Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) are relatively small surface vessels intended for operations in the littoral zone (close to shore). It is "envisioned to be a networked, agile, stealthy surface combatant capable of defeating anti-access and asymmetric threats in the littorals.". Two ship classes are the first examples of the LCS in the U.S. Navy: the Freedom-class and the Independence-class. LCS designs are slightly smaller than the Navy's guided missile frigates, and have been compared to the corvette of international usage. However, the LCS designs add the capabilities of a small assault transport with a flight deck and hangar large enough to base two SH-60 Seahawk helicopters, the capability to recover and launch small boats from a stern ramp, and enough cargo volume and payload to deliver a small assault force with armoured fighting vehicles to a roll-on/roll-off port facility. The standard armament for the LCS are Mk 110 57 mm guns, while modules containing Non-Line-of-Sight Launch Systems are available. It will also be able to launch autonomous air, surface, and underwater vehicles. Although the LCS designs offer less air defense and surface-to-surface capabilities than comparable destroyers, the LCS concept emphasizes speed, flexible mission module space and a shallow draft.
The concept behind the littoral combat ship, as described by former Secretary of the Navy Gordon R. England, is to "create a small, fast, maneuverable and relatively inexpensive member of the DD(X) family of ships." The ship is easy to reconfigure for different roles, including anti-submarine warfare, mine countermeasures, anti-surface warfare, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, homeland defense, maritime intercept, special operations, and logistics. Due to its modular design, the LCS will be able to replace slower, more specialized ships such as minesweepers and larger assault ships.
Most of the functions of the mission modules will be performed by carried vehicles such as the helicopters or unmanned vehicles such as the Spartan Scout, AN/WLD-1 RMS Remote Minehunting System and MQ-8 Sea Scout. By performing functions such as sonar sweeps for mines or submarines or torpedo launches against hostile submarines at some distance from the ship's hull, the crew is placed at less risk. This is part of the Navy's goal to unman the front lines. One robotic system being considered to reduce manpower requirements is the Roomba.
The United States Navy's first littoral combat ship was Sea Fighter, which was launched in 2003. The ship designed with SWATH type hull and designated as Fast Sea Frame or FSF-1. The ship was put into service in 2005 and serves as an experimental test bed ship using mission modules.
In 2004, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics and Raytheon submitted preliminary designs to the Navy. It was decided to produce two vessels each (Flight 0) of the Lockheed Martin design (LCS-1 and LCS-3) and of the General Dynamics design (LCS-2 and LCS-4). After these are brought into service, and experience has been gathered on the usability and efficiency of the designs, the future design for the class will be chosen (Flight I). This may be a decision to use one or the other design in whole, or a combined form made by selecting features from each, or a mixed fleet of both designs. The Navy currently plans to build 55 of these ships.
On 9 May 2005, Secretary of the Navy Gordon R. England announced that the first LCS would be named USS Freedom (LCS-1). Her keel was laid down on 2 June 2005 at Marinette Marine, Marinette, Wisconsin. The contract to build the ship was managed by Lockheed's Maritime Systems and Sensors (MS2) division, directed by Fred Moosally. On 23 September 2006, LCS-1 was christened and launched at the Marinette Marine shipyard.
On 12 April 2007, the Navy canceled the contract with Lockheed Martin for the construction of LCS-3 after negotiations to control cost overruns failed. The second General Dynamics ship (LCS-4) was also canceled on November 1, 2007 after similar cost overruns on their first ship. The Navy currently plans a brand new bidding process for the next three ships, with the winner building two ships and the loser only one.
In March 2009, Secretary of the Navy Donald C. Winter announced that LCS-3 would be named the USS Fort Worth (LCS-3) after Fort Worth, Texas  and the fourth ship would be named the USS Coronado (LCS-4) after Coronado, California. United States House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Expeditionary Forces Chairman Gene Taylor (Mississippi) criticized the lack of cost controls on the LCS program, saying that during his tour of the Austal shipyard that "I saw absolutely no effort being made to save the taxpayers a dime." Also in March 2009, the Navy renewed the contract with Lockheed to build its second LCS, the USS Fort Worth (LCS-3).
On 22 May 2009, former Navy Secretary John Lehman cited the example of the Littoral Combat Ship as an example of a flawed acquisition program in which dozens of task orders were changed daily and called for the use of fixed-price contracts. Also Congressman Joe Sestak leaked that the LCS did not have the needed bandwidth for the anti-submarine mission.
On 12 June 2009, during a hearing of the House Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee, Subcommittee Chairman Gene Taylor, D-Miss said that other contractors would jump at the chance to build LCS as the subcommittee added language that would require The Navy to open bidding on the project if either lead contractor walked away from the $460 million fixed price contracts that would be offered. In response the Naval Sea Systems Command studied whether reducing the top speed requirement from 40 knots to 30 would help keep the ships under the price cap.
On 16 June 2009, Vice Adm. Barry McCullough told the United States Senate Committee on Armed Services that the Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates and minesweepers were too worn out to continue in service to cover the gap if the LCS development process suffered further delays.
Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems released a study that showed that seven LCS can more efficiently perform anti-piracy patrols in the Western Indian Ocean than a fleet of 20 conventional ships for a quarter of the cost.
On 30 June 2009, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead said that costs have nearly stabilized on the next batch of LCS vessels and that he would work with Congress to adjust the cost cap on these Naval ships.
On 5 July 2009, Retired U.S. Navy Adm. James Lyons called for termination of the LCS program in favor of a $220 million per ship common design with the USCG that could "meet limited warfare requirements."
On 16 September 2009, Navy acquisition chief Sean Stackley and Vice Admiral Barry McCullough said that only one of the contractors would be offered a fixed price contract in 2010 for up to ten ships. This would be the long rumored downselect to a single design. This would be followed in 2012 with an offer for a second shipyard to build up to five additional ships of the same design as the first shipyard's. The Congress has agreed to this plan.
FY2010 budget documents revealed that the total costs of the two lead ships had risen to $637 million for Freedom and $704 million for Independence.
Both Saudi Arabia and Israel have expressed an interest in a modified version of the Freedom Class vessel, the LCS-I, but DefenseNews has reported that Israel has dropped out of this project in favor of a new frigate design to be built in Israel.
The Taiwanese navy is also studying the purchase of some American made littoral combat ships.