The Navy’s littoral combat ship (LCS) has undergone a stream of criticism since its inception in 2001. Instead of slowly diminishing, the criticisms—from Congress, the Government Accountability Office, the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), and even within the Navy—continued and grew more serious. In a February 2014 memo, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel confirmed what had been leaked in January: Instead of a planned fleet of 52 LCSs, “no new contract negotiations beyond 32 ships will go forward.” In the memo, he directed the Navy to submit proposals for alternative small surface combatants “generally consistent with the capabilities of a frigate.”1
Subsequently, in March the Navy established a small surface-combatant task force to develop a plan to address the Secretary’s direction. The Navy has now recommended, and Secretary Hagel has accepted, a plan to modify the current LCS designs to address some of the shortcomings. It is a certainty that this adapted surface combatant will also undergo some developmental problems and associated criticisms—all new programs do. But the Navy would be wise to carefully navigate around the specific issues that caused the LCS program so much difficulty. While performance issues have hampered the LCS, the focus here will be on the conceptual issues that hindered LCS acceptance outside (and inside) the Navy.
One might suppose—given the directive that the new surface combatant should have capabilities generally consistent with a frigate—that the set of missions the ship should undertake is reasonably well understood. That may be the case, but may not be. It wasn’t so for the LCS. Instead, the Navy writ large lacked a coherent vision for LCS, or perhaps more accurate, different elements within the Navy had (at least) three distinct visions that conflicted with each other.
Vision 1. The ship should be a combatant that is largely offensive, able—through large numbers of distributed ships—to prevail in an exchange with an adversary by delivering a withering attack. In the words of the Navy’s 2005 Concept of Operations (CONOPS), the ship would be able to “kick in the door.” This vision, which is generally consistent with the earlier “Streetfighter” concept championed by the late Vice Admiral Arthur K. Cebrowski in 2001, called for a significant number of littoral combat ships that, en masse, could exact a high toll on the adversary. In this vision, individual LCS survivability is not paramount: lethality is. Losses were to be expected, and the primary survivability aim would be to save the crew.
Vision 2. The ship should be transformative, representing new ways of doing business. Network-centric warfare was paramount. In this vision, spiral development is good; requirements are evolutionary, not fixed at the outset. Modularity and high speed were two embodiments of this transformation. Even if the Navy didn’t quite know how to employ these features, they would allow new tactics to emerge—the fleet would figure it out.
Vision 3. The ship should fill warfighting gaps, deemed to be mine warfare (MIW, but later clarified to the more-specific mine countermeasures [MCM] mission), antisubmarine warfare (ASW), and surface warfare (SUW). The SUW mission focused almost exclusively on countering a swarming small-boat threat, although this mission has since been enlarged to support general maritime-security operations.
What Should It Do?
Visions 1 and 2 were initially aligned and well articulated in a 1999 Proceedings article by Vice Admiral Cebrowski and Captain Wayne P. Hughes.2 Nonetheless, two distinct paths began to emerge, partially fueled by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s 2001 focus on transformation, giving prominence to vision 2 over vision 1. Cebrowski would become Rumsfeld’s first Director of Force Transformation. Meanwhile, vision 1 continued to (and still does) weigh heavily on Hughes’ mind. In subsequent conversations with him, the vision 2 focus on speed and modularity is much diminished, whereas the vision 1 focus on missile salvo exchanges is dominant. As a program of record, vision 3 is codified, although some elements of vision 2 (high speed and modularity) are also specified. Noticeably absent from those requirements is a (vision 1) Streetfighter-like capability to prevail in an SUW exchange against like-size enemy combatants.
Nothing is inherently wrong with any of these visions, but the Navy was either not aggressive enough or not convincing enough to clearly articulate the chosen LCS vision—what the ship was supposed to do—and thus the three conflicting visions persisted. For example, even though the program of record requirements clearly indicated the limited (counter-small boat) SUW role for the LCS, the Navy’s internal review found that limitation to be unsatisfactory, preferring more capability related to vision 1.3 Interestingly, comments by then-Rear Admiral Thomas Rowden when he was Director of Surface Warfare appeared to keep vision 1 alive with a future LCS capable of missile exchanges against more formidable adversaries. A March article quotes him as saying: “The LCS could swing out from the group, nearly unobserved, and deliver a sneak attack with missiles that can hit a target 120 to 130 nautical miles away. There are missiles now, available or in development, that the Navy is confident will work with the ships.”4 Thus, it appears as though the Navy is still conflicted over the vision, trying to accommodate all three, which is a mistake.
Without a compelling vision, and one that was widely accepted both inside and outside the Navy, the LCS had naysayers from the beginning. As Ronald O’Rourke of the Congressional Research Service described it early on, the LCS had come about through an “analytical virgin birth . . . that is going to be a problem for this program down the road.”5 This can be argued to be the root cause of the subsequent LCS woes. One hopes that the new surface combatant won’t suffer the same problem.
