The LCS serves too many masters with too many roles
The Littoral Combat Ship is most appealing because of its sophisticated transformational capabilities — as envi¬sioned, it is a unique capability addition to the fleet. Yet, it is the very complexities and costs associated with higher-end capabilities — such as its sleek, stealthy design, its fast speed and maneuverability, and its leading-edge mission module, unmanned vehicle and net-centric systems technology — that may make it impractical and unaffordable. The demand signal from Coast Guard mariners and Navy fleet war fighters for small combatants is loud and clear. The nation’s maritime services need an efficient and systematic methodology to pro¬duce an effective small combatant today if we are to produce a balanced fleet for tomorrow.
Recent attention on the LCS program is raising questions about its viability. In the midst of press coverage on LCS costs, delays and fleet integration, older debates on fleet force struc¬ture are resurfacing. Although the LCS buzz comes from as many patrons as detractors, the fervor behind the current debate reflects lingering unresolved issues that surround the decades-long argument over fleet high/low capability mix and single/multimission vessel theories.
Nonetheless, recent analyses convincingly conclude that there is a dire need for a significant number of small surface combatants. The basic problem with LCS, however, seems to be that trying to design, build, deploy and sustain a small war¬ship to do too many things is too expensive and fraught with difficulties. As one recent article related, “people inside and outside the Navy are beginning to wonder whether LCS is too good to be true.” If overall Navy ship acquisition goals are fur¬ther constrained by rising costs, an LCS program not clearly justified and deftly managed could be an appealing target for cancellation. One option that might help keep the program afloat and meet an obvious national fleet requirement is to acquire a moderate number of lower cost, stripped-down LCS hulls to meet low-end missions.
It is useful to summarize current concerns with LCS. First, and foremost, is program cost. At inception, the Navy estimat¬ed the first LCS to cost between $150 million and $220 million, exclusive of any mission modules, and wanted follow-on hulls to cost no more than $250 million, including a typical payload. Each mission module — three planned versions include anti-submarine, surface and mine warfare — was estimated to cost $70 million, including associated tactical unmanned vehicles. LCS producers General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin are nearing completion of the two very different prototype ver¬sions, but revelations that the Lockheed Martin hull price tag rose by 86 percent resulted in a budget flap wherein the Navy canceled the second Lockheed Martin LCS hull. This occurred amid wider Senate-directed Pentagon acquisition reform, including a proposed $430.5 million cut from the LCS program for fiscal 2008. If the Navy plans for two mission modules per ship, the total acquisition cost of an LCS could now be as much as $480 million, according to a recent assessment. This is roughly $100 million above the cost of a Coast Guard National Security Cutter and somewhat less than half the price of a Navy DDG 51 Aegis destroyer. Further, program delays mean the complex mission modules are set for a 2012 initial operating capability. For the overall LCS program, the Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2003 that acquiring 56 LCS could cost at least $20 billion, whereas a 2006 Congressional Research Service report estimated that a 55-ship program might have a total acquisition cost of more than $26 billion. Increasing congressional scrutiny — especially alongside growing costs of the DDG-1000 and CG(X) programs — puts the behind-schedule LCS program squarely in the sights of those who question Navy budget growth.
Another criticism related to program cost is the Coast Guard-Navy decision not to pursue LCS common hull acquisi¬tion, despite early assurances it would do so. The argument goes that a common, small, single-mission platform with vari¬able payload plans could support both maritime homeland security and Navy sea-control/sea-denial functional require¬ments. Yet, the Coast Guard pursued the separate Deepwater program, with planned acquisition of 33 cutters at 4,200 and 3,200 tons displacement (LCS plans envisioned a roughly 3,000-ton ship), at $280 million and $200 million each, respec¬tively. Although Coast Guard littoral missions do not typically include anti-submarine or mine warfare, basic requirements for maritime homeland security missions seem well served by LCS key ship design parameters: endurance, sea keeping, C4ISR, small boat/helicopter operations and a light naval gun. Full LCS capabilities as currently envisioned, however, would be overkill for most Coast Guard missions, and that likely influenced acquisition decisions. According to a recent Heritage Foundation study by Bruce Stubbs, “LCS may still be a Cadillac when a Chevrolet-priced ship would do nicely for maritime security duties.” Still, as maritime service budgets and efficiencies come under increasing pressure, the seeming¬ly bifurcated Navy-Coast Guard approach to small combatant acquisition is puzzling.
Current literature discusses an array of other concerns over LCS, listed below. Most appear linked to the basic idea that assigning too many diverse missions to a single small hull is impractical:
å Integration into a fleet concept of operations, especially when the fleet needs no anti-access defeat capability (peace¬time).
