CAPITOL HILL: The war over the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship is far from over. This morning, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain warned Navy leaders that their drive towards an upgraded LCS frigate may be repeating the mistakes that resulted in the original, much-criticized LCS design.
“Without a clear capabilities-based assessment, it is not clear what operational requirements the upgraded LCS is designed to meet,” McCain said. “The Navy must demonstrate what problem the upgraded LCS is trying to solve. We must not make this mistake again.”
The biggest controversy over the Littoral Combat Ship has been its inability to survive in combat. At this morning’s hearing, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus acknowledged a small ship would never be as tough as a full-size destroyer but that “survivability — for a small surface combatant, particularly with the upgrades — meets our fleet requirements.”
That sounds okay, but it begs the crucial question: Are the requirements right? Meeting the standard doesn’t help if the standard is set too low. Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi reactor was designed with the requirement to survive anything short of a once-in-a-century storm, for example, but it turned out that 100-year-storm occurred a lot earlier than anticipated.
For another example, both the current and upgraded LCS designs have radically unorthodox hulls and disproportionately massive powerplants — with a complex combination of both diesel and turbine engines — because the Navy wants the ships to go faster than 40 knots. That’s staggeringly fast for a warship, about 30 percent faster than an Aegis destroyer. But no one in the Navy seems to have ever figured out quite what to do with all that expensive speed in a real-world tactical situation. It’s a solution searching for a problem.
Skeptics argue that launching helicopters, drones, and missiles provides far faster response at far less cost than trying to accelerate the whole ship. A requirement that sounded intuitively awesome to the admirals might have proven excessive if subjected to rigorous analysis, but that analysis wasn’t done.
The Navy did conduct a great deal of analysis before settling on the upgraded LCS designs — but much of that analysis was based on naval officers’ intuition and experience. A Small Surface Combatant Task Force conducted extensive focus groups with experienced officers across the fleet, asking them to rate the value of different capabilities and make tradeoffs among them to determine the highest priorities. The SSCTF then used computer modeling to work through thousands of alternative designs, from all-new warships to foreign designs to modifications of the existing LCS, ultimately choosing a modified LCS to absolutely no one’s surprise.
That was work worth doing, but it can’t replace the traditional process of formal analysis, Congressional Research Service analyst Ron O’Rourke argues in a recent study. O’Rourke takes issue not with the Small Surface Combatant Task Force itself, but with then-Secretary Chuck Hagel’s February 2014 memorandum that rebooted LCS in the first place.
“[There are] two formal, rigorous analyses that do not appear to have been conducted prior to the announcement of the program’s restructuring,” O’Rourke writes. Before you commit taxpayer dollars to a weapons program, you traditionally take three steps, he writes: “ identify capability gaps and mission needs;  compare potential general approaches for filling those capability gaps or mission needs…and  refine the approach selected as the best or most promising.” In short, you figure out what problem you’re trying to solve, then how to solve it, then how best to implement that solution. The upgraded LCS skipped the first two steps.
Specifically, the Small Surface Ship Combatant Task Force did Step No. 3. The SSCTF was created to examine existing, all-new, and modified designs for “a more lethal and survivable small surface combatant, with capabilities generally consistent with those of a frigate.” After extensive analysis, the task force came up with the ship that met those criteria best. But it was Hagel’s memo that set those criteria. It did so with no evident analysis of what specific problem the frigate was supposed to solve. Nor was there analysis of whether a frigate was the best solution, as opposed to some other kind of ship or something else altogether — for example a larger ship, an aircraft, or new tactics.
“Having refined the design concept for [the upgraded LCS], the Navy will now define and seek approval for the operational requirements for the ship,” O’Rourke writes. “Skeptics might argue that definition and approval of operational requirements should come first, and conceptual design should follow, not the other way around.”
For an expert like O’Rourke to pose the question is itself significant: He’s one of the most respected naval analysts around, and his job at CRS is specifically about advising Congress. For a bulldog like McCain to promise oversight on the issue raises it to a higher level — one the Pentagon needs to deal with.