Monday, June 10, 2013

The Littoral Combat Ship: Give it time

PACIFIC OCEAN (Feb. 22, 2013) An MH-60R Seahawk assigned to Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 73 flies in front of the littoral combat ship USS Freedom (LCS 1). This is the first fleet MH-60R to operate with a Right Hand Extended Pylon (RHEP) and a full compliment of eight AGM-114 Hellfire Captive Air Training Missiles as it joins Freedom for sea trials off the coast of Southern California. Freedom, the lead ship of the Freedom variant of LCS, is expected to deploy to Southeast Asia this spring. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James R. Evans/Released)

The following contribution is from Rear Admiral John F. Kirby, Chief of Information for the United States Navy. For those who don't know about Rear Admiral Kirby, I highly recommend listening to the first 30 minutes of this interview on Midrats.

I’ve been following closely all the debate over the Littoral Combat Ship.  I’ve even chimed in here and there to refute what I thought was bad reporting and erroneous claims by those using old information.  I figure that’s part of my job as the Navy’s spokesman -- not to staunchly defend but rather to inform and to educate. 

The truth is, these are healthy debates.  We need them.  Talking about problems is a good thing.  And yet, as a guy who also taught naval history at the Academy, I can’t help but think how very often we’ve been here before.  Throughout our history, it seems, the boldest ideas are often the hardest to accept.

Take legendary shipbuilder Joshua Humphreys, contracted in 1794 to build a new class of frigate for the fledgling American Navy. Longer and broader than traditional frigates, Humphrey’s ships were designed with graceful underwater lines for speed, packing an impressive 44 guns and over an acre of sail.

But to many, the design seemed freakish. With its angled hull curving inward from the waterline, unusually flush decks and several feet of extra beam, it was deemed too ungainly to be of service.

Worse yet, Humphrey’s design had only partial support from a reluctant Congress not particularly interested in stirring up the ire of the British or French, both of whom were at each other’s throats again. We didn’t need a Navy, not now, they said. And even if we did, it shouldn’t consist of anything quite as drastic as Humphrey’s frigates.

All that changed in 1797, when, in response to warming relations between the United States and Great Britain, French privateers began raiding American commerce. By the summer of that year, they had captured no less than 300 U.S. ships.

In a huff and in a hurry, Congress ordered the completion of three of Humphrey’s frigates: United States, Constitution and Constellation.

They would accord themselves well, proving vastly superior in speed and durability to their French foes.  In one of the most famous battles of that short, little undeclared war, Constellation forced the surrender of one of France’s mightiest frigates, Insurgente, in little more than an hour. Humphrey’s frigates would go on to even greater glory against the Barbary pirates of the North African coast a few short years later.

The critics had been silenced.

Silencing critics became almost sport for a whole generation of ship designers and engineers in the early 1800s. Robert Fulton shut them up by proving the power of steam over wind; Commander John Dahlgren did it with a revolutionary new gun capable of far greater range and accuracy, and Swedish designer John Ericcson awed them with something called a gun turret.

Ericcson didn’t stop there, of course. He went on to design a whole new class of warship. He called them Monitors, and they changed naval warfare forever.

The Monitor’s case is instructive for any discussion of LCS.  Nearly everything about it was new and untried.  Its features were striking: a long, low stealthy profile, making it hard to locate; a shallow draft and good maneuverability, making it perfect for work in the littorals; and a radically new weapons system that boasted the largest and most powerful gun in the Navy's inventory -- John Dahlgren’s.

The ship operated with less than a third the number of Sailors required of conventional warships. And it was multi-mission in scope, capable of offshore operations and supporting campaigns on land. Even the material used to form the hull -- iron -- was revolutionary and added to the ship's defensive capability.

Ericcson called it his “self-propelled battery at sea.”

Critics called it a mistake. Too small, too slow and too lightly armed it would, they argued, be no match for the larger, cannon-bristling sloops of the Confederate Navy. Even Union Sailors had taken to calling it a “cheesebox on a raft.”

It wasn’t until much later in the war, after improvements had been made to the design, that the Monitor-class would prove its worth.

There were Monitors with Farragut at Mobile Bay.  They took part in the Red River campaigns of the West and proved ideal for coastal blockading work. A Monitor even served as then-Admiral Dahlgren’s flagship during the 1863 attack on Charleston. They proved durable ships and had an incredibly long service life, the last of them not being stricken from Navy rolls until 1937.

The spirit of Monitor -- and every other type of revolutionary ship -- is alive and well in LCS.  As Monitor ushered in the era of armored ships and sounded the death knell for those of wood, so too will LCS usher in an era of a netted, flexible and modular capabilities. 

With its interchangeable mission packages, its raw speed, and its ability to operate with so many other smaller navies around the world, LCS gives us a geo-strategic advantage we simply haven’t enjoyed since the beginnings of the Cold War. 

The response by Singapore and by other Pacific partners to Freedom’s deployment, for example, has been overwhelmingly positive.  They like the ship precisely because it isn’t big, heavily-armed or overtly offensive.  They like it because they can work with it.  I fail to see how that’s a bad thing in today’s maritime environment.

Let’s be honest.  LCS was never intended to take on another fleet all by its own, and nobody ever expected it to bristle with weaponry.  LCS was built to counter submarines, small surface attack craft, and mines in coastal areas.  Thanks to its size and shallow draft, it can also conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations, maritime security and intercept operations, as well as homeland defense missions.  It can support Marines ashore, insert special operations forces and hunt down pirates in places we can’t go right now. 

Let me say that again … in places we can’t go right now.

That counts for something.  The CNO always talks about building a Navy that can be where it matters and ready when it matters.  Well, the littorals matter.  The littorals are where products come to market; it’s where seaborne trade originates.  Littorals include the major straits, canals, and other maritime chokepoints so necessary to this traffic.  It’s also where a whole lot of people live.  Coastal cities are home to more than three billion people right now, a figure that some experts estimate will double by 2025.  

In addition to strains on local economies and the environment, this rapid population growth will continue to exacerbate political, social, cultural and religious tensions.  You don’t have to look any further than today’s headlines to see the truth in that.  Consider the Levant, North Africa, the South China Seas.  And you don’t have to look any further than at our current fleet of ships to see what we’re missing.

We need this ship.  We also need to be more clear about it -- what it is and what it isn’t.  This ship is a light frigate, a corvette.  I never understood why we didn’t just call it that in the first place.  Maybe it’s because a corvette conveys something less muscular, less macho.  I don’t know.  Maybe it’s because a corvette is something completely new to us, at least those of us with no memories of picket destroyers, PT-boats, and hydrofoils. 

Remember the whole debate over the Perry-class frigates?  I sure do.  My first ship was a frigate.  Too small, the critics said, too slow, too vulnerable.  It couldn’t defend itself, they argued.  The 76mm gun was little more than a pea-shooter.  The Phalanx system, poorly situated aft on the O-2 level, fired rounds too small to be effective against incoming missiles.  The sonar?  Well, let’s just say that some people compared it being both deaf and blind.  Sailors on cruisers and destroyers used to joke that “they wished they were on a ‘fig’ so they could get sub pay.”

As one contemporary observer noted, “When [then] Soviet Admiral of the Fleet Sergei Gorshkov goes to bed at night, he's not lying awake counting Oliver Hazard Perry frigates.”

And yet, the little frigates became one of the most useful -- and most popular -- ships in the Navy.  “By saving money, manpower, and operating costs, the FFGs helped the Navy pass through the economic trough of the 1970s and, with upgrades available from increased defense spending in the 1980s, have served as a reliable platform through the end of the 20th century,” writes Dr. Timothy L. Francis, a naval historian.  

“Moreover,” he continues, “without these low-end ships the U.S. Navy never would have been able to grow to the numbers needed to conduct the last phase of the Cold War, which allowed the service to meet the multi-faceted challenges of that period.”

Criticism is good.  Criticism is healthy. We should have to justify to the very public we are charged to protect how we are spending their hard-earned tax dollars. And we are. We’re working very hard to be as forthright and open as we can about all the problems still plaguing both variants of the ship.  But let’s not forget that it was critics who laughed at the aircraft carrier, disparaged the F/A-18 Hornet and the MV-22, and scoffed at the idea of propelling submarine through the water with the power locked inside an atom.

The critics have been plenty wrong before.  And even the most skeptical of us have to be willing to admit that they will be wrong again.

Look, LCS isn’t perfect -- by any stretch.  But it’s still experimental.  It’s still a bit like Humphrey’s Constellation and Ericcson’s Monitor when they first joined the fleet.  New and untried, yes, but valuable in their own way to making us a more capable Navy.   It just takes a little time to prove the concept.  Sailors didn’t exactly clamor for PT-boat duty in World War II until it became a tactically proven and exciting option for them.

Navy leaders have been very clear that all options for LCS remain on the table.  If we find that LCS needs to be more lethal, we’ll make it more lethal.  If we find the ship needs to be manned or maintained differently, we’ll do that too.  Just like with the Perry-class, we’ll upgrade and we’ll update.  We’ll change.

But one thing that hasn’t changed is the dangerous world we live in.  The threats and the opportunities we face are real.  And, quite frankly, they are every bit as “multi-faceted” as were those we faced at the end of the Cold War. 

As Aviation Week’s Mike Fabey wrote recently, “The Navy needs to rid the service of the ‘old think.’”

“Whether the Navy achieves operational or acquisition success with LCS remains to be seen,” he noted. “But we do most definitely have a ship that is designed to be operated far differently than any other warship before it. At the high-altitude conceptual level, that is precisely what the Navy wanted.”

He’s absolutely right.  We want -- and we need -- a new class of ships that can meet these new challenges, that can get us on station fast and close, one that can perform in the coastal areas where our partners, our forces and our potential foes will also operate. 

To the critics I say, this is such a ship.  Give it time.

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