The question remains: What is the new small surface combatant supposed to do? In principle, an analysis of alternatives (AoA) would have come to grips with this question. The Navy’s Small Surface-Combatant Task Force conducted an AoA-like study, which supported the Navy’s recommendation to Secretary Hagel, but this had limited visibility outside the Navy. It is unclear what the ship is supposed to do, other than be “frigate-like.”
The critical issue is that the Navy needs to explain its vision—explicitly—and recognize that trying to mutually satisfy distinct visions is a path to disappointment. There are still some who argue that vision 1 addresses a serious deficiency in today’s Fleet. Others argue that warfighting gaps are not being sufficiently filled by the LCS and look to the new surface combatant to fulfill a broader vision 3 (for example, SUW and ASW). Voices in support of the transformative vision 2 appear to be diminished, but they could grow. While all of these perspectives may be valid, the new surface combatant cannot attempt to satisfy each of them. If a family of ships is required to satisfy all valid visions then the Navy needs to embrace the intellectual honesty of saying so, along with a plan of how the next combatant fits into the overall context.
Survivability and Lethality
The LCS is not expected to be survivable in high-intensity combat. Its design specifications do not require the inclusion of survivability features necessary to conduct sustained combat operations in a major conflict, as is expected for the Navy’s other surface combatants. These words come from the OSD’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, but this is not the only voice of concern.6
Low-level survivability should not be an issue by itself as it is inherently tied to the question of what a ship is supposed to do. Under the first vision (the Streetfighter origin), the LCS was explicitly envisioned to have a high ratio of lethality-to-survivability. In other words, modest survivability was acceptable to those espousing that vision. Thus, the issue of poor LCS survivability might be better cast as a mismatch between ship design and CONOPS. If the CONOPS doesn’t require survivability, then there is no issue; conversely, if it does, the issue is huge. This mismatch figured prominently in the Navy’s internal assessment of the LCS.7
One specific element of ship survivability is the ability to deal with air defense, particularly defending against antiship cruise missiles. For a variety of reasons (all of which lead to cost), the LCS was designed with only a limited air-defense capability, and thus the CONOPS should either posit situations where the air threat is benign, or else where LCS operates under the umbrella of other air-defense assets. Sadly, the evolving LCS concept of operations has been unclear on this matter, essentially saying that LCS doesn’t need robust air defense, unless it does. Of course, this is not a problem under vision 2 where new tactics should emerge, but it is a significant issue under vision 3.
The internal Navy assessment also noted the lack of LCS lethality (a critical shortcoming for achieving vision 1) inherent in an LCS, even with embarked mission packages, such as SUW. This suggests one of the fundamental objections to LCS: It isn’t highly survivable, it isn’t highly lethal, and it costs a lot more than a ship with neither of these features should.
All of this is tied, of course, to what a ship is supposed to do, and that must be addressed for the next new small surface combatant. There are calls for it to be more survivable and more lethal than the LCS and cost about the same. Satisfying all three of these desires cannot happen, however, and the Navy needs to be clear about the rationale for the tradeoffs under consideration.
Modularity and High speed
Modularity, or the ability to “quickly” adapt to new missions, was a central concept for vision 2. Although the term is rarely used today, this feature was once described as enabling the LCS to be a “Swiss Army knife.” On its surface, modularity appears to be a good idea. But the Navy would be wise to distinguish among a number of modularities.
• Shipyard: the ability to reconfigure and modernize a ship with minimal reconfiguration costs during a yard period.
• Operational: the ability to reconfigure a ship (for example, swapping MCM for SUW mission modules) in homeport between deployments to tailor it to an upcoming deployment.
• Maintenance: the ability to quickly remove faulty systems and replace them with new or refurbished ones with minimal impact on operational tempo.
• Tactical: the ability to quickly reconfigure a ship while deployed, allowing a single-mission ship to effectively become a multi-mission one.
The Navy advertised tactical modularity but later concluded that this was logistically both more difficult and costly than it had assumed.8 It seems obvious that some degree of modularity would be prudent for the new surface combatant, but it also seems likely that tactical modularity is not a viable goal.
