WASHINGTON: The day before the Defense Department unveils a budget that cuts the Littoral Combat Ship program, news broke that two top senators had slammed the controversial vessel in a letter to the Chief of Naval Operations. That letter and our analysis follow:
Senate Armed Services Committee chairman — and decorated Navy pilot — John McCain is no friend of LCS, but he and SASC’s ranking Democrat, Jack Reed, were unusually scathing in their February 5 letter to the CNO, Adm. John Richardson. Citing last week’s report by the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation — another longtime critic of LCS — the senators say the ship is alarmingly behind in its development. It’s so far behind, they suggested, that the Navy ought to reconsider planned deployments of the Littoral Combat Ships it already has to Singapore, devoting the ships to testing instead. Indeed, the ships sent to Singapore so far have suffered multiple embarrassing breakdowns.
The rest of the letter was a withering dissection of Navy leaders’ past praise for LCS.
“These statements do not appear to reflect the reality of the LCS program,” the senators said. LCS lacks the long-range endurance to keep up with aircraft carrier battle groups, its mine-clearing and submarine-hunting “mission modules” are behind schedule, and its armament against other surface vessels currently consists only of short-ranged guns.
When Navy Secretary Ray Mabus boasts that the future addition of a long-range anti-ship missile will render LCS wolfpacks “capable of putting the enemy fleet on the bottom of the ocean,” the senators reply, “unless the enemy fleet consists of a small number of lightly armed boats at extremely short range, we fail to see how LCS reality is consistent with the Secretary’s remarks.”
Is this bitter criticism fair? Certainly the Littoral Combat Ship was badly managed at the beginning — like many weapons programs — with too much ambition and too little analysis, and the program is still paying the price today. In particular, much of the ship’s cost and tonnage goes to tremendously powerful engines able to roar through the water at over 40 knots, an impressive capability with no clear tactical use. LCS has also suffered numerous schedule delays and technical defects. And current Pentagon leadership prefers large surface combatants like destroyers, which are more suited to high-end warfare, to small surface combatants like LCS, which are less powerful and less robust.
That said, the Navy does need a cheaper, smaller vessel it can buy and deploy in large numbers, both for solo missions in low-threat areas and for supporting the fleet in warzones. The cost per LCS has dropped dramatically over the years, and its modular design makes it easier to upgrade than traditional vessels. The hard part now is getting the upgrades — those mission-specific packages for anti-ship, anti-submarine, and anti-mine operations — tested and deployed.