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Navy's No. 2 Civilian Chronicles Missteps in Littoral Combat Ship
By Sandra I. Erwin

Few Navy ships have been as doggedly assailed by naysayers as the Littoral Combat Ship, laments Navy Undersecretary Robert O. Work.

It’s been called the wrong ship at the wrong time. Critics compare LCS to a guided missile frigate and find it wanting. Other contend that there are better, longer-legged ships for global maritime operations. Another camp has argued that the Navy would be better served by fast-attack craft or small corvettes armed with anti-ship missiles.

Work, who has for years been one of the Navy’s most ardent defenders of LCS, contends in a new white paper that although critics are entitled to their opinions, they continue to miss the point about LCS.

The ship will never satisfy anyone who still dreams of the 600-ship Cold War Navy and views LCS as a retreat, Work suggests. These critics should stop living in denial about the Navy’s future and see LCS as the beginning of a new era that conforms to fiscal and political realities.

Work’s 64-page paper, “The Littoral Combat Ship: How We Got Here, and Why,” was recently published by the U.S. Naval War College, in Newport, R.I.

The school’s dean of the center for naval warfare studies, Robert C. “Barney” Rubel, says Work’s paper is not a “sales brochure” or an apologia for the LCS but rather an objective account of the decisions — both good and bad — that propelled the ship from concept to production over the past 12 years.

“The Littoral Combat Ship has been a controversial program from its inception,” Rubel writes in the paper’s foreword. “To date, Navy attempts to defend the program have not succeeded in quieting the criticism, and the various technical and operational difficulties experienced by the first two vessels [LCS 1 and LCS 2] have not helped matters,” Rubel adds. “Perhaps the most serious objection is that the Navy charged into series production without having a clear idea of how the ship would be used.”

Work is known to be a meticulous researcher who has a comprehensive grasp of Navy force structure and fleet issues, Rubel says. And is aware that LCS does not fit easily into the existing Navy mindset and is being judged by traditional criteria.

Work for years has sought to convince detractors that LCS was not a substitute for larger warships and was designed to be part of a “networked battle force,” a concept that in recent years has fallen out of vogue. The Navy currently organizes deployed forces in autonomous battle groups positioned around aircraft carriers or amphibious ships. And it is not yet clear how LCS would fit into that structure.

The LCS class consists of two variants: Freedom and Independence. Each hull will be outfitted with warfare systems that can be changed out quickly. The Navy launched the program in November 2001. Twenty ships — 10 of each variant — will be purchased over the next five years. The long-term goal is to acquire 55.

Work asserts that LCS is intended to fill a unique role that no other ship currently satisfies. “Introduction of the LCS, assuming the surface warfare community opens its mind to the full range of potential roles for smaller combatants, provides a practical basis for the development of a new naval operational art, oriented on combined arms,” he writes. “The U.S. Navy needs a different component for its battle force: an affordable, self-deployable and reconfigurable multirole warship designed for naval battle network operations in contested littorals.”

A key justification for LCS, Work contends, is its price tag. Even if ship costs have escalated to more than double its original estimates, LCS is the only ship the Navy can afford to buy in numbers, he says. With a combat fleet that has shrunk over the past two decades from nearly 600 to 288 ships, LCS is the Navy’s best hope to get back to 300 vessels in the coming decade, he suggests.

If the Navy still believes that there is a valid need for a small combatant like LCS, he says, “It is past time for the Navy to focus on the ship’s transition to fleet service, which has been too long ignored.”

Work does lay some blame on Navy leaders for not being transparent from the beginning about the purpose of LCS. The seemingly “abrupt adoption” of the ship only four months after Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Vernon Clark took office came “without any of the supporting material typically associated with a new shipbuilding program, such as a formal, rigorous analysis of alternatives or analysis of alternative concepts,” Work says.

To this day, critics continue to complain about the ship’s “analytical virgin birth,” Work says. “Even if true, this is a moot argument. … There was a compelling programmatic need for an affordable warship that could be built in numbers, and a pressing battle force requirement to defeat mines, fast attack craft and boats, and diesel submarines” in water close to the shore that require small vessels.

