According to former US secretary of the navy, Gordon R England, the original idea behind the littoral combat ship (LCS) was to “create a small, fast, manoeuvrable and relatively inexpensive member of the DD(X) family of ships”. Pivotally, the LCS was conceived as a modular vessel, capable of reconfiguring for various roles by changing mission packages, from anti-submarine warfare (ASW); mine countermeasures (MCM); intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR); and more.

When it was approved as part of the US Department of Defense’s 2003 budget, the LCS was seen as the answer to all of the challenges facing the US Navy. And even as the programme faced cost overruns, delays, mechanical failures and questions over the ships’ survivability in high-intensity combat, any attempts to cut the LCS’s budget were shot down by politicians and navy leaders.

Now, with the ships facing potential decommissioning – and indeed, the USS Freedom, Independence and Coronada have already come to the end of their service – it’s apparent that the approximately $500m spent on each of the 23 LCSs might have been better used elsewhere. That original concept of a “relatively inexpensive” vessel, at least, was clearly lost at some point along the way.

The cost of everything

So why, then, were the LCS’s supporters so eager to keep the programme going? “The LCS’s problems were really to do with the interplay between Congress and the defence industrial base,” notes Emma Salisbury, US military-industrial complex expert and PhD candidate at Birkbeck College, University of London. “The way in which modularity played into this was that it was very much touted as a reason why the LCS should not be cancelled, [even] when the armed services committee wanted to.”

Not only was modularity held up as a solution to all of the challenges faced by a modern navy, but pivotally it would also help to minimise costs – enabling navies to do more with less. “When you’re trying to plan a naval fleet structure 30, 40 or 50 years into the future, and you have to plan it with such specificity, that becomes a lot more difficult if you have restricted budgets,” Salisbury adds. For example, having a single hull that can have its mission packages swapped out not only saves money – as you only have to design and build that one hull – but also makes procurement and manufacturing considerably more streamlined.

Of course, it’s important to note that when it comes to modular ships, there are several types of modularity at play, explains retired Rear Admiral Nils Wang, director of Naval Team Denmark, and former chief of the Royal Danish Navy. With the LCS, the modularity in question was what Wang would refer to as “functional modularity” – namely, it involves “modules in some shape or form that become a functional entity on board the platform by being integrated”.

“Design modularity”, on the other hand, is when a navy can choose between several variants of the same ship – such as with the German-manufactured MEKO frigates, different versions of which have been sold to a number of countries. With design modularity, once the variant is chosen, the ship is a fixed model and can’t be changed within its lifecycle.

The subject of functional modularity might be a hot topic now for navies across the world – as we’re seeing with the UK’s Type-31 frigate and with the Constellation-class in the US, in particular – but for the Royal Danish Navy, it’s been par for the course since the early 1990s, in the form of its StanFlex containers. “It was a brilliant idea, but we were the only ones who had it,” says Wang. “And we didn’t have it because we were brilliant – we had it because we were poor, and we had to figure out how to put more into a reduced number of platforms.”

Now, however, the topic of modularity has spread across the navies of the world, which Wang attributes to fears over the ever-increasing pace of technological development, as much as the hope of minimising costs. If a navy wants to be able to carry out mid-life updates and implement new technology into a ship to keep it relevant during its lifetime, then it needs to be able to adapt that technology without making big constructional changes to the vessel – the other option is to let it spend the majority of its lifespan in the shipyard.

Through containerisation, the Royal Danish Navy has been able to achieve three forms of flexibility across its fleet. The first is tactical flexibility – if a system breaks down, a ship can return to a naval station and remove a part, put another in its place, and then resume operations while the broken gun or missile launcher is taken away for repair.

Operational flexibility, then, is the ability to adjust a ship’s equipment to the mission at hand. Before entering an area with a severe air threat, for example, you might choose to replace a surface-to-surface missile container with a surface-to-air missile container instead. Similarly, when a system becomes outdated, you can simply upgrade to the newest version and slot the replacement into the same space.

Finally, there’s strategic flexibility. “When we got rid of the StanFlex 300 ships, we took out all the containers with Harpoon SSM, ESSM (Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile) systems and the OTO Melara 76mm SR that were upgraded throughout the ships’ lifecycle,” Wang says. When the Danish navy then had five new frigates in the shipyard, these weapon systems became the basic weapons suite on those new ships.

Wang also cites the work of Odense Maritime Technology (OMT), the ship-design company behind Denmark’s frigates, who have co-founded a company, together with Systematic, a Danish software company, to create a standard interface for the containers implemented through the Royal Danish Navy’s future modular ships. The idea here is to develop a standard that can be used by several navies, creating a modular system that holds the potential to be an ecosystem in a Nato environment where you could go to a base in a member country and change out a broken weapon, if all allies use the same system.

