Lessons from the Littoral Combat Ship

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The military-industrial complex “has more tentacles than an octopus,” and its “dimensions are almost infinite.” So wrote Sen. William Proxmire in his excoriating 1970 book Report from Wasteland. He described the military-industrial complex (i.e., the deep interconnection of the military, politicians, and industry) as a “military-contract treadmill” that had unwarranted influence over U.S. politics.

Does this treadmill still exist half a century later?

The littoral combat ship can answer that question. It has been plagued by problems since its conception in 2001. Uncharitably dubbed the “little crappy ship” by its detractors, the program has faced cost overruns, delays, mechanical failures, and questions over the platforms’ survivability in high-intensity combat. Each of the 23 commissioned littoral combat ships cost around $500 million to build, with astronomical operating costs adding to the program’s hefty price tag. While the ships themselves are currently facing the prospect of decommissioning and replacement, and many will not be sad to see them go, the program has one saving grace — it offers some important lessons about the American defense industrial base.



The U.S. Navy’s over-reliance on a small number of shipyards, combined with a powerful lobbying effort by prime defense contractors, meant that congressional efforts to remove funding in the early stages of the program — citing concerns that were ultimately proved correct — were doomed to fail. The acquisition of the littoral combat ship is an example of the military-industrial complex in action, and one that should not be forgotten. While close working relationships between the services, policymakers, and contractors can be beneficial, blunders like the littoral combat ship can undermine U.S. military capabilities while wasting resources that could be better used elsewhere.

The Beginnings of the Littoral Combat Ship

Following the end of the Cold War, the disappearance of the threat from the Soviet Union meant that the U.S. Navy lost its great raison d’etre. The lack of a clearly defined naval mission in the 1990s, combined with the same budgetary pressures faced by the other services as defense funding fell, meant that the U.S. Navy needed a new purpose. This came in the form of the doctrine of network-centric warfare, which emerged in the late 1990s and gave key roles to the U.S. Navy in maintaining a global presence via seabasing and ensuring access to contested regions. Network-centric warfare gave prominence to the idea of small, light, and fast “nodes” that connected together in conflict scenarios, and this meant that the U.S. Navy needed to move away from its traditional platforms — huge, complex, and multipurpose ships. Furthermore, network-centric warfare focused more on projecting power ashore, meaning that ships that could operate in coastal waters were required.

Even though the United States no longer faced an adversary with substantial naval forces, the U.S. Navy could not focus solely on presence and power projection. During the Gulf War, the USS Tripoli (an Iwo Jima-class amphibious assault ship) and the USS Princeton (a Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser) struck floating mines in the Persian Gulf, injuring seven personnel and causing damage to the vessels. Although both ships were soon back in action, the episode highlighted the need for mine countermeasures vessels, and gave Congress ammunition to press the service to procure specialized ships for that mission despite the Navy’s reluctance to do so. The 14 Avenger-class minesweepers built in the late 1980s and early 1990s were unreliable and plagued by mechanical problems. One of the vessels, the USS Devastator, spent so much time moored stationary in Bahrain for repairs that sailors jokingly referred to it as “Building 6.” This was coupled with the impending retirement of the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates, small general-purpose escort ships that made a significant contribution to U.S. maritime presence. One of the frigates had also struck a mine in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War.

During the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review process, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made clear that the U.S. military needed to improve its ability to tackle anti-access/area denial threats and project power in contested theaters. His office quietly informed U.S. Navy leaders that they needed to include a small surface combatant in any plans they put forward. The new chief of naval operations, Adm. Vern Clark, did just that. In November 2001, the U.S. Navy announced its new DD(X) Future Surface Combatant Program, which encompassed the acquisition of three new classes of ship: DD(X), a destroyer for precision long-range strike; CG(X), a cruiser for missile and air defense; and a littoral combat ship that could operate in shallow-draft and coastal waters.

