April 1, 2011  

Past imperfect

Like first carriers, Littoral Combat Ship enters age of experimentation

Weapons programs take years to develop, build and field, and years more to perfect. Service officials repeatedly promise a system that will do this, cover that and provide a variety of capabilities. But systems often don’t perform as promised, turn out to have different capabilities — good and bad — and sometimes find their true effectiveness in ways not strongly envisioned by their developers.

The need to retain a sense of flexibility for new systems is often overwhelmed by an acquisition process that, combined with sometimes highly politicized oversight, forces program representatives to overpromise in all directions. The whole system is pressurized with the artificial need for certainty and firmness, particularly on cost, schedule and performance details.

A poster child for this situation is the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), a concept that burst into bloom around 2003 as a shining example of service transformation — a characterization then as important as any military capability.

The idea was that a small, fast combat ship designed with large mission bay spaces could quickly switch between sets of equipment, known as mission modules, to carry out different missions. Not only would the ships be mission-flexible and designed for network-centric warfare, they could also be more easily updated and modernized as older equipment grew less effective, thus avoiding block obsolescence.

When the first LCS construction contracts were issued in 2004, the Navy, championed by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Vern Clark, promised to deliver each ship after two years of construction at a cost of $220 million. By 2011 — according to the plan in 2004 — the Navy would have about 18 LCSs in service or under construction.

“I need them yesterday,” Clark would say, underscoring the urgency of the program. Critics said it was impossible to build the ships that fast, but Navy officials repeatedly promised they would deliver. The initial plan was to buy ships from two competing design and construction teams, test them out and eventually choose one to form the bulk of the type. But, as is now well documented, construction costs tripled for the first ships and the building time stretched to four years and more. None of the mission modules is anywhere near fielding, and two ships are in commission today, with two more under construction. Even the two in service will not make a serious operational deployment for some time to come.

The procurement plan also morphed from choosing one design over the other, to buying both, to making a downselect to one design, to this winter’s decision to continue to build both.

At the end of 2010, the Navy awarded two more LCS contracts with options for 18 more and, after years of sputtering, perhaps now the program will settle down into steady series production. By 2015, all 20 of those new ships are expected to be delivered or under construction.

LCS is important not just because of the capabilities it could bring, but because, at a planned strength of 55 ships, it represents one-sixth of the proposed 313-ship fleet.

The Navy promises this ship will be ideal for going after fast, swarming small craft like those operated by the Iranian Pasdaran, or Revolutionary Guards, and for chasing pirates. With speeds in excess of 40 knots, “it’s great for a knife fight,” some like to say. But the speed currently touted as a great war-fighting quality was originally meant for transit. You would perform your mine-hunting mission at the top of the Persian Gulf, for example, zip back to Bahrain or somewhere, change out the mission module in two or three hours, and zoom back to be on station by morning with a surface or anti-submarine warfare module installed, ready for action. But it gradually became apparent the modules couldn’t be swapped out that fast — two or three days is more like it — and the transit speed requirement diminished in value. Even though the original requirement is gone, the speed remains — at the cost of endurance and other factors — and the Navy has found other ways to describe its usefulness.

Another remarkable characteristic of the program is that the 20 ships just contracted or issued options for — on a fixed-price incentive basis — are the same basic designs already being built. Yet no true operational experience has been gained with the first ships, and the new ships show only a handful of modifications.

Apart from the Navy’s inability to properly forecast how fast these ships could be built, fielded and paid for, there is a similar tone-deafness to how they will be employed. The service has done its best to estimate how the ships will be manned, supported, deployed and used, but at this point — eight years after the program started — it’s still mostly conjecture.

It’s one thing to develop a new class of destroyer or submarine or strike fighter. While new designs have updated and different features and capabilities, it is conceptually understood how to support and operate them. But that is not the case with the LCS. Just about everyone involved with the new type will have to learn how to support, operate and use them.


