Rumor has it that the Navy is under pressure from Pentagon budgeteers to cut its buy of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) from 52 vessels to as few as 32. With development of modular combat systems for the high-speed warship lagging and other shipbuilding projects like the successor to Ohio-class ballistic-missile subs clamoring for money, some planners think LCS is a good place to save money. They’re wrong: if the Navy buys fewer littoral warships, it will either have to substitute more expensive vessels in performing vital missions or simply abandon those missions. Either way, U.S. security will be in worse shape.
LCS was always going to be controversial no matter how well it fared in development, since it was conceived to break the paradigm of billion-dollar warships that can do everything except fit within projected budgets. The high cost of modern warships has produced a Navy that is hard pressed to be all the places it needs to be, because there simply aren’t enough ships available on any given day. The LCS helps solve this problem by offloading some design features and relying on interchangeable warfighting modules that can be switched out as circumstances dictate. Its main mission is to counter threats in shallow-water coastal regions where agility often is more important than firepower.
Critics contend that LCS is under-manned and lacks key defensive features, but that’s how you save money; those issues can be addressed without altering the basic concept of the warship. They also argue that using interchangeable warfighting modules in place of fixed combat systems is an unproven operating concept, however similar complaints are heard every time the Navy implements a new idea. Each new class of warships encounters resistance from proponents of the status quo. Critics seldom have a solution for the challenges new ships were conceived to address other than to spend more money than is available on doing business the old way.
It isn’t hard to see where the old way has led us — to the smallest fleet in living memory. Even as I write these words, the Navy is putting the finishing touches on a plan to eliminate one of its aircraft carriers and a carrier air wing so that future force structure can be fit within planned budgets. Navy leaders know they must find more cost-effective ways of accomplishing their missions, and the Littoral Combat Ship is a bold response to that need. Rather than focusing on every rusty hinge and malfunctioning component that the lead ships contain, we need to grasp the larger picture of a world in turmoil that requires U.S. forward presence to keep threats in check. Without the full complement of 52 Littoral Combat Ships, that goal could be much harder to achieve.
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