Is this the beginning of the end for LCS, or the end of the beginning.

CDR Salamander brings us news of the latest report from the Navy on the status of the LCS program. RADM Perez is the guy the Navy has tapped to steer the transition of the Littoral Combat Ship from acquisition to deployment.

While the Navy would not release the OPNAV report, a number of sources familiar with both LCS and the report said it lays out in greater detail the problems and issues confronting the entire LCS effort, including the concept of operations (CONOPS), manning shortages, maintenance and training concerns, modularity and mission module issues, and commonality problems between the two LCS variants.
It also cites problems with how the LCS is perceived in the fleet, how leadership presents LCS capabilities, and the need to effect changes in virtually every operational area.

So, basically, here were are, 10 years into the program, two hulls in the water for years now. Neither has yet deployed, save for a brief “show the flag” pleasure cruise around the Caribbean by LCS-1, and in spite of the pleas from many, many members of the Navy’s Surface Warfare community at the deckplate level, only now is the Flag Officer level of the Navy starting to admit that not everything is coming up roses.  I don’t envy RADM Perez one bit. His orders were to take what he was given, and make it work. I’m all for a “can do” attitude, but it is a prime duty leadership to give subordinates the resources they need to accomplish their mission. Handing off a dog’s breakfast and telling RADM Perez to “get ‘er done” isn’t in line with that.

The quoted paragraph above shows a very strong disconnect between the vision the of the ship during the earlier stages of the acquisition cycle and the reality of manning and deploying ships. 

The normal design and acquisition process for a ship (or anything else) is to define the roles and mission set, assess the capabilities needed to fulfill that set, and determine the best allocation of resources to meet that need. In this case, that process wasn’t so much flawed as ignored.

The genesis of the LCS program was in a book,  Fleet Tactics, written in 1986 by CAPT Wayne Hughes. It called for a concept of the “Streetfighter”- a very small combatant vessel for limited use in certain choke points around the world, such as the Straits of Hormuz, where an enemy with large numbers of small fast attack craft could conceivably overwhelm a small number of high end US combatants such as Tico cruisers or Burke destroyers. A large number of cheap US craft would offset that threat at minimum cost.  These small craft, through the use of data links, would have greater tactical agility than an opponent. They would also be able to leverage integration with the “Big Blue” side of the Navy, with support from major surface combatants and from carrier aviation.

Further, the program would have explicitly recognized that, given a  decent number of small combatants, these small craft would be expendable. The emphasis would not be on saving the ship, but rather the crew, much as the aviation community looks upon aircrew survival. In aviation, sure, every reasonable effort is made to save the plane, but in the end, there’s still the ejection seat. No one ever told an aircrew they should have died instead of ejecting.

This small, low cost platform would complement the fleet, not supplant it. That is, it had a relatively narrow mission set, useful only in certain geographic areas, in response to a fairly specific threat.

But there has long been a bias against small combatants in the US Navy, almost from the beginning of our history. For one thing, ship for ship, there’s very few things a small ship can do that a big ship can’t do better. Given limited funds for shipbuilding, operations, maintenance and manning, the trend therefore is to buy the most capable warship practicable. Alfred Thayer Mahan, in “The Influence of Seapower on History” made the very correct argument that a capable battlefleet, able to traverse the seas and operate offensively against an enemy, was almost always the better route than a mass of small combatants. The “fleet in being” would have the initiative to chose its time and place of attack, and its mass would smother any small combatant fleet. Further, because it had the initiative, an enemy would be forced to disperse it’s fleet to defend all possible objectives, further weakening its combat power, or be forced to leave many objectives undefended at all, inviting attack on those points. Since Thayer’s publication over a century before, this thesis has formed the core strategy of our Navy.

Further, right or wrong, small combatants would be commanded by relatively junior officers, and their small crews would mean the total population of the community would be relatively small. That small community would mean there would be relatively few opportunities for higher level command (such as division and squadron commanders) and hence a relatively small number of high ranking advocates to push for funding.

As the “Streetfighter” concept was being discussed in the think tanks and professional forums such as the US Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine, other factors came into play that would change a modest proposal for a ship for a niche role into a monstrosity that has come to symbolize almost everything wrong with shipbuilding today.

The Navy’s highly successful FFG-7 Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates were starting to get a bit long in the tooth. These ships had been designed with the bluewater escort of shipping foremost in mind. With the collapse of the Soviet Navy in the early 90s, they found themselves shunted more and more into performing missions that they weren’t optimized for.  More and more, the Navy found itself operating not on the high seas, but in the restricted waters of the littorals. Anti-access techniques of potential enemies such as Iran (and Iraq, back then) such as shallow water submarine warfare using quiet diesel electric subs, and seeding mines in straights, were threats the Perry’s were ill-equipped to face.