å Multimission manning, integration and training for ship’s company and module detachments.
å Multiple mission module-to-hull systems integration.
å Simultaneous operation of multiple manned and unmanned vehicles and managing the information/data from them.
å Maintenance/logistics demands associated with complex high technology mission modules/vehicles.
å Tether to fleet logistics as a result of limited endurance.
å Excessive high-end requirements that drive up machinery support/displacement.
å Sea base/forward staging of mission modules.
å Excessive secondary missions and conflict with primary module missions.
å Insufficient analysis before program acquisition.
å Lower survivability of smaller hulls.
å Ability of other Navy assets to perform littoral missions.
å Blue-water sea keeping, especially in transit to/from forward areas.
å Berthing/hotel services for aircraft and module detach¬ments.
In fairness to Navy and industry LCS managers, they are clearly aware of these concerns and seem to be addressing the more significant items, especially cost. Still, managing these many complex variables will present serious challenges to effec¬tively fielding this new ship class. As stated in an AFJ article by Dan Blumenthal and Christopher Griffin, the biggest risk of the LCS is that its transformational ambitions are so great that it is almost entirely dependent upon as-yet-unproven technologies.
Without delving too far into the high/low mix or “street-fight¬er” debates, the need for a moderate number of small combat¬ants to augment the current and future fleet seems evident. Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments vice president Robert Work’s analysis of this question compellingly determines the need for small combatants is significant and will not lessen as tasks associated with maritime domain awareness (MDA)and nontraditional patrol/security increase. Regardless, Navy leaders decided LCS is one of handful of core hull types that will make up tomorrow’s surface combatant “family of ships.” LCS fits into the shipbuilding strategy not just to handle anti-access threats in the littoral, but also to put enough hulls in the water to han¬dle diverse conventional and asymmetric maritime threats and various secondary missions. Navy leaders stress that the fleet is too small for its current global commitments, particularly those associated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that fleet commanders need LCS now, in numbers. However, analysts question the Navy’s decision to retire some ships early to free up resources required to build the fleet over the long term. Although it is hard to contest the idea of a maritime strategy-resource mismatch, the current dilemma of too few surface combatants was somewhat avoidable.
Maritime security operations in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility are a good example of the plethora of mission requirements — from extremes of conventional war¬fare missions versus Iran to global war on terrorism missions such as oil infrastructure protection — where there are never enough hulls to carry all of them out. Chasing Napoleon in the Mediterranean in 1798, Horatio Nelson similarly bemoaned the lack of lighter and faster small combatants in the Royal Navy when he remarked, “Was I to die at this moment, want of frigates would be found stamped on my heart.” Although Nelson’s immediate concern was reconnaissance, many con¬temporary “frigate” missions are low-end tasks that the pre¬cious few high-end warships are not well-suited to accom¬plish. Finally, Norman Friedman and other naval analysts emphasize the need for a balanced fleet that is able to handle the spectrum of expected missions, arguing that a Zumwalt-style high/low mix still makes considerable sense.
Even when focusing solely on homeland missions, the need for small combatants is apparent. Several maritime theorists suggest that LCS is ideal for maritime homeland security mis¬sions, but it is too costly for that role in its current form. Indeed, the littoral mission definition does not apply only to foreign shores, but also to U.S. continental approaches, where vulnerabilities and challenges to effective MDA persist. LCS capabilities — including shallow draft, fast sprint, netted C4ISR, a light naval gun and helicopter operations — are ideal for maritime domain awareness and maritime security opera¬tions missions currently not fully satisfied. The higher-end LCS module capabilities are less suited for homeland missions and as such, unnecessary, potentially keeping payload costs (and weight) minimized on any homeland security version. Further, brief coastal U.S. missions would obviate some of the more significant challenges of forward LCS deployment, such as the logistics tether and extended duration high seas operations. Advocates market the LCS as a fully networked ISR-capable ship, which is ideal for a concept of operations that disperses them as pickets throughout the exclusive economic zone to provide a significant contribution to maritime domain aware¬ness, and further, an agile warship ready to accomplish mar¬itime homeland security and homeland defense. Work first proposed a scaled-down LCS version for the Coast Guard: a cheaper, lower-speed LCS “truck” with less-capable but lower-cost weapons and sensors. As Coast Guard leaders decry the shortage of hulls to accomplish their many missions, the time seems ripe for an acquisition partnership with the Navy.
