"You have covered the Littoral Combat Ship program from inception to present, and know the history of the program as well as anyone. You have written a story on virtually every newsworthy event related to the Littoral Combat Ship from the beginning. You are one of a handful of people outside the Navy and Industry who has both a deep history and familiarity with the program. Some suggest the LCS program should be canceled. Others say the LCS program has merit. What is the Littoral Combat Ship in your words, and what should LCS be looking to the future?"
The Littoral Combat Ship is, in a word, a challenge. A challenge to understand, a challenge to develop, a challenge to build. The program is a challenge to manage, to defend, to get to sea. To train for and crew, to support, to maintain. To develop mission modules for, to perfect and operate dozens of new technologies in those modules, to control those technologies in an operational environment. A challenge to develop a concept of operations for, to convey to the fleet what it should be used for, to keep from being misused.
For a decade now, the program has struggled to explain its purpose. It remains an incomplete story, constantly threatened, continually under attack, and desperately anxious to prove itself. The challenge to validate the program is repeated with every annual budget cycle, inside the Pentagon and to Congress.
The political challenge is constantly repeated as lawmakers come and go. Recently, several politicians relatively new to the program or to Capitol Hill have called for stronger oversight and more government reports.
But LCS has never suffered from a lack of oversight. Questions about the program’s progress were a regular feature of every Navy posture hearing beginning in 2004. The House Armed Services Committee, particularly Seapower subcommittee Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) and his successor Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), routinely held LCS hearings featuring not only Navy and industry reps, but all the strongest LCS critics, including government oversight experts from the Congressional Budget Office, Congressional Research Service, and the Government Accountability Office, along with a host of think tank witnesses (including Bob Work, then a Washington analyst, now, as Navy under secretary, the ship’s cheerleader-in-chief). A series of Pentagon oversight entities constantly reviewed the program’s purpose and performance, usually with strong criticisms and guidance. For years, every budget bill report from the House and Senate appropriations and armed services committees has contained strong language expressing concerns about the program’s performance, even while continuing to support the LCS concept.
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With two ships in commission, another about to be delivered, and more on the way, the LCS is now moving into an entirely new phase, transitioning from a development, acquisition and shipbuilding program into an operational mode. The center of LCS discussion is moving outside Washington to Norfolk and San Diego. Next year it will jump across the world’s largest ocean and drop squarely in Singapore, where the western Pacific press, from a variety of viewpoints, will be taking great notice.
The fleet is only tentatively picking up the LCS drumbeat. Inside the beltway, Work is today the type’s primary champion, staunchly and often emotionally defending and explaining the ship to any and all comers. The Navy’s top leadership and the flags at NAVSEA continue to talk up the program and the Pentagon’s surface directorate is joining in. U.S. Fleet Forces commander Adm. John Harvey in Norfolk has been a key advocate, particularly in his admonitions last year to fleet commanders not to use the ship in roles for which it isn’t intended. Vice Adm. Richard Hunt, commander of naval surface forces in San Diego, now is speaking about the Freedom’s potential to be an effective fleet unit.
But years of over-reaching promises followed by long production delays have eroded confidence among mid-level officers and experienced sailors in the program’s future. O-4s and O-5s, E-7s and E-8s seem to be routinely advising their juniors to bypass LCS and aim for more established programs. O-6s who five years ago were enthusiastic LCS supporters have turned away.
Even the voice of industry has become somewhat muted. Lockheed Martin remains out in front in many LCS promotion efforts, joined now by the Italian firm Fincantieri, which purchased the Marinette Marine shipyard that builds LockMart’s ships. But General Dynamics has gone virtually silent, a consequence of a 2010 decision to split from its Austal USA shipbuilding partner to position itself for future LCS ships, only to see that possibility slip away with yet another Navy change-of-concept for the program’s construction. Austal USA, a small-time operation compared with the GD behemoth, has not come close to matching its former partner’s PR efforts.
Adding to a lack of cohesiveness, both LCS primes still convey a sense of competition, even though the Navy is committed -- for the moment -- to building equal numbers of each type. The “ours is better than theirs” attitude might be good for one or other of the designs, but it is not helping the overall LCS effort.
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From the mid-2000s when the LCS construction schedule started to slide and zoom up in cost, the program acquired a widely-acknowledged reputation as a troubled (that’s a nice word for it) effort. Navy mismanagement, changing priorities, overzealous and unrealistic expectations, shipyard and contractor inexperience all piled on to give the program an aura of unrelenting chaos. People might not understand what it was, but lots of folks -- particularly on Capitol Hill -- knew it was a mess. It took years for the service to work its way through numerous issues. Many problems remain, but it seems now the worst has been overcome, at least from a programmatic standpoint. In fact, from many aspects -- steady schedule, fixed pricing, stable design, increasing shipbuilding experience -- the LCS program is entering into a new era of maturity.
But widespread negative perceptions remain, and everyone involved in the effort remains challenged to demonstrate it can do what it is supposed to do. Still without any concrete missions accomplished, the LCS continues to be the target of often withering criticisms. The past few months in particular have seen a dramatic rise in the number of negative media stories, followed by attention-craving Congressmen calling for more oversight and more hearings and more reviews.
Problem is, none of these recent negative reports has offered anything new. More information about old problems, in some cases, but no new issues. Eternal hand-wringing about old problems is fun for some, but is it productive? Who is questioning the questioners? Or is it just a familiar tune that everyone’s used to?
