Littoral Combat Ship Faces Uncertain Future (UPDATED)

By Valerie Insinna
On Feb. 24, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel confirmed rumors that had been swirling around the littoral combat ship program for months — instead of going forward with its planned 52 ship buy, purchases would be limited to 32. 

The cuts were no surprise to anyone who had been following the program, which has long been troubled by cost overruns and reports of problems during testing and deployment. While the announcement is a major blow to prime contractors Lockheed Martin and Austal USA, there is a chance a modified version of the ship could emerge as the Navy’s top choice to fill out its fleet.

Hagel’s announcement halts contractual discussions beyond 2016, but that’s after the next election, said Stu Slade, Forecast International’s warships analyst. There could be major changes to the program once a new president and legislators are in office.

“This isn’t a done deal. It’s certainly a setback for the LCS program viewed in isolation, but it’s one that could yet be reversed,” he told National Defense.

Hagel sent Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert back to the drawing board, instructing them to evaluate more “capable and lethal” alternatives to the ship.

“The LCS was designed to perform certain missions, such as mine sweeping and anti-submarine warfare, in a relatively permissive environment. But we need to closely examine whether the LCS has the independent protection and firepower to operate and survive against a more advanced military adversary and emerging new technologies, especially in the Asia-Pacific,” Hagel said in February.

“If we were to build out the LCS program to 52 ships, as previously planned, it would represent one-sixth of our future 300-ship Navy. Given continued fiscal restraints, we must direct future shipbuilding resources toward platforms that can operate in every region and along the full spectrum of conflict,” he added.

Officials will consider new designs, existing vessels and a modified LCS, examining ship cost, delivery date, mission and weapons requirements and sensors, Hagel said in a memo obtained by Reuters.

Greenert and Sean Stackley, the Navy’s acquisition lead, issued a directive in March establishing a small surface combatant task force to evaluate the Navy’s options, including the lethality of possible ship designs to air, surface and undersea threats. The task force will be lead by John Burrow, executive director of the Marine Corps Systems Command. The task force’s findings will be due in July.

Slade said the Navy most likely will procure larger, better-armed versions of the LCS — a move that would increase the price of the ships and would be even more profitable for Lockheed Martin or Austal.

The littoral combat ship comes in two variants — the Freedom-class monohull built by Lockheed and Austal’s Independence-class trimaran. Both types feature a mission bay that can be outfitted with modules containing weapons, unmanned underwater vehicles and other equipment for surface warfare, mine countermeasures or anti-submarine warfare.

The Freedom-class ship is as survivable in combat as the Navy specified it to be, but could be modified to be more so, said Joe North, Lockheed Martin’s program manager.

“We’re building LCS to fight, and its semi-planing steel monohull design meets all of the current customer requirements in survivability,” he said. “LCS is actually already more survivable than the three ship classes that it replaces, so if they want to leverage more requirements on it, they can do that. That comes at a cost.”

If the Navy decides to move forward with procuring a modified littoral combat ship or even a frigate-sized ship, both Lockheed Martin and Austal have floated international versions that could fit the bill, Slade said.

Lockheed’s multi-mission combat ship could be scaled up from the Freedom class’s hull length of 378 feet to that of a frigate and outfitted with a version of the Aegis combat system, according to material from the company.

Before Austal ended its teaming agreement with General Dynamics in 2010, the companies in 2007 debuted their own international LCS variant, although few details about the ship are known.  

A modified, frigate-sized LCS could cost about $800 million per copy, or double the current price, Slade said.

Not all are convinced that the littoral combat ship will survive, however.

The program has its fair share of detractors in Congress, such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Brad Curran, a defense analyst with Frost & Sullivan. Lawmakers have debated the ship’s operational and technical capabilities for years, “and so far the results have not been great.”

The Navy is more likely to select an older, proven design to build up the fleet, Curran said. His personal choice — and the ship he believes is most likely to ultimately be purchased, albeit in small amounts — is the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer manufactured by General Dynamics Bath Iron Works and Huntington Ingalls.

“Arleigh Burkes can do it all, and they’re proven. They can kill other ships. They can find and kill subs. They can find and kill aircraft and missiles with the Aegis ballistic missile system and then attack ground targets. It’s got a wide variety of weapons,” he said. “The littoral combat ship, in my opinion, just can’t compare.”

The Navy could possibly also purchase a frigate from a foreign manufacturer such as the U.K.’s BAE Systems or France’s DCNS, he said.

