Until recently, the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) has struggled to overcome the impression that it was the U.S. Navy’s “ugly duckling.” There were questions regarding the mission for the LCS — operations in littoral waters, the possibility of building warships in commercial shipyards according to commercial standards, and the plausibility of equipping the LCS with plug-and-play mission modules. There were complaints about the designs of both variants. There was the crisis of rising prices as the cost for each ship rose when the builders were required to meet the design requirements set by the Naval Vessel Rules. There have been delays in fielding several of the initial mission modules.
Slowly but steadily the LCS program is morphing into a pair of swans. When the first two LCS went to sea, both demonstrated tremendous capabilities. Design changes have been implemented to address problems experienced with the first two ships. As a result, when both variants go into serial production they will be able to go faster, carry more fuel and be easier to maintain.
Progress is being made on the mission packages. The first generation mine countermeasures package is undergoing testing. Candidate unmanned underwater vehicles are currently being developed. A redesign of the antisubmarine warfare package will be rolled out soon. New mission modules for the Marine Corps and Special Operations Forces are being considered. There is even the possibility of a missile defense variant with a downsized radar for the foreign market.
One of the truly transformational changes in the LCS program was cost. The competition between the two LCS teams for what was supposed to be a single award to produce the new warship resulted in each team proposing a price so good that the Navy decided to buy both LCS variants and got an extra ship in the bargain. This effect was the result of innovations in ship construction by the two builders, Marinette Marine and Austal. But it was also the result of LCS program office’s absolute determination to constrain the corporate Navy’s attempts to add requirements and hence costs to the program. The program office is being ruthless when it comes to engineering design changes. There are no changes not necessitated by safety issues or to enhance affordability.
Mother Nature wrote the biological rules that govern how an ugly duckling turns into a beautiful swan. The LCS program office and the two LCS teams have shown that by rewriting the acquisition rules the same transformation can be achieved on a major weapons program.
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