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.