Putting theory into practice

However, even given the success of the StanFlex concept, Wang notes that some of its early goals have never been fully realised. Initially, the Royal Danish Navy planned to outfit the ships with a defensive posture in mind, to avoid escalating tensions in the Baltic with the Soviet Union in peacetime. Yet, if deterrence failed, it would able to add new containers to its ships to make them more offensive and lethal.

In practice, this never quite worked out. As Salisbury notes, while the LCS is ostensibly a mission-modular ship with packages that can be swapped out over its service life, most of these vessels never saw this put into practice. “While you have the modularity over all of the hulls, [LCSs] don’t necessarily use that ability to have flexibility and modularity within a singular hull,” she says. “Although swapping out mission packages is something that is given as a benefit for modular ships, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will happen.”

Her observations are echoed by Wang. “If you think you can have one ship one day, and then a completely different ship for different roles another day, then you fall into the same trap we did,” he notes. The issue here isn’t necessarily hardware-related, however, because it should technically be possible to change a ship’s entire inventory if you’ve modularised enough of it – the problem instead is with the crew.

Basic equipment can be added, allowing a navy to tailor a ship for a specific mission. But a modular ship’s crew can’t be expected to run specialised MCM systems one month, then ISR ones after that. For these systems to be properly operated, they require trained specialists to come on-board and join the crew – and that presents challenges of its own.

There are benefits to such a set-up, however, if a balance is found that allows these specialists to operate efficiently on-board without disrupting their work or that of the crew at large. A modularised vessel that can handle its own self-defence, outfitted with MCM equipment – along with the specialists who can operate that system – reduces the number of platforms that you’d typically have to deploy. Typically, an MCM vessel (MCMV) would usually be accompanied by a corvette or frigate to defend it during operations. “By using modularity here, you can basically have it all in one ship – if you do it right,” Wang says.

From modularisation to motherships

Wang cites the Royal Danish Navy’s Absalon-class frigates as a testament to its dedication to making the most out of modularisation, though he’s eager to see the process go much farther. The Absalon-class is a very flexible, hollow frigate, with a 900m2 cargo hold – with room for about 37 20ft ISO containers. The issue, however, is that while these containers are ideal for on-board facilities like hospitals or additional accommodation, they don’t have access to the air or the sea. For drone systems, for example, it doesn’t make sense to keep them in containers on a deck they can’t take off from.

Wang sees the future of modularisation centring around the ability to have modules that can be placed and removed from the side of the ship, which would provide access to both sea and air. With the aid of an integrated small crane, operators could put an ROV out into the water – with airborne drones, containers can simply be elevated to the weather deck or designed so that the floor can be tilted or pushed out, allowing the drone to take off from the side of the ship.

“We are looking at such a platform for the Danish navy,” Wang says, citing the ongoing development of the MPV80, an 84m-long OPV capable of holding roughly 20 20ft containers, all of which would have access to sea and air. “And then you start to really get this right, because now we can make this 84m platform into a self-defendable mothership for autonomous systems in all three dimensions – and that is exactly what navy commanders are looking for right now.”

The ramifications of these new kinds of modular ships could change the fleet structure itself. “We like to talk about corvettes, frigates, destroyers, OPVs and MCMVs, but these are basically the same labels that we used 40 or 50 years ago,” Wang notes. Modularity could lead to the end of this, where ships no longer fit so neatly into these classifications – as seen in the form of several ship programmes in the world right now, including the UK Royal Navy’s Type-32, which Wang has seen as “a mothership for drone systems”.

Considerations for conversation

So why, Wang asks, are so many people sceptical about the concept of modularisation? One potential reason for opposition, as previously mentioned, is that successful wide-scale implementation of modular ships would change power bases in naval structures.

Using a hypothetical MCM squadron commander as an example, Wang notes that such a person would naturally be hostile to the concept of using containers to replace specialised MCMVs. After all, to be an MCM squadron commander, you previously will have been the commanding officer on an MCMV. “Your whole life is about to be taken away from you,” he notes. “But the important thing here is not to be a commanding officer on a ship. The important thing here is to be good at MCM, and […] to do that in the most cost-efficient way.”

Salisbury, on the other hand, sees herself as something of a modularisation sceptic, but for reasons Wang would likely agree with. “I worry that [modularisation] is a panacea for important conversations that should be had about fleet structure,” she explains, citing her concern that necessary discussions on the balance between littoral combat, minesweeping and other tasks will be swept aside, as they were with the LCS.

By the time vessels like the Type-31 and the Constellation-class enter service, it will be too late to address any underlying issues with the deeper strategy or fleet structure. “If we push these [conversations] further down the line, they will come to the surface at a point where we’ve already spent the money, we’ve already procured these systems,” says Salisbury. “If we don’t make sure that we’re taking it slowly enough to address these issues, we’ll just come up with a delightfully technological fleet that actually can’t do anything well because it’s trying to do too much.”


The approximate amount spent on each of the US Navy’s 23 LCSs.