Simultaneously, the Navy found that its fleet of mine warfare ships, designed and bought during the Reagan buildup, were not especially successful ships. Many of them suffered from reliability issues with their propulsion systems. All of them were slow, and had little or no ability to operate directly with the main body of the fleet. Further, advances in minehunting and mine clearing technologies were looming on the horizon, and the mine warfare fleet had little room for growth on the smallish ships in service.

The fascination with “transformation” and the “revolution in military affairs,” which seems to me to be the trailing edge of the dot com boom in many ways,  led many in the defense industry to propose that doing more with less, without a rigorous historical analysis to guide change, was not only possible, but inevitable and always an unalloyed good. The Army (and to a lesser extent, the Marines) learned the hard way in Iraq and Afghanistan that many times, there is no substitute for quantity.  But the Navy, long a pioneer in information warfare, embraced the possibilities of transformation. It began to consider that single mission platforms would be replaced by single platforms capable of being configured for multiple missions. In the case of LCS, this flexibility was to be through treating the ship itself just a means for transporting and providing hotel services to various modules to support missions such as Anti-Surface Warfare, Anti-Submarine Warfare, and Mine Warfare. The fascination with technological revolution also lead to an assumption that many previously manpower intensive operations would be replaced by unmanned systems. Not just Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, but Unmanned Surface Vessels, and Unmanned
Undersea Vehicles would venture into harms way, instead of sailors. Unfortunately, the Navy’s vision far outstripped the state of the technology. Even after a decade of development, the Navy has been unable to produce the full spectrum of remote vehicles needed to make the LCS a viable combatant.

It’s often said that a camel is a horse designed by committee. But historically, the Navy has in fact designed its ships by committee. Various different institutions held this role, such as The General Board, but the point is that the various constituencies in the surface warfare community colluded to produce the best possible platform given the state of the art, needs of the fleet, and resources available.  Every ship is a compromise, and not everyone is always happy with the results, but overall, the US Navy has had a remarkable record of producing effective ships in the surface combatant category.  But there has been a trend in the last 40 years or so for the Chief of Naval Operations to exert an influence over ship design over and above that of the various constituencies in the Navy. When ADM Zumwalt laid down the law and almost singlehandedly drove the configuration of the FFG-7 class in an effort to hold down shipbuilding costs, he set the precedent that the CNO would have an outsized voice in how ships would be configured. Not all CNOs had success in mandating future ship designs.  The Arsenal Ship was one such pet project that never came to fruition. But a succession of CNOs have driven the design and purchase of the LCS. “Imperatives” for the design such as the insistence on incredibly high speed, and extremely austere manning compromised the capabilities of the concept, and drove up costs far beyond the austere platform originally envisaged.  And any flag officer at the one or two star level, charged with the program management of LCS, may or may not truly believe the future of naval warfare lies along the line of LCS. But given that telling the CNO his pet project is fundamentally flawed is likely to have negative career effects when it comes time for CNO to recommend people for promotions, it takes a man of far more than normal moral courage to call a spade a spade. Sadly, until recently, virtually no flag officer has been willing to make any realistic objection to the shortcomings of he entire program.

So here we are, now with two ships in commission, and another 9 or 10 on the way.  The original concepts behind the program have been shown to be unrealistic, in spite untold millions of PowerPoint slides testifying to the contrary.  But having been given a ship, the fleet is being told to find something it can do.  Again, via CDR Salamander:

“As I looked at some of the draft documentation to say how we’re going to run LCS, what I thought we needed to do was a rebaselining, understanding how much information we’ve generated on how we’re going to operate these ships, and take that and build a foundation,” said Rear Adm. Thomas Rowden, OPNAV’s director of surface warfare, during an interview at the Pentagon. “I will call this a concept of employment, or CONEMP.”
Rowden is leading the work to coordinate and compile the LCS analytical efforts.
“The reality of it is, it’s time to step back and say, what did we get wrong here?”

I think in the interest of economy of time, the real question would  be, did they get anything right? RADM Rowden’s comments can only be seen as an effort to find something that the LCS can do without unduly risking its crews.  Good luck with that.

Galrahn, at Information Dissemination, a longtime supporter of the LCS concept, has a different take on the OPNAV report from RADM Perez.

The report being discussed here is better known as the “Perez Report,” and it is important. Basically the report is the first of it’s kind produced by the Navy that comprehensively highlights everything wrong with the Littoral Combat Ship, but it also goes on to inform solutions towards those problems and how to make LCS work. The report is important because it knocks down a lot of the straw man arguments about LCS and gives a fair assessment, warts and all. The Navy has been sitting on the report since March, probably for good reasons from their point of view, but I tend to think it is one of those reports that needs to see the light of day, because I tend to think once it is recognized what the LCS cannot do well, the LCS can be used for things it can do well.
Depending upon what you think of LCS, the Perez Report is either the death nail into the coffin of this program, or what finally got the program moving forward in a more realistic way. I tend to be in the second group, but there will be plenty of folks who think the report represents the first group.