The requirement for high sprint speed, while always having some champions, appears to have had far more critics. The fundamental problem is that designing a ship that can go upward of 40 knots imposes other constraints, particularly with the so-called “iron triangle” that must make tradeoffs among speed, endurance, and payload. This isn’t to say that now that the LCS has high sprint speeds, the Navy can’t use it to advantage, but soon after he joined the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, current Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work observed in 2004, “it seems safe to assume that any current analysis that indicates a compelling LCS requirement for a top speed in the vicinity of 40–50 knots is . . . likely flawed.”9
Manning the Ship
Small LCS crews are consistent with visions 1 and 2, although the Navy has learned through experience that they are not consistent with vision 3. Multiple studies conducted while the LCS was still in its conceptual phase indicated that a total crew of about 100 (ship plus mission package) was an aggressive lower bound. Current evidence suggests that this bound is, indeed, aggressive. Nonetheless, it appears as though vision 2 initially dominated the crewing argument, with a requirement for a considerably smaller crew (75) that the Navy has since revised upwards through retrofits and new requirements for later ship constructions, increasing the total crew size to about 100—a 33 percent increase.
It is well known, of course, that manpower is a dominant factor in total ship ownership cost, and the Navy should be commended for challenging itself to keep the manpower costs down. But the oft-cited wisdom that “hope is not a strategy” applies here. The evidence did not support a crew size as small as the Navy specified in its requirements—at least not for what it apparently wanted the ship to do.
Even with a planned increase in crew size, the LCS concept for maintenance is heavily reliant on contractor support while in port. This, too, has not worked out as well as the Navy had hoped. Maybe things will improve over time, but the empirical evidence from the early LCS experience should temper Navy planning for its next surface combatant.
Finally, there is the issue of crew rotation. The idea of crew rotations has been prevalent since the 1990s because it can (theoretically) allow more forward-presence from a given Fleet size without taxing individual sailors with extremely long deployments or excessively high operating tempo. However, like many swords, this one has two edges. The first crew-rotation scheme for the LCS was called 4-3-1: four crews for every three ships to keep one forward. Since there would be 4 crews for every 3 ships, this means that there would be 1.33 crews per ship. The current plan is to have 3-2-1: three crews for every two ships to keep one forward. While this scheme keeps more ships deployed (50 percent of the ships are forward, as opposed to only 33 percent in the earlier scheme), it also means that there would be 1.5 crews per ship rather than 1.33.
Curiously, the Navy never argued for a reduced force structure when changing the rotation scheme, although that might have been a logical outcome of keeping a larger fraction of the Fleet deployed. Thus, the LCS-related manpower cost rose by 13 percent simply by changing the crew-rotation scheme, since the number of ships remained constant in the Navy’s plan. (These numbers are based on ships only, without consideration for manning the mission packages.)
This simply reinforces the notion that nothing is free. If the Navy wants more forward presence from a given Fleet size, crew rotation is a rational approach. However, if the Navy wants to minimize manpower costs for a given Fleet size, crew rotation hurts. Somewhere in this tradeoff, options for overseas homeporting need to be considered as well. Without wishing to trivialize the logistical and political issues, this option can provide the most forward presence without the rotational costs in manpower and numbers of ships.
The Navy has concluded its analysis and the results were presented to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. On 11 December the Secretary announced his decision: “I accepted the Navy’s recommendation to build a new small surface combatant (SSC) ship based on upgraded variants of the LCS. The new SSC will offer improvements in ship lethality and survivability, delivering enhanced naval combat performance at an affordable price.”10 The path forward for the Navy’s new small surface combatant is filled with obstacles. The service will surely stumble over some of these, but it would be well advised to avoid those discovered during its last trip down this path. The first step is to answer, with clarity, what the small surface combatant is supposed to do.
2. VADM Arthur K. Cebrowski, USN, and CAPT Wayne P. Hughes Jr., USN, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, “Rebalancing the Fleet,” vol. 125 no. 11 (November 1999), 31–34.
3. Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Review of the Navy’s Readiness to Receive, Employ and Deploy the LCS Class Vessel, 9 March 2012. Excerpts available at http://news.usni.org/2013/07/23/document-executive-summary-of-the-lcs-perez-report.
4. Michael Fabey, “NAVWEEK: LCS Got Game,” Aviation Week online, 28 March 2014, http://aviationweek.com/blog/navweek-lcs-got-game.
5. Hunter Keeter, “O’Rourke: Lack Of Pedigree May Haunt LCS Program,” Defense Daily, 16 January 2003. Robert O. Work, Naval Transformation and the Littoral Combat Ship, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, February 2004.
6. Director, Operational Test and Evaluation, FY 2013 Annual Report, January 2014, 195, www.acq.osd.mil/dte-trmc/_Docs/DTE/DTE-FY2013-AnnualReport-March2014.pdf.
7. Review of the Navy’s Readiness to Receive.
8. Review of the Navy’s Readiness to Receive.
9. Work, Naval Transformation and the Littoral Combat Ship.
10. U.S. Department of Defense News Release (NR-613-14), Statement by Secretary Hagel on the Littoral Combat Ship, 11 December 2014, www.defense.gov/releases/release.aspx?releaseid=17073.