Success stories of fielding small combatants exist, but a paramount factor in their development was strict limitations on mission scope and capabilities. Analysts cite the widely acquired German Blohm and Voss modularized MEKO corvette and frigate designs, for instance, as solid “multipur¬pose combination” warships from basic hull designs adapted for customer needs — with inherently lower costs and shorter building times. Lockheed Martin is even teaming with Voss on LCS design. With plenty of extant global interest in small com¬batants, offering a basic LCS model for foreign sale could lower overall production costs and help keep the U.S. shipbuilding industry competitive. The last American attempt to build a simple, affordable, small fleet combatant — the FFG-7 Perry class, coming in at about $200 million apiece in Reagan-era dollars — was a success for the Navy, industry and, ultimately, foreign sales. Another example is the appeal to the Coast Guard of the largely discarded Navy coastal patrol ships, because of their low operational cost, simplicity and general utility for lower-end littoral maritime security missions.
‘Ash and trash’ missions
The issue boils down to whether to design small combatants for worst-case threats or for the more likely operational missions in peacetime and war. To put it in unglamorous but accurate terms, the Navy needs a class of vessels to accomplish the “ash and trash” missions to allow the larger, more capable hulls to focus on the critical high-end missions. A good example is the problem inherent in shifting Burke- or Ticonderoga-class hulls outside Tomahawk launch baskets or Aegis air defense zones to accomplish maritime interdiction operations or “pulse opera¬tions” outside the Persian Gulf. In peacetime and war, there are always myriad low-end missions to accomplish: maritime embargo, commerce-raiding, maritime interdiction, shipping escort, infrastructure security, search and rescue, counter drug/piracy/terrorism patrols, humanitarian assistance and dis¬aster relief operations. As Work argues, having vessels optimized for these missions frees up larger combatants for more critical duties at much less cost than simply building more high-end warships. Detractors contend small combatants lack the multi¬mission capability necessary for multiple high-technology threats and have limited growth capacity. Without them, howev¬er, the Navy must use billion-dollar warships with 300-plus crew for low-end missions — the price paid for historically maintain¬ing a large fleet of intermediate combatants for possible war with the Soviet Union.
Another cogent argument for maintaining a sensible num¬ber of single-mission or low-end small combatants is to avoid the scramble for hulls in crisis or war that results from peace¬time mission area neglect. Countless historical examples illus¬trate that when lower-profile mission requirements receive inadequate attention and resources — Navy mine warfare as a current case — the inevitable result is incapacity satisfied only by reliance on allies or private industry in time of need. When Adm. Karl Dönitz launched Operation Paukenschlag in December 1941, the five U-boats initially sent against the U.S. found the East Coast virtually undefended. The regional U.S. Navy commander had only a small force of yard patrol craft, sub-chasers, a Coast Guard cutter, a handful of “Eagle” boats and five combat-ready aircraft. There were virtually no hulls available for the resulting convoy escort/anti-submarine mis¬sion, which required a scramble by the Navy and industry to develop and deploy a new destroyer escort ship class. Modeled after a British design, the destroyer escort was essentially a frigate by another name, with slower speed and less armament than larger fleet combatants. However, it was simple to oper¬ate, cheap, quickly constructed en masse, and easily main¬tained — and fundamentally single-mission. Because Washington is increasingly fighting wars and crises unilaterally or in smaller coalitions, wherein an allied small combatant contribution may be absent, historical lessons should help jus¬tify this future requirement.
Navy and Coast Guard leaders should consider acquiring a common, stripped-down, basic LCS variant to accomplish the expected mission sets described above. Such a variant could have either a light surface warfare payload (with no associated module) or a tailored surface warfare module optimized for maritime domain awareness/maritime security operations. Alternatively, prudence demands that the LCS platform the Navy selects has sufficient “nonmodule” C4ISR and self-defense capability to carry out those combatant missions short of core warfare areas. Naval Sea Systems Command is leading an effort to reduce the types and models of ships and components and seems committed to procuring only the right level of capability for each hull. This effort is in keeping with the idea that a com¬mon LCS hull can provide a low-end maritime domain aware¬ness/maritime security operations version while adhering to the 30-year Navy shipbuilding plan. Finally, a Navy-Coast Guard venture to develop low-end workhorses from the LCS program might be a viable course of action. A common hull shipbuilding plan should be able to produce optimized variants for both Navy and Coast Guard needs within the budgetary guidelines demanded by U.S. lawmakers and taxpayers.
Cmdr. John Patch is a surface warfare and joint specialty officer. He is an intelligence officer assigned to the Office of Naval Intelligence. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Navy, the Defense Department or the U.S. government.