Sunday, July 15, 2012

The End of the Beginning for LCS

I've been waiting for someone to talk about this.
The original idea for the littoral combat ship (LCS) envisioned modular mission packages that could be rapidly swapped, so one ship could change missions easily from mine warfare, for example, to anti-submarine warfare over the course of a single deployment.

But instead of taking just days to make the switch, it’s now apparent it could take weeks. An LCS assigned to a particular operation will likely operate in a single “come-as-you-are” configuration, requiring additional ships equipped with other mission modules to provide the flexibility the concept once promised.

That’s one conclusion among many following a series of Navy exercises and reports intended to take stock of LCS. Other conclusions criticize the ship as failing to match capabilities inherent to the ships it would replace. The assessment aims to figure out what the ship can and can’t do, how it should be employed, what kind of support it will need, and what changes must be made to man and fight the ships without wearing out their small crews.

These include a classified study ordered by Adm. Mark Ferguson, the vice chief of naval operations; two war games carried out by U.S. Fleet Forces Command (USFFC) in Norfolk, Va.; and the ongoing operating experiences of the two ships already in service.

The assessment comes as LCS transitions from an acquisition and shipbuilding program into a deployable fleet asset. The first two ships are now ensconced at their home port in San Diego, and the third LCS is about to be delivered. A fourth ship arrives in 2013.

The classified study, known as the OPNAV report (referring to staff reporting to the chief of naval operations), was headed by Rear Adm. Samuel Perez. Beginning in January, Perez and a 10-person team looked at all aspects of the fleet’s “readiness to receive, employ and deploy” the LCS.
The report being discussed here is better known as the "Perez Report," and it is important. Basically the report is the first of it's kind produced by the Navy that comprehensively highlights everything wrong with the Littoral Combat Ship, but it also goes on to inform solutions towards those problems and how to make LCS work. The report is important because it knocks down a lot of the straw man arguments about LCS and gives a fair assessment, warts and all. The Navy has been sitting on the report since March, probably for good reasons from their point of view, but I tend to think it is one of those reports that needs to see the light of day, because I tend to think once it is recognized what the LCS cannot do well, the LCS can be used for things it can do well.

Depending upon what you think of LCS, the Perez Report is either the death nail into the coffin of this program, or what finally got the program moving forward in a more realistic way. I tend to be in the second group, but there will be plenty of folks who think the report represents the first group.

Long term I believe the report will have several impacts:

First, It will stop the program at 24 ships, which is where I believe it should be stopped. I'm now convinced the only reason the Navy talks about 55 Littoral Combat Ships with this program is because by doing so they can maintain the fixed contract prices as part of the FYDP and avoid triggering a Nunn-McCurdy issue.

24 Littoral Combat Ships has always been a reasonable number for moving the most important concepts of the LCS down the road - like learning lessons about smaller crews, developing interchangeable (modular) payload system interfaces, understanding operational and deployment capacities with smaller ships with small crews, getting the training right for ships with rotational crews, and getting a solid understanding of what the operational challenges are when fielding distributed unmanned systems networks at sea.

Second, the Perez Report will clarify the art of the possible in shipbuilding, and in my opinion added a great deal of clarity into both the role and capabilities desired for future motherships and future small combatants, and what makes them similar and different. The report breaks the camels back on Seapower 21 with CG(X), DDG-1000, and LCS all now having proven critics of US Navy shipbuilding right from the beginning. Transformation is a failure - whether it was worth it or not can be decided by others.

Third, it is very good news for the future of motherships generally and the future of LCS specifically. The report makes clear what can and cannot be done, offers options for how to add or improve capabilities, and generally puts the LCS on a road toward successful operation and innovation specific to the capabilities the ship does have for the fleet, and stops the efforts to pigeon hole the LCS into being something it is not.

 Just because a ship cannot realistically have a mission module swapped out in 24 hours doesn't mean the Navy hasn't made significant progress in modularization, indeed LCS still delivers a single hull capable of multiple configurations. These kinds of distinctions matter, and help clarify the art of the possible for LCS and future programs.

Hopefully the report does focus the Navy on what is most important, which in my opinion is delivering a good MIW and ASW mission module package for the LCS and get the ball rolling for the Navy on networking numerous distributed systems into the larger battle force. When those ends are achieved, LCS will be getting somewhere - everything up to that point is simply part of the learning curve.

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