segunda-feira, 7 de julho de 2008

LCS- So why doesn’t USA clone Absalon?

Littoral Combat Ships (LCS); Which is best?

Ok, this is a typical armchair warrior stats and concepts comparison. Different ships are built to different requirements and some people will defend their favorite with diehard zealotry regardless of what anyone else says – so to that end I am not trying to convert nor bash anyone’s sensitivities. Especially when I say that the USN’s LCS designs aren’t best in class.

Strictly unqualified amateur effort. Illustrations by me. Feedback on illustrations and analysis welcome.

What is a Littoral Combat Ship anyway?
Damn good question. The best answer is that it’s just the current US Navy jargon for an Expeditionary frigate. Sure the USN’s LCS specifications are specific to their perceived needs and so on, but it’s not like the US Navy is the first or only navy to be building warships to operate in same basic operating environment fulfilling the same basic role. In fact the USN’s specifications are actually quite narrow (ironic since they emphasize flexibility and interchangeable mission modules) compared to the scope of some other navy’s takes on the subject. My preferred definition of an Expeditionary frigate is:

A frigate sized warship designed to operate off foreign shores in a light-amphibious or power projection role with a focus on close-to-shore operations.

In fact the wider trend in “expeditionary warfare” seems to be amphibious warfare ships with dock capabilities ranging from 6000 tons up to about 20,000 tons. This generic category has been in existence for many years, but current designs are intended to be more modular, stealthy, mission-flexible and generally have much better aircraft capabilities, often with a through-deck configuration. Variations between LSD (Landing Ship Dock), LPH (Landing Platform helicopter) and glorified RORO (Roll-On, Roll-Off) ferries abound. Where the Littoral combat ships in this essay differ from this category is that they are smaller and more closely resemble the Frigate category, but with an expeditionary fighting focus. Where they differ from missile boats and patrol craft is that they are designed to transverse oceans to fight in other people’s back yards, not just your own.

In all this the word “Littoral” is the greatest misnomer. It’s just a word the USN chose to use really, and reflects their doctrinal perspective and politically considered naming of a project. Littoral Combat Ships as Expeditionary frigates are inherently blue-water capable in order to get to someone else’s littoral back yard. Ok, enough of semantics, if you disagree with my classification of what is and isn’t a Littoral Combat Ship then stop reading now, the rest will be lost on you.

Ok, I’m not here to bash USN, but let’s let the cat out of the bag… after a very straightforward comparison of loosely equivalent designs, I suggest the following ranking of LCS vessels:

1. Absalon Class, Denmark
2. F-125 Class, Germany
3. LCS-2 Independence, USA
4. LCS-1 Freedom, USA

That is to say, all things being equal it’s better to have two Abaslon class vessels than two of any of the other types. So why doesn’t US just buy a load of Absalon Class boats? – We’ll come to that later.

Introducing the contenders

F-125 Frigate, Germany.. Yet to be built, these boats are designed primarily for support of light marine/SF forces and power projection in low/medium intensity situations like peacekeeping. They were originally emphasized shore bombardment/strike but this requirement seems to have been scaled back for financial reasons – their MRLS and 155mm guns removed from the specs. They are the largest and most expensive ships in this comparison.

F-125 Frigate

Absalon class, Denmark. The only contender actually in operational service, two of these serve in the Royal Danish Navy, with a follow-on class of four similar warships planned (although these will be more like GP Frigates than LCSs). These ships are about twice as heavy as the USN’s LCSs but are much more like a conventional frigate with logistics/special operations capability added. They don’t clearly out-do the others in every regard, but they are definitely the most versatile and survivable, and almost certainly the cheapest of the bunch. Very impressive boats, who’d have thought the Danes would have jumped ahead in Naval concepts for the first time since their heyday in the 1700s?

LCS-1 Freedom, USA. The Lockheed Martin LCS-1 design tends to get overshadowed by the comparatively futuristic LCS-2, but the design is in fact the best performer in some key areas. Having said that it is also the smallest, particularly in terms of logistics (“Mission specific”) volume.

