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Israel Ditches the LCS

[ 0 ] June 29, 2009 |

It appears that the Israelis have ditched plans to purchase the Littoral Combat Ship:

In a radical revamp of its surface fleet modernization program, the Israel Navy has shelved long-held plans to purchase Lockheed Martin-produced Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), as well as a fallback option involving corvetees built by Northrop Grumman.

Instead, sources say, the Navy is pushing to establish a combat shipbuilding industry through customized, locally built versions of a German corvette design.

The German option is a longer, larger version of the A-100 corvette. This is interesting, because there are multiple potential Israeli motivations.

The central tasks of the Israeli Navy are to prevent infiltration into Israel, prevent smuggling into Gaza, and support IDF land operations in Lebanon and Gaza. There’s good reason to think that the LCS would do all three of these jobs better than the A-100. As Galrahn has pointed out repeatedly, the LCS is best understood as a mothership for small boats and UAVs, and not as a surface combatant. These capabilities give it the capability to monitor and act in a substantial portion of Israel’s sea space, and also to contribute to operations on land. The LCS was originally envisioned as the Navy’s contribution to network-centric warfare, extending surveillance and fire capability across the littoral (which includes both the sea and the coast). This fits in well with the IDF’s vision of how war ought to be fought. The LCS was also conceived in response to the threat presented by swarms of small, fast boats, which is exactly the problem that Hezbollah and Hamas might pose in the maritime sphere. The LCS is also some 16 knots faster than the A-100, giving it the ability to respond more quickly to problems, and to evacuate itself more quickly from dangerous situations. Although it’s unclear that the Israelis would have much use for the LCS’ modular nature, it’s fair to say that the LCS is a *much* more capable platform than even a modified A-100.

That said, there are good reasons why the Israelis would prefer the A-100. First, the technology is much more mature, and the design is operationally tested. The first littoral combat ships remain in trials, and won’t be used operationally for some time. They might not achieve full operational capacity for quite a while. Second, the cost of the LCS is much higher than the A-100. To this day, no one quite knows how much a fully operational LCS will cost. For a state more focused on its land frontiers than its littoral, the less expensive corvette makes some sense. Third, the LCS isn’t necessarily a street fighter. No modern warships can be expected to have a lot of staying power, but the LCS is particularly vulnerable because of its light construction. The LCS also costs more per unit, which means that more Israeli treasure is bound up in a specific ship. This matters, because people occasionally fire surface-to-surface missiles at Israeli ships, and also sometimes blow up small boats next to Israeli vessels. Finally, it appears that the modified A-100s will be built in Israel, and job-creating defense projects are always popular with politicians.

The wild card is this; while the Israeli decision to quit the LCS can be explained purely through military and economic factors, you have to wonder whether there’s also a political motivation. Given recent assertions about Israel’s capacity to “go it alone,” and mildly increasing tensions between the Obama and Netanyahu over settlements, it’s possible to read this as a message to US defense contractors (and perhaps more importantly, to US congress-critters) that Israel can say no, and that there are potential economic consequences for playing hardball. Now, just because an action can be read as a message doesn’t mean that a message is being sent, and I may well be over-interpreting the Israeli decision on this point.

See also Galrahn.

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