The LCS is one of the most misunderstood ships in the history of the Navy. Why? Because it is an entirely new type of combat vessel. Not only is it new, we are not exactly sure how it will finally operate in the fleet. But here is what I have to tell you. There is a requirement for a ship that can go into littoral waters, which means it has to have a shallow draft; and it must be able to hunt mines; and it must be hunt diesel submarines; and it must be able to beat off swarm boats. Those are threats that exist today.
Now, the Navy made what I consider to be a momentous decision. It is essentially going to replace our patrol coastal craft which support our special ops; that’s a 350 ton vessel. It replaces the Osprey which is a 950 ton vessel, which is the old MHC, and it is replacing the old Avenger class which is about a 1,400 ton ship; and it is replacing the Fig7 – which is about a 4,000 ton ship.
What the Navy decided to do, they said we need these three missions, and we are going to try to do it in a single hull with mission packages. It was a bold decision to make, and I am confident – I am confident – that it will prove out to be a smart decision.
– The Honorable Robert Work, USNI/AFCEA WEST, January 26, 2011
In his January 2011 Proceedings article The Wrong Ship at the Wrong Time, CDR John Patch opens his argument with his opinion “it is clear that the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program cannot live up to expectations.” I consider CDR John Patch a friend of mine, and I strongly believe my friend CDR John Patch is wrong. The only expectations the Littoral Combat Ship program isn’t living up to today are the expectations of those who believe the Littoral Combat Ship is a failed frigate design. In his article CDR John Patch lists 11 criticisms – below are my direct responses to his criticisms.
Unaffordable. The near tripling of the expected hull price tag and unrealistic Navy cost estimates are well documented in current literature, but they become a stark program stigma amid current Department of Defense fiscal austerity. Life-cycle costs of the two “orphaned” LCS hulls after the down-select decision are also a factor.
The cost of building navy ships is always important, but I think the details of the dual-select caught everyone, and admittedly me as well, by surprise. Based on the contract details as released by the Navy, the hull prices for the Littoral Combat Ships come in at around $440 million per ship, but when we factor in all costs including the amortized cost of all 64 modules the Navy intends to buy, the cost for ship and module total package is around $530 million per. The pricing for these ships falls well below the escalated average Congressional cost cap of $538 million, and the number used by Congress is for hull only.
If we go back to the history of the Littoral Combat Ship, we know certain numbers. The original hull cost estimate was $220 million, a number I think all of us believed was ridiculously low in the first place. The mission module estimate was $180 million, which turned out to be ridiculously high. It was the combination of the two numbers that got everyone to $400 million. $400 million was also a derivative though, because if you recall the Navy had to build three Littoral Combat Ships for the cost of one DDG-51 at the time – which cost $1.2 billion. Bottom line, the cost estimate history of the Littoral Combat Ship more likely came from the Bermuda triangle than it did from a professional program management process at the Pentagon, and yet the LCS program has had to live with these numbers anyway.
The first in class ships were expensive, no question. By my math they were at least 300% over the original unrealistic estimate cost of $220 million. How does that stack up with history? Well, of the nine previous ships, four had overruns of greater than 100% (MCM-1, MHC 51, DDG 51, LPD-17), three had overruns between 40-60% (FFG 7, CG 47, LSD 41), and only two had overruns less than 20% (LHD 1 and VA 774/75). NONE came in lower than expected. But I think everyone agrees first in class are prototypes – indeed the Navy paid for the first LCS with R&D budget money. The key in new ship classes is always whether the Navy learns and improves over time.
Admiral Clark may have been guesstimating costs for the LCS program but his guesses were good, because the US Navy got fixed cost contracts that insure the Navy can buy 3 Littoral Combat Ships for well below the cost of a single DDG-51 today, and by percentage the cost growth of the entire Littoral Combat Ship package estimate of $400 million was only 33% higher for what is today a much more capable ship than the $400 million commercial design Admiral Clark envisioned.
Too complex. All the higher-end, multi-mission capabilities not only increase costs, but also could make the crews’ tasks unmanageable.
Each ship is broken down into three crews. Core crew = ship. Module crew = module. Aviation crew = Helo det. When I visited USS Freedom (LCS 1) last week Commander Edwards made explicitly clear that when a module crew comes on his ship, they are part of his crew. During RIMPAC several of the module crew earned certifications in areas outside their speciality. Operationally there are no signs that the Navy is running into complexity operating a single mission ship during any single period of time. It might look complex for folks looking outside in, but when they are speaking about LCS from an inside perspective there really isn’t a lot of complexity there.
Excessive technical risk. Incomplete designs at production start exacerbated risk. Some LCS components are also technically unproven or exhibited problems during acceptance trials, such as water-jet tunnel pitting and corrosion and the need for additional buoyancy tanks.