LCS-2 Independence, USA.

The ones I forgot….

A few honorable mentions to other designs that sort of fit the bill. The first is the MEKO CLS (CLS = Combat Ship Littorals). This design is still on paper but is being actively marketed by Thyssen-Krupp, the same shipbuilders as the F-125. At 2800 tons and 108m length the CLS is approximately the same size as the LCS-1, and similarly armed. It also claims 45kt top speed and flexible mission modules.


Next up is the impressive but still paper-bound HSC N130 trimaran design from BGV in France. This design combines a high speed slender hull with impressive troop/logistics capabilities: 416 troops and/or mixes of up to 16 TEU units. Deck space and hanger for two medium helicopters.

HSC N130

The M-80 Stiletto, USA is a small multihull design with many conceptual similarities to the LCS designs. It is however experimental and lacks the global reach of a true LCS. An interesting design that could arguably be scaled up to meet an LCS type role. I’m not sure why the builder didn’t enter the LCS contest… or did they?

M-80 Stiletto

The FSC(X) Sea Fighter, USA is another USN experimental type, this time using a SWATH design which provides exceptional stability – but at the cost of comparatively deep draught.

Sea Fighter

And now the comparisons……

1. Defense against aerial threats
Operating close to an enemy shore invariably leaves you more accessible to their aircraft and missiles – as the Israeli and British navies can attest. Therefore the ability to intercept aerial threats including missiles is key to survivability.

Firstly all four designs have excellent quality of point air defense/CIWS, and countermeasures. But the clear advantage is with the Absalon class, with 36 medium ranged ESSM missiles. It’s a no-contest really.
1. Absalon Class
2. F-125 Class
3. Tie. LCS-1/LCS-2.

2. Offensive anti-surface warfare
The ability to engage medium/large surface targets other than self defense.

Another no-contest, with a whopping 16 Harpoon missiles, 36 ESSMs and a 127mm gun the Absalon out-guns all the others by some margin. The F-125 is also potent, but the LCS-1/2 designs are markedly impotent in their standard fit. All designs can carry helicopters which could be armed with anti-ship missiles. Again Absalon can carry larger helicopters (in sustained operation) which can generally carry longer ranged anti-ship missiles.
Both LCS craft can potentially mount up to 60 NETFIRE (aka NLOS-LS) missiles which have a modest anti-ship capability, similar in general regards the the ESSM's, a far short of the Harpoon's.
1. Absalon Class
2. F-125 Class
3. Tie. LCS-1/LCS-2

3. Defensive anti-surface warfare
A major threat to warships operating near an enemy coast is small craft (speed boats, jetskis etc) carrying mines which are laid immediately in front of the warship, ramming charges, small torpedoes or missiles. This is popularly called the asymmetric threat.

Although all four designs carry a formidable array of defensive weapons to meet this threat (unlike many other warships!), the most heavily defended is clearly the F-125 which is bristling with remotely operated HMGs and autocannons. The 35mm guns on the Absalon and the 57mm guns on the LCS-1/2 plus the RAM missiles can all be used with great effect also. This one is close, frankly they are all well defended.
1. F-125 Class
2. Tie. LCS-1/LCS-2
4. Absalon Class

4. Shore bombardment/power projection offensive strike
This is where the design concepts vary. The F-125 was initially designed to play a major role in offensive strike with MRLS, a 155mm gun and land-attack RBS-15 missiles. Whereas the US specifications do not call for this capability at all! – hardly fair, but hey everyone agrees that operating close to an enemy shore, bombardment and strike are key roles. Excludes helicopters (in which all are generally equal).

The Absalon and F-125 both sport advance d 127mm main guns capable of firing extended range (100km+) high accuracy/guided rounds. None of the warships have a land-attack-cruise missile capability (although it may still be planned for the F-125).
Something that I haven't shown in the above illustration is the planned inclusion of four NETFIRE (aka NLOS-LS) modules each with 15 lightweight PAM/LAM missiles on the LCS craft. It's not clear if these modules will ever be fitted to either LCS1 or 2 but they remain part of the program. The PAM has a range of 40km and LAM 70km plus 30 minutes loiter. These missiles are very potent but lack the range of the 127mm guns with extended range ammunition.
1. Tie. Absalon class, F-125 Class
3. Tie. LCS-1/LCS-2.

