Thursday, May 21, 2009

All Ahead Slow on LCS

The Littoral Combat Ships is a new type of high-speed surface combatant with interchangeable warfighting mission modules optimized for littoral or coastal missions. The ship is designed to defeat asymmetric anti-access threats including mines, quiet diesel submarines and fast surface craft.

LCS consists of a seaframe that is outfitted with reconfigurable payloads, called Mission Packages that can be changed out quickly. Mission Packages are supported by special detachments that operate and maintain manned and unmanned vehicles and sensors to counter mine, undersea, and surface threats. There are currently three types of focused Mission Packages that provide potent combat capability in specific warfare areas: Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), Mine Warfare (MIW) and Surface Warfare (SUW). The ship will operate one package loaded at a time, but can swap to a new package in 1-4 days.

The first two ships, USS Freedom (LCS 1) and the future USS Independence (LCS 2), have very different and distinct designs. The Lockheed Martin design (LCS 1) is a high-speed semi-planing steel and aluminum monohull. The General Dynamics design (LCS 2) is an all-aluminum trimaran with a slender, stabilized monohull.

LCS is a warhship, designed to conduct combat operations. It is capable of sustaining combat damage and still perform its mission. To accomplish this, LCS was designed and constructed to American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) Naval Vessel Rules (NVR). LCS was the first application of NVR to a surface combatant. NVR essentially replaces military general specifications used in past surface combatants.

As a surface combatant, LCS will be crewed by U.S. Navy sailors and officers. LCS is a leap forward in automation and reduced manning. The core ship (seaframe) has a crew complement of 40. The Mission Package brings a maximum of 35 personnel, including up to 20 personnel in the aviation detachment. Total berthing aboard LCS is 75.

Team Ships FAQ - accessed 5/21/09
That typo in the second to last paragraph, fourth word, is an ironic example of exactly how much of a mess the Littoral Combat Ship program has become for the Navy. The LCS is a far cry from a warship in the historical context, so it is appropriate the word warship gets misspelled in the Navy's own description. I personally think that this description for the Littoral Combat Ship does more damage to the platform than it helps, indeed I find the entire narrative of the US Navy regarding the LCS program to be intellectually dishonest. This narrative, if it still exists in five years, will be why the Littoral Combat Ship is the Navy's greatest shipbuilding failure since the 120 gun 34 gun USS Pennsylvania.

Converted from the collier USS Jupiter (AC-3) beginning in 1920, USS Langley (CV-1) was commissioned in March 20, 1922. The Navy had already flown aircraft off the deck of a ship, but on October 17m 1922 Lieutenant Virgil C. Griffin piloted a Vought VE-7 from her decks. This is a momentous occasion in US Naval history, the age of the aircraft carrier for the US Navy was born. Nine days later Lieutenant Commander Godfrey de Courcelles Chevalier made the first landing on the USS Langley (CV-1) in an Aeromarine 39B.

In January the following year, USS Langley (CV-1) conducted flight operations and tests in the Caribbean Sea for carrier landings. Five months later the ship steamed up to Washington DC to give a demonstration at a flying exhibition before civil and military dignitaries. In 1924 the nations first aircraft carrier participated in several maneuvers with other ships and did several other demonstrations for dignitaries before departing for the Pacific at the end of 1924.

For the next twelve years the USS Langley (CV-1) operated in the Pacific training with other fleet units, conducting experimentation, and developing a pilot training program at sea. Operational models, doctrine, and tactics were developed as the aircraft carrier was prepared as a platform to screen the battle line. The USS Langley (CV-1) served as an aircraft carrier until October 25, 1936 when the ship was converted into a seaplane tender.

Despite the long innovative development of the aircraft carrier, five years and two months after the USS Langley (CV-1) was retired as an aircraft carrier, the Japanese Navy demonstrated the utility of the aircraft carrier to the United States at Pearl Harbor on December 6, 1941. In other words, despite conceptual development, conversion, evaluation and experimentation of this very innovative, but complicated technology the US Navy never developed an effective concept of operations for aircraft carriers prior to WWII. The US Navy struggled to understand where the aircraft carrier fit in the fleet, and ultimately the Japanese showed us. With that said, what the US Navy did do is stick with aircraft carriers as a technology, and had not only built but had mastered the construction of the very complicated technologies of aircraft carriers allowing us to build several modern aircraft carriers during WWII.

