Navy’s New Ship Can’t Shake Off the Naysayers
A panel of two- and three-star admirals that is known as the “LCS Council” made a strong case Jan. 16 that the ship is ready to handle its first overseas mission despite numerous concerns about its long-term future.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert created the LCS Council in August to oversee the program. The extraordinary move was seen as proof of the high stakes involved. The Navy considers LCS a linchpin of its future fleet.
The first LCS, the USS Freedom, will depart for Singapore in March for an eight-month deployment. The Freedom variant is a semi-planing steel monohull with an aluminum deckhouse. The LCS 2, called the USS Independence, is an aluminum trimaran design. It is still being tested and is not yet ready for deployment.
More than a decade since LCS was launched, the ship has become the source of contentious debates about its role, its combat mettle and its ballooning cost. The admirals on the LCS council, indeed, faced a skeptical audience following a presentation at the annual conference of Surface Navy Association.
Among the questions posed to the admirals: Is this ship too thin skinned to survive enemy fire? How will a crew of just 50 sailors manage to run a combat ship? Does its small size pose other risks such as low fuel capacity? How will the Navy be able to afford two LCS variants, each of which requires expensive upkeep? Will LCS hulls corrode and easily crack?
The Defense Department’s director of weapons testing, J. Michael Gilmore, did not mince words in his latest report: “LCS is not expected to be survivable in that it is not expected to maintain mission capability after taking a significant hit in a hostile combat environment.”
Navy Undersecretary Bob Work respectfully disagrees. “We object to the characterization” of the testing director’s report, Work said Jan. 17.
The council members mounted a steadfast defense of LCS. Clearly, the littoral combat ship is not a battleship, but officials caution that it should not be compared to Cold War era vessels. "Survivability comes in lots of shapes and sizes," said Rear Adm. Tom Eccles, chief engineer and deputy commander for naval systems engineering at the Naval Sea Systems Command. Unlike bulkier ships, LCS can sprint out of harm’s way, he said. It can reach speed in excess of 40 knots. "Every ship type and class in our inventory has its own position in the survivability spectrum," said Eccles said.
Vice Adm. Richard W. Hunt, director of Navy staff at the CNO’s office noted that LCS will travel in groups of four and, depending on the mission and the anticipated threats, it will be protected by Aegis destroyers and cruisers as part of a Navy battle group.
The admirals might be making promises that they cannot keep, however, as none of the LCS warfare systems, which are still in development, has yet passed an operational test. Three weapons packages are being built — mine countermeasures, anti-submarine warfare and anti-surface warfare.
Gilmore’s report said LCS 1 early weapons tests revealed performance, reliability and operator training deficiencies for both the 30 mm and 57 mm guns.
Vice Adm. Mark Skinner, principal military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, said the surface warfare and mine countermeasures packages are scheduled to undergo “initial operational test and evaluation” in 2014. He said the antisubmarine warfare module is moving along. Next year, 2014, “will be a big year for us,” said Skinner.
Skinner compared the LCS to an iPhone. “I know it’s simplistic, but we look at it as a big iPhone where we can put apps in a very quick fashion,” he said. “We are looking for rapid technology insertion.”
Industry insiders and retired Navy officers who spoke with National Defense off the record predict the ship will not be sent to fight a real shooting war any time soon, and will mostly serve as a peacetime “presence” vessel and assist in humanitarian relief operations.
Work conceded that the perception that LCS is only a peacetime ship is a problem. “I get asked all the time: ‘Is the LCS a real warship?’” he said. The answer is yes, Work said. “This is going to do the missions that small combatants have always done.
On the issue of crew size, the admirals stood by the decision to staff LCS with a lean crew. The ship has accommodations for up to 76 personnel — air detachment and mission module personnel, and a core crew of 40. The Navy recently upped the core crew to 50.
“Crew size can limit the mission capabilities of the ship,” said Gilmore. “Core crew size provides little flexibility to support more than one operation at a time; unplanned manning losses and corrective maintenance further exacerbate the problem. The Navy is reviewing manning levels and installing 20 additional bunks in LCS 1 for flexibility during its deployment.”
But no issue has stirred as much controversy as the cost of LCS and the way the Navy procured the ship. When the program was first conceived more than a dozen years ago, the idea was for the ship to not exceed $220 million per unit. The Navy needed a low-cost ship that it could buy in large numbers to bulk up the fleet. The price quickly escalated to $350 million and most recently to $560 million, which does not include the warfare systems.
Rather than buy the hull and the combat systems at the same time, the Navy chose to select the hull first and then develop the “mission modules” under a separate competition. The strategy stirred concerns that the ship was being set up for failure because the focus would be primarily on the hull, and the warfare systems would move to the back burner.
The selection of the hulls, in and of itself, fueled a debate because the two variants — the monohull and the trimaran — are so dramatically different. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus came into office in early 2009 just as LCS officials were struggling with how to move the program forward. At the time, Freedom was already in the water and Independence was being built. Bids were sought for three more ships. Mabus recalled experiencing sticker shock. “The bids came in unsustainably high,” he said. “We needed the ship. But we couldn’t afford it.”
Although the Navy hadn’t decided which variant to buy, Mabus decided to pit both designs against each other in a competition. The pressure tactics worked. Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for the monohull, and Austal, the builder of the trimaran, came back with price tags that were 40 percent lower than their earlier proposals, said Mabus. “When it was clear that the cost had come down so far and that both yards were willing to sign fixed-price contracts for block buys, I went back to Congress and asked to buy both versions.”
The current plan is to acquire 20 ships, 10 from each vendor, over the next five years. If all goes as expected, the Navy would buy a total of 55 ships.
Barring any significant snags in future tests, the Navy is moving full speed ahead. “We have gone all-in on the LCS,” Work said.
Despite its well-documented problems, the ship is “central to the future force,” said Vice Adm. Tom Copeman, commander of Naval Surface Forces at U.S. Pacific Fleet. The $560 million vessel costs one-fourth of the price of an Arleigh Burke destroyer. It is a smaller ship whose weaponry and defensive technologies are nowhere near the sophistication of Navy destroyers, but the price makes it desirable, Copeman said. “It is a ship that we can afford to buy in numbers.”
Photo Credit: Navy