A dozen years ago, the U.S. Navy announced plans for three new classes of surface warships — a land-attack destroyer, a missile-defense cruiser, and a fast coastal combatant that could replace frigates in shallow-water operations. The destroyer and cruiser ended up being terminated due to budget constraints. In an unusual twist, though, the most revolutionary new warship announced in 2001 lives on, and gradually seems to be winning acceptance in a military service known for its fidelity to tradition.
That vessel is the Littoral Combat Ship, and in truth it is really two vessels sharing similar missions and design features. The basic idea behind the LCS program was to stop the seemingly inexorable increase in costs for each new class of surface combatants by developing a warship that could be versatile without constantly carrying around every conceivable piece of equipment. The Navy’s answer was warfighting modules that could be loaded on or taken off depending on the missions a given ship was being deployed to execute. So there are anti-surface warfare modules, anti-submarine warfare modules, and anti-mine warfare modules — but each ship doesn’t have to carry each type of module all the time. Other types of warfighting modules are planned.
That is a very different approach to the design of surface warships, and it has an acquisition strategy to match. In fact LCS was only supposed to take half as much time to develop as a traditional combatant, mainly by cutting through red tape and adhering to commercial shipbuilding practices. Initially, that created problems. As Navy Under Secretary Robert Work explained earlier this year, companies competing for development contracts bid on the basis of commercial design principles, and then the government customer changed its specifications in a way that made the program look like costs were spiraling upward (the usual pattern).
But that all seems to be in the past now, because on April 16 Mr. Work’s boss, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, told the House Armed Services Committee that LCS is “one of our very best programs.” He went on, “It’s coming in under budget, it’s coming in on schedule, and it’s coming in with capabilities that we have to have.” Not bad for an idea that barely existed when the new millennium began. The ships are already deploying overseas to places like Southeast Asia, where the vast Indonesian archipelago provides a perfect proving ground for their capabilities. It doesn’t make much sense to send a billion-dollar cruiser there in pursuit of pirates, terrorists or other elusive foes, and LCS brings capabilities no frigate could match.
For starters, the ship hosts two combat helicopters and can launch small vessels from its stern ramp that are capable of carrying assault forces ashore. That’s in addition to its warfighting modules and on-board firepower. And it can deliver those capabilities much faster than any other warship in the fleet, matching the posted speed limit on many interstate highways (which is enough to outrun torpedoes). In other words, the Littoral Combat Ship is uniquely suited to a world of diverse and elusive enemies, one in which missions change with each deployment and being able to operate close to shore is essential. That explains why Secretary Mabus is pushing ahead with plans to buy over 50 of the vessels in two different versions.
Mabus deserves a lot of credit for making the Littoral Combat Ship a success. When the program became controversial due to unanticipated technical challenges, he forced contractors into a competition that saved the Pentagon nearly $3 billion. Competition reduced costs so much that the Navy was able to buy both versions — which is probably a good thing given their distinctly different characteristics (one’s aluminum, one’s steel) and the still-experimental nature of their operating concepts. Although the Obama Administration has killed a lot of big-ticket weapons since entering office, LCS is one effort it has been determined to make work since then-Senator Obama lauded it on the campaign trail in 2008. And after a few hiccups, that’s exactly what seems to be happening.