Wednesday, January 30, 2013

LCS - A History Lesson in Failed Execution

(Lt. Jan Shultis / U.S. Navy)
The Naval War College has released a working paper titled The Littoral Combat Ship: How We Got Here, and Why, by Robert O. Work. I think it is a very interesting read and perhaps one of the most candid and insightful collections of history related to a Navy program that many of us have watched unfold in real time over the last decade. I have many thoughts, and have no intention of trying to capture all of them in a single post, so for the foreseeable future I intend to discuss this topic through several posts.

First, I note that John Lehman was the last political appointee to ever put anything this comprehensive together on paper as a professional contribution to the Navy community. Given the current political environment, this might also be the last time we see a political appointee make this kind of professional contribution for the next few decades.

I was originally given this paper in October to read for feedback when Bob Work submitted it to the NWC for publication. My opinion has not changed. I appreciate the effort and the detailed research poured into this article, and I understand what the Undersecretary is trying to do, but in my opinion I think the article does what everyone always does when discussing the Littoral Combat Ship - it focuses on the mistakes of the past. Because the history of the Littoral Combat Ship is a lesson in what not to do, I personally no longer find anything in the history of the Littoral Combat Ship of any value because I look towards the future of the program, not the past. In my opinion the history of the program, as laid out in detail by Bob Work's latest paper, offers no justification for the stated future of the LCS program at 55 ships.

If the Navy had any credibility left on the Littoral Combat Ship, and for the record I am not sure they do right now, it is my impression this paper erodes all remaining credibility of the Littoral Combat Ship into oblivion. While I know that is not what Bob Work was trying to do, I do believe the paper ultimately delivers the impression that the Navy has been lost at sea trying to execute the concept of this program from the beginning.

At the end of the paper on pages 45-46 (PDF pages 49-50) recent activities that have happened under the leadership of CNO Greenert are discussed. Those activities include the sustainment war game conducted in January of 2012 to assess the logistics, maintenance, and support plans to support the early deployment of USS Freedom (LCS 1) to Singapore, the "OPNAV Report" assembled and delivered by Rear Admiral Samuel Perez last spring, the review of LCS material condition by Rear Admiral Robert Wray, President of the Navy's Board of Inspection and Survey, in preparation for the upcoming deployment, and the second wargame early summer 2012 directed by Admiral John Harvey on LCS concepts of deployment and operations.

Those four activities were the major Littoral Combat Ship activities of 2012, and with the ship set to deploy in only a few weeks, perhaps it is time to review where the Navy is today as a result of all that history in the Work paper.

The first wargame on logistics, maintenance, and support plans was held in January 2012. Chris Cavas has an article about it here written in July of last year. The wargame was expected to help the Navy plan for the upcoming USS Freedom (LCS 1) deployment, and I am sure it will be very helpful in that regard, but the results of the wargame suggest the Littoral Combat Ship program is going to have serious problems as a forward operating vessel in ports where US Navy presence is limited, ports like the one USS Freedom (LCS 1) will be stationed at in Singapore.

The OPNAV Report put together by Rear Admiral Samuel Perez was completed early last year and is so brutally honest about the Littoral Combat Ship the Navy can't even release a declassified version for public consumption because it would, legitimately, be too embarrassing and likely damage the non-existent credibility of the LCS program. The OPNAV Report was exactly what the Navy asked for, an honest assessment of what is needed to fix the Littoral Combat Ship, and it turned out that honesty was also brutally ugly. God bless Rear Admiral Perez for doing a wonderful job that legitimately may actually save the Littoral Combat Ship program. Noteworthy, Rear Admiral Perez got promoted for his good work before he was sent off to the State Department where his career will likely end and no one will ever hear from him for the rest of his career. I'd love to be wrong on that last point, but historically when a Flag Officer gets sent to the State Department, it is like the Russians sending a General to command a remote barracks in Siberia.

Chris Cavas discusses the OPNAV Report here and here.

Rear Admiral Robert Wray is a really smart guy. USS Freedom (LCS 1) is something of a one-off version with lots of problems. None of the rest of Freedom class will be anything like LCS-1, in fact in that respect, the Navy really did get what they paid for when they purchased the ship with R&D money - although because the execution of the program was so bad the Navy paid too much for what amounts to the R&D lemon. I am inclined to believe that Rear Admiral Wray will have LCS-1 as ready as the ship could be for the deployment.