Anti-submarine warfare
This one is harder to gauge. All four designs can carry modern ASW helicopters and ASW orientated mission fits although the exact make-up of these is open to debate. However, the LCS-1/2 omit a bow/hull mounted sonar. What is more the Absalon can carry two EH-101 ASW helicopters, relative to the smaller helicopters on the other ships.
1. Tie. Absalon/F-125 (tough call)
3. Tie. LCS-1/LCS-2.

Sea keeping
Until we sail on any of these ships it’s hard to say, but sea-keeping is a key requirement to transverse oceans and maintaining station in storms. Some basic generalizations can be made: The Absalon and F-125 are large warships with deeper draught, they are likely to have good sea keeping. The LCS-2 design has a wave piecing bow and outriggers, apparently offering good sea-keeping. LCS-1 however is very shallow draught, light and not wave-piercing; it would have much poorer sea-keeping. My guess:
1. Tie. LCS-2, Absalon, F-125
4. LCS-1

Littoral agility/accessibility
This is a combination of sprint speed and shallowness of draught. Turning circle etc would also play a part but aside from LCS-1 having an incredibly tight turning circle we don’t have figures for that. In simple terms the faster a boat can go, and the less it is inhibited by shallowness of the water, the more capable it is in this regard. In this category it is easy to rank them:

1. LCS-1
2. LCS-2
3. F-125
4. Absalon

Helicopters (accommodation and landing)
All four designs are designed with airborne infiltration in mind. Also, Unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) are also likely to operate from all types, or at least equally potential for UAVs.

This is a tough one; LCS-2 has by far the best helipad, able to land two light/medium helicopters simultaneously, but Absalon has a much bigger hanger and can accommodate two large helicopters. I think the hanger is the winner, but in fairness I’m going to call it a draw.
1. Tie. LCS-2 and Absalon
3. F-125
4. LCS-1

Logistics support
The more troops and equipment an LCS can carry the better. The more equipment, landing craft (light) the better. The bigger hospital (sparse figures so excluded below), the more humanitarian aid…

Again LCS-2 and Absalon are in the running for the top spot. LCS-2 has slightly more space, but almost certainly fewer troops and only Absalon can embark MBTs. Given that I’d say Absalon is slightly more useful to have in the fleet from a logistics perspective:
1. Absalon
2. LCS-2
3. LCS-1
4. F-125

Missed…. Sensors, communication, control and ESM.... and mine warfare
Hard to say. These are vital areas and all four designs claim to do all well. The standard of equipment in each is excellent. Sorry, no real data for a comparison. Consider out-of-scope or draw.

Tallying the points:
Ok, if we award four points for a 1st place in any category, 2 for second etc… and then add them up this is what we get:
1. Absalon (30 points)
2. F-125 (27 points)
3. LCS-2 (25 points)
4. LCS-1 (19 points)

So why doesn’t USA clone Absalon?
Well Denmark is a small country with international ambitions (mainly peace keeping, NATO commitments etc) with a modest navy. Deploying a force abroad, in a littoral environment, is not going to be a huge fleet so the ship needs to be capable of operating with minimal support. Denmark also only has two ships planned so each has to carry more than the USN’s planned fleets of LCS’ to deploy the same force. Also Denmark has a small fleet yet is strategically positioned at the mouth of the Baltic so secondary anti-surface warfare is also needed (hence the 16 SSMs). In short Denmark’s boats need to be more general purpose and more self-sufficient. Whereas America’s LCS program is designed to operate in the context of a much larger force with masses of land attack and under air superiority. So the USN’s LCS don’t need to be either as powerful or as self-sufficient. However, one-for-one the Absalon is still better, although not in every way (it’s big and slow).

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