While the service might be able to afford a modified littoral combat ship or another existing vessel, it is unlikely that it will be able to procure a new design, Curran and Slade agreed.

“In this budget environment, how are you going to get a new program started?” Curran asked. “It’s very difficult, and the Navy has not shown that they’ve been great about putting out a new ship. Look at the history lately. You’ve got the littoral combat ship, and then you’ve got the Zumwalt DDG 1000. ... It hasn’t had a great record.”

The littoral combat ship program has been plagued by criticism since its inception. One of the most scathing claims was that the ship would not be able to sustain itself through a major battle. 

The 2012 and 2013 annual reports by the Defense Department’s director of operational test and evaluation stated that the ship would not be survivable in high-intensity combat.

Acting Deputy Defense Secretary Christine Fox, who is believed to have driven the Navy’s decision to cut its LCS buy, levied similar barbs during her February speech at the U.S. Naval Institute’s West 2014 conference in San Diego. Observers believed her comments about the Navy’s reliance on “niche platforms that can conduct a certain mission in a permissive environment” were directed at the vessel.

“I believe it is an imperative to devote increasing focus and resources to the survivability of our battle fleet. … We need more ships with the protection and firepower to survive against a more advanced military adversary,” she said.

The ship’s defenders — such as Robert Work, the former undersecretary of the Navy, who was nominated to take Fox’s job — have countered that the difference between the LCS and combatants with higher survivability is that the former would head home after being hit.

But with the advances in anti-ship weapons, so would most warships, said Slade. “The LCS is more vulnerable, but it’s not as incrementally vulnerable as you might think. This is where theoretical damage and realistic damage is coming in. Theoretically, yes, you will be crucified by a hit. Realistically, so will most ships.”

The benefit of the littoral combat ship over better protected warships is low cost and high numbers, he said. The Navy can buy two or three LCS for any other major vessel. If one ship is driven out of action during a battle, others will still be available to fight.

Slade argues that comparing the littoral combat ship to traditional warships is like comparing a Toyota Prius to a racecar. Likewise, naysayers within Congress and the Navy misunderstand what LCS was intended to do: routine patrolling, maritime policing and counterterrorism. Its high speeds and large flight deck are also optimal for inserting special forces and facilitating aircraft operations, he said. 

“If you’re going to build small warships, you have to accept a loss of capability. You can’t put a DDG-51 capability into a hull that’s a quarter of the size,” he said. “The LCS was seen as a way around that problem by modularizing the weapon systems onboard.”

However, mission modules containing equipment and weapon systems for surface warfare and mine countermeasures take longer to swap out than was originally planned, making the vessel’s plug-and-play capability tenuous, Curran said.

Denmark had a similar issue in the 1980s with its line of modular Flyvefisken class ships, Slade said. Eventually the Danes used the different mission modules as a construction technique to build different varieties of the same class of ship, rather than planning to switch those packages out.

“Unfortunately that lesson was not learned by the U.S. Navy until after they ... started to operate the first ships,” he said.

Cost overruns have also been a problem. The ship was originally slated to cost about $220 million per copy in fiscal year 2005, but the price tags for the first few ships were more than double that, said a Congressional Research Report on the program released in February. The cost per ship has now settled at around $450 million, or about $380 million in constant 2005 dollars.

The fiscal year 2015 budget sets aside about $1.5 billion for three littoral combat ships. The Navy plans to procure three ships per year through 2018 and two in 2019.

There have also been technical issues such as a diesel generator failure on the Freedom during its first deployment to Singapore and corrosion problems on the Independence-class ships. The annual reports by the director of operational test and evaluation have detailed longstanding deficiencies in the mission modules, though they have also pointed out some improvements.

North, of Lockheed Martin, said the diesel generators have since gone through a “strenuous” upgrade program.

Even if LCS production ends at 32 ships, Lockheed Martin’s other contracts and assets will protect the company from any severe economic impacts, Slade and Curran agreed. Austal’s commercial sales and its contract for the joint high speed vessel will keep the company’s health robust, they added.

It is too early to determine whether a cut in final ship purchases would lead to any potential job loss at Lockheed Martin or Marinette Marine Corp., the Wisconsin-based shipyard building the Freedom-class, North said.

Officials from Marinette Marine Corp. declined to comment for this story. Austal USA also did not respond to requests for comment.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, Shipbuilding, Surface Ships

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