The Wrong Ship at the Wrong Time

By Commander John Patch, U.S. Navy (Retired)

• Too complex. All the higher-end, multi-mission capabilities not only increase costs, but also could make the crews’ tasks unmanageable.

• Excessive technical risk. Incomplete designs at production start exacerbated risk. Some LCS components are also technically unproven or exhibited problems during acceptance trials, such as water-jet tunnel pitting and corrosion and the need for additional buoyancy tanks.

• Impractical. Expectations of seamless integration of the many mission modules, unmanned vehicles, core hull systems (57-mm gun, radars, etc.) and net-centric capabilities were exceedingly unrealistic.

• Inefficient. The failure of the Coast Guard and Navy to conduct a combined effort to design a new cutter/corvette-sized vessel remains perplexing.

• Vulnerable. Many experts argue that the vaunted speed factor will not protect LCS from littoral antiship-missile or torpedo threats.

• Poor endurance. Both LCS versions rapidly deplete fuel stores—especially at the higher speeds envisioned for anti-access missions and with heavy MH-60R/S helicopter operations—requiring frequent bunkering in port or replenishment at sea. 2

• Unstable. Excessive high-end requirements have driven up hull machinery and combat system weight, negatively affecting displacement and stability.

• Logistics-heavy. Staging of the mission modules and associated personnel requires a forward sea base or shore facilities.

• Imprudent. Insufficient analysis before program design and acquisition resulted in spiraling costs to address unanticipated problems.

• Insufficient hotel services. Berthing and support requirements for expanding aircraft, unmanned vehicles, and module detachments have exceeded ship capacity.

New Concerns, Changing Requirements

Several recent, authoritative assessments raise serious new concerns about the LCS. A 2009 assessment by the DOD’s Office of Operational Testing and Evaluation (DOT&E) criticized the premature LCS deployment, which delayed for years the office’s initial hull testing and evaluation, including survivability assessments. 3 The wisdom of deploying a new vessel before a full evaluation seems questionable and suggests Navy eagerness to prove the new class amid growing criticism. The DOT&E assessment also expressed concerns about LCS-1’s stability: “The ship will exceed limiting draft in the full load condition,” reducing reserve buoyancy and “the ship’s capability to withstand damage and heavy weather.” 4 The report also questioned the limited system-shock hardening, raising issues about whether the warship could actually fight it out in the littorals. The most disturbing statement in the report asserted, “LCS is not expected to be survivable in a hostile combat environment. . . .” 5 Indeed, the LCS is no “streetfighter.”

An August 2010 Government Accountability Office (GAO) assessment drew similar critical conclusions. 6 The report questioned Navy decisions to continue to implement design changes even as the third and fourth hulls were being built, increasing unit and design costs significantly. Further, the promised warfare-module (also called mission-package) capabilities are in doubt. The GAO statement on the modules that resonates most focuses on the antisubmarine warfare (ASW) module: “Navy analysis of antisubmarine warfare systems has shown the planned [LCS] systems do not contribute significantly to the antisubmarine warfare mission.” 7 The report also stressed development and procurement delays for all three mission packages—ASW, surface warfare (SUW), and mine warfare (MIW)—and asserts that those delays prevented their timely fielding, leaving them unproven and leaving the Navy at risk of “investing in a fleet of ships that does not deliver its promised capability.” 8

The MIW package, for instance, has components that are not expected to be fielded before 2011, with some as late as 2017. 9 Similarly, the Navy has not yet integrated the SUW package’s 30-mm guns into the ship’s combat-systems suite, and DOD canceled the non-line-of-sight missile-launch system in 2010, seriously limiting LCS SUW capabilities. In fact, as of August 2010, the Navy had taken delivery of only five partial mission packages. The report asserts that all of this boils down to two hulls (one already deploying operationally) with functionality largely constrained to self-defense, as opposed to mission-related tasks.

The GAO report also criticized the Navy for accepting delivery of LCS-1 and LCS-2 with both hulls in an incomplete state and with outstanding technical issues. 10 Addressing those issues has required the Navy to schedule extensive post-delivery work periods for each ship, adding to program costs and again delaying operational testing and evaluation. Despite the additional yard periods, launch-and-recovery system payload-handling cranes were deemed to have significant safety issues.

As of 2010, Navy leaders still seem to be adding requirements and missions to this already “top-heavy” ship class. The January 2010 LCS Request for Proposals called for adding an SPQ-9B fire-control radar—typically found on larger combatants—that would add complex equipment and increase topside weight and the LCS radar cross-section. The Navy is also purchasing and testing a new variable-depth sonar system for the LCS after it found problems with the existing ASW package. 11 Even Marine Corps leaders are seeking to add to LCS missions and system requirements by modifying the ship to carry a reinforced company of Marines. 12 Recent LCS-deployed operations also revealed the need for an additional 20 crew to cover missions that the existing 75 cannot, such as boarding operations, despite the fact that maritime interception operations were part of the original LCS mission. 13 Add to that the training, equipping, and normal ship services for 20 extra crew, and a vicious cycle becomes apparent: ever-expanding crew requirements. Notwithstanding the fact that LCS is a poster child for platform-mission creep, the Navy is still adding more systems.

In November 2010, Navy leaders surprised many by indicating that they would ask Congress for approval to award contracts to both defense-industry teams for ten ships of each type. The Navy argument is that buying both hull types will “stabilize” the LCS program and support an increased ship-procurement rate. 14 But the two ships have very different hull/mechanical and combat-systems suites, which would potentially double the maintenance and training requirements for two virtual ship “sub-classes.” This decision would seem to exacerbate many of the legacy issues described here, especially cost and efficiency concerns.

