Missing the Big Picture on the Littoral Combat Ship
The Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), or frigates (FF) as future variants of the LCS will be called, have been a ripe subject for hyperbole and strawmen in contemporary debates over military acquisition and defense policy. Lawrence Korb’s recent criticism of the program is the latest example in this trend. While there have been problems with the LCS program, as with every major defense acquisition program, it has been an overall success, as I explained before at War on the Rocks. Unfortunately, Korb offers an analysis plagued with inaccuracies and empty of solutions to a fundamental question: What constitutes an affordable and effective small surface combatant for the U.S. Navy?
What does Korb get wrong? It is not a short list: his budget figures for 2017, his understanding of how the modular concept works, the experimental nature of the early LCS deployment plan, and the sources of LCS cost inflation. In a response, the Atlantic Council’s James Hasik took a positive approach and recommended the retention of military modular systems as a viable capability. He too, however, seems to fault the LCS program in his comparison of it to the Danish Flyvefisken class modular offshore patrol ships which unlike LCS, he asserts, are the correct application of modular warship capability. Dr. Jerry Hendrix from the Center for New American Security has also weighed in on Korb’s criticisms from the historical perspective. Korb and Hasik should both perhaps focus their criticism on the outdated, 1980s-era operational testing bureaucracy that is one of the culprits behind the inefficient U.S. defense acquisition process; a problem not unique to the LCS. They should also study Jerry Hendrix’s analysis in terms of the development problems and costs of past, successful U.S. ship classes. The Navy overcame deficiencies in past warship design and will do the same with LCS.
Let’s start with what Korb got wrong: Korb’s budget figures for LCS construction in 2017 are incorrect. He states that the two ships authorized for fiscal year (FY) 17 will cost $1.5 billion. According to Ron O’Rourke at the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the FY2017 LCS authorization includes $1,125.6 million for the 27th and 28th LCS ships. The 2017 funding also includes $86 million to cover additional costs needed to complete earlier hulls and $139.4 million for LCS mission module equipment. The average cost of the two LCS procured is $568.2 million. This is an increase from the previous year’s average cost per sea frame, but this increase occurred because two LCS vice the previous fiscal year’s three ships will be procured, reducing the economy of scale derived from larger numbers.Why is getting the budget numbers right a “big deal?” The LCS program saw massive cost increases early in its procurement process, but Program Executive Office (PEO) management since 2011 has brought these under control. Inflating LCS costs suggests a return to the decade of the 2000’s when LCS was nearly cancelled. Suggestions of such retrograde thinking are not helpful when the LCS program is moving forward toward new milestones over the course of 2016.
Getting LCS to the fleet in numbers is now important, as Hendrix suggests. Deployment gaps and the eroding international situation demand an increase in the number of U.S. Navy vessels that can deploy and remain on station in critical areas of interest. Korb does not seem to understand the need for naval presence and instead links fleet size to political desires. The post-Cold War force, however, has been reduced over time and future capability growth was translated into an allowance to cut fleet numbers. Korb notes the Navy failed to adequately grow the fleet in strength despite “generous defense budgets that followed 9/11,” but, as Hendrix says, these cost increases went into maintenance and not new construction. Fleet strength, and the presence and combat power it provides, is again a concern in the 21st century. China and Russia are assuming roles on the global stage and strong regional competitors such as Iran and North Korea make areas such as Western Pacific and Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Persian Gulf zones of potential instability. This situation demands a ship that can be built and deployed in numbers like the LCS.
Korb seems incredulous that a modular warship might work, despite the fact that the Danish navy successfully executed the concept with its Flyvefisken patrol vessels. The U.S. Naval War College explored modular approaches to warship design in the 1990s as a way to maximize capability and promote commonality among small ship classes. The modular LCS was a logical development given that single-mission U.S. Navy mine warfare (MCM) and Cyclone class patrol ships (PC) have represented significant outliers in commonality from the rest of the fleet. LCS is larger and self-deployable, unlike the Flyvefiskens that were built for service in Danish coastal waters, or the MCM and PC which require heavy-lift ships to carry them for rapid movement between theaters.
