set up a new evaluation team to help define "the requirements for the frigate to improve its ability to operate in a more contested environment than LCS." The review period will push back a final decision on the design until 2020.
Critics contend that the two relatively low-cost LCS designs – and an upgraded "frigate" counterpart – lack the survivability and the lethality of traditional surface combatants. Last month, the Government Accountability Office (which has frequently criticized the LCS program over the years) called on Congress to delay funding a series of 12 of the "frigate" vessels, as "key frigate cost and design details will not be available to support Congress' decision." Among other reasons for a delay, GAO cited the absence of a formal cost estimate for the vessels; an absence of a detailed design; and continued uncertainty about the performance of the original LCS designs, which would have commonality with more than 60 percent of the future "frigate" vessel's systems. Given these unknowns, the GAO proposed to push back the award until 2019 at the earliest.
The "frigate" proposal owes its existence to an earlier review of the LCS. The Navy reexamined the Littoral Combat Ship program in 2014 with an eye to selecting a more capable small surface combatant. Of the options it considered, the service eventually settled on the option of a "minor modified LCS," which would be designated a "frigate." GAO notes that the minor modified LCS was the least costly option, and that affordability and shipbuilding considerations – not survivability or lethality – were primary factors in selecting the uprated LCS rather than a new vessel class.
"Ultimately, the Navy chose – and the Office of the Secretary of Defense approved – a frigate concept based on a minor modified LCS, despite the task force’s findings that it was the least capable small surface combatant
option considered," GAO wrote.
The Navy maintains that a full series of 52 LCS vessels (including the proposed frigate variant) are an essential part of its 355-ship force structure target.