The U.S. Navy’s leadership is making a full-court press to “save” the littoral combat ship (LCS). Twenty of the vessels are in service or under construction, with a total LCS force of 52 ships now planned. Some of the justification put forward for the LCS includes its “produceability” and its “utility.” For example, in the June issue of Proceedings, Commanders Dale Heinken and Jeff Miller state that it took 14 years for the first ship of the Arleigh Burke (DDG-51) class to be delivered, while three littoral combat ships were delivered within 12 years of the program’s initiation.1 The USS Arleigh Burke was commissioned in July 1991; going back 14 years is 1977. But the committee that determined the basic characteristics of the ship only met at White Oak, Maryland, in 1979 under the chairmanship of Rear Admiral Richard Fontaine.2 A more realistic time period to consider for the DDG-51 is the just over six years from contract award (April 1985) to commissioning.
The USS Freedom (LCS-1) and Independence (LCS-2) were both four years from contract award to commissioning. But at almost 9,000 tons, the DDG-51 is three times larger than an LCS and, with the Aegis radar/fire-control systems, large sonar, and an impressive array of weapons, is far more complex than an LCS.
Of course, any comparison of the DDG-51 with an LCS is ludicrous. The destroyer is a multi-mission ship, capable of standing alone against most threats, with upgraded ships providing ballistic-missile defense without the loss of other combat capabilities. The littoral combat ships now in the Fleet have a single 57-mm gun (the Freedom additionally has two 30-mm guns fitted as part of an antisurface module), a limited helicopter capability, and a limited point-defense capability. Some 12 years after the program was initiated, no complete mission modules are yet available for the LCS.
A follow-on (updated) DDG-51 costs some $2 billion. An LCS—when a mission package is available—will provide a highly specialized ship at a cost of about $750 million per unit (including a mission module). For the same investment, would a combatant or fleet commander rather have one follow-on DDG-51 or two or three LCSs?3
The same Proceedings article also extolled the potential political influence of the LCS: Discussing the “strategic” Cook Islands, “A visit by the U.S. Secretary of State, followed by one or several visits by an LCS would reinforce our efforts to improve our influence in the region.”4
So could a much less expensive Coast Guard cutter, or the temporary assignment of a Seabee team to recondition a school or build a playground, or a Marine band and drill platoon. While Oliver Cromwell said that “a warship is the best ambassador,” the LCS is not a warship in the context of impressing populations and governments, nor are the Cook Islands of strategic importance to the United States.
The LCS has several severe problems and limitations:
• The ships are over cost.
• Both LCS designs have required major changes for production units, causing cost increases; changes are continuing to be made in sequential ships.
• Shore support requirements are much greater than earlier envisioned; with a large number of the ships planned for forward-basing, this could be a major cost factor.
• No complete mission modules are available.
• Designed for core crews of about 40, the ships now require more than 50 personnel (plus the mission-module teams).
•The Freedom has experienced major mechanical problems on her first forward deployment (to Singapore); similar problems were experienced during earlier operations in the Caribbean.
• The ships lack realistic air-defense capabilities, meaning that they will need to be accompanied by a missile-armed ship when in hostile waters.
• The mission-module concept has failed to provide the promised capabilities although several LCS are in commission.
• Procuring both the LCS-1 and LCS-2 designs is requiring two crew-training programs, two sets of spare parts, two sets of documentation, etc.; it also limits flexibility in personnel assignments.
The Navy and the nation are committed—some have said “stuck”—with a score of littoral combat ships now in service or under construction. Instead of continuing to produce additional ships (of both designs), the Navy or Department of Defense should establish an objective and qualified “B Team” to evaluate the role and capabilities of the LCS, and to look into potential platform alternatives, and then recommend whether or not to continue the program.
The argument will be put forth that the massive investments already made in the current LCS program justify the continuation of the ongoing efforts. If this argument were valid, the U.S. Navy still would be procuring dreadnoughts and torpedo boats, and the U.S. Army would have cavalry and coastal artillery units. Such “sunk” costs are just that—sunk, never to be retrieved. The more objective assessment would be to determine what future costs will be and what those funds will deliver to meet the nation’s peacetime and wartime needs compared to other uses of the increasingly scarce resources.
For the benefit of the Navy and the nation, such a comprehensive review of the LCS program must be undertaken.
1. CDRs Dale Heinken and Jeff Miller, USN, “The Right Ship at the Right Time,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 139, no. 6 (June 2013), 52.
2. The author of this column, at the time a contractor working for RADM Wayne E. Myer, head of the Aegis program, was an observer to DDX committee meetings.
3. The most comprehensive cost data is found in Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) Program: Background and Issues for Congress” (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 24 May 2013).
4. Heinken and Miller, 52.