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LCS: The Navy’s Last Chance

October 15, 2007

Over the past few decades, the US Navy has had many opportunities to design new hull forms less about fighting World War 2, and more relevant to our current Missile Age. In the 1960’s and 70’s, we had the hydrofoil, including experimental craft like the large High Point, and the smaller Pegasus class of Harpoon missile boats. Both received moderate press coverage at the time, but were soon disposed of by the Navy hierarchy as being too radical to take seriously.

Then in the 1980’s, during the buildup to a 600 ship navy, we were promised new Surface Effect frigates which could fight submarines at unheard of speeds while gliding over the waves. These advance designs were soon set aside as more traditional hulls hit the water under the auspices of Navy Secretary and “big carrier” advocate John Lehman, as were the so-called “Metcalf Cruisers”, an early stealth design which offered smooth decks and batteries of hidden missile launchers, to counter the increasing proliferation of deadly cruise missiles at sea. And there was the experimental Sea Shadow that appeared much like the F-117 stealth jet, which we saw on live TV wasting the air defenses surrounding Baghdad in 1991.

In the budget crunching days of the mid 1990’s, an affordable proposal called the Arsenal Ship appeared. This radical warship would load up to 1000 missiles on a barge like hull, while costing about the price of a new destroyer. It was a remarkable proposal, perhaps a rebirth of the battleship for the 21st Century. But more traditional mindsets balked at anything that hinted at replacing new aircraft carriers, and the revolutionary design was soon forgotten.

Once again, in this new Age of Terror, the Navy plans to build an advanced design, called the littoral combat ship (LCS), with a radical hull for cruising in shallow waters where terrorist pirates are want to hide. The new ship combines the best of the successes and failures of previous generations, including trimaran and standard monohull versions, providing very high speeds in waters prohibitive to the big ships.

The LCS is currently under threat from the budget cutters, not so much for any failure in the design, but from the typical shoddy construction and cost overruns prevalent in all US ships. The same poor workmanship is found in all new US warships, such as the LHD-17 amphibious ships, Arleigh Burke destroyers, and the Coast Guard’s National Security Cutters.

Yet, it is the LCS, the most radical, stealthiest, and least expensive of the Navy’s expansion plans which faces cancellation. Once again we see the Admirals fritter away a chance to answer the threat of robot weapons and smart missiles at sea which is forcing obsolescence on traditional cruisers, destroyers, and frigates. Edward Luttwak writes on this subject:

There have been many wars and much technological advancement since 1945, but nothing as revolutionary as a prolonged world war has fully engaged the energies and talents of the developed countries to overthrow old paradigms of war-fighting. The result is that the canonical weapons platforms and configurations of World War II have endured, despite all the new possibilities opened by technological advancements in the past six decades. The old configurations were a good fit for the technology of 1945. Today, they have become obstacles to military advancement…

As America continues to eke out as much service as possible from her tired Perry frigates designed in the 1970’s, foreign navies have operated stealth ships for years. France has sold its excellent Lafayette class to Singapore, Taiwan, and Saudi Arabia. Norway has operated her Skjold stealth boats, and Sweden her Visby class with US forces. Even Israel has the SAAR class, ironically constructed in American shipyards while our own stretched fleet makes due with outdated hulls.

The US Navy desperately needs all the 55 planned littoral ships to maintain enough combatants in a dangerous global environment. It also requires a warship especially tailored to match 21st Century threats, rather than one built with the conflicts of another era in mind.

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