A Mixed Track Record

Navy accounts of recent LCS operations paint them as successes, but a closer look reveals more uneven results. While the LCS’ high speed did indeed support the interdiction of “go-fast” small craft during 2010 Caribbean counternarcotics operations, that mission itself is on the low end of promised LCS capability—involving none of the high-profile systems for which the LCS is touted. The agility and speed that a helicopter (from any ship) offers in the maritime counterdrug arena, for instance, arguably obviates the 40-knot LCS capability. The capabilities that drew the most praise from the operation were the 11-meter rigid-hull inflatable boat and the Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment—not especially exotic in nature and easily deployable on other U.S. warships. Finally, the loss of two ships’ service diesel generators during the operation, which required an in-port repair effort with a manufacturer’s service team flown in from the United States, is troubling. The loss of 50 percent of electrical-generation capability is serious, but the inability of the crew to effect emergent underway repairs raises bigger questions.

The basic problem with the LCS program is that from inception, it suffered the ills of Navy attempts to design, build, deploy, and sustain a small warship to do too many things. It comes down to a decision whether to field small combatants with expensive multi-mission flexibility or single-mission capability to handle the more likely lower-end operational missions in peacetime and war. Small-combatant success stories do exist (Meko, Visby, FFG-7), but a paramount factor in their development was strict limitation of mission scope and capabilities. The alternative is just too expensive and fraught with difficulties—both of which the Navy is dealing with today. Taken alongside the official findings noted previously, the question becomes: How bad does the prognosis for this ship class need to get before Navy or DOD leaders cancel it?

Keep It Simple

Fleet and regional combatant commanders clearly and consistently have a high demand for small combatants, especially frigate-sized warships. 15 To meet this growing demand, several options still exist for Navy and DOD leaders to consider:

• Dramatically scale down LCS hull requirements (including 40+ knot speed and mission modules) to what amounts to a basic SUW model with self-defense and helicopter-support capabilities. Since many of the next-generation MIW, ASW, and SUW capabilities of the LCS reside on the MH-60R/S, carrying through with the helicopter-based upgrades and new systems seems prudent regardless of LCS hull or class decisions.

• Cancel the program and shift funds to a corvette based on the Coast Guard’s National Security Cutter hull with basic SUW, self-defense, and helicopter-support capabilities.

• Restart Oliver Hazard Perry –class guided-missile frigate production as an acceptable compromise to cover littoral and low-end missions. The Royal Australian FFG-7 class upgrade is evidence that this basic hull type is still viable.

In all three options, SUW would be the primary-hull mission area, since it is the mission most likely in demand in peacetime and war. The armed helicopters could augment a 57-mm gun and a short-range antiship missile system. A limited-hull ASW capability, however, would be needed for independent littoral operations. Alternatively, an ASW version of any of these hulls is an option in addition to SUW hulls. The thrust here is to keep one primary mission area for optimizing combat systems and crew expertise.

Since Navy leaders first conceived of a small littoral combatant more than a decade ago, the Navy has repeatedly violated its own “keep it simple” golden rule. But it is not too late to alter the LCS program or cancel it altogether in favor of a small, simple, affordable, single-mission warship to provide an 80-percent solution for Fleet and combatant commanders. For now, however, the Navy plans to spend more than $25 billion to acquire 55 hulls and 64 mission packages. 16 If the program follows current trends, by 2035 the Navy will have a large fleet of impressive-looking, fast, and fragile ships that cannot handle littoral threats and bring little real combat power to the fight.

1. For a more in-depth discussion of past concerns, see John Patch, “Jack-of-all-trades: the LCS serves too many masters with too many roles,” Armed Forces Journal (September 2007), .

2. LCS-1 used more fuel annually than the larger Oliver Hazard Perry –class frigates, according to the Congressional Budget Office. See the 28 April 2010 letter from the CBO to the Honorable Jeff Sessions, pp. 3–5, at .

3. Director, Operational Test and Evaluation, “FY 2009 Annual Report” (December 2009), p. 146.

4. Ibid., p. 147.

5. Ibid.

6. Government Accountability Office (GAO), “Defense Acquisitions: Navy’s Ability to Overcome Challenges Facing the Littoral Combat Ship Will Determine Eventual Capabilities” (August 2010).

7. Ibid, p. 12.

8. Ibid., p. 24.

9. Ibid., p. 17.

10. Ibid., p. 10.

11. “Navy Pushes Back against GAO Criticism of Littoral Combat Ship,” Inside Defense , 3 September 2010, .

12. “Amphibious Operations in the 21st Century, USMC, Marine Corps Combat Development Command (18 March 2009), p. 27, .

13. Philip Ewing, “20 to join LCS crew on trial deployment” Navy Times , 16 November 2009.

14. Christopher Cavas, “U.S. Navy Asks Congress to Buy Both LCS Designs,” Defense News , 3 Nov 2010, . The Navy is holding open the option to down-select a single hull, but must decide by 14 December (before press time) to avoid another round of contract offers.

15. Philip Ewing, “After the frigates are gone,” Military Times , 4 August 2010, .

16. GAO, “Defense Acquisitions.”


Commander Patch is a retired surface warfare officer, joint specialty officer, and career intelligence analyst. He is currently an associate professor of strategic intelligence at the U.S. Army War College and adjunct faculty at the American Military University. He also serves on the U.S. Naval Institute editorial board.


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