I believe USS Freedom (LCS 1) and USS Independence (LCS 2) represent the USS Langley (CV-1) of the 21st century. I believe that in the 21st century, motherships for manned and unmanned underwater, surface, and aviation systems will be as important as aircraft carriers were in the 20th century. I believe these distributed, sometimes expansive offboard system empowered networks will influence the littoral battlefield and determine who controls the seas.

I see unmanned systems as the dominate warfighting approach towards controlling the maritime battlefield in the 21st century, just as I see manned systems as the dominate peacemaking approach on the maritime battlefield in the 21st century. Motherships, with the ability to deploy both manned and unmanned systems, represent the emerging capability of our time on the maritime battlefield. I believe sea control in 21st century warfighting will require dominance above and under the sea, but 21 century sea control for peacemaking will require a sailor present at the point of contact with the population on the sea.

The Littoral Combat Ship is an innovative, complicated, small modular mothership that introduces the Navy to the technical, logistical, operational, tactical, and doctrinal challenges of the 21st century mothership concept. Just as the USS Langley (CV-1) was a far from perfect aircraft carrier, both LCS designs are far from perfect motherships.


One of the most cited items of complaint for the Littoral Combat Ship is the cost. For months I have been searching for answers to a few questions: Where did the number $220 million for the hull come from, and where did the number $180 million for the modules come from. The Navy is so wildly wrong on the estimates for both hull and module that I never believed these figures were produced from a technical evaluation of cost. In my search for the truth, it turns out the answer is as I suspected, both figures were a wild ass guess.

Several sources have confirmed to me the way the Littoral Combat Ship estimate of $220 million was reached was that during a visit to Odense Steel Shipyard, ADM Vern Clark asked the shipbuilders how much HDMS Absalon (L16) cost. The answer was $440 million. When the Littoral Combat Ship was developed as a ship about half the size of the Absalon class, Clark used the number $220 million as the estimate for the platform. Half the size meant half the cost, and the number was apparently never questioned. Unfortunately, HDMS Absalon (L16) costs a hell of a lot more than $440 million, because $440 million was the estimate at the time of the contract with Odense Steel Shipyard, and basically included only the hull. $440 million was the estimate for a hollow shell, but became the driving number for $220 million which was supposed to include all of the systems and the hull of the LCS.

Today the LCS cost is still largely unknown. While Congress has established a $460 million cost cap, there is no guarantee this cost cap can be achieved for the hull regardless of how many are built. The mission modules are also very immature, and as such have enormous potential for long term problems. The Navy intends to spend the next five years testing USS Freedom (LCS 1) and USS Independence (LCS 2), and the odds that the mission modules of today will look the same in five years is very slim.

The LCS Is Counter Culture

The Littoral Combat Ship is more complicated than people give it credit for, as several aspects of the Littoral Combat Ship represent the antithesis of naval ship development. The engineering for modularity is both new and complicated. The Littoral Combat Ship is a test case for a lot of automation intended to reduce the crew size of ships. The Littoral Combat Ship is a test case for high speed on small crew conventional warships, and has an overly complicated CODAG engineering plant highly dependent on automation as a result. The engineering challenges of the hull are only part of the problem, almost none of the pieces intended to make up the mission modules includes a mature technology. The crew scheme, the doctrine for operating the ship, the concept of operations for the ship type, and the logistics of the mission functions and the hull types are all challenges yet to be fully developed.

The US Navy is a blue water Navy, and the US Navy has not developed a littoral strategy that includes ships intended to operate in the littoral since WWII. During both Korea and Vietnam, the US Navy leveraged vessels either designed or evolved from WWII era ship designs, with small ships like the Asheville class, Pegasus class, and Cyclone class being the rare exceptions. Among the exceptions, only USS Typhoon (PC-5) has served in the Navy consecutively for more than 15 years.