Finally, Fleet Forces command held the second wargame focused on LCS concepts of employment and operations in the early summer of last year. Bob Work mentions this on page 46 of his report, but what he doesn't mention is that the wargame ultimately found the LCS as is today to be a complete dumpster fire. It would be inaccurate to describe the second wargame as a waste of time, because the wargame revealed a great number of things the Littoral Combat Ship can't do. USS Freedom (LCS-1) is only a few weeks away from deployment, and yet in the January 2013 issue of Proceedings Rear Admiral Rowden discusses the LCS by noting:
We are also codifying the framework under which the LCS will be employed, known as the Concept of Employment (CONEMP). This document will evolve based on experience and will be a foundational reference, dictating how we will operate, man, train, maintain, modernize, and sustain these ships. The CONEMP will frame the critical program tenets and planning factors to build and refine the various mission-specific CONOPs and other implementation documents issued to support LCS Fleet introduction.
It goes on to say:
The Fleet’s forthcoming mission-specific CONOPs and refinements to the ship’s current warfighting and platform wholeness CONOPs will follow. LCS is a component of a balanced force, structured to defeat adversaries seeking to deny our access. The LCS CONEMP and various CONOPs will likely be very different documents from what we’re accustomed to, given the unique concepts of LCS and its emerging role in the Fleet.
In other words, the Navy is about to deploy the ship to the south Pacific for naval operations and they still don't have their concept for employment or concept of operations finalized because it will be informed through experience. Folks like Rear Admiral Rowden are basically running around saying something akin to 'the sailors will figure out this LCS thing for us!'

As a bit of snark, I'll just note the sailors have no choice but to figure it out now that Admirals have spent nearly a dozen years - as laid out in full detail by Bob Work no less - really screwing it up. In the context of the history of the Littoral Combat Ship, all signs both in word and deed suggest that Navy leaders are still improvising and making it up as they go with LCS, doing so with the hope the deployment is the completion of a Hail Mary pass. If it was as easy as a choice, I would bet on the sailors before I would bet on the Admirals, or Undersecretary - but we all know there is nothing simple about the task the crews of FREEDOM are facing.

The Navy has spent less than $12 billion on the LCS to date, which really isn't much when compared to the $50 billion the Navy has already spent on the vaporware of the Joint Strike Fighter. For perspective, building the 24th Littoral Combat Ship to completion will ultimately mean the Navy has invested just over 2% of their total budget over that time - from top to bottom - on training, maintenance, manpower, construction, everything LCS. All the criticism and anger and passion over LCS is really only about 2% of the budget. By comparison aircraft carriers are at least 13% that I can quickly account for in the budget, and just owning them has serious influence over a much greater percentage like type and number of escorts that are necessary.

At 24 ships I still believe the Navy can get the return on investment in lessons learned needed to develop a true battle network at sea mothership capability that advances US Navy seapower generations ahead of all competition. Yes, believe it or not, if the LCS worked as conceptualized it absolutely would advance US seapower generations ahead of the competition. To date, concept and execution have been far from equal, not even close actually.

At 55 ships, LCS can never return on the investment, indeed after the Bob Work paper anyone who suggests the Navy needs 55 Littoral Combat Ships needs to produce strong supporting data and make that case, because in my opinion the Naval War College just published strong supporting data that the data used to get to 55 ships never existed intellectually. Indeed 55 Littoral Combat Ships was, perhaps not even figuratively, just a dream.

More than anything else right now, what the Littoral Combat Ship needs is a public plan and vision of the future that inspires and is exciting with potential, because right now the future of LCS is a dark uncertain place that has sailors wondering if it is worth getting involved in. Bob Work's paper is the most informative paper on LCS published publicly in many years, and yet all it really does is reflect the past - just like virtually everyone else who talks about the LCS on the internet.

It shouldn't be this hard to execute a good concept. I still strongly believe the Littoral Combat Ship - warts and all - is one of the great things the Navy is doing today and legitimately - besides ballistic missile defense - the only sign of innovation in surface warfare taking place on the entire planet, but if the future is as poorly managed as the past has clearly been, the LCS will be noted in history as an expensive, wasted opportunity.

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