Yep, and first in class ships are prototypes. There is trial and error taking place all over the Navy on first in class ships. Since none of us can go back in time, the question is whether there is evidence that lessons learned from the first in class ships are being incorporated into future designs for a better class of ship throughout the block. Again, talking to Commander Edwards last week one thing that became very clear is how lessons have been and still are being folded into LCS 3, and LCS 5+. The process seems good on the Navy side, and I think the contracts suggest the industry side is comfortable enough with the process they are willing to commit to fixed cost contracts.
Impractical. Expectations of seamless integration of the many mission modules, unmanned vehicles, core hull systems (57-mm gun, radars, etc.) and net-centric capabilities were exceedingly unrealistic.
I think expectations of ‘seamless integration’ of many moving parts is indeed impractical, but I am not sure where that expectation was evident in the Navy. Since I first stayed on USS Freedom (LCS 1) for two nights back in November 2008 there was a clear understanding that interfaces between ship and systems was going to be a challenge with lessons learned through experimentation. Most of the engineering has been good, but as expected, there have been lessons learned. The integration of the platform and the systems is by no means an “exceedingly unrealistic” objective, it is the legitimate goal of the LCS package in sum – as it should be.
Impractical, in my opinion, would be to ignore the benefits networks contribute to our naval capabilities and not purposely designing our ships with networks in mind. I completely reject the premise of the “impractical” criticism, because developing naval vessels with the intent to support networks that integrate unmanned systems with combat systems in a hull specifically built to support those capabilities should be the objective of every new ship class the US Navy builds in the 21st century.
A lot of people want to keep on keeping on in the guided missile era of naval warfare with traditional designs and nominal evolutions, but new technologies are emerging and a networked battlespace is being developed by potential adversaries. The US Navy is well positioned today to take the existing advanced generation guided missile combat fleet, network that fleet, then expand the network with next generation unmanned technologies deployed by platforms like submarines and LCS. In my opinion, what is being criticized as the impractical integration of LCS parts to form a whole is actually the evolution from where the Navy is today towards the networked integration of emerging capabilities and existing combat power.
Inefficient. The failure of the Coast Guard and Navy to conduct a combined effort to design a new cutter/corvette-sized vessel remains perplexing.
The Coast Guard and the Navy have different requirements. I spoke to RADM Blore many times on the subject when he was Assistant Commandant for Acquisition and Chief Acquisition Officer for the United States Coast Guard, and he told me the Coast Guard had looked at both designs. Since there is still no medium endurance cutter replacement selection today, perhaps the US Coast Guard still may pick one of the designs. As modern designs in production, I have no doubt that a version of a Littoral Combat Ship hull more aligned with the requirements of the Coast Guard could be designed, but as far as I am concerned, I believe the Coast Guard needs to pick the vessel most suited to their requirements – LCS or not.
Vulnerable. Many experts argue that the vaunted speed factor will not protect LCS from littoral antiship-missile or torpedo threats.
I would hope every expert would argue that the “vaunted speed factor” of LCS will not protect the LCS from anti-ship missiles, or they aren’t much of an expert in my book. The vulnerability criticism of LCS is made in the latest DOT&E report on LCS, and I have a separate post for that discussion.
Poor endurance. Both LCS versions rapidly deplete fuel stores—especially at the higher speeds envisioned for anti-access missions and with heavy MH-60R/S helicopter operations—requiring frequent bunkering in port or replenishment at sea.
From the letter from CBO to the Honorable Jeff Sessions (PDF):
The moderate-fuel case—which CBO considers the most likely of the three scenarios—assumes that the LCS-1 operates at 30 or more knots for about 5 percent of the time, at 14 knots to 16 knots 42 percent of the time (a range that might be typical when the ship was traveling from its home port to a deployment location), and at less than 12 knots for the rest of its time under way. In that scenario, O&S costs total 34 percent of the ship’s life-cycle cost: 15 percent for personnel, 11 percent for fuel, and 8 percent for other O&S costs. The moderate speed profile would result in fuel usage of about 35,000 barrels per year, slightly less than the 37,600 barrels that the Navy assumed in formulating its 2011 budget request.4 By comparison, the FFG-7 class frigates consumed about 31,000 barrels of fuel per ship in 2009.
I had an opportunity to talk to the folks on the ship about this, and there are some interesting things here. First, there is already a design change specific to a fuel improvement adjustment from LCS 1 to LCS 3 of 14% efficiency, and CBO used estimates from LCS 1. Lets do the math. 35,000 x .14 = 4,900. 35,000 – 4,900 = 30,100 which is less fuel than “the FFG-7 class frigates consumed” of “31,000 barrels of fuel per ship in 2009.”
In the same document, CBO outlines a low fuel case that LCS does very well in and a high fuel case which the LCS performs very poorly. It should also be noted that the CBO letter to the Honorable Jeff Sessions came before RIMPAC, which I think was a very important test for LCS 1. What they are finding is that the fuel use for the Lockheed Martin version of the LCS, during high operational tempos like RIMPAC when they are being asked to do a bunch of things just for the sake of trying new things, the LCS uses a greater delta of fuel than other surface warships normally do between refueling. For example, if a ship typically refuels at 50%, the LCS might refuel at 30%, but then again RIMPAC was all about making the LCS do things it may or may never actually do because it is the first time it has ever been ordered to do anything.
