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.


So, Elizzar asked in the comments from yesterday’s links post:

what about the zumwalt class, do you think they should be axed now (i do)?

I’m actually far less critical of the DDG-1000 USS Zumwalt than I am of the Littoral Combat Ship program.

The DDG-1000 is expensive. Let’s be honest and admit it, the cost is stupendous.  But there are some major differences between this program and LCS.

For one thing, LCS is actually two, TWO programs in one. Two ships, completely different designs, combat systems, training programs, maintenance and training pipelines, you name it. Even if either iteration of LCS was all that and a bag of chips, the dual track nature of the program is still terribly wasteful, duplicating costs while providing no discernable benefit.

I find it interesting that LCS started kinda sorta as a research project and has evolved into a full blown production program. DDG-1000 started as a full blown production program, but has since been scaled back to something akin to a long term research program.

Both the LCS and the DDG-1000 programs use a lot of new, untested technologies. But whereas the LCS program sometimes seems to have been a case where new ideas were tossed in just because, in the DDG-1000 program, the new technologies were inserted to fulfill specific requirements.  Whether those choices were right and proper is certainly debatable, but there was at least a thought process involved.

For you non-naval types, let’s take a brief look at the Zumwalt.


Click to embiggenfy

While the DDG-1000 is classified as a Destroyer, it is far larger than any previous destroyer in the world, and larger than many cruisers. The radical tumblehome hull form was adopted for stealth characteristics. Same thing with the weird looking composite deckhouse. It’s made of composites sandwiched around balsa wood.

The new Multifunction Radar (MFR) and Dual Band Radar DBR) were designed to operate more effectively in the littorals, which have a huge amount of radar clutter.

The Integrated Power System means the main powerplant no longer drives the screw shafts, but is a large electrical generation plant. Electric motors drive the screws. That adds costs and complexity to the design, but also has some benefits. With the incredible proliferation of electronics aboard warships, older designs can become power critical, with Ships Service Turbine Generators unable to provide the margin needed. By integrating the entire plant, the ship will have plenty of generation capacity. It also provides some level of graceful degradation in a damage control sense. Any part of the generation system can power either shaft.

The Total Ship Computing Environment is  a reflection 0f the fact that the last series of Destroyers, the DDG-51 class, was designed before the personal computer revolution. Yes, ships did have computers, especially for applications such as NTDS, but the idea of virtually everything being networked was far, far in the future.

The Peripheral Vertical Launch System addresses a weakness of the current Mk41 VLS. As a single unit, if any  part of the Mk41 is damaged, the whole system is likely unavailable, cutting a ship’s firepower in half or more. And should a Mk41 explode, being on the centerline, there’s a goodly chance it would break the ship’s keel, and lead to the loss of the ship. The Mk57 PVLS uses several modules mounted away from the ship’s centerline. The loss of any one would be bad, but not catastrophic. Similarly, an explosion in one would vent outboard, and while would be very bad, would be far less likely to lead to the loss of the ship.

The 155mm Advanced Gun System is a recognition that the 5”/62 gun on major US warships is really not much of a weapon when it comes to supporting Marine maneuver on the ground.

All of these innovations are expensive. But the history of warship design suggests strongly that many of them will become the normal technique for shipbuilding in coming generations.  Will some be mere historical curiosities? Likely, yes. But many more will likely be normal.

Further, where the LCS program bought a hull and propulsion system, and then tried to design innovative technologies alongside, the DDG-1K has developed and tested prototypes of most of the technologies before ever cutting ship steel. There have certainly been technical issues with some of the components, but it’s a lot easier to fix a design before you install it on a ship.

The stupendous budget for DDG-1000 has mostly been in the research and development of the underlying innovations. Yes, the ship itself is painfully expensive, but not by the orders of magnitude you might think looking at the raw budget numbers.  And the lessons learned developing the technologies is corporate knowledge that will stay with the Navy.

Programmatically,  the program has been almost a poster child for effective program management when compared to the utter “dumpster fire” that LCS has been.

So while I’m not a huge fan of DDG-1000, and think quite a few of the underlying assumptions behind the program are flawed, I’m not terribly keen to see it cancelled. I think as the three ships enter the fleet and become something akin to operational testbeds, they’ll serve as interesting and useful think tanks to advance naval science.