Junior lawmakers new to the game or those who never sat on the relevant committees calling for new hearings about things they missed is nothing new. But that they do so is not always related to good oversight -- sometimes it’s just good old-fashioned grandstanding. (Imagine, politicians trying to call attention to themselves!)
Reporters writing shallow or repetitive stories, and editors calling for similar stories because everyone else is doing them, is not good journalism, even when it comes from leading publications. Sometimes it’s an honestly elusive story, sometimes it’s just plain lazy.
Leakers who offer deeper information about situations already reported don’t always have great new stuff, sometimes they just have more stuff.
Think tanks who jump on these reports as indicators of true developments, rather than media and political frenzies, don’t help by granting an aura of learned pretentiousness to the discussions.
Critics who simply don’t like the LCS concept – and aren’t going to change their minds -- aren’t always describing real problems. Sometimes they’re just talking about their personal preferences. Sometimes they just don’t want to take the time to really find out what’s happening, repetitively recycling great rants from yesteryear.
On the other side of the argumentative aisle, Navy leaders describing the LCS as a mature, well-thought out and operationally proven system do the entire effort a disservice by getting ahead of the game. Talking about four ships in Singapore, eight ships in Bahrain, or meaningful contributions to the art of mine sweeping and anti-submarine warfare and surface actions and drug hunting isn’t very helpful when you try and make it sound like you’re out there right now doing that sort of thing.
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To be sure, there are plans in place for everything the Navy’s planners can think of. But chances are exceptionally high that everything will change as the ships and their crews take them to sea.
LCS is not a done deal. It is not a mature, final design. It does not have a fully proven concept of operations. It is not clear how many sailors should crew the ship, or if a group of manned and unmanned off-board vehicles can be simultaneously and effectively operated, or if those systems will work, or what effect having an LCS with any particular module will truly have on an operation. It is not known whether either of the combat systems will be completely effective (probably not), what specific changes should be made, or how they can be made to both ships. It is not clear which module handling system work efficiently and not break down when you need it. It is not known if the networked communications, computer and control systems will work effectively. It is not known what the final costs will be to buy the modules and operate the ships on a forward-deployed basis. It is not known if the supply, maintenance and parts support systems will be effective. Heck, it is not known if they should begin painting the aluminum superstructures and hulls. It is not known -- well, you get the idea.
Anyone calling for a halt in the program while definitive answers are found to any of these questions is demonstrating a deep absence of understanding what the program is about. That is not the point, sir. Yes, there is a plan, there is a concept, there is a certain direction, but the end result in many cases may well not be what is currently envisioned.
The ships were designed with a main battery unlike anything ever carried by a combatant ship: empty space. Big, empty mission bays ready to accept large containers of equipment and systems, along with flight decks much larger in proportion to other surface fighting ships.
Will some of the mission equipment not work well? Probably. Have something better? No problem. Change it. Bring stuff in and install it, ship stuff out, bring in different stuff.
You can’t do that on other warships. Can’t do it on Arleigh Burke or Zumwalt destroyers, or new British or French or Italian or Chinese or Russian destroyers and frigates. Forget about other 3,200-ton frigates or corvettes, they’re already packed with gear. When those systems age or become obsolescent, the ships will age with them. But an LCS is designed to grow, change and morph over time, adapting to changing requirements and priorities in -- it is hoped -- an efficient and effective manner.
No navy has ever had a ship like this. The Danes tried the modular concept on a much lower level, but the LCS takes the idea significantly further. If it works, it will mean the Navy has gotten a new minesweeper, a new inshore ASW ship, a new brown water surface combatant, a new special operations platform, a new maritime interdiction ship, all in one platform. If it doesn’t work -- well, it won’t be the first time a type of ship entered service and then faded away after a few years. That’s not good, but it certainly happens.
A little history. In 1927, two of the biggest ships in the world were commissioned into the U.S. Navy. The huge aircraft carriers Lexington and Saratoga dwarfed the fleet’s battleships and represented an enormous investment, particularly in a peacetime Navy that faced no urgent threat. One might have presumed the Navy had really thought out this aircraft-carrier thing, knew how to design the ships, operate the systems and planes, fit them into fleet battle concepts and tactics. But that might be presumptuous.
Many people know that the Navy designation for an aircraft carrier is CV. What many people don’t know is what that originally stood for -- cruiser, heavier-than-air. Those enormous aircraft carriers were cruisers, or scouts. They had eight-inch guns to fight off the other guy’s scouts, and their aircraft were largely intended to scout the enemy so the big battlewagons could move into position.
It was another 16 years or so before the modern concept of an aircraft carrier matured. Years of experimentation, trial-and-error work, technological development, a huge tactical leap demonstrated by a skilled enemy, and the loss in five months of four of the fleet’s seven fleet carriers produced lessons learned that resulted in a combat system far removed from 1927. But many of those matured concepts of 1943, through many technical evolutions, are still at the core of today’s carrier strike group concepts.
Hopefully it won’t take that long, or cost that much in blood and bucks, to mature the LCS concept into an effective naval unit. But the challenge facing today’s Navy is to make the system work, to find its weak points and come up with changes, to find out what it can really do and stay away from what it won’t. To adapt what you’ve got to what you need.
And yes, government testers, oversight committee members, critics and reporters, there won’t be final answers to many of these questions for some time. Get used to it. Roll with it. That’s the idea.
NOTE: All views expressed herein are my own, and are not connected to, nor do they represent in any way, Defense News or Gannett Government Media.