There is a lot of operational development taking place, and CONOP isn’t defined yet, so I think it is still too early to tell. What we do know is that LCS is very, very efficient at slower speeds (and LCS 2 even more so), and comes with bursts of very high speeds. As systems come online with modules how all of this comes together will be something that will be developed through experimentation, and something folks should keep an eye on. I am not discouraged yet.
Readers of my blog know I have been discussing mothership operational concepts in the 21st century for years, so in my mind the CONOP of a mothership is one of a station ship platform that is constantly providing surveillance in spaces with deployed systems. Now granted, I always thought motherships should be big, but what happens when multiple Littoral Combat Ships are operating together at 200nm spaces able to use the extended range of platforms for ISR over a collectively broader region. Keep in mind the LCS is capable of reacting with speed when physical presence is required, so a 200nm dash is like a 4 hour run. When you go down that road there are a lot of questions, and only with more ships will this stuff work out.
The worst case scenario is this: the LCS contracts the Navy signed are so good that Navy was able to put 3 T-AO(X) ships into FY14, FY15, and FY16 respectively to replace the Henry J. Kaiser class replenishment ships, so if the Littoral Combat Ships of the first block have serious fuel issues, at least they will have three shiny new oilers to fill em up.
Unstable. Excessive high-end requirements have driven up hull machinery and combat system weight, negatively affecting displacement and stability.
The first in class USS Freedom (LCS 1) has had to be adjusted, but after speaking directly to the folks on USS Freedom (LCS 1) about this, I’m not convinced this is as big a deal as it has been made. The Navy-industry team has done a very good job incorporating this issue into design changes for LCS 3, LCS 5+, etc… and I imagine the same process is at work on USS Independence (LCS 2). What is interesting to note is how everyone discusses how there is no smoother ride on the seas than when USS Freedom (LCS 1) gets going at high speed, and if we presume this is the speed the ships will have during combat, stability might actually be a tactical advantage for weapons delivery LCS has over everything else.
Logistics-heavy. Staging of the mission modules and associated personnel requires a forward sea base or shore facilities.
The Navy plans 55 ships and 64 modules, so I am unsure how much swapping is going to be taking place outside of normal crew rotations – which will take place at known, existing facilities anyway. Personally, I like having a Navy forward deployed and closer to theater, but that’s another discussion.
Imprudent. Insufficient analysis before program design and acquisition resulted in spiraling costs to address unanticipated problems.
I don’t think anyone disagrees there is a period early in the Littoral Combat Ship program where there was a lot of fail. I don’t think that accurately measures where the LCS program is today though.
Insufficient hotel services. Berthing and support requirements for expanding aircraft, unmanned vehicles, and module detachments have exceeded ship capacity.
I’m not convinced that’s true, and I base that on conversations with the folks on USS Freedom (LCS 1) last week. The ship was designed for 40 crew. That number may or may not change. It may be the LCS requires additional technology to support 40 crew, or the ship may need more than 40 crew, or the ship may require both new technology and more crew members – that still hasn’t been decided. I think everyone around the problem believes the number is going to be somewhere around 40, maybe a little higher, but not by much. There will be some hotel services added in LCS 3, LCS 5+ etc as this works itself out, and these services will be put into LCS 1 during the ships first major availability. Keep in mind these decisions will be made very soon, and getting the all the crew issues right has been an issue the Navy has been working on.
There doesn’t seem to be any concerns with the hotel services for the aviation detachment, that has all been worked out.
However, the modules are more interesting. We know the Navy is going to develop an attachment for the third mission zone on LCS 1 that can support hotel services for additional ‘customers’ for VBSS, and for the ASuW module that space can support that function as part of the baseline module. LCS 2 has a much larger mission bay zone so space isn’t even an issue there. In my opinion, if we are talking about additional crew for specific modules only, then modular addition of services is how it should be.
My contention for years has been the Littoral Combat Ship represents, by design, an unmanned system mothership. In those same writings on my blog, I have also been encouraging the Navy that the ASuW module should also be a manned mothership capability. In the ungoverned shadow zones of the sea where piracy and other illicit maritime activities are present and naval forces are not, even if we had the capability today to fly around with a UAV and blow stuff up with a Hellfire – that isn’t the RoE. Ultimately, it takes sailors to be the peacemaker at the point of contact in the shadow zone. So in my opinion, adding a modular capability to the ASuW module that includes Navy/Marine/CG detachment hotel service support for various levels of boarding operations is a natural evolution of what a Littoral Combat Ship manned mothership capability should be, and that is working itself out on schedule according to RADM Frank Pandolfe’s very excellent SNA brief.
That really is the beauty of a ship with a ton of space like LCS; if you are insufficient in some capability, with a modular design one can simply develop a plug-n-play the solution somewhere and when it is ready, bring it on the ship and get to work.
Photograph by Raymond Pritchett, January 26, 2011