Rather than being a multi-mission ship like its larger brethren, the littoral combat ship would be equipped to perform one primary mission at any given time. This could be achieved either by individual ships focusing on one mission throughout their service or having their mission orientation changed by swapping out a modular mission package. Not only did these modules mean that a cheaply built hull could be repurposed for different missions, but they also meant that the littoral combat ship program promised, in essence, to solve all of the U.S. Navy’s problems. The ship could be tasked to perform a wide range of missions (including surface warfare, mine countermeasures, and anti-submarine warfare) while adding to maritime presence, projecting power, and assisting with intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, all in coastal waters and with fewer personnel per ship. The concept of the “hybrid sailor” was built into the littoral combat ship from the start, and it was designed to operate with “mission-critical manning” whereby the ship could deliver its objectives with a minimal number of personnel aboard. A littoral combat ship would nominally have a core crew of 40 plus 15 to 20 extra for a given module, compared to a crew of around 200 for a similar-sized frigate, providing a much cheaper option when it came to crewing costs. Clark declared the littoral combat ship his top priority, and Rumsfeld approved the request’s inclusion in the Department of Defense’s budget submission for Fiscal Year 2003.

Primes Pressure Policymakers 

The U.S. Navy stated that it planned to set up multiple competitions among industry teams for each of the three DD(X) programs. In May 2004, contracts for the littoral combat ship were awarded to two teams, one led by Lockheed Martin and the other by General Dynamics. A third team, led by Raytheon, was unsuccessful. Each team was thus headed by a prime defense contractor, but also included smaller shipbuilders. General Dynamics brought in Austal USA, and Lockheed Martin brought in Bollinger Shipyards and Marinette Marine. The Lockheed Martin team was awarded a seven-month, $46.5 million contract, while the General Dynamics team was awarded a 16-month, $78.8 million contract. Each team would complete a final system design of a littoral combat ship, called a Flight 0 ship, and build a prototype. The Lockheed Martin team would design and build the LCS-1 or Freedom-class ship, based on a steel monohull. The General Dynamics team would work on the LCS-2 or Independence-class ship, based on an aluminum trimaran hull. The U.S. Navy stated that both designs met the program’s key performance parameters.

The U.S. Navy initially expected to test one prototype of each design, and then downselect to a single variant for Flight I production thereafter, but this plan proved to be unworkable. Both Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics argued that building a single Flight 0 prototype and then idling their design teams and production lines until a decision on the winner was made would be excessively expensive. This led to the addition of another Flight 0 prototype each before the downselect. However, this plan allowed only a very short time for the U.S. Navy to comparatively test the two designs, as the time needed for the production of a second prototype pushed the construction too close to the planned date for transition to Flight I production. The final budget submissions, as reflected in the National Defense Authorization Acts for FY2005 and FY2006, thus called for more Flight 0 seaframes to be built (nine in the FY2005 plan, raised to 14 in FY2006) before the final downselect decision, with the option to put both designs into production.

In the summer of 2004, the House Armed Services Committee attempted to remove funding for the littoral combat ship from the FY2005 defense budget, citing a number of substantive concerns about the program:

The committee continues to have concerns about the lack of a rigorous analysis of alternative concepts for performance of the LCS mission, the justification for the force structure sought by the Navy, and whether the program’s acquisition strategy is necessary to meet an urgent operational need. … [T]he committee is concerned about the Navy’s ability to resolve these issues before committing to the design for the LCS and beginning construction of the first ship.

The head of the projection forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, argued that the littoral combat ship concept was “immature” and convinced the House of Representatives to make the cut in funding. However, the U.S. Navy argued that any cuts to the DD(X) program would be disastrous for the defense industrial base. Naval acquisition executive John Young warned publicly that any funding cuts and acquisition delays would lead to “substantial layoffs” at the shipyards, leading to a loss of skilled workers that would “come back to haunt the Navy” when shipbuilding resumed in the future. In order to allay these fears, and address concerns about the effect a cut would have on naval force structure, Bartlett proposed funding two additional Arleigh Burke-class destroyers instead.

This threat of funding removal came at the same time as the U.S. Navy’s planned announcement of the results of the downselect to the final two Flight 0 teams who would build their prototypes. The service argued that they could not fully make the case for the program’s maturity until the two finalists had been announced. The contractors responded quickly. Lockheed Martin, along with its teammates Bollinger Shipyards and Marinette Marine, launched a lobbying campaign, intended both to tilt the downselect decision in their favor and to rally Congressional support for the littoral combat ship program as a whole. The company ran advertisements in newspapers and defense magazines touting their expertise and track record — including taglines like “Don’t just look at what we say. Look at what we do.” — and blanketed the metro stations serving Capitol Hill and the Pentagon with posters pushing for the littoral combat ship as a program, with slogans like “Littoral Dominance Assured.” Lockheed Martin also planned a trade-show style display in the Capitol, including scale mock-ups of the ship and its modules.

