NavWeek: The Accidental Combat Ship


This is the first in a series of weekly blog columns – NavWeek – by naval editor Michael Fabey

U.S. Navy Undersecretary Robert Work created some waves with the recent posting of his draft U.S. Naval War College white paper, “The Littoral Combat Ship: How We Got Here, and Why.”

The LCS-1 USS Freedom recovers one on the ship's rigid inflatable boats (RHIBs) during a recent certification trial off the coast of San Diego. Photos: Michael Fabey

“The Navy is getting very nearly the exact ship it asked for—and in some key aspects a better ship than expected,” Work asserts in the paper, which was taken off line a few days after being posted. But, the way he writes it, that statement depends somewhat upon who did the asking – and when.

The reason for that, Work says, is because the development of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) has gone through so many revisions and the story has changed drastically in the retelling.

Like other LCS vessels, the LCS-1 Freedom's bridge relies on fewer personnel to operate the ship.

Work acknowledges that the Navy made some major mistakes in developing the LCS – so many that a reading of his report could lead one to conclude that the ship might be more aptly called the ACS, or Accidental Combat Ship. But the end result is what counts, he says, and the Navy is on course now.

“The department of the Navy is well aware of the mistakes it made in the early stages of the LCS program,” Works says. “While getting the LCS into service quickly may have been a worthy goal, the mistakes made and problems encountered in building the ships, and the department’s resulting inability to restrain program costs, tell a cautionary tale to all current and future DoN [Navy] leaders. Simply put, the department should never again repeat the short-cuts or questionable shipbuilding approaches taken in the LCS program.  Objective cost targets and imposed cost caps are simply no substitute for reasonable performance requirements, detailed planning, a stable design at the start of production, a well-thought out production schedule, a ruthless attention to change orders and the impacts they have on costs, and good internal controls with strict monitoring of performance.”

The LCS fleet will rely on aviation operations such as the MH-60 Seahawk seen here taking off from the LCS-1 USS Freedom.

Navy officials say they were taken completely off-guard by the posting of Work’s paper – and its emphasis on the past sins of the LCS program. They say Work’s assertions completely ignore the Navy’s acknowledgement of the program’s shortcomings and its efforts to fix the ships, as well as its attempt to stick to a truer, more cohesive narrative since the latter half of 2012.

The paper also, they say, fails to acknowledge the political victory by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus in securing the multiyear dual-block buy for the ships.

Still, if the Navy lacked “detailed planning, a stable design at the start of production, a well-thought out production schedule” – as Work describes – then how can it now have “very nearly the exact ship it asked for”?

Work also notes, “There have been over 270 design changes from LCS-1 to LCS-3 and as many design changes from LCS-2 to LCS-4 … Over 60 more design changes for the first flight versions are anticipated.”

Such a vast number of design changes, at a very pragmatic level, does not point to the service receiving the exact ship it asked for or wants. Indications are that there will be no true production-run models for these ships until the end of the first block buys.

As Work notes, the LCS grew out of a need for a type of small surface combatant. This ship at first was considered by some to be expendable, and was an unwelcome concept to many in Congress and perhaps even more in the Navy, especially in the surface-ship community.

“Between November 2001 and February 2003,” Work says, “senior Navy leaders developed the key conceptual principles and characteristics that would guide the subsequent development of the LCS program.”

About that time, he says, “Admiral Clark had only a strong inkling of what an LCS would look like and how it would ultimately contribute to fleet operations.”

It is obvious at that point in time, then, the Navy did not know exactly what ship it was asking for. The Navy had some ideas, though. “The overriding emphasis [was] placed on platform affordability,” Works says, touting “the vessel’s relatively mature concept of operations” and “the high priority placed on getting the LCS into fleet service as fast as possible.”

Let’s let Work tackle the affordability issue first.

“OSD expected the DoN to buy no fewer than three missionized LCSs for the price of one Arleigh Burke DDG, equating to a threshold (minimally acceptable) target cost of $400 million per ship,” he says. “However, in February 2003, with the program still in its infancy, Admiral [Vern] Clark hoped to do much better. He wanted the threshold cost for an “entire” (i.e., missionized) LCS to be no more than $250 million (all costs in FY 2005 dollars). This would allow the Navy to buy five LCSs per (DDG-51 Arleigh) Burke. As Congressional Budget Office analyst Eric Labs often observes, the cost to build a ship in U.S. shipyards is most closely correlated with its light-ship displacement (that is, without crew, fuel, ordnance stores, etc.).”

Then, using established pricing measures, he says,  “One might thus expect an LCS of 2,700 tons (the light-ship displacement of LCS-1, the USS Freedom), built to commercial standards to come in around $310.5 million; one to NSC [U.S. Coast Guard National Security Cutter] standards to cost around $445.5 million; and one with FFG [frigate] standards to cost $529 million. Conversely, achieving the $250 million objective target for a missionized LCS would infer a 2,174-ton warship built to commercial standards, a 1,515-ton warship built to NSC standards, and a 1,275-ton warship built to frigate standards (again, all prices in fiscal 2005 dollars).

“Such small vessels might not have the space and payload to handle the manned or unmanned off-board systems expected to provide the ship’s ‘Sunday punch.’ As these simple calculations suggest, building a missionized LCS for $400 million would be challenging enough; nailing the desired target of $250 million would be an amazing achievement. Needless to say, and as will soon be evident, hitting either of these aggressive cost targets would force extremely difficult trade-offs during the ship’s design process.” 

The Navy estimates the Freedom’s cost to be about $537 million, which includes “ship construction, government-furnished equipment, change orders and other costs.” That estimate comes with some expensive caveats, however. As the Congressional Research Service (CRS) notes, the cost rises to $670.4 million when expenses associated with the Final Systems Design Mission Systems and Ship Integration Team (FSD MSSIT), outfitting and post-delivery (OF/PD) work are added. And the Navy’s estimate does not include the post-shakedown availability (PSA) funding, which the service says is “not typically included in ship construction costs for any ship class.”

While many defense analysts say those additional costs more accurately reflect the true cost of a ship, according to CRS, “The Navy’s fiscal 2011 budget submission states that OF/PD and FSD MSSIT costs are non-end cost items, and that FSD MSSIT costs for LCS-1 … ‘are not true construction costs and are [instead] costs associated with design completion.’”

By way of comparison, the Navy signed a contract in June 2011 to build a new DDG-113 destroyer — a Flight IIA DDG-51 Arleigh Burke class ship — for $773.6 million.

In his paper, Work estimates the average cost for a “missionized” LCS to be a bit more than $500 million, about the price of what the LCS should have been if the early figures had been more realistic. This is in part because while the Navy may have undercut the cost of the ship, it overestimated the cost for mission modules, which have changed in volume and scope through the years.

As for “mature” concept of operations (conops), Work and other Navy officials have made it clear time and again that those conops are still under development. Even rather simple things like manning, or core LCS mission priorities like aviation are described by Work as going through long and winding roads of change.

He cites “difficult design trade-offs forced by the driving requirement for platform affordability,” saying “there was great uncertainty over exactly how far a first step the LCS would be able to take.”

There also is the continued debate about the ship’s combat potential and survivability.

“Although LCS does not have the more extensive internal subdivision necessary to allow the ship to continue fighting after taking a hit, because of its greatly improved structural strength, component hardening, and advanced damage control features, it is far tougher and more resilient than originally envisioned,”

He also says program managers now feel the LCS design has “the ability to take a hit, recover, and return home under its own power (think the Israeli corvette Hanit).”

Interestingly, the Hanit, which was struck by an anti-ship missile during the past decade, has been cited in arguments against the LCS.

“With a .30-mm pop gun, a limited electronic support system – some would call it a 'fuzz buster' – and a proposed missile system that will only have a maximum range of four miles, the ships of this class have nowhere near the firepower of the missile-guided class of frigates they are due to replace,” says retired Rear Admiral Terry McKnight in his 2012 book, “Pirate Alley, Commanding Task Force 151 Off Somalia.”

As commander of Task Force 151, McKnight was in charge of anti-piracy efforts off Somalia, which are touted as future priority missions for the LCS.

“Yes, I know [LCS vessels] will also replace our aging mine-sweeping force with the state-of-the art mission modules, but this concept has never been proven and is years into cost overruns and delays,” McKnight writes. “It is hard to believe that we have not war-gamed the lessons learned from the attack on the Israeli SAAR V-class corvette INS Hanit off the coast of Lebanon in 2006 by a C-802 missile.”

In his paper, Works says many in the Navy surface fleet just do not understand or accept the LCS fleet and its potential. He faults Navy leadership for failing to tell a better and more consistent story about the ships.

“These communities are still skeptical of small combatants of any kind,” Work writes. “While senior Navy leaders since Admiral Clark have steadfastly defended LCS since its conception over a decade ago, it is one thing to fight hard for the LCS program in the halls of the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, and quite another to fight hard for the ship within the fleet itself.”

He says, “While surface warfare officers might grudgingly accept a guided missile frigate’s less capable multi-warfare combat capabilities if forced to do so, it would take a lot to convince them that a ship only three-quarters the size of an FFG, and one so dependent on ‘the network,’ would be wise addition to the battle force. And, in hindsight, there was never a concerted effort to sway them, one way or the other. As a result, the general lack of emphasis on socializing the LCS concept and design gradually had a pernicious influence on the fleet’s view and acceptance of the ship.”

He also acknowledges, “The LCS’s struggle for acceptance was only compounded by the constantly changing nature of the program’s “narrative,” or declared vision and justification …Indeed, much of today’s confusion and misunderstanding over LCS can be explained by the fact that Navy leadership did not simply stick to these early, straightforward principles when explaining the program. Leaders instead constantly tinkered with the LCS story when selling it.” 

But some simply do not buy Work’s argument. “Compared to what the Danish navy built in its Absolon-class flexible support ships, [we] have fallen well short of our objective to offