How not to design warships

Littoral Combat Ship LCS-1 USS Freedom
Image by avhell via Flickr

This article at Danger Room has been making the rounds. It is probably the best non-technical explanation of what a disaster the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship program has been.

With an enormous splash and cheers from spectators, the 378-foot-long vessel Freedom slid sideways into the Menominee River in Wisconsin. It was Sept. 23, 2006, and the U.S. Navy had just launched its first brand-new warship class in nearly 20 years.

Freedom also represented a new strategy. Where previous warships had been tailored for open-ocean warfare using guns, missiles and torpedoes, Freedom — the first so-called Littoral Combat Ship, or LCS — was designed for a new kind of coastal combat. It was smaller, more maneuverable. And instead of relying on sheer firepower, it carried few of its own weapons. Instead, it would function as a mothership for super-sophisticated robots that would do most of the ship’s fighting.

Freedom was also cheaper than older ships: just $600 million, compared to more than $1 billion for most other vessels. The Navy hoped to buy as many as 55 LCSs for around $40 billion, reversing the U.S. fleet’s steady numerical decline that began in the late 1980s.

There was so much promise invested in one “small” ship. “It comes none too soon,” Adm. Mike Mullen, then chief of naval operations, said of Freedom’s arrival, “because there are tough challenges out there that only she can handle.”

But the fanfare and Mullen’s optimism masked deep problems in the LCS program. Freedom was years late and $400 million over its original cost estimate. None of its robotic systems was ready for combat. Five years later, they still weren’t ready, preventing Freedom from undertaking any real-world missions more serious than a Caribbean drug hunt.

Meanwhile, the Chinese, faced with a somewhat different problem in the littorals, have managed to put into being a reasonable response, and in huge numbers.