Thursday, September 9, 2010

Red Flags Everywhere

I was reading Danial Goure's piece on the Lexington Institute blog titled Littoral Combat Ship: It’s The Mission Packages, Stupid. The title is a play on a Clinton-era campaign slogan, but it doesn't work for me because the problems are much bigger than the mission packages. While focus on the incomplete mission modules is vogue due to the recent release of the GAO report, I think pointing to one specific problem as a priority over the rest with the LCS program is like trying to find the more disgusting piece of trash among all the trash in the city dump.

There isn't just one thing wrong with the Littoral Combat Ship program - every thing is wrong with this program. There are so many red flags waiving frantically in the face of Congress, the Navy, and any casual observer in regards to the Littoral Combat Ship I feel like I am standing roadside in Beijing during a Party propaganda parade.

Red Flags

The emphasis on speed has completely ruined the possibility of this ship ever meeting mission requirements or being an effective warship for the US Navy. What has been sacrificed to the alter of speed?

Weight considerations have left the ship with armor thickness less than most commercial ships. This goes beyond the damage likely to occur when the ship rams a commercial ship, it begs the question what the damage might be if the ship gets hit by a single RPG. The mission bays are largely above the water line, and the thin hull at that level means an RPG could pierce the hull at the level of the mission bays and severely damage the mission modules contained, if not ignite them and create an even bigger problem. The thickness of the outer hull is legitimately so thin an anti-ship missile may pass right through the hull without detonation - or much more likely, the ASM will detonate inside the deep interior of the ship where it will likely do the most damage.

Who in the world would field a warship to fight small boats without giving the warship enough hull strength to protect from a weapon as simple as a RPG? Are we seriously going to have to invest money in developing cage armor for the 3000 ton Littoral Combat Ship?

Supposedly the speed can help the ship outrun torpedoes, and that will help with the ASW module. That's wonderful, but how does a ship without a sonar detect the torpedo thus know when to run at high speed?

Who in the world is going to conduct MIW at high speed, particularly in a ship where the hull thickness to protect from an underwater mine is remarkably thin as to conserve weight for - speed!

Weight considerations have also been part of the calculations for mission module size and the built in weapon suite. Speed is the reason the LCS has no individual combat power, and the hull speed makes no apparent contribution to the network of combat power that is relied upon for the ships survival.

Speed allows the LCS to outrun mines and torpedoes it can't detect, or potentially screen the fleet from small boats, even though even the small boats used by Somali pirates carry weapon systems (hand held RPGs) than can potentially breach the hull. To make matters worse, LCS-1 has a bridge wrapped in glass that is not bullet proof - meaning even the slightest shock is likely to leave the LCS bridge widely exposed to the elements. Imagine being the small crew, fatigued sailor on that watch during bad weather at sea.

To optimize the ship for speed, both Littoral Combat Ship versions have water jets instead of a propeller. That certainly doesn't help a ship that utilizes a rear door to offload/onload mission package payloads, because those payloads have to fight the currents produced by the waterjets to get back on the ship. This has made the crane system on LCS-2 a nightmare, but has also contributed to serious issues regarding endurance and fuel efficiency at slower speeds. Waterjets are great for high speed, but for low speed operations they are terribly inefficient. One more sacrifice to the alter of speed.

Speed drives the engine configuration, specifically the necessity for the LCS to use gas powered turbines. Gas turbines are great for producing large amounts of power, but they also consume fuel at phenomenal rates which has raised all kinds of problems related to the logistics of the LCS. Intended to be a small ship for remote MSO duty in the backwater areas of the world, the LCS has the worst possible design for this role because it has sacrificed endurance for speed.

The Littoral Combat Ship has traded survivability, armor, endurance, weapon payloads, cost efficiency, and reduced operational capabilities across the board for the advantage of speed. What is this advantage of speed that makes the trade off worth it? What is 40 knots giving the Navy's new small combatant that 28 knots can't?

The Austal LCS has a flight deck big enough to land a CH-53, but due to weight restrictions (driven by the speed requirement), the landing area can't actually support the weight of a CH-53. No worries, the larger flight deck of LCS-1 is wasted as well due to the same weight restrictions.

What does a naval warfare mission module look like in 2030? On November 1st, the Navy is expected to down select to a single design for a shipbuilding program that will build at least 2 LCS hulls in 2016. If we presume it will take 4 years to build and get those 2 ships to the fleet, and they are fielded in 2020 - what mission modules might they carry in 2030 - only 10 years after launch?

