Is the Navy finally taking a second look at its insane LCS policy?

Interesting news from Defense News about the future of the surface Navy.

A recommended re-evaluation of the next flights of LCSs — beyond the 24 ships now delivered, under construction, on order or with contract options — is only part of a classified memo, “Vision for the 2025 Surface Fleet,” submitted late last year by the head of Naval Surface Forces, Vice Adm. Tom Copeman, to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert. The Navy’s current plans call for building 52 littoral combat ships, so if the service opted to go in a different direction it would essentially cut the LCS program of record in half.

VADM Copeman, in effect the senior Surface Warfare Officer, has a slew of good ideas.

The entirety of the LCS program is deeply flawed, right from the conception that the Navy really, really needed a ship that was virtually unarmed, yet could sprint at 45-50 knots speed, and yet be large enough (~3000 tons) to self deploy world wide. That mismatch of capabilities drove hull shape choices, power plant choices, limitations on construction standards (which directly influences both damage control ability, and useful ship lifetimes), sensor and weapons suite capability, and multi-role function.

Having chosen a flawed concept, the Navy double down on its insanity. The original idea of prototyping two competing designs, each with different hull forms, combat suites, manufacturing and support efforts and power plants, all pretty much never used before, had a lot to recommend it. The idea was that one or two of each competing design would be built, deployed, tested, and then the design best suited for the Navy would be put into serial production, and the other design shelved.

The problem was, both designs were so awful that the initial ship in each class has been complete for years now, and only this month has one of them even been able to finally depart on its first deployment. No real information on the abilities and liabilities of either design been accumulated.

But the Navy is desperately short on ships, a condition that is only getting worse.  So the idea of downselecting to one program was tossed out, and both ships were ordered into production. One suspects a good deal of corporate rentseeking was at work here. Both design teams have spread around contracts to numerous congressional districts with powerful representatives, making it far more difficult to cancel either program. And if the Navy had chose just one design, the almost inevitable contract protest would have tied the Navy in knots for years, with cases winding their way through the courts, at immense expense to the taxpayer, and no benefit to the Navy.

So here we are, with the Navy already contracted for 24 of a planned 52 LCS ships (a dozen of each of the competing designs). VADM Copeman’s document is the first to see the light of day from Big Navy that even raises the possibility that maybe the LCS isn’t what the Navy needs. I’m rather surprised he hasn’t been hung from the yardarm yet.

Is upgunning one of the designs the right way to go? I  don’t know. I suspect it isn’t, but it may be quicker than any alternative, which has a merit of its own. Drawing out a shipbuilding program over more years is rarely a way of saving money or improving the product.  Personally, I’d probably rather see a “half a Burke” platform, with the powerplant cut in half, a smaller missile battery, and a lightweight SPY-1F/SPY-1K combat system. But the temptation to gold plate such a platform would be almost unbearable, and you’d quickly wind up simply buying more of the regular DDG-51 Burke’s, which, since the whole point is to find a low cost, low end ship, would defeat the purpose.

As to the Flight III Burke, with its Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR) to replace the current SPY-1D/Aegis combat system, VADM Copeman is leery of pushing the Burke platform to such fine growth margins. That’s a fair concern. But personally, I’d like to see a short run of Flt III ships shake out the AMDR before we take the next logical step of building a newer, more powerful plant and hull.  Built a little, test a lot, learn a lot.

Whatever differences of opinion I may have with VADM Copeman, I certainly am glad to see someone with some rational thought applied to the composition of the surface fleet, and the Navy’s shipbuilding program.

{Update}- Of course, CDR Salamander had his take up first, and more comprehensively.