LCS out at 24?

The Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship program has been something of a disaster from Day One.  What started as a small program to explore future concepts of surface warfare for some niche mission sets has, like so many programs before, grown to the point where the survival of the program is more important than the product of the program.  Current plans call for 52 to 55 ships to enter the fleet.

But the Office of the Secretary of Defense, in this age of shrinking budget numbers, is looking for low hanging fruit to prune from the budget tree, and LCS is hanging pretty low.

CDR Salamander points us to a Navy Times article that says OSD may truncate the program at 24 ships.

The Office of the Secretary of Defense reportedly supports the idea of limiting total purchases of littoral combat ships to only 24, far short of the Navy’s goal of 52 ships, sources say.

Stopping at 24 ships would end LCS procurement with the fiscal 2015 budget.

The Navy, according to what sources told Defense News, which is owned by Navy Times’ parent company, is countering with proposals for higher numbers, but strongly advocates going no lower than 32 ships — a number that would continue production another one or two years.

The positions are part of ongoing deliberations to formulate the fiscal 2015 defense budget, due to be submitted to Congress in February. The annual budget process has been heavily disrupted due to sequester cuts, and the White House’s insistence on producing two versions of the budget — a non-sequestration version, called the program objective memorandum — and an alternative POM, incorporating the mandated cuts and hence, far more severe reductions in purchases and programs.

Pentagon budget officials have focused primarily on the ALT POM, and in late August began switching to the POM. The OSD proposal to limit LCS to 24 ships is understood to be part of the ALT POM discussions.

Noted elsewhere in the article is a directive to the Navy to focus on getting the Mine Countermeasures Module for the LCS operational and fielded. That’s actually pretty good advice. The current MCM fleet is slated to be replaced by the LCS family, and is one that is desperately in need of modernization.   And MCM has traditionally been slighted by Big Navy, despite the fact that cheap World War I technology mines have done great damage to Navy ships. The USS Samuel B. Roberts, USS Princeton, and USS Tripoli all come to mind as ships badly damaged in the Persian Gulf by simple mines. So OSD giving the Navy a little focus on an important mission, and killing the rest of the LCS program makes sense.

There is, of course, a downside. Those of us opposed to the LCS program have, for nearly a decade now, called for the end of the program with the understanding that it should be replaced with a low cost, multipurpose low end combatant, a replacement for the FFG-7 Perry class frigates* But that won’t happen. When OSD kills LCS, what it will get instead is… nothing. That means the trendline of shrinking surface ships in an already shrinking Navy will get worse. And that’s a bad thing.

But the Navy has done such a poor job of justifying its surface battle fleet to OSD, Congress and the American people that no one trusts it to do any better in a follow on program.

Maybe if Big Navy spent more time thinking about what its mission is, and less worrying about diversity efforts, more people would trust it.

*I understand that the need for an ocean escort optimized for blue water anti-sub warfare has changed. But there will always be a need for low end ships to handle those missions that don’t call for a full up Burke class DDG. Do we really need a Burke for anti-piracy patrols? Or could we maybe get by with a frigate there?