The House’s threat caused a small showdown in Congress, as the Senate had voted to keep the littoral combat ship program fully funded. In the end, the congressional authorization conference committee report simply “note[d] the concerns” that Bartlett had expressed. The final spending authorization bill actually ended up fully funding the construction of the two littoral combat ship prototypes at a higher level than had been proposed by the U.S. Navy, the House, or the Senate in the original authorizations.

Lessons for the Future

The military-industrial complex is not a bad thing per se, despite the almost exclusively pejorative use of the term. If the services, the contractors, and the politicians can all work together, that can make the whole acquisition process smoother and allow the military to get the capabilities it needs with fewer snags. Congressional representatives are doing their jobs in the eyes of their constituents when they push for production contracts in their areas, given the jobs and money that flow into the communities surrounding sites like shipyards. However, problems arise when the influence of the primes over policymakers leads to the acquisition of platforms that are unnecessary or simply do not work. This not only wastes money that could be better spent on other capabilities, but also impacts upon whether the United States can credibly face threats around the world. An expensive ship that cannot perform its mission does not bode well for the U.S. naval balance with China, or for America’s ability to project power and defend its interests in far-off and contested theaters.

The beginnings of the littoral combat ship program provide a clear-cut example of prime contractor influence. The U.S. Navy cited concerns about the future of the defense industrial base and its skilled workers when answering congressional queries on the program’s funding. Within the littoral combat ship program itself, Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics were able to successfully argue first for additional Flight 0 prototypes, then for both designs to be put into production, and finally for the program to not only continue to be funded but to receive even more money. The structure of the prototype competition required such a large level of expenditure that the contractors could easily claim that their businesses would be significantly undermined if they did not get a production contract out of the process. Lockheed Martin, in particular, took full advantage of its lobbying teams to push Congress in the right direction.

The littoral combat ship is, of course, not the sole example of the U.S. military ending up with unnecessary or poorly designed platforms due to congressional pressure. The U.S. Air Force had attempts to retire parts of its C-130 fleet stymied by Congress, despite the service’s insistence that its plans would retain more than sufficient airlift capability, with the congressional delegation from North Carolina expressing concern about reductions at Pope Airfield. A Mississippi senator pushed for the procurement of the USS Hayler to prevent a gap in the Ingalls Pascagoula shipyard’s production line between the end of the Kidd-class program and the start of the Ticonderoga-class acquisition. Sikorsky won the contract to replace the U.S. Navy’s Sea Knight helicopters with helpful pressure from congressional representatives keen to keep the production line going at its site in Connecticut, despite the MH-60S’s tail-wheel design making it difficult to handle when landing on small pads in high winds. However, the littoral combat ship provides the clearest example of this trend, with significant willing participation from the U.S. Navy to boot.

Furthermore, the program exemplifies the practical workings of the military-industrial complex. In choosing two teams to build Flight 0 prototypes, the U.S. Navy widened its base of support within the industry, an incentive that was directly acknowledged in comments made by anonymous Pentagon sources at the time. Each shipyard could call upon its local congressional representatives, in the House and in the Senate, to keep the jobs flowing in their communities. More involved shipyards thus meant more pressure on Congress. Not only did the primes and their partners in each team want to ensure the program’s survival, but the other shipyards like Bath Ironworks did too — they had received other contracts in the FY2005 defense budget to keep them going, but they could also anticipate the possibility of littoral combat ship construction contracts further down the line if the winning seaframe could not be produced solely at its designers’ sites.

Whether one believes the littoral combat ship to be an unmitigated failure or not, its beginnings exemplify the danger in placing too much emphasis on fears about the survival of the defense industrial base. While a lot has changed since 2001, it is easy to imagine the U.S. military making similar mistakes in future programs, and policymakers should beware of the ship’s example. The military-contract treadmill is still running.



Emma Salisbury is a Ph.D. candidate at Birkbeck College, University of London. Her research focuses on defense research and development in the United States and the military-industrial complex. She is also a senior staffer at the U.K. Parliament. The views expressed here are solely her own. You can find her on Twitter @salisbot.

Image: U.S. Navy (Photo by Mass Communication Spc. 1st Class Devin M. Langer)