Nice job by Matthew Yglesias for getting the word out about Gates's thoughts on the Littoral Combat Ship in a conference call today.
Spectrum is an important concept. The weighting from regular to irregular warfare in the budget is undeniable, but Gates said he didn’t want to see it as a binary choice. Instead “there is a spectrum of conflict” and the goal of the force needs to be to be able to shift up and down the spectrum.Given the way the high end warship debate ended with a resounding thud Tuesday afternoon with the Navy's announcement (through Gene Taylor's office notably), it is crystal clear to this observer that the LCS is where the debate is not settled, and will rage on for FY 2010.
Conversely, Gates is holding on to the Littoral Combat System project for the Navy even though the program has had a lot of cost overruns and so forth. Gates said that despite the problems “I think it has a capability we just have to have.” Specifically, the promise of a ship that’s not only agile, but relative cheap on a per-ship basis is large. “You don’t need a $5 billion ship to go after pirates,” Gates said.
Gates is exactly right when he says “I think it has a capability we just have to have” but I think he is talking specifically about the unmanned systems, not the ship itself. In my opinion, that is what makes this an interesting conversation moving forward. If people keep asking Gates how the Littoral Combat Ship is actually a vessel designed for irregular warfare and low intensity warfare like the Navy claims, the Navy is going to eventually get asked to prove it.
Noah goes even further:
The Defense Secretary believes that price tag can come down. But, as opposed to our friend and naval analyst Galrahn, Gates believe the LCS "has a capability that we just have to have... It would have enormous value against fast boats like we see, for example, in the Persian Gulf." Even at an inflated price, it would still be more economical than other options the Navy uses today. "You don't need a $5 billion ship to go after pirates. You don't need a $5 billion ship necessarily to do a humanitarian mission. So its flexibility and its ability to get into tighter places than other ships that makes it more attractive."I actually agree with Gates, the price tag will come down. There are enormous assumptions made on the price based on the first in class ships, both of which had some issues that are specific to those ships but won't exist in future ships.
Look, I love both Commander Don Gabrielson and Commander Kris Doyle, these are very, very smart officers, but when I was on USS Freedom (LCS 1) I did not have the impression they had really walked through the various intellectual layers necessary to explain how the LCS will do all the things their leadership has claimed it will do. CDR Doyle, who I suggest is the most important officer in regards to the LCS program going forward (just looking at the blue/gold time line here), was on the money IMO when she described how the LCS will probably operate more like an amphibious ship for unmanned systems than a frigate for force protection. I think better than anyone who ever gets quoted in the press from the Navy, she has the strategic concept of this platform exactly right.
The problem is she gets it, but no one out talking to the press discusses the LCS in that way, even Gates. I mean come on, Lockheed Martin executives call this the 21st century frigate while ignoring that every single other frigate in the world in the 21st century has more combat power than the LCS. Calling the LCS a frigate for marketing purposes is not wise, because the inaccuracy is going to stand out in wargames testing you know.
Gates is not going to like the way the Navy frames the defense of that ship, not at all if Congress decides to come after it, which we know is going to happen with Gene Taylor (D-Miss) already laying the groundwork for that. The intellectual basis for the LCS is very weak right now, indeed I still say my USS Langley analogy as an early mothership model is intellectually the best case that can be made, and I admit even my argument is very weak to justify 55 hulls. 26 hulls? Sure, replace the minesweepers with a better capability, but as a Perry replacement? Uhm, that is a very tough sell to anyone even moderately informed.
We need LCS for the unmanned mothership capability, no question, but when Gates figures out the LCS intended to brawl in the littorals is a thin skinned, barely manned, half a billion dollar modern schooner with a CONOP for littoral warfare that puts the ship over the horizon, instead of in the littorals, he might start asking tough questions about requirements.
And I still say the LCS is terribly designed to fight pirates without a major crew increase and the addition of a second H-60 on the often touted enormous flight deck, all of which will raise the cost of the ship. We fight pirates with boarding parties, which means sailors, and we fight war in the littorals with helicopters, and the LCS can only support 1 H-60. The LCS doesn't even have RHIBs on the MIW module for the boarding operations. Even on the modules the LCS does have room for RHIBS, the LCS CO still has to put more than 20% of his entire ships manpower on rubber boats to capture a handful of pirates, and for the record, last I heard none of the 40 core crew will be used for VBSS, meaning we have to use the helicopter and module crews for that. Is it wise to put the payload crews at risk, because without those crew members the LCS is a hollow shell.
I mean come on, the LCS is so vulnerable as a pirate fighter that a standard boarding operation with 2 RHIBs of 8 sailors each can go to shit, and if all those sailors are wounded, a warship in the US Navy essentially becomes mission incapable. That is a pretty extraordinary weakness for a warship that even the best estimates suggests is higher than half a billion dollars.
Bottom line, the LCS concept is not as well thought out as the total littoral solution Gates thinks it is, particularly in light of the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan regarding the necessity for manpower, sustained presence, and staying power when dealing with irregular forces in complex human terrains like the populated littorals.
I don't see the LCS issue going away until the Navy comes up with a more realistic approach to littoral warfare. I'm telling you guys, don't sleep on the Influence Squadrons, this really is the strategic idea of our time and that is the most important Proceedings article written since the 1000-ship Navy. To get lost on the parochial issues of force structure in that article, like so many who comment on ID tend to do (engineers!), is to misunderstand how an organizational construct like that has real potential to institutionalize IW into the Navy.
For the record, it is within the framework of something like that where the Littoral Combat Ship makes sense. The Navy needs a littoral strategy, not a technology solution for the littoral. I predict that Gates is going to figure this out very soon, which is going to make littoral warfare a major debate in the FY 2010 budget to hold off the wolves in Congress who are going to pound the LCS into tiny pieces. The Navy better have its intellectual counterpunches ready, or it is going to get ugly.
(photo me: Bridge of USS Freedom doing 43.2 knots on Lake Ontario)