The sudden inclusion of the ship in Navy strategic plans “caught many inside and outside the department of the Navy by surprise, causing some to question the justification for such a ship,” Work adds. “Admiral Clark didn’t need any analysis to tell him the Navy desperately needed an affordable ship it could build in numbers in order to maintain the size of the surface combatant fleet. … LCS would be his answer.”

In 2001, the Navy faced the impending retirement of more than 50 destroyers and frigates. The Pentagon then assumed the Navy would be able to buy no fewer than three mission-equipped LCSs for the price of one Arleigh Burke DDG. That meant each LCS would cost about $400 million. Clark upped the ante by promising LCS for $250 million.

“Navy leaders knew there was no way to build a ‘multi-warfare capable ship’ with the unconstrained capabilities desired by war game players for $400 million, much less $250 million,” Work says.

Even more alarming than the price tag was the ship’s perceived vulnerability against enemy weapons. Critics’ fears were reaffirmed by the conclusions of the Pentagon’s director of weapons testing, who characterized the LCS as “not survivable” if it were hit by an anti-ship missile.

CNO Clark “sought the most survivable ship possible within the program’s aggressive cost targets,” Work writes. “In practical terms, this meant LCS sea frames could be built to no more than Level I survivability standards, the lowest of three levels then assigned to U.S. Navy warships.”

Level I represents the least severe environment anticipated, so LCS “would not be expected to continue fighting after taking a hit,” Work says. “It was not as robust as the Perry-class FFG, with its Level II standards, designed to allow the ship to conduct sustained combat operations following weapons impact, much less the Level III standards used for large multi-mission ships” than are built to endure hits by anti-ship cruise missiles, torpedoes and mines.

Even though they specified Level I survivability, LCS managers got into trouble because they had based their cost estimates on ship designs that used American Bureau of Shipping commercial standards. The Navy reversed that decision and had the ship redesigned to military standards for crew survivability.

“Designers simply did not believe they could hit the LCS cost targets with more stringent standards,” Work says. “The Navy began to address LCS survivability in a more proactive manner. … In the case of LCS, the ship would forego armor and extensive compartmentalization in favor of speed, agility, stealth and maneuver with organic sensors and weapons plus networked force capability.”

The shift to Naval Vessel Rules and other changes made in the middle of the design and early production phase disrupted the schedule and contributed to spiraling costs for the first two ships, Work says. The threshold target went from $250 million to $370 million.

Including design, program management, engineering support costs, and the cost for all three mission packages, the average projected cost of a each LCS over the current 10-ship production run is $500.8 million.

“The department of the Navy is well aware of the mistakes it made in the early stages of the LCS program,” he acknowledges. “While getting the LCS into service quickly may have been a worthy goal, the mistakes made and problems encountered in building the ships, and the department’s resulting inability to restrain program costs, tell a cautionary tale to all current and future leaders,” he asserts. “Simply put, the department should never again repeat the short cuts or questionable shipbuilding approaches taken in the LCS program. Objective cost targets and imposed cost caps are simply no substitute for reasonable performance requirements, detailed planning, a stable design at the start of production, a well-thought out production schedule, a ruthless attention to change orders and the impacts they have on costs, and good internal controls with strict monitoring of performance.”

Work worries that many in the active and retired surface warfare communities are still skeptical of small combatants of any kind. “This attitude is quite striking given the U.S. Navy’s history, which, up until World War II, demonstrated a widespread appreciation for the contributions of small warships in fleet operations.” In the post-war demobilization, these ships were scrapped in favor of smaller numbers of larger, multi-mission combatants.

Photo Credit: Navy


Re: Navy's No. 2 Civilian Chronicles Missteps in Littoral Combat Ship

The above fails to explain why other navies are able to build similar ships, far more heavily armed, with mission packages, for roughly half the cost of an LCS - but are still built to take a punch and keep fighting.