I am often struck by how critics misunderstand how the Littoral Combat Ship represents something so unique in US Navy culture that we haven't seen anything like it in over 5 decades. This is a relatively small ship being developed specifically for the littorals intended to serve longer than just 2 decades. It seems to me that critics too easily dismiss or fail to recognize just how foreign it is that the US Navy would operate a small vessel for any meaningful period of time. I'm not saying that corvettes won't happen, but the suggestion the US Navy will build small platforms for the littoral simply because someone else does is crazy talk, it is completely against the US Navy culture and will require a major mindset adjustment.

Where is LCS Going?

Critics of the LCS suggest the US Navy should be building safe, proven hulls instead of the wild combination of capabilities represented in the Littoral Combat Ship. I only disagree with one aspect of that line of thought, the whole idea of "instead." The rest of the world is building nice, safe ~3000 ton hulls with designs that are decades old and barely innovative. FREMM is nowhere close to as flexible as the Littoral Combat Ship in terms of modularity, and comparing the Absalon to the LCS in terms of systems support demonstrates pure ignorance. Absalon has space, but it takes a lot more than space to support unammned systems. No question FREMM and Absalon are excellent ship designs, but there is nothing truly innovative about them, and they cannot support flexible, interchangeable modular payloads.

Innovation is the bane of contracting, indeed contracting by nature is a risk averse exercise that draws criticism at a rate consistent with the level of risk involved. The LCS is a combination of several innovations including modularity, unmanned systems, smaller crew size, automation, and speed. I personally don't think all of these combination's add up to a 'littoral combat ship' nor even a ship with well designed requirements, but I appreciate the fact the Navy needs to get all of these innovations into the future fleet (thus to sea). The only way that happens is to build a few Littoral Combat Ships and see what they can do.

Other than the LCS, right now the US Navy has nothing on the chalkboard smaller than the DDG-51s, and nothing on the chalkboard that can act as a mothership smaller than the LPD-17. If the LCS was canceled today, what would the US Navy build? MSC ships like T-AKE or JHSVs? I'll take more Littoral Combat Ships instead. The QDR is going to hopefully change what goes on the chalkboard, but even that will take a few years. For now, the Littoral Combat Ship is an excellent way to move ahead with mothership development in my opinion.

Change the Narrative!

The Navy needs to change the narrative for the LCS. There are at least 5 very difficult years ahead of the Littoral Combat Ship where testing and evaluation will be conducted. It is intellectually dishonest every time a flag officer claims to know what the LCS is, or what it can do. The fact is, nobody knows what the LCS will be or what it will do well, or do poorly. Anyone suggesting the Littoral Combat Ship is going to be excellent at some specific task in 2009 is basically the fool suggesting what the aircraft carrier is going to mean to the 20th century back in 1923. Nobody in 1923 knew how the aircraft carrier was going to influence naval warfare, the predictions were much more generic. Nobody in 2009 knows for sure how motherships are going to influence naval warfare, we can only make generic predictions.

The Littoral Combat Ship program is likely to be the most innovative and influential development for surface warfare in the first half of the 21st century, a unique opportunity for today's surface warfare community to be the pioneers in how surface warfare will operate in the 21st century. The layers of awareness in the maritime domain that motherships will enable, the networked capabilities motherships will empower for the both the warfighter and peacemaker, and the development of the concept of operations for motherships will all combine to influence the way surface warfare will command the sea in the 21st century.

The Littoral Combat Ship itself is almost certainly going to be looked back on through the prism of history in the same context we now look at the USS Langley (CV-1) and see a poorly designed aircraft carrier. But that isn't how we look at the USS Langley (CV-1) today, is it?

I hope the Navy continues with the LCS despite the critics. I also hope the Navy slows down with the LCS and develops a new narrative central to innovating towards a conclusion without attempting to fit a square peg in a round hole. The LCS is not a solution to anything other than challenging assumptions, innovating motherships and associated technologies, and developing a new concept of operations for surface warfare.

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