Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Is the Littoral Combat Ship Program “Survivable”?

The USS Freedom, the U.S. Navy’s newest class of ship, arrived in Singapore last Thursday after its maiden voyage across the Pacific. The voyage likely culminated with a huge sigh of relief from supporters of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program. Mounting criticism over the cost overruns, problems, concerns about functionality and delays have called the program into question. Those in favor of the program hope to use this successful voyage as proof that the LCS program is the future of Navy.

The LCS was conceptualized after 9/11 and the bombing of the USS Cole, as the Navy’s response to terrorism on the seas. It is designed to meet the needs of U.S. maritime strategy of the 21st century by combing warfighting capabilities with operational flexibility in order to execute specific missions close to shore. Key features of the LCS include speed and maneuverability, the ability to recover and launch small boats, the ability to launch Seahawk helicopters and UAV’s, a networked combat system providing interoperability within the Navy’s fleet, and mission modules that can be changed out for various mission needs.

Intended to replace aging frigates, the LCS is designed to operate mainly in littoral waters, although it can also escort larger combat ships on the high seas. Two of its main functions for helping the fleet are to destroy mines and hunt submarines. It is also designed for policing and patrolling the seas for intercepting drug and human trafficking, as well as fighting piracy and terrorists. Another major function will be to be a first responder in natural disasters to provide humanitarian aid and disaster relief.

This all sounds like the perfect ship – a jack of all trades, which is just what the Navy needs for a cooperative strategy in the 21st century. But is it too good to be true? Maybe. 

There are a number of issues which call the entire program into question. First of all, it isn’t cheap. Once hailed as the Navy’s cost-effective ship of the future, it may now be deemed a money pit. Initially projected to be a per ship cost of $250 million, the first ship, designed by Lockheed Martin, rolled in at $537 million. The second, designed by General Dynamics, came in at $653 million. And these prices do not include the mission packages, which are expected to add another $100m to $200m. Furthermore, having two separate versions of the ship designed and maintained by different contractors will result in an additional $400 million over the lifecycle of the program.

But wait, there’s more. Both first-in-class ships suffered a lot of problems, some of which are still unresolved, such as corrosion, mechanical breakdowns, cracks in the hull, and flaws in the weapons systems. Most of these problems have been fixed, at least for the moment. But what to do for those that are not resolved or if new problems arise? So far, the best suggestion has been to add more crew for maintenance. However, the LCS is designed specifically for a small crew to operate the ship and operate the mission packages. Adding more people will add to the weight of the ship, and weight reduces speed, and speed supposedly adds to the survivability of the ship, thereby making speed one of its key features which should not be sacrificed.  

One of the major functions, the mine-sweeping package, will have a significant delay. Initially, the helicopters were planned to tow the mine-hunting package, but it has since been determined that the helicopters are not powerful to perform this function. Now the function will be performed by a robot, which is still years away in development.

Most importantly, however, is the issue of survivability. This combat ship can’t exactly fight…much, anyway. Initial tests have shown that the guns are unreliable at best. The faster the ship goes, the less accurate they become. So fighting at top speed is not an option. Additionally, it has very light gun capabilities because weapons add weight, and weight reduces speed…you get the idea. The problem here is that with today’s technology, aircraft, missiles, and torpedoes can target the ship despite its speed. Not to mention the fact that, the faster the ship goes, the more noise it takes, increasing its detectability. Furthermore, testing has shown that once the ship takes a hit, it can unlikely continue its mission, but should at least be able to limp back to port. Supporters of the program argue that the ship is not designed to perform in a hostile environment. It seems that they did not get the memo about it being a combat ship.

Despite its many problems and mission package delays, there are high hopes that the LCS can indeed be the perfect fit for the Navy’s cooperative strategy for 21st century sea power and the U.S. pivot to Asia. By operating in littoral waters, it can certainly respond to China’s sea denial threats of submarine torpedo attacks and landmines…provided that the torpedo radar gets fixed and mine-hunting package comes in at mock speed and heavy reliability. And it can definitely help the U.S. build global partnerships by offering collective security against piracy and terrorism…as long as the guns work and the ship doesn’t take a major hit. It can certainly play a huge role in humanitarian assistance and disaster recovery…as long as it doesn’t take weeks to don its irregular warfare package and the environment does not quickly change to conflict, which would require another wardrobe change to a warfighting package.
There are a lot of skeptics about the LCS program, many of whom are in the Navy and say that it doesn’t pack enough punch for the price tag. And there is definitely some concern about the LCS’s chances against foreign ships of similar class. But the program also has a lot of support from bigger name players – especially the Congressmen who want shipbuilding jobs in their state, and the contractors who dole out major money to political action committees. Contracts for twelve ships have now been awarded, and the ships have already been named. With a first major success now under its belt, the USS Freedom looks promising for the future of the LCS.

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