Before more hand-wringing about the present and the future, let’s go back to the past, to the 1920s. One of the technologies that showed promise during World War I was the aircraft and its possible uses at sea. Shortly after the war, a collier was converted by the U.S. Navy to become an experimental aircraft carrier. In 1922, two enormous battle cruiser hulls made redundant by postwar treaties were available and, with little more than an awareness of the potential of an aircraft-carrying warship, were converted into aircraft carriers. When the Lexington and Saratoga were commissioned in 1927, they were among the largest warships in the world. That alone might have indicated that the Navy and the Congress that funded the ships (in a very tight budget environment) had great faith that the investment was a result of extensive testing that proved the merit of the new ship type. But that was not the case. What followed for 16 years was a relentless period of experimentation and development. The enormous Lexington and Saratoga might have represented a significant investment for the Navy, but it took a long time before the service learned how to properly use the aircraft carrier. Start with the designation, CV. That originally stood for Cruiser, Heavier-Than-Air, because the ships were thought of as scouts for the battle fleet. As aircraft-carrying cruisers, their role was to find the enemy’s battle fleet and guide our own to an engagement. The carriers even carried 8-inch guns in turrets to duel an opponent’s cruiser scouts.

But the ships’ entry into service heralded the onset of an intense period of conceptual and technical development that took place between 1927 and the end of 1942. Areas of debate included:

• What’s the best way to form up aircraft to land on the ship? How should a landing signal officer communicate with the aircraft? How should the plane be trapped on deck — with a fore-and-aft wire system or a cross-deck configuration with arresting wires? Should planes be struck down to the hangar as they’re landed — as the British did — or should they be bunched forward to bring planes aboard faster but run the risk of greater damage if a plane crashes into the group? What sort of flight deck barriers could be developed?

• Should the ship have an open hangar to warm up planes before they’re brought to the flight deck, or have a more secure, closed hangar which precluded running engines? Is a second hangar necessary? How should maintenance shops be organized? Should more planes be stowed in the overhead or kept intact at all times? What’s the best way to handle weapons stowage — deep in the ship for protection or closer to the hangar or flight deck for ease of operation?

• Should the hangar be part of the ship’s hull or superstructure? Should the deck be armored for protection at the penalty of fewer aircraft, or wooden, allowing more aircraft to be carried but also more easily damaged? Should a control island be provided or the flight deck kept completely clear? Which side is best for the island?

• What’s the best way to spot planes for takeoff? What are the most efficient and expedient — and safest — flight deck procedures? What problems are there between operating different types of aircraft? How can you get large numbers of planes into the air and form up efficiently?

• How do you operate aircraft in the air? Should fighters stay with fighters, scout planes with scout planes, torpedo planes with torpedo planes? How do groups communicate? How do aircraft handle open-water navigation? Can a single pilot handle that? How do you find the carrier when it’s time to come home?

• Is the air group part of the ship’s crew, or is it better to keep it separate? Do squadrons stay with the wing or rotate in and out?

• What is the role of carriers in the fleet? Are they just scouts for the battle line? Do they have an offensive role? How much of one? What are the best applications for an offensive role? Should carriers operate alone, in pairs or in larger groups? Should they be bunched together during combat or kept over the horizon from each other?

• What are the command and control differences between the ship’s captain and the air group commander? The commodore or the admiral? The group commander and the squadrons?

• What are the best aircraft designs? Fighters, bombers and torpedo planes typically had front-line service periods sometimes measured in only a few years or months because of the pace of development.

All that and much more occupied those 16 years, even as the Navy designed and built more carriers. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the U.S. learned much more about the power of the carrier, as Combined Fleet Commander Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto had taken these steps much further, grouping six carriers together and massing their air groups to create the most powerful striking force the world had yet seen.

