By Daniel Gouré, Ph.D.
The history of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) reads like a Greek tragedy. The original concept behind the ship was for a radically new approach to ship design and construction that promised reduced cost, tremendous operational flexibility and great ease in technology refresh. Once the various special interests got through with the program it was late, more expensive and less capable than originally planned. Nevertheless, the program is now on track, costs are coming down, performance of the first ships to reach the Fleet has been quite good and the mission packages, particularly the one for mine countermeasures, promises real increase in naval capabilities. Those familiar with LCS’s performance, most recently as part of the RIMPAC exercises, rave about the ships’ performance. The program was so successful that the Navy decided to acquire both the Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics variants of the LCS. The plan today is to acquire a total of 52 LCS.
Of course, now the real problem emerges. The program’s primary flaw – all heroes in Greek tragedies have an Achilles heel – was bad timing. The LCS as originally conceived depended for its relevance on the world evolving in a particular way. As the name makes clear, the primary role of the LCS was to operate in relatively shallow waters close to land and to deal with less stressing, low-to-medium intensity, threats from rogue states, non-state actors and even terrorist and criminal groups. Even as the program was getting its sea legs, the world changed and threats morphed. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel explained the problem succinctly:
“The LCS was designed to perform certain missions—such as mine sweeping and antisubmarine 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. 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 shipbuilding resources toward platforms that can operate in every region and along the full spectrum of conflict.”
Just like that the program and its supporting story line seemed to come undone. The decision was made to halt construction of the current LCS variants at 32 and to redefine the missions and, hence, the design of the remaining 20 ships. A Small Surface Combatant Task Force was created to look at a follow-on class to the LCS, the small surface combatant (SSC). According to press reports, the Task Force looked at three alternatives. The first, do nothing other than add some additional firepower to the LCS, is commonly viewed as a nonstarter. The second and third are, respectively, a larger, modified version of one or both LCSs and a clean sheet design. There has already been some design work done by the two teams on larger, more capable versions of the LCS. A clean sheet ship might be a foreign design but most likely literally a start-from-scratch new ship.
While a decision to go either for a modified LCS or a new design makes sense in terms of the evolving threat and changing Navy requirements it makes an already complicated tale of two sea frames, three mission modules, multiple crews, overseas basing and new operating concepts even more difficult to tell. Like a sweater with a loose thread that unravels once pulled, the case for the original LCS becomes more difficult to make, particularly if the Navy goes with an entirely new design, but even if the decision is made to acquire a larger variant of the basic sea frame.
There are also timing and budget issues to consider. The Navy will be attempting to design the new SSC in FY 2016 and 2017 in order to release a request for proposals in 2018, while at the same time still acquiring the current versions of that ship. Critics are sure to ask why we are still buying the old versions of the LCS while spending money to do something different? If the Navy is not careful, the acquisition of the class of small surface combatants will begin precisely when the Ohio Replacement Program begins to suck all the oxygen out of the Navy shipbuilding account.
The Navy needs the 32 LCSs it is currently committed to acquiring. The mine countermeasure mission alone is critical. There is real value in the forward presence, counter piracy and anti-small boat capabilities the LCS will deploy. But the Navy will need to weave a new story about the roles and missions of LCS and how that is connected to the jobs the new small surface combatant will perform. It needs to work out the new story now.