Whoever is responsible for the designs of these ships (or specifying the parameters under which they should be constructed) seemingly didn't bother to re-read any WW2 history where there was a lot of littoral fighting (what these battles lacked in size, they more than made up for in intensity).  And the reason the US won (most of them) is because we were building ships that could take a punch and keep fighting.

The current LCS designs have no way to protect themselves from a serious adversary at a distance - there is nary a box of harpoons to give a serious adversary any pause, and the Independence class (from what I've heard) doesn't even have the room to upgrade the gun from 57mm to something larger.

I also take note, that when the notion of the LCS was first surfaced, a number of other nations were very interested - yet all of them have since walked away.   That implies that the other navies of the world that were interested came to the same overall conclusion as the critics did, or the Pentagon's own director of weapons testing.  And last I heard - none of the LCS variants have been shock-tested, due to fears it would destroy the ship.

From what I've seen other navies offering for less money, the US would seemingly save a lot of money, and get to 300 ships, if they simply dropped this program and bought someone else's design.

The United States acquisition system needs to be extirpated and replaced with one similar to that used by the British.  They use a panel of experts (civilian and military) that perform threat analysis, and determine the force structure and weapons necessary to defeat those threats.  This removes a huge amount of redundancy, all but eliminates interoperability problems, and removes governmental meddling because all they do is appropriate the required budget.  The US currently gets little for its defense dollars, partially because our military leadership cannot seem to stay out of changing designs all the way through the construction phases - which also explains our project management and per-unit cost explosions.


PolicyWonk at 1/30/2013 2:48 PM

Re: Navy's No. 2 Civilian Chronicles Missteps in Littoral Combat Ship

The comment by PolicyWonk clearly points out weaknesses in the attributed statements of Robert Work. Between the lines of Mr. Works comments are some of the real issues of this ship class. When I see "reasonable performance requirements" I still focus on the 45 knot speed clearly bought at the price of armament and protection. Surely Mr Work knows this has been  and will be a bad trade off. When I see "a stable design and ruthless attention to change orders" listed as things not present in the project, I see a project out of control. Many of the other things Mr Work does and does not say are equally damning of the program. American naval architects are just as good or better than anyone else - see the Arleigh Burke class for high end performance at a high price. Mr Work knows the Navy needs low end performance at a low price but the performance requirements are all out of balance on this design.
alex gafford at 1/30/2013 8:40 PM

Re: Navy's No. 2 Civilian Chronicles Missteps in Littoral Combat Ship

I would have to agree.  The US DoD somehow seems not to look at foreign competitors' designs, which I know is untrue because a lot of guns and weapons systems in the U.S. Military are indeed foreign designs (HK MP5 and 416 guns, Bofors 40mm and 57mm, Delta Forces' Pandur APC, FN Herstal's M249 and M240, FMTV design, AT-4, Buffalo and RG-31 MRAPs, etc.).

But geez, when it's obvious that foreign nations have had good well-armed fast attack crafts, corvettes, and frigates for years, the US DoD and Intel Agencies should know this.  The US Army has been using foreign-designed EOD vehicles for many years now.  Even the SOCOM FAV competition could look overseas and see that Europe has many Special Forces FAVs and vehicles purposely-designed AND with ARMOR along with the same armament that the SOCOM contenders have (plus smoke grenade launchers which SOCOM entries do not have).

The US DoD is now running the risk of being underarmed and having inferior equipment compared to foreign counterparts.  A classic example is the German PZH2000 SPH which beats the pants off the M109A6 "Paladin."  US's "Crusader" was supposed to be the answer to match the PZH2000, but that got cancelled so the PZH2000 is still King of SPH.  The notion that the US DoD has the best equipment in the world money could buy just isn't true when specs and facts and research show that it does not.  The LCS is a classic example of's not even a Guided Missile Frigate because the darn thing now has NO missiles (EFOG-M got cancelled).  It's just a fast underarmed gunboat with 57mm, 30mm, and 20mm guns (and maybe some pintle-mounts), which rumor has it cannot hit anything at speed.  For Drug Wars or Coast Guard, the LCS may work.  But for naval work, a gunboat sure cannot beat the range of an anti-ship missile.
P at 1/30/2013 9:02 PM