The U.S. Navy was never ordered to rush the LCS design into service as Korb suggests, but was forced to by the realities of the business world that were in conflict with the plans for two LCS variants. As Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work explained in his 2013 LCS program history, Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics told the Navy that it would be cost prohibitive for the companies to keep their design and production teams together until the Navy decided on a winning design. The Navy changed the program’s timeline in response from seven to 10 years to support industry concerns. This change, combined with too many new technologies and immature concepts already grouped on LCS and its mission modules resulted in delays and increased costs. The Navy could have avoided this problem by selecting one LCS sea frame design at the outset, or by not deploying the first unit, USS Freedom, a year early, but the service wanted two variants for experimental comparison; a concept endorsed by the Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC). The LCS program was always assumed to be experimental in character until the down select to one sea frame was accomplished. The early, initial deployment was part of the effort.
The real “villain” of the LCS story, and other programs with excessively long build and operational test periods, is perhaps the 1980s-era test and evaluation program managed by the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E). As Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute has said, “DOT&E has been a ‘Mengele like menace‘to the Defense Department since its 1983 inception, and has become an unaccountable bureaucratic overlord in the Pentagon”. DOT&E does not pay for the additional tests it authorizes, and its staff of “whiz kids” often overrules experienced officers with decades of service on what constitutes an effective operational test of a combat system.
The “fly before you buy” concept adopted in the mid 1980s demanded testing in advance of initial operating capability. It is one of the foundations of DOT&E’s authority. This was a reasonable requirement for the time, but defense program management has changed since the mid-1980s. Nearly all weapon systems are now the product of “phased introduction” where the final “product” may be a decade away from the initial introduction of the system to operating forces. Rather than conduct a single series of tests prior to introduction, DOT&E now haunts a program for decades with each increment of a program requiring more testing. Contrary to DOT&E claims, this does result in additional costs on the program. The additional tests are not the source of that added cost, but rather the delays they inflict alter production schedules and change acquisition timelines. This often results in increased program costs. In today’s effort to reform defense acquisition, Congress should look to adjust the system of testing requirements to correct a condition where “perfect” has become the enemy of “good enough.” As the designer of the radar systems that saved Great Britain from the Luftwaffe’s blitz in 1940/41, Robert Watson Watt said, “Give me the third best to go on with, the second best comes too late and the best never comes.”
Like many of the defense writers who have used LCS as a strawman, Lawrence Korb’s assessment of the program is flawed and riddled with errors. Presence has been an unofficial Navy mission since the beginning of the United States and a codified one since 1993. The initial underestimation of LCS’s costs and the decision to maintain two sea frames was responsible for the high cost of the initial units rather than their early deployment. James Hasik’s endorsement of the modular systems concept behind LCS is welcome, but modularity is unlikely to continue as a viable U.S. naval concept if its LCS program anchor fails. Hendrix points out valuable lessons from past U.S. warship construction that suggest LCS’s shortfalls will also be corrected. Despite problems, LCS remains an affordable choice for a modern small surface combatant compared with a new design whose initial unit would cost as much as $1.5 billion a copy. Critics should perhaps look at the deep flaws within the defense acquisition system, notably its unchecked test and evaluation arm, before making such harsh assesments of individual programs. The Littoral Combat Ship and its proposed frigate variant remain the best choice for rapidly increasing the size of the U.S. surface fleet in response to a deteriorating international situation. It remains relatively inexpensive, it is getting additional capabilities to meet new challenges in naval warfare, and it has been well received by forward deployed commanders. It remains the best choice.
Steve Wills is a retired surface warfare officer who served on multiple small combatants over the course of his naval career. He is a PhD candidate in Military History at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. His forthcoming dissertation is entitled, “Replacing the Maritime Strategy; The Change in U.S. Naval Strategy from 1989-1994.”
Image: U.S. Navy/Austal USA