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Littoral Combat Ship Cut Plan Reopens Navy Rift: Build ‘Em Fast Or Rugged

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

The two Littoral Combat Ship variants, LCS-1 Freedom (far) and LCS-2 Independence (near).

The two Littoral Combat Ship variants, LCS-1 Freedom (far) and LCS-2 Independence (near).

CRYSTAL CITY: The Littoral Combat Ship was supposed to be one of the fastest things in the fleet, but it seems like the skeptics – and the sequester – have caught up with it. The question is, what’s next?

After a Pentagon memo  recommended slashing the program by more than a third — from 52 ships to 32 — its backers came out swinging. “We have heard for the past 12 years about the importance of the LCS to our future Navy,” House seapower subcommittee chairman Rep. Randy Forbes said in a press release Thursday afternoon. “Although this platform has had its share of development difficulties, I believe it has a necessary role to play in the future fleet.”

What’s more, LCS proponents have at least a year to reverse the decision. The Navy is locked into a long-term contract for Littoral Combat Ships that ends in fiscal year 2015 with the purchase of the 24th LCS. Short of breaking that contract and paying penalties, the Pentagon can do nothing to LCS in the budget it is currently preparing to send to Congress. “This year is another oversight year and next year is a decision year,” one Hill source told me. What will really decide the LCS’s fate is the next contract, which will be in the 2016 budget.

It’s also possible that there could be no new contract and no 2016 money at all, which would end the program at 24 ships. The 32-ship number leaked this week certainly has the smell of an internal Pentagon compromise between going the full 52 and stopping dead at 24. Noted naval analyst, author, and LCS critic Norman Polmar still hopes the slam-on-the-breaks school will prevail: “24 might be a better total number for the current LCS program,” he told me in an email.

Then there’s the bigger picture. However many Littoral Combat Ships are cut – and at least some will be in this brutal budget environment – the Navy needs to start thinking hard about what to buy instead. The deeper the cut, the faster they need to figure something out. Stopping LCS at 24 ships would have given the Navy only a year to figure out its next move. Even the 32-ship compromise means the last pair of ships would be bought no later than fiscal 2019, an eyeblink for developing a new warship design.

“With 20 fewer LCSs in the plan, I presume the Navy must be looking at another small or medium-sized combatant,” Eric Labs, a naval expert at the Congressional Budget Office, said Thursday at the Surface Navy Association’s annual conference. But what is the other ship? And for what purpose?

LCS is meant to enter shallow waters — the littorals — in order to either clear minefields, hunt enemy submarines, or fend off fast attack boats, depending on which of three plug-and-play “mission modules” is fitted to the basic hull. (Just to complicate things further, there are two radically different hull designs: a kind of giant speedboat built by Lockheed Martin and Marinette Marine; and a spaceship-like trimaran built by General Dynamics and Austal).

Are those three missions the right priorities?, asked Congressional Research Service analyst Ronald O’Rourke. If so, are they best done by the same ship? If so, should that ship be small and fast, like the LCS?

“What’s amazing to me is just how often and how far way the discussion of LCS drifted from these central questions,” O’Rourke said. Much of the fault was the Navy’s. For a decade, he said, “the Navy continued to throw more missions into the discussion and to further confuse the issue of what it is we were really supposed to be trying to accomplish with this program.”

But the mistakes began at the very beginning, O’Rourke went on: “The Navy, prior to announcing the LCS as its preferred solution for performing those missions, never performed a rigorous analysis of multiple concepts to show that a small, fast, modular ship was in fact the best and most promising way to do it.”

So controversial was the small-and-fast approach, in fact, that some in the Navy dubbed the LCS the “little f*cking ship.” The Pentagon’s notoriously independent Director of Operational Test & Evaluation said the design was too small and too lightly built to keep fighting after it took a hit in combat — not a fatal flaw for the supporting roles it was meant to fill, but definitely a flaw.

The LCS did get built — after massive initial cost overruns now under control — although maintenance problems have marred its performance, including electrical plant failures that left it adrift on its first overseas deployment. Now, after surviving all these problems and criticism, the program’s fate is again in question.

Cutting the Littoral Combat Ship reopens a debate at the heart of the Navy: Should the fleet continue its traditional approach of buying a relatively small number of relatively large ships, like its current workhorse the DDG-51 Arleigh Burke destroyer, or buy more, smaller vessels, like LCS? In fact, LCS was itself a scaled-up version of the late Adm. Arthur Cebrowski’s “Streetfighter” concept, a vessel intended to be so small and cheap it was effectively expendable. In the information age, Cebrowski argued, you didn’t have to put all your weapons and sensors on a single big ship: You could have multiple small vessels linked by a network and working in concert. If any one of them got sunk, you had plenty more.

Most Navy officers were aghast, unsurprisingly. Ever since the USS Constitution – “Old Ironsides” – with her famously cannonball-resistant hull, the US Navy has wanted ships that could take a hit and keep on fighting. The counterargument: In an era when a single suicide boat can cripple a destroyer (the USS Cole) or a single missile a frigate (the USS Stark), the Old Ironsides model just doesn’t apply anymore.

“These two sides in the debate almost seem to be talking past each other,” O’Rourke said. “A key point of departure, a fork in the road that sends the groups down different paths, has to do with a fundamental difference they appear to have on future surface ship survivability.”

The small-ship insurrectionists believe that bigger doesn’t mean much more robust, not in the face of modern weapons, and that incoming threats move too fast to stop. The Navy mainstream believes that size does matter and self-defense is possible. The Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, in particular argues that ships can protect themselves in the 21st century if they limit their own tell-tale electromagnetic emissions, deceive enemy targeting systems with electronic jamming or cyber warfare, and as a last resort shoot down incoming missiles with anti-missile missiles of their own — or, in the future, lasers.

That’s a debate that goes well beyond the Littoral Combat Ship and whatever comes after it. It also goes to how the Navy replaces its aging Arleigh Burke destroyers after it cancelled one replacement program and truncated the other, the DDG-1000, at just three ships. Upgraded Arleigh Burkes are now supposed to stay in service until 2072.

The Navy is already contemplating a “Future Surface Combatant,” said Rear Adm. Thomas Rowden, the Navy’s director of surface warfare (aka staff section N96). It will be “the later part of the ’20s when we’re going to start contracting for these… to replace our cruisers,” the aging Ticonderoga class, Rowden told the Surface Navy Association conference.

The admiral had a slide of what the new vessel might look like, but he made clear fundamental choices were on the table. That includes questioning the Navy’s longstanding preference for large, versatile “multi-mission ships” like the current DDG-51s, he said. What he did not say was that the alternative would be something like the LCS, which can do only one mission at a time, depending on which mission module is currently aboard.

One thing the Navy definitely does want is more electrical power to run everything from radars to jammers to future laser weapons and rail guns, as well as the ship’s propellers, off a single integrated system. “I think it is about integrated power on the right size ship. I think it is about the right weapons,” Rowden said. “I think it is about affordability, affordability, affordability.”

For the foreseeable future, affordability probably will be priority number one.

What do you think?