One might argue that the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program has had more than its fair share of challenges. First there was the difficulty of carrying along two very different ship designs, one by a Lockheed Martin-led team (LCS 1 and 3) and another by a General Dynamics led team (LCS 2 and 4). Then there was the effort to qualify two relatively small commercial shipyards to build vessels to Navy standards. Finally, there was the “sticker shock” caused by rising costs and the repeated program slippages.
More recently, the Navy seemed to have the LCS program under control. LCS 1 and 2 have been to sea, demonstrating some remarkable capabilities. LCS 1 also participated in a drug interdiction operation and in the RIMPAC 2010 international naval exercises. LCS 3 and 4 are being built. While the planned down select to one ship type and an initial contract for ten LCSs has been delayed for unknown reasons, the Navy is still expected to make an award soon. The planned buy of 55 LCSs is vital to attainment of the goal of a 316 ship Navy.
One of the unique features of the LCS concept is that the ships are designed to deploy different mission packages that can be exchanged as circumstances dictate. The LCS provides a sea frame, basic power and ship handling systems, crew quarters and the interfaces to support the mission modules. The mission packages are built around a set of mission modules or sets of mission-specific systems packaged into 20-foot shipping containers or modules. As planned, the mission packages can include additional unmanned aerial, surface and subsurface vehicles.
While the shipbuilding program appears to be over the proverbial hump, the same cannot be said for the mission packages. This is serious because the mission packages are critical to the viability of the LCS as a military vessel; without them, the LCS is nothing more than a big speed boat. Yet, the three initial mission packages for anti-surface, anti-submarine and mine countermeasures are all experiencing difficulties. Development of the highly-classified anti-submarine warfare mission package essentially has been halted. Progress on the surface warfare mission package has been slowed by problems with the unmanned surface vessel and the cancellation of the Non-Line-of-Sight Launch System which was intended to provide a high volume, precision-guided rocket capability for the LCS. A recent Government Accountability Office study of the LCS program pointed out that “until mission packages are proven, the Navy risks investing in a fleet of warships that does not deliver promised capability.”
Even the one mission module that has been relatively successful, that for mine countermeasures, has experienced technical challenges to some of the integrated mission systems. Current testing is being conducted with a subset of the nine planned mission systems. But there are reports that the Navy is considering eliminating some of the mission systems in a misplaced attempt to save a few dollars.
Understanding the importance of the LCS, the Navy responded to initial problems with the basic ships or sea frames with the necessary attention, expertise and resources. The same effort must now be devoted to the development of working mission packages. This also includes developing the desired unmanned systems, particularly for subsurface operations. It makes no sense to buy ships and have nothing to place on them. The Navy needs to remember, to borrow the Clinton-era campaign slogan, that it is the mission packages, stupid.