Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Mine Warfare and the Littoral Combat Ship

The Navy Times has an article about a new GAO report on the new mine countermeasures.

A recent report by the Government Accountability Office said the Navy should delay full-rate production of certain mine countermeasures planned for the Littoral Combat Ship until the new ship is capable of testing these new systems — a proposal the Pentagon does not support.

The full report can be downloaded here. It is very well done in my opinion, with the one questionable conclusion being the one the Navy Times just mentioned. If you want to know a lot about the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program or the status of mine countermeasures programs in the US Navy, this is the report you've been looking for. The details in the report on each system the Navy is producing is well done. Below is the argument made to delay the production of mine countermeasures system.

The Navy plans to move, load, and deploy all Littoral Combat Ship mine countermeasures systems using an automated launch, recovery, and handling system. This system is newly designed and is necessary to achieve reduced manning onboard each Littoral Combat Ship. Because the launch, recovery, and handling system is fully integrated with each seaframe, the Navy will not be able to test this system with mine countermeasures systems until a Littoral Combat Ship is delivered to the fleet in 2009.

Up to this point, everything said makes a lot of sense to me.

As a result, the Navy may not have a complete understanding of the suitability of these systems to operate from the Littoral Combat Ship.

Huh? The report just highlighted the problem as the Littoral Combat Ship, but tries to draw the conclusion to delay production of all mine countermeasure systems because the LCS is having problems? Because the systems can't be tested with a specific unique crane system, which may effect the Littoral Combat Ship manning issue, delay mine countermeasures production? How does one get from point A to B to C? The report goes on instructing the Navy to evaluate the use of new mine countermeasure systems on platforms other than the LCS, which makes the recommendation to delay those systems... because they will be tested on platforms other than the LCS.... very strange. It looks to me like what the report should have recommended is, "The Navy needs to answer some serious questions regarding the expected mine countermeasures capability of the Littoral Combat Ship."

After all, the report goes on to highlight the questions that need answers. Note, none of the points outlined in the report have anything to do with the mine countermeasures systems the report is supposed to discuss, instead they have to do with the LCS as a mine countermeasures platform.

Weight Problems

Currently, the baseline mine countermeasures package—the fourth mine countermeasures package to be configured—exceeds the weight requirement by approximately 10 percent. While the initial mine countermeasures packages meet the weight requirement, they do not contain all of the systems that constitute the baseline package. Because the Navy plans to backfit the first three mission packages to the baseline configuration, the Navy can expect to face challenges meeting the weight requirement for all packages currently planned.

Manpower Requirements

While the manning construct for the Littoral Combat Ship is minimal by design, conducting mine countermeasures missions may be challenging given the variety and complexity of mission tasks personnel aboard the ship are expected to perform. Currently, the Navy plans to embark a maximum of 15 mission package personnel and 20 aviation detachment personnel with each mine countermeasures-configured Littoral Combat Ship.

Navy operators currently estimate that 19 mission package personnel and 23 aviation detachment personnel will be needed per ship to complete planned missions—an excess of 7 personnel above seaframe constraints.

Maintenance Problems

The Navy designed new mine countermeasures systems to operate from platforms with more robust sustainment capabilities than those offered by the Littoral Combat Ship. As such, these systems largely require intermediate- or depot-level maintenance in the event a component breaks or malfunctions. This approach was implemented prior to the Navy identifying the Littoral Combat Ship as a host platform for these new systems.

Logistics Issues

Given the assumptions for how mission systems will operate and their projected operational availability, and in light of the minimal onboard logistics and maintenance capability of the Littoral Combat Ship, a decrease in certain mission system quantities from two to one per package introduces additional risk that a needed capability will not be available during a mine countermeasures mission. The occurrence of such an event could significantly extend mission timelines. For example, the area that a mine countermeasures-configured Littoral Combat Ship could cover in a given timeframe could be expected to decrease. However, as previously discussed, the weight limitation of the seaframe further compounds this challenge as it effectively prohibits embarkation of more than one of several types of mine countermeasures systems, regardless of mission need.

Forgive me, but I find it quite entertaining that according to the GAO, the 3000 ton shallow water Littoral Combat Ship speedster the Navy is building to augment its large capital ships is actually too small for the expected payload of the mine countermeasures mission module. Am I the only person who finds that ironic? As if there wasn't enough requirement creep in the program, the Navy now needs to find a way to bunk more people for operations of the mission module and aviation platforms, and btw, if you want to support the unmanned technology the Navy needs to find an unmanned platform"logistics and maintenance capability" to go along with the additional storage requirements for supporting the added weight needed.

I used to write big posts on forums or in comments at places like CDRs about the need to go big and small in littoral warfare solutions, and the LCS was a medium choice that would ultimately end up too big and too small depending upon the requirement. After doubting that opinion the last few months, I'm starting to think my original theory was right.

A few conclusions.

First, the mine countermeasures systems the Navy is producing appear very impressive, and apparently even the GAO acknowledges good feedback regarding functionality. This is a noteworthy development worth highlighting, because there has been concern whether the new systems would perform. Very Good News.

Second, The DoD rightfully rejects the GAO assumption that production should be delayed to wait for the Littoral Combat Ship. The seaframe is a different discussion, one that is not going to end anytime soon, and it is silly to suggest the Navy should halt producing mine countermeasure systems simply because the little ship that isn't even big enough isn't ready yet. The DoD should move to full production when the systems are ready, and if possible, invest in the submarine deployable intelligence gathering systems the GAO points to as needing more attention. LCS or not, the report correctly highlights the submarine deployable intelligence gathering issue as something that needs to be in the discussion.

Finally, the Navy needs to take a smarter approach to littoral warfare in general than this one hull can do everything in the same box approach that centers around the Littoral Combat Ship seaframe. The Navy takes a system of systems approach to everything else in its operational inventory, perhaps instead of the singular focus on Littoral Combat Ships, the Navy should start talking about Littoral Strike Groups.

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