By Kris Osborn
The Navy’s plan to replace the last 20 littoral combat ships with a new, more survivable small surface combatant hangs in a balance of uncertainty amid Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s resignation.
Pentagon sources confirmed Hagel has made a decision about the direction of the new ship following his review of recommendations from the Navy’s specially-configured Small Surface Combatant Task Force, or SSCTF.
In January of this year, Secretary Hagel directed the Navy to explore options for a new, more survivable, lethal and robust LCS variant – citing several criticisms of the existing platform.
The SSCTF emerged out of a request from Secretary Hagel that the Navy issue no new contracts for the LCS beyond 32 ships. The Navy had been planning to buy 52 LCS vessels as they were originally configured.
As part of this announcement, Hagel instructed the Navy to examine alternative proposals for the remaining 20 ships that, among other things, offered more survivable designs. Citing survivability as a main concern, Hagel directed the Navy to consider ships based upon the design properties of a frigate, a warship that is slightly bigger and armed with more weapons compared to the LCS.
The SSCTF has been at work for months considering a range of options for a new ship; the task force completed its assessment, briefed Secretary Hagel on a range of options that led to a decision on a course of action, Pentagon officials said.
Hagel had planned to announce the decision last week, however, plans were overtaken by his resignation and planned departure from the Pentagon. Now, it remains unclear if his decision will stand or be re-evaluated by new Pentagon leadership. Furthermore, it also remains uncertain if or when his decision will now be announced, in light of recent developments.
The findings from the SSCTF emerged after months of analysis, deliberations and assessments of industry ship offerings. The work of the task force, which included solicitations to industry, sought to envision a design for a new, multi-mission small surface combatant that succeeded in answering or addressing some of the concerns about the LCS platform.
Some of these concerns, expressed from lawmakers, analysts and even members of the military, maintained that the LCS lacked sufficient lethality and survivability and was not properly suited to perform its intended range of missions.
Advocates for the LCS have long maintained that the ship’s 40-knot water speed and groups of technologies called mission packages for surface warfare, counter-mine efforts and anti-submarine missions give it the ability to perform the missions it was engineered to perform.
Although the findings and recommendations of the SSCTF have not been publically announced, some of the industry offerings for the ship included heavier variants of the LCS design with weapons such as Vertical Launch Systems, stronger radar and hull-mounted sonar. Lockheed Martin, for example, has offered a variant of their international offering for LCS which incorporates several of these measures.