The Navy is having serious problems with unmanned vehicles specifically because of power. Power is the future of the US Navy, not speed, and every technology that has a working power system seems to be developing on a consistent schedule. The most visible of those technologies are the direct energy weapons - and I am not talking about the silly plasma gun the Air Force is using. It is becoming more likely that in just 10 years (2020), the Navy will be replacing CIWS with a laser point defense system on vessels with enough power to utilize the lasers. The LCS, ironically, has huge power loads all optimized for propulsion - and in its current design will not be able to field a laser system despite actually having the power output potentially available.

Think about that for a second. The Littoral Combat Ships that will be coming into service in 2020, ordered in FY2015 or so, will not be capable of fielding the latest point defense weapon systems being fielded to the fleet because the power configuration is designed for propulsion - not weapons payloads. OK so lasers aren't an option for the modules, but the better question is, how do you align a new mission module in 2030 with the strengths of the LCS. The answer is - you never will.

What capability can be added to the LCS as a mission module to give the vessel a major capability advantage by taking advantage of the Littoral Combat Ship's high speed and weight restricted payload capacity? Make it a science fiction exercise, and you will still struggle for an answer. Onload/Offload through the back door can't be done at high speed- the waterjets insure that, so what else can you use all that space for to increase naval capabilities on a ship optimized for speed and weight restrictions?

That problem represents another red flag - the ship is not designed for the bigger, heavier, more capable technologies of the future, rather for the existing smaller, less capable technologies of the past. How do you increase the capability of the electronics and radar systems on a ship that can't take on more weight due to a speed emphasis? How do you load a modular weapon system for a ship in a cargo hold with limited hatch space and very limited power supplies? What happens when your weapons bay for NLOS can't support the power requirements for the next generation weapon - and the NLOS gets canceled?

How does a ship barely 3000 tons with such a thin hull and so many open spaces cost $500 million anyway? A T-AKE is nearly 13x bigger and costs less than the LCS, and could probably do everything the LCS can do except shoot the 57mm gun. Eric Labs calculates the ships based on displacement and warship historical totals, but the Littoral Combat Ships really are very thin skinned and not really like other US warships - yet cost just as much? Where is the audit of the $700+ million each it cost to build the first two platforms anyway?

The Littoral Combat Ship comes with a new crew model, a new maintenance model, no life cycle cost projections or analysis, no requirements before design or construction, a new CONOP, emphasis on a single metric (speed) with highly questionable advantages, almost no outlook for emerging future capabilities, a mismatch between capabilities delivered and operational expectations, and to add insult to injury - this remarkably weakly armed, low survivable platform puts emphasis on a littoral environment that the Navy is backing away from even with their most capable warships. When ADM Harvey was asked about the Littoral Combat Ship under oath, his answer was to lower expectations while also implying the Navy has no idea what the Littoral Combat Ship will do - and that is the best answer of a smart guy trying to balance being under oath with his obligations to a superior.

Everything is a Red Flag

There isn't a single aspect of the Littoral Combat Ship that the programs biggest advocates can point to and highlight as a specific capability that justifies the program. There are exactly zero evolutionary or revolutionary capabilities associated with the Littoral Combat Ship program other than high speed (and no one can explain what exactly is gained with high speed), and there are zero capabilities the Littoral Combat Ship hull itself can provide that are considered a major increase in combat capability over existing combat capabilities. The mission modules are full of future concepts - but nothing being fielded is unique to the Littoral Combat Ship - and indeed all of the module systems will be fielded on other platforms.

Admiral Roughead, Bob Work, ... take a step back and look at the program again gentlemen, there is nothing there. Virtually all of the aspects of the program that made the LCS a good idea 5 years ago have turned out to be false promises that could not be executed. It is what it is. Why push forward at this point when it is remarkably clear to virtually every observer that any path ahead is actually a step backward for the Navy during a time of tight budgets?

The CNO has said many times we need the LCS today. Where? How? What unique capability specific to the LCS is needed exactly? The non-existent mission modules? Where is the speed of the LCS hull needed? Where are these $500 million ship investments required today exactly? The Pacific waters filled with submarines the LCS can't detect because it doesn't have a sonar? The long African, South American, and South Pacific littorals where the short ranged LCS will constantly need refueling? Do we really need a $500 million LCS to fight pirates, and is the Navy ready to be embarrassed to the purgatory of political crucifixion that will almost certainly when a RPG pierces the LCS hull causing substantially more damage than anyone believed possible?

The LCS is a $25 billion shipbuilding program that makes no sense at all from a strategic view, tactical view, or doctrinal view. I understand the need to build a few to resolve the mission module issues and test mothership concepts, but come November 1st the only good choice the Navy has is to cancel the LCS program in total and start over. You know what is really scary though - sailors have already decided the LCS is a mistake - indeed I am willing to bet that is why ADM Harvey's endorsement of the LCS was little more than a backhanded bitch slap - he wasn't going to sacrifice his credibility for a pig with lipstick that in the end - is still a pig.

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