The Littoral Combat Ship Trap
Raymond Pritchett at the Information Dissemination blog makes a very convincing argument for continued support of the Navy’s littoral combat ship, LCS, probably the best I have ever heard. Still, I am not buying it. First, here is what the blogger says is the half billion dollar warships good points:
Innovation is the bane of contracting, indeed contracting by nature is a risk averse exercise that draws criticism at a rate consistent with the level of risk involved. The LCS is a combination of several innovations including modularity, unmanned systems, smaller crew size, automation, and speed. I personally don’t think all of these combination’s add up to a ‘littoral combat ship’ nor even a ship with well designed requirements, but I appreciate the fact the Navy needs to get all of these innovations into the future fleet (thus to sea). The only way that happens is to build a few Littoral Combat Ships and see what they can do.
Other than the LCS, right now the US Navy has nothing on the chalkboard smaller than the DDG-51s, and nothing on the chalkboard that can act as a mothership smaller than the LPD-17. If the LCS was canceled today, what would the US Navy build? MSC ships like T-AKE or JHSVs? I’ll take more Littoral Combat Ships instead. The QDR is going to hopefully change what goes on the chalkboard, but even that will take a few years. For now, the Littoral Combat Ship is an excellent way to move ahead with mothership development in my opinion.
Raymond appears to have fallen into the trap that is current Pentagon practice when they invent a particular weapon and we the public are supposed to accept whether we like it or not. I wrote about this ongoing phenomena recently in a post titled “LCS: An Offer We Can’t Refuse?”:
The Admirals have convinced Congress and the public that the new littoral combat ship, LCS, whose production is ramped up in the new budget, is the final word in shallow sea, Brown Water operations. While it is an interesting concept as a fast wave-riding vessel, and at around $500 million significantly cheaper than every other USN warship program, it is still a very large and expensive vessel for such dirty naval warfare. The type of adversary the LCS would likely face in such waters would be a $10,000 speed boat available in large numbers by stateless pirates, or rising Third World navies such as Iran. Her large bulk leaves a dangerous opening for swarming attacks by such numerous and agile craft, tactics the Iranian Navy practices on a regular basis.
The future of warfare is less about expensive platforms, which Raymond admits the LCS is, but more about the weapons the ship carries. Of course, platforms are essential, but it is more important they be affordable enough to produce in adequate numbers, and on time when needed. If replacement vehicles, planes, or ships are required due to age, battle damage, or even obsolescence, they should be easily and quickly replaced. Here’s more from Raymond:
I believe USS Freedom (LCS 1) and USS Independence (LCS 2) represent the USS Langley (CV-1) of the 21st century. I believe that in the 21st century, motherships for manned and unmanned underwater, surface, and aviation systems will be as important as aircraft carriers were in the 20th century.
The blogger uses the first American carrier to describe the LCS, so I will use the latest in service of the Nimitz class. The vast amount of requirements now placed on these mobile naval airfields have become so extreme, such as 1000 foot angled decks, nuclear power, thousands of crewmen, the cost distracts from its real purpose as a mothership. Today the Navy struggles to fill these spacious and awe-inspiring Goliaths with aircraft, the Navy may have to reduce the number of planes in carrier squadrons to reign in costs. Maintaining carrier numbers now exceeds the importance of whether they can actually perform their mission efficiently or not.
LCS consists of a seaframe that is outfitted with reconfigurable payloads, called Mission Packages that can be changed out quickly. Mission Packages are supported by special detachments that operate and maintain manned and unmanned vehicles and sensors to counter mine, undersea, and surface threats. There are currently three types of focused Mission Packages that provide potent combat capability in specific warfare areas: Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), Mine Warfare (MIW) and Surface Warfare (SUW). The ship will operate one package loaded at a time, but can swap to a new package in 1-4 days.
Meant then to be a mothership, we see the vessel becoming another do it all exquisite platform, innovative to the extreme which can do many interesting missions, none of them well. But to deploy the advanced new unmanned systems which Raymond details, these weapons just need a parent vessel, not a costly untested warship. The more advanced the mothership, the fewer such weapons we can deploy, as we are proving with carrier aircraft.
This is not meant to be overly-critical of Raymond, who is merely expressing all our frustrations at naval shipbuilding practices of at least the past 2 Administrations. If the USN had built only 3000 ton frigates (an accurate description of LCS) in the 1990s instead of 10,000 ton Burke battleships, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. What the blogger is saying then is, “what other choice do we have“?
We think there are other choices and the time is past due to stop compromising and get Navy procurement right this time. The 1000-1500 ton corvette warship should be the building block for the future surface future fleet. A good seaworthy vessel is all that is required and there are good foreign designs to choose from which would be excellent platforms for the new generation of unmanned air-surface-submarine vehicles now coming into service, and likely to dominate the littoral waters in the near future.
In wartime numbers are vital. The US Army in Iraq and Afghanistan produced their winning combination of armored vehicles in only a few years development. The Stryker went from concept in 1999 to combat in 2003 in about 4 years. The MRAP even quicker with an astounding 10,000 vehicles produced since 2007! We want to see something similar from the Navy, when they went from being arguably the third most powerful in 1939 to the greatest fleet in history by 1944. For this to happen there must be an end to decades long procurement cycles, ships with too many faults when they enter service, and single class warship types which pack in too much innovation and give us too few numbers.