The American Littoral Combat Ship program set out to design a modern, multi-role combatant capable of everything from special operations to shore support to ASW to minesweeping. What it delivered were two large, expensive ships with extreme difficulty in accommodating any of these roles, without effective self-defence capability against proliferating area-denial technologies, and, in terms of traditional measures of warship capability, like, you know, the ability to blow stuff up and not get blown up in return, considerably less capability than the smaller Scandanavian Skjold and Visby class corvettes that helped to inspire them.
So what went wrong? The concept was tested out, first on a SWATH that looked like a floating parking lot but had lots of room for modular equipment, and then on the more elegant but still boxy catamaran Sea Fighter, a vessel with potential that would be obvious to anyone. Beyond this, various US branches have acquired and used vessels with alternate high-speed hull forms for transport purposes, in which they have been very successful.
Comparing these craft with the LCS designs, the inescapable conclusion is that the LCS look more like warships and less like ferries. And because of this, they are far less useful than they would be if they had looked like ferries. Their deck designs lack the abundant space for plug-and-play that a straightforward catamaran possesses. Even the Israelis couldn’t get Lockheed to cram enough serious armament into their design to make it worth purchasing.
Is there a way out of this mess for the next navy to try for ultra-modern, ultra-flexible surface combatants? Of course. Nearly all of the pioneering work has been done. The Danish have built the excellent Absalon class, frigates in everything but name and speed, which feature a flexible vehicle deck which can also carry relief supplies or be used as a field hospital. The class’ weapons systems are all based on a modular palette system, as with the subsequent Iver Huitfeld class, and both types feature a roomy “flex deck” which can accommodate just about anything you can put on a palette, which means that, when necessary, they can be armed to the teeth. The only weakness of the system is that it is far better with stand-alone units- guns, Enhanced Sea Sparrow, Harpoon and so on- than with the other diverse weapons that would ordinarily be carried in VLS tubes.
The catamaran hull form should be revisited. It provides the speed and the room and the weight capacity to do this right. Palletised weapons are a good idea. The next logical step is to find a way to plug and play with Mk 41 VLS tubes. Put the tubes along the sides, over the twin hulls, to get them out of the way, lining up each group of eight tubes end-to-end. Leave space for the longer versions of the tubes fore and aft. Between them put a deckhouse, with a flex deck on the Danish model on top, in front of the (elevated) electronics. Beneath the radars put a helicopter hanger. You may only have hanger space for one chopper between the VLS tubes, but if you’re designing a full-sized surface combatant, you will definitely have deck space for more. How to use it? Leave some room aft (or, if you figure out how to palletise all the VLS systems, this can be in place of the aft tubes) for modular palettes, say, of the sort that could accommodate UAVs. Below, you probably will have room for a vehicle deck between the VLS (surely someone can figure out how to make a sufficiently strong off-ramp that doesn’t fold up at the side like a sign that says ‘hi, I’m here’ on radar). This is the place for the deployment of RHIBs, USVs and UUVs, as well as special forces gear, vehicles, medical facilities, relief supplies, SIGINT facilities or whatever you want to put in a box.