WASHINGTON: The LCS is dead, long live the LCS? The Navy’s controversial Littoral Combat Ship program is in good shape despite a 38 percent cut in the number of vessels the Pentagon plans to buy, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus insisted this morning at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And he may be right.
While Mabus may be biased, the details of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel‘s decision, the limits of sequestration-era budgets, and the realities of warship design mean that the “new” ship that succeeds the LCS may well be…an upgraded LCS.
“I don’t think it’s a death knell for the LCS,” CSIS president John Hamre told me after Mabus’s public remarks. “I believe it is a wake-up call.”
But, Hamre added, “if you start looking at how do you get affordable platforms at sea” — without waiting a decade to develop a new design — “LCS is going to be as competitive as anything.”
A veteran of 20 years of defense budget battles both on the Hill and in the Pentagon, where he served as comptroller and then deputy secretary during the painful drawdown of 1990s, Hamre speaks from abundant experience. What Hagel has done to LCS is a far cry from Dick Cheney’s summary execution of the Navy’s A-12 stealth aircraft — a cut so sudden it started 20 years of lawsuits which reached the Supreme Court — or Bob Gates’s brutal ending of the Army’s Future Combat System. In fact, Hamre told me with a laugh, “I bet you [that] by the time I retire — which is a long time from now — they’ll still be commissioning LCS ships.”
The Navy has already committed to 24 Littoral Combat Ships, with the last ship on the current contract being bought next year. The long-term plan was for 52, but the new budget package due out on Tuesday calls for 32. That’s a partial victory for LCS skeptics, chief among them acting Deputy Secretary of Defense Christine Fox, who believe the small, fast ships are simply too fragile for modern warfare.
But it’s only a partial victory. First, Fox is about to be replaced — as soon as LCS-hating Sen. John McCain lifts his hold on the nomination — by Mabus’s former deputy, Robert Work, an ardent defender of LCS. Second, even in its current form, the new plan gives the Navy the go-ahead to buy eight more Littoral Combat Ships beyond the 24 now on contract. Third, Hagel has left wide open what comes next after LCS Nr. 32.
“It’s very important to look at exactly what the Secretary of Defense said, which is, keep building LCS that we’re building today through this five-year defense plan [but] take a pause on the contract negotiations past that, ” Mabus told the CSIS audience this morning. “What the secretary said was we have to have a small surface combatant” – that is, a warship smaller, less expensive, and available in larger numbers than the Navy’s mainstay DDG-51 Arleigh Burke destroyer — “and if LCS can meet that bill, do it, and modify it the ways it needs to [be modified]. And if it can’t, figure out something else.”
“Truncating that ship [LCS] and coming up with a new one: that is one of the options. That is not the only option,” Mabus emphasized. “One option that the secretary very clearly laid out is taking the LCS and modifying it.”
“We have done [this] with every type of naval ship before,” Mabus said. “We are now about to start building the fourth flight of the DDG-51 [i.e. the fourth major upgrade]. The same thing with the Virginia attack submarines: the subs that we are building today are about the third flight.”
So give LCS some time. “We are just beginning to operationally test the Littoral Combat Ship,” Mabus said. That’s not the most reassuring statement possible given that the government has committed to buy 24 of them. But LCS today is genuinely different from the train wreck it was a decade ago, when the Navy not only tried to force too much technological innovation into the program too fast but also changed its mind about construction standards when the first ships were already partly built. “You read about LCS and it’s the ‘controversial LCS with its cost overruns’ — what cost overruns?” Mabus said. “We have driven this cost down dramatically,” from over $750 million to about $350 million per ship.
A brand new design would have to go through this learning curve all over again — although hopefully the Navy would not make quite as many unforced errors — and, said Mabus, “it generally takes about a decade to get a design done and into the fleet.”
What about buying a new ship off the shelf? “There may be designs already out there,” Mabus admitted. “No. 1, I don’t think any foreign design is up to our standards. And, No. 2, I’m pretty sure that the Navy and Congress wouldn’t want to put Americans out of work doing that.”
This last point is politically astute but militarily dubious, if not disingenuous. US shipyards could easily build a foreign design in this country under license. (Even the current LCS variants are derived from Italian and Australian designs). LCS critics such as Norman Polmar could point to any number of European designs now in production, such as the British Type 23, the French FREMM, or the German MEKO, which they would consider superior. US-based Huntington-Ingalls has also proposed building a more battle-worthy variant of the National Security Cutter it currently builds for the Coast Guard.
No existing alternatives, however, could accommodate the “mission modules” now being developed for the Littoral Combat Ship. LCS was never actually intended to be a high-end combatant to fight high-tech opponents such as China: That’s what the Navy has destroyers and aircraft carriers for. LCS was cast as a versatile supporting actor with plug-and-play equipment kits to convert it from a general purpose patroller to a sub-hunter to — arguably, its most important mission — a minesweeper.
The pressing strategic question now, however, is whether LCS is “survivable” enough to perform those vital roles in the Western Pacific in the face of Chinese “anti-access/area denial” weapons such as attack submarines and anti-ship missiles. That threat was hardly on the radar when the Littoral Combat Ship was first designed. It is front and center now.