I think that eventually the concept of motherships and remote platforms will bear useful fruit. But the state of the art isn’t there yet. Further, if a ship is primarily to serve as a platform from which to operate offboard assets, that argues strongly for a larger vessel than the corvette/frigate sized LCS. In fact, the Navy looked at using supertanker derivatives as weapon and sensor platforms. Larger hulls can be subdivided extensively, and in the tanker wars of the 80s, proved remarkably difficult to sink or even severely damage. It isn’t increasing the size of a ship that drives the cost or the manning. It is the increase in payloads, sensors and weapons that drives these up.

Rather than committing the Navy to a buy of 55 LCS ships (or more realistically, 24 ships) based on an entirely new concept of naval warfare before any realistic payloads of sensors and weapons have been validated, the Navy would have been far better served to adopt a prototyping process where subsystems would be sea tested on existing platforms one at a time. Only after they are proven (and the associated footprints and support needed ascertained with confidence) should a seaframe to support them be developed. Instead, the Navy started with (and overly ambitious) seaframe concept, and now finds itself trying to shoehorn whatever capability it can into them.

John Patch, at the respected Armed Forced Journal, pens a nice article that recaps the most common criticisms of the LCS program, and offers two of the most popular responses to this embarrassing acquisition boondoggle.

The Navy is moving apace to stabilize the Littoral Combat Ship program and integrate it into a new fleet design. Upon reading LCS-focused maritime blogs and articles, one might think the time for debate has passed. Some suggest that the most useful path for think tanks, the maritime defense industry, the Defense Department, the Navy and maritime thinkers is to accept Navy LCS decisions and support the effort.

In fairness, the Navy and shipbuilders have made noteworthy efforts to resolve LCS problems. Still, important concerns about the class persist, and the debate is far from over as to what hull type will best provide a viable surface combatant for low-end, high-demand missions. Touted for a decade as a three-class replacement optimized for high-threat littoral waters and designed for numerous missions, the LCS can at present can deliver none of the promised capabilities, except speed. It will do so at great cost and at the expense of producing a more balanced small warship that might actually satisfy the combatant commanders’ demands for low-end ships for “phase zero” shaping missions (regional engagement, antipiracy, freedom of navigation operations, presence, etc.) and other roles that higher-end destroyers and cruisers are too busy to accomplish.

This article provides a brief summary of the remaining LCS areas of concern and presents two options that could meet the Navy’s f
orce structure and fleet design goals, as well as combatant commanders’ requirements.

Read the whole thing. It’s pretty short.

If, as is likely, the Navy forges ahead with plans to acquire a large number of LCS, it will find itself with a very significant portion of its surface fleet as lightly built, lightly armed, short legged ships with limited sensors, and little or no ability to influence events in any but the most benign environments. Let us hope that either senior naval leadership or our elected representatives  put a stop to this foolishness before it is too late.

4 thoughts on “Is this the beginning of the end for LCS, or the end of the beginning.”

  1. When I was on Courtney, we had 9 ships home ported in Naples, Cascade (Destroyer Tender, AKA “The Sea Monster”), Courtney, Lester, Hammerberg (All Dealey Class DEs), an Graham County (an LST converted to a PG tender), and 4 PGs. The Graham County and the 4 PGs were later transferred to Turkey, and the rest of the ships were Decommissioned as they were old and a lot worse for the wear (Keels were buckling on all the Dealeys, and Cascade had a 16′ long “gash” they had no idea how it opened).

    The PGs got around the Med quite well, and we ran into them frequently. An updated version with a large “mother ship” capable of operating from Diego Garcia, or any of the ports in Oman. We could even take an existing inlet and build a suitable port even if we have to enlarge it, possibly within easy cruising range for the PGs.

    My personal opinion is that LCS was a ship looking for a mission, and that it would be hard to equip and man it for multiple missions. One of the FFGs would have been a better choice, although it would not be adequate for the Strait of Hormuz type of mission. The PG would be about the largest ship that you could live with in such a situation, and the type of sensors and small weaponry needed would fit on a PG. The PGs I knew had a single 3″-50 forward, but I would probably replace that with something like a twin 40mm or perhaps even a 25mm chain gun. With drones for over the horizon stuff as part of the squadron organic equipment (use a FFG as a flag ship, say) you could have a pretty good small craft sting.

    I’m just thinking out loud here and using references from my time in. This is not something I would posit as the end all. GIven the short distances involved, you could probably fly a drone off a land base in Oman, or even Diego Garcia (somewhat further away and requiring something larger).

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