By Alexander Pearson
The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) is an agile dual-variant combat ship currently under development for the US Navy. It is designed for specific combat missions in the near-shore ‘littoral’ zone by providing a platform for both marine-based land operations and support operations in the form of defeating enemy anti-access measures such as mines and small surface craft. The LCS can be modified in port with a range of mission modules depending on specific mission requirements. The ship comes in two variants named Freedom, which has been developed by a team led by Lockheed Martin, and Independence, which has been developed by team led by General Dynamics-Bath Iron Works. The Freedom variant is relatively compact and maneuverable while the Independence variant has a larger flight deck and greater fuel capacity.
Development on the LCS program began in 2004 after the Navy accepted two designs from Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics. Lockheed Martin’s first ship, the USS Freedom, was launched in September 2006 while General Dynamics’ ship, the USS Independence, was launched in April 2008. Since 2008 a further Freedom-class and Independence-class LCS have been launched. The Navy currently plans on building 52 LCS-class ships with the intention of sending a number of them to support US Africa Command.
Both the Freedom and Independence LCS-variants have had a number of technical issues since being commissioned in 2008 and 2010 respectively:
- USS Freedom experienced three electrical power outages in March 2013 and one further power outage in July 2013.
- During trials in 2011, the USS Freedom experienced 17 known cracks in its hull. These cracks limited the ship to a speed of 20 knots as opposed to its designated speed of 40 knots. Many of the cracks were identified in identical locations on either side of the hull. This suggested that the cracks were due to flawed ship design.
- Between September 2008 and summer 2011 the USS Freedom experienced 640 changeable equipment failures. Of these, a power outage occurred during a counter-drug trafficking operation in South America that left the ship adrift at sea.
- The USS Independence has experienced fewer issues than the USS Freedom, buthas had problems with aggressive corrosion in its interior. In 2011 the corrosion was so extensive that the ship had to spend time in a dry-dock and have its water jets removed in order to repair the damage.
These technical issues have resulted from the concurrent approach to testing and procurement by Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics:
- Both Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics began procurement of their respective variants before any testing had been done. The Navy grounded this approach by virtue of the fact that the ships would be tested operationally.
- A July 2013 GAO report was critical of this approach, concluding that “We continue to believe that the acquisition approach for this program, with large quantities of ship and modules being bought ahead of key test events, is risky, especially for a new class of ship, like the LCS”. The report concluded that future seaframe acquisitions should be limited until the required testing on current seaframes had been completed.
- The concurrent approach to testing and procurement has also been used for the LCS mission modules. The Navy has already bought 4 minesweeper modules despite the fact that testing will only start in 2014. There are concerns that major retrofit costs will occur as technical problems are discovered with the procured modules.
- These problems relating to the concurrent approach to the mission modules led the GAO to conclude that the Navy should “limit mission module purchases to the minimum quantities required to support operational testing”.
The designs of both LCS-variants have been heavily criticized for failing to meet original expectations:
- A July 2013 GAO report highlighted the fact that the time for modules to be exchanged on the ships would most likely take a couple of weeks rather than a couple of days as had been originally expected. This was because equipment and personnel would have to be flown out to the port where the LCS ship was stationed; something that was not considered in early proposals.
- The mean time before failure for the Remote Multi-Mission Vehicle component of the mine counter-measure module is 7.9 hours. The original required mean time by the Pentagon was 75 hours.
- A report by the Department of Defense’s Operational Test and Evaluation Office concluded in 2011 that the LCS was “not expected to be survivable in a hostile combat environment” due to its weak armor and lack of heavy firepower.
- Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert admitted that the LCS was not designed for combat and that it would not be sent into an anti-access area, despite the original intention that the LCS conduct operations designed to overcome anti-access areas.
- The current survivability standards of the LCS are designated ‘Level I’. This level is on par with simple minesweeper ships and far lower than the ‘Level III’ survivability levels of destroyers.
- The LCS is largely inferior to other comparable ships developed in Russia and China which are cheaper, smaller and possess greater firepower than the LCS. China’s comparable Houbei-class combat ship carries anti-ship missiles with greater range than any weaponry on the LCS.
- The dual-variant design of the LCS means that crews must be retrained if they are to be reassigned from one variant to another.
- The problems of the LCS led to the conclusion by the GAO that the “current LCS program is not the program envisioned over a decade ago.”
The Navy has been criticized for not being forthcoming about the problems discovered on the LCS ships:
- The July GAO report found that “Navy had not shown data to the Pentagon’s own independent Director of Operational Test and Evaluation”. The lack of cooperation on the part of the Navy led to complaints from Congressional members that they could not provide adequate oversight due to the lack of information they were receiving.
The costs of the LCS program have been revealed to be much higher than original estimates with many costs steadily increasing since program start:
- The congressional cost cap per ship has increased from $220 million in FY2006 to $480 million in FY2010.
- The original per ship price goal of $400 million, including mission modules, has been exceeded significantly. In FY2010 a single Freedom seaframe excluding mission modules cost $637 million while the Independence seaframe excluding mission modules cost $704 million.
- Building all of the planned 52 ships will cost the Navy at least $35 billion.
- Each ship is expected to cost around $36.6 million to operate and support.
- In total, the LCS program will cost taxpayers over $120 billion over its lifetime.
- In response to cost overruns, the Navy cancelled contracts for two new LCS designs in 2007.
- A July 2013 GAO report, due to its finding that “initial cost estimates have been significantly exceeded”, recommended a freeze to future funding and a reduction in the total number of LCS orders.
These varying problems have had consequences for the entire program:
- House Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee Chairman Gene Taylor (D-Miss) suggested in June 2009 that the DoD offer fixed price contracts to Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics in order to control cost overruns. The committee also suggested that contractors should be changed if Lockheed Martin or General Dynamics did not accept these contracts.
- In 2012, as part of the Navy’s revision of its fleet size requirement, the planned order of 55 LCS ships was reduced to 52. The Navy grounded this decision as a result of US Africa Command’s decision to reduce its presence requirement.
- Unconfirmed sources reported in early September that there are plans within the Department of Defense to limit the number of orders further from 52 to 24. This measure is being considered in light of the cuts enforced by sequestration and, if implemented, would end LCS procurement with the FY2015 budget.
With ongoing budget cuts as a result of sequestration, the problematic and expensive LCS program could become a prime target for cuts. This idea has already been floated in the Pentagon and it is likely to find support among budget hawks within Congress. The Navy, which has consistently thrown its support behind the program, will no doubt oppose any significant cuts.
It could prove to be more financially prudent to cancel the entire program, rather than continue to reduce the number of orders. If massive reductions are made, the costs of production would be shared across the remaining ships, which would hike the price of each remaining ship. The individual price hike could increase so much that, when the cost of the remaining order is calculated, expected savings made by the overall reduction in original orders would be negated. If this is the case then the only way to cut spending from the program would be its cancellation.