Last week’s NYT article on the difficulties with the Littoral Combat Ship is quite fantastic. The LCS project publicly began in November 2001, but the ship is a natural outgrowth of shifts in USN doctrine in the 1990s. Contrary to the general belief that the Navy continues to prepare to defeat the Imperial Japanese Navy/Red Fleet/People’s Liberation Army Navy on the high seas, 1990s doctrine focused on the ability of the Navy to affect developments on shore. Primarily in the documents …From the Sea and Forward… From the Sea, the Navy began to think seriously about how to project power on land. This was entirely reasonable given the disintegration of the Red Fleet, the weakness of the PLAN, and the overwhelming dominance of the Allied navies over any potential enemies. Whatever criticisms can be made of the Zumwalt destroyer, it can hardly be said that the ship is a relic of Cold War Mahanianism; the ship’s mission is to directly support US and Allied land forces engaged in a Gulf War I style battle. Older platforms, from aircraft carriers to submarines, were similarly refocused away from high-intensity sea combat to land attack capability.
As the article notes, the critical moment for the LCS was the attack on the USS Cole. The Cole attack freaked out the Navy, because it indicated that expensive, high capability platforms could be damaged or destroyed through inexpensive means. Frankly, I think that the Navy rather overstated the threat of these kinds of attacks; the Cole incident could not have been repeated in a wartime setting, and modern naval vessels can deliver ordnance at ranges that make the prospect of swarming small attack boats considerable less dangerous. Nevertheless, the LCS wasn’t, in my view, a bad idea; lots of small, relatively inexpensive ships can carry out more missions that a few large, expensive vessels. The LCS, with its operational flexibility (different mission modules are supposed to be switched in and out for different tasks) seems to me to be an ideal contributor to the vision of a 1000 Ship Navy in which the USN and other navies provide global maritime security, but also would have an important part to play in a high intensity littoral war.
But all of this depends on the LCS being really cheap, and it isn’t so cheap. A lot of ideas that weren’t terrible went into the development of the LCS, but there have been some negative interactions. As the article details, the Navy decided to use a variety of civilian technologies in design and construction. Unfortunately, as the process of construction has gone on, the Navy came to the unsurprising conclusion that these technologies would not meet naval specifications. Courses had to be changed in mid-construction, leading to substantial delays and cost overruns. Another problem was the drive for privatization in acquisition, which led to minimal oversight of the Lockheed and General Dynamics construction processes. The privatization movement, based on the idea that government supervision was inefficient and undesirable, in effect made government oversight impossible by gutting the capacity of the services to manage large projects. This is not to put the blame on GD or Lockheed, as they were simply responding to the structure of the situation. In fairness, the changing government requirements make the entire construction process very difficult.
And so what we have is a ship that is expensive and late. As I mentioned above, I think the project is still worthy; others disagree. It’s hard to imagine where the Navy will find a vessel that’s as inexpensive as the LCS (especially given that the operating cost of the LCS is supposed to be low because of its relatively small crew; we’ll see if that works out), and without the LCS the size of the Navy will decline substantially.