Re: Navy's No. 2 Civilian Chronicles Missteps in Littoral Combat Ship

You can compare the LCS to a 274 ton patrol boat (skjold class) and it comes up wanting.  The has the bigger 76mm gun that the navy now wants but the trimaran LCS can't support, it has a missile with a range of 185+km rather than 6km, and surface to air missiles.  It's faster than the ludicrous 50 knot 3,000 ton, half billion dollar LCS, it has a crew of 15, and it'll save billions in operating costs.  The navy does not need an obscenely large, fast, heavy, and costly floating helipad to screen our carrier groups from shore based threats.  If you want to go crazy and plus up a skjold type craft to handle a lamps 2/3 'copter, heck, even a hanger for one too if you want to go crazy it's not going to cost half a billion dollars.  And why does it need to go 50 knots?
A B at 1/30/2013 10:45 PM

Re: Navy's No. 2 Civilian Chronicles Missteps in Littoral Combat Ship

As for the over priced, underarmed, junk pile called LCS, I've got two words: Visby Class.
Jack Mehoff at 2/12/2013 1:35 PM

Re: Navy's No. 2 Civilian Chronicles Missteps in Littoral Combat Ship

Until the USN gets away from big-deck air and starts to work around concepts that (like the French 'Fast' class UAV) combine jet speed and ceiling with long loiter and VTOL recovery as _unmanned_ weight/cost savings; it will be impossible to generate a network centric (aka Cooperative Engagement Capability aka Theater Wide...) small forces that don't rely on the cost of the CVSF to justify their presence in any high threat warfighter environment.

Once you have your persistent, displaced, network ISR, you need to pair it with cheap fires and thus the USN need to look into cheap bus platforms which can combine various payload and seeker/submunition sections with fixed compression path turbine designs and variable (gel) propellant alternatives to master the 0-200km range point from a VLS that can flip between Land Attack and AShM capabilities without a visit to a naval yard to switch out the ordnance.

A second class of (more expensive) weapon that uses aeroballistics to take rounds to 1,200km at Mach 8-10 with scram systems like those of the X-51 and XTV-2 technology will then provide the majority of 'reactive' deep strike capability, rendering the big decks largely unnecessary.

THERE is where you save costs folks.

Finally, for local defense, you need to take the plunge on EML and directed energy technology (and pulsed power to feed same).

Anything which leaves the barrel at 10-15,000fps with shock hardened electronics for guidance is a better solution for mid zone AD and OTH, Anti-PCI, work than costly and shortranged (Griffin, SPIKE, Nemesis etc.) PGM alternatives while if a laser can destroy an inflight artillery or MRL round, it's time to admit it can also put paid to manned airpower, 'through the canopy', as well.

Doing so would ALSO save a ton of money we don't have to waste on a followon Gen-6 FAXX program.

Unfortunately, I look at this floating expression of modern cubist art and don't see the baselines for any of this.  Because Hollywood rather than Naval Engineers were the consultant source for the specification drivers and nobody bothered to ask what the future of the USN should be total-force structured around in 2100.

It's always the weapons systems that determine your platform volumetric as force construct and with the LCS, we are looking at distinctly boghammer beater class capabilities from the last millenium rather than something that can effect the 21st century inshore battle without having to go slugging it out in the shallows.  This is how you defeat the mine as much as ASBM threat, by never entering a target predictor zone which saves the enemy from sanitizing the cube of deep blue nothing that is the other 200,000 square miles around their coastline.

If you are stood off, you have to acknowledge that projecting power well inland for a Chinese threat which has 2,500nm of rear area industrials to hostage is just beyond the capabilities of manned naval airpower on a subsonic conditioned transit cruise of 12-15 hours (see OEF).

The entire fires concept and how much we influence from what position is as much dated as it is wrong.  The USN needs to look at controlling entire sea basins from minimum A2DA entry and basing points.
Kurt Plummer at 4/20/2013 5:02 PM

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