New technologies such as radar and better-performing aircraft joined the U.S. fleet in 1942, and mistakes continued to be made. But by the beginning of 1943, the carrier as we know it today began to come into view — carriers combined into task groups to mass their power, a combat information center to concentrate command and control, combat air patrols to protect the fleet while the striking force was away. All these aspects gave rise to the carrier as the fleet’s primary offensive weapon. The carriers of today are, of course, much larger, and so much power is inherent in them that makes them independently quite effective. But despite vastly different technologies, the carrier commanders of 1944 would find much conceptual familiarity should they board the George H.W. Bush, the newest carrier in the fleet.


Today’s LCS program reflects a great number of similarities with the carrier fleet of the 1930s. Although nearly half the planned LCS fleet is now built, under contract or with contract options, there is no demonstrable example of exactly how this LCS concept is going to work. Consider:

• LCS has no proven concept of operations. Tactical commanders with on-scene and area responsibilities so far have no experience in deploying these ships and experiencing what they can do.

• Command-and-control questions on the ships themselves remain. Who, for example, should have weapons release authority — the ship’s commanding officer or the officer in charge of the mission detachment?

• Are the ships best operated in small numbers or in groups? What sorts of groups work best with each kind of mission? In what roles might they be effective on their own?

• What are the best mission sets for the ships? Already, Adm. John Harvey, head of U.S. Fleet Forces command, is urging the fleet not to use them in ways for which they are not intended — and that was after only one ship was in service. Do people understand what these ships are for and what they can do?

• The ships have no area air defense capability. Who will protect them and how will that be coordinated?

• No other surface ship has been designed to operate as many offboard vehicles as the LCS. How will each ship coordinate its own offboard systems, including unmanned air, surface and underwater vehicles? Should different ships take responsibility for particular dimensions — i.e., should one ship control all the underwater vehicles, or should that be left to each CO or OIC? Should one ship take on all those particular vehicles, or can each ship deploy its own?

• Are these ships well-suited to a “knife fight” with high-speed small craft, as some have urged, or would a better tactic be to stand off and fight with the 57mm gun and offboard systems such as armed helicopters or drones?

• Is the high speed really necessary? Should more fuel be added at the expense of speed?

• The ships are not patrol boats and do not have long endurance, despite proclamations that they are great for anti-piracy work. Do they need a redesign if that’s the mission?

• Is it better to fit a ship with a single mission module for longer periods, or better to frequently swap out the modules?

• Can all the necessary personnel be accommodated? The ships are limited to 75 or 76 berths — no room for extra riders, such as special operations forces, or more likely, technical representatives for the multiplicity of vehicles each ship will eventually carry.

• Will the mission modules prove effective? The mine module already has lost several major components. Will it prove the equal of the fleet’s mine countermeasures ships the LCS is set to replace? Will the anti-submarine warfare module really prove effective? Already, the Navy has classified the cost of the system, along with component details, so it has gotten harder to make this assessment. However, reports abound that the system is ineffective.

• Will the unique support systems for the ships prove their effectiveness? The tiny crew of 40 needs an exceptionally high level of pier support — will they get it? Will the needs of parts and maintenance supply be met routinely?

• Will future managers accept that both kinds of LCS have entirely separate and unique combat system suites? With dozens of different systems on each design, sailors qualified to serve on one LCS or the other are no more qualified to serve on the other LCS class than an amphibious sailor. Will that stand? At some point down the road, will some future CNO or Navy secretary decide that the fleet can’t afford both types of combat systems and order the premature disposal of all of one of the types long before the end of their service life? Those are just some of the issues facing the development of the LCS.

Perhaps the only sure thing is that the Navy has tried its best to come up with possible answers to these questions. The thing to do now is not to promise that solutions are at hand but to put the LCS in the hands of young sailors and let them go out, get hands-on experience with the ships in multiple scenarios, find out how they’ll work best, and adapt.

The 1930s were exciting times for sailors and aviators living through the great age of naval aviation experimentation and making believers out of doubters. The 2010s and 2020s could prove just as rewarding for today’s LCS sailors, headed on courses both known and unknown.

CHRISTOPHER P. CAVAS is naval warfare editor at Defense News.