NavWeek: Now What?

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The real and long-lasting effects of the recent Defense Department directive to cut the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) fleet are just starting to sink in.

True, the Pentagon has cut programs in the past, even big and important ones that were near and dear to the hearts of the respective services. But there are some things to keep in mind.

One is that few of the previous programs that had been truncated anchored an overall service strategy the way the LCS does the Navy’s surface fleet plans. As Navy officials have stated publicly on more than one occasion, the service needs the proposed number of LCSs – 52 before the Pentagon put the hammer down – to meet its long-term requirements.

Indeed, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has used those comments as a reason to truncate the program – saying that the LCS should not be used mainly to bolster overall fleet counts.

Of course, Navy officials contend, developing and deploying LCS was more than just a matter of ship numbers. The service needs these speed demons, naval strategists say, to sprint to contested coastal areas and clear out mines, hunt down subs and take care of pirates and any other surface threats.

And, the Navy brass argues, the service needs the ships to build better relations with partners and allies – especially in the Asia-Pacific – whose smaller navies apparently feel a bit overwhelmed by U.S. carriers, destroyers, cruisers, amphibious ships and other surface vessels.

So, the Navy needed a lot of these ships – more than any other in the surface fleet by a wide margin – and the service needed them to be cheap and operationally flexible.

Unfortunately, LCS proved to be more expensive – about doubly so – than initially advertised. But there’s no reason to re-plow that ground here.

As for operational flexibility, the Navy was just starting to show the ship’s chops when Hagel lopped the fleet numbers. LCS-1, the USS Freedom, ended the year by completing what Navy officials called its first “proof-of-concept” deployment to the Western Pacific.

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The Freedom proved out those concepts, the Navy says.  In a draft U.S. Naval War College white paper posted online early last year, “The Littoral Combat Ship: How We Got Here, and Why,” former Navy Undersecretary Robert Work writes, “The Navy is getting very nearly the exact ship it asked for—and in some key aspects a better ship than expected.”

The paper was taken offline a few days after being posted, but now Work has been nominated to be the next deputy secretary of Defense.

Nonetheless, it’s unlikely that LCS will get back its fleet numbers, even after Work's presumed confirmation. Despite proving out the concept and being “nearly the exact ship” the service has asked for, the vessels have come up short.

Usually, when a pet program gets truncated like this, or canceled, it’s because there are too many requirements – the ships, aircraft or weapons have too many bells and whistles that often hearken back to the Cold War and are deemed too expensive and unnecessary.

But in the case of LCS, Hagel has questioned whether there are enough requirements, especially in terms of survivability and lethality. He questions whether the ship is tough enough to face future threats.

So he wants options.

Finding a fix will mean some tough choices for the Navy. To get back some of that toughness Hagel wants something similar to a frigate, but that would mean the Navy giving up the speed it covets so much. To build up defenses and add weapons would put weight back on the ship, and with the technology and funding available today, a heavier ship is going to mean a slower ship.

Without speed, the whole concept of operations (conops) comes into question. If Freedom proved out the concept and if the ship is “nearly exactly” what the Navy wanted, then what the Navy wanted was not what will be needed going forward – that is the takeaway from Hagel’s decision. The conops now will have to be reconsidered in light of all of this.

Another possible reconsideration is the overall Navy fleet size number. Yes, something between the current LCS and a frigate is likely to be designed, developed and built.  But at what cost? The Navy will need to spend more money for those ships and that would mean more funding in the long term to build up the fleet.

There are other options too. For example, the Navy could develop yet another small combatant ship that could be affordable and fill in the gap.

But once again, that means money for research and development and testing, and more time.

Navy officials always said LCS will be a little ship that has a big impact. They have been proven right.

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