Littoral Combat Ship vs. China’s Type 054: Thailand’s Frigate Purchase

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The US Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships were intended to take up a number of different roles, including those of frigates, minesweepers and arguably the “brown water navy” of the Vietnam War. Like the Danish Standard Flex ships, they are designed to be easily reconfigured for different missions by swapping in a set of containerised components. Like the Norwegian Skjold class corvettes, they are designed for speed and low observability.

Unlike the Standard Flex ships, they currently have no high-performance surface-to-air, surface-to-surface or ASW torpedo modules, and the mission modules that are being developed for anti-submarine warfare, mine-hunting and surface warfare have been subject to a series of compromises. Unlike Skjold, they will pack minimal punch in any mission configuration.

Now, Lockheed is offering its version of the LCS to Thailand. Their competition? The Chinese Type 054 Frigate. It is likely that Lockheed’s offering will include a 16-cell VLS system to allow the ship to take some high-performance missiles, as with the version they attempted to offer to Israel. This is an important selling point, since the Freedom class currently has a listed missile armament of one Rolling Airframe Missile system for short-range defence against anti-ship missiles and one AGM-175 Griffin system- a missile designed for use on land at short ranges against hardened targets as a cheaper alternative to an anti-tank missile. The remaining armament consists of a Bofors 57mm gun. It is, in the words of one commentator, a 650 million dollar coastguard cutter and minesweeper.

The current version of the Type 054, though only marginally bigger than the LCS, includes an area air defence capability in the HQ-16 missile, the Chinese copy of the capable Russian SA-N-12 Shtil, good anti-ship capability in the C-802/803 missile, and a full range of anti-submarine capabilities. In its US version, the Freedom class might be converted to perform one of these missions at a time. Redesigned to accept a heavier armament, it might well be out of Thailand’s price range- the version offered to Israel was not pursued due to cost. The basic LCS version already comes with a frigate price tag without frigate capabilities. It is also a new design with a number of teething problems, while the 054 series and its antecedents have been around for awhile. Finally, the LCS vessels are so non-damage-resistant that the US Navy has had to invent a new damage resistance scale specifically for these ships.

While there will likely be other contenders in the competition, it will be interesting to watch these two entries. If Thailand pursues the Chinese option, it will gain its first modern naval air defence capability and a three-dimensional combat capability that is very respectable in regional context. If it buys the Freedom class, the gains, except in the geopolitical sense, are less clear. But then, that has been the issue with the LCS program from the beginning.

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4 thoughts on “Littoral Combat Ship vs. China’s Type 054: Thailand’s Frigate Purchase

  1. Andrew says:

    It would be interesting to see the LCS in a competition with Britain’s Type 26 Frigate aka Global Combat Ship. Seriously I think the Type 23 Duke class frigate is far superior to the LCS in the surface warfare role against small and large combatants. In addition the Type 23 is a highly capable submarine hunter and with the planned upgrades it will soon have a highly potent short to medium range air defence role. While the Type 23 has no mine clearance role

    • I completely agree. No question the Type 23 is among the greatest platforms of its generation. It remains particularly potent in the ASW role with Sonar 2087 and Merlin helicopters. I see the Chinese taking a very similar design philosophy in both frigates and destroyers- the 054 is even broadly similar in layout, and one of their destroyer classes, the Type 052B, always reminds me of the Broadswords. My only hesitation with the Type 26 is Sea Ceptor. I can only wonder, in a world where ESSM already exists, why would the UK spend money developing something with shorter range to fill the same niche? Still, far better than LCS.

      The irksome thing about LCS is that the modular concept should have enhanced its capabilities, much like StanFlex has for the Danish Navy, but there is no space left in the designs for such capable modules (Harpoon, ESSM, MU90 etc) even if the USN did procure them. And so these alleged littoral combat ships answer the number one littoral threat- fast SSM-armed missile boats- with a missile designed for land targets that aren’t worth an anti-tank missile. Stealth won’t necessarily help much- the C-802, carried by China’s 80+ Type 022 stealth catamarans, has visual and infrared seekers and Maverick-style command guidance. There are no ship-mounted torpedoes on the LCS to deal with submarines, and thus far no towed array. One is forced to wonder just what littoral combat the planners envisioned.

      I can only think that that 600 million+ per copy for the LCS could have bought 3-4 customised Norwegian Skjolds each or a couple of JSVs, which actually do have the space for modular weapons. Either would be better than the LCS.

  2. Andrew says:

    Part 2
    While the Type 23 has no mine hunting capability it could be argued that niether does the LCS for the forseeable future until a new class of swimming mine hunting robot is designed. Whats more the Type 23 can perform all its roles without having to require a change in mission modules.

  3. […] The ships are also vulnerable to submarines in coastal waters, lacking an on-board torpedo capability, and even the meagre ASW mission package will not be ready until 2018. Also, like all US Navy ships, they lack what any ship more likely would require for littoral ASW operations- an anti-submarine mortar like the Swedish ASW-601, or preferably, a comprehensive rocket-based underwater self-defence system like the Russian Udav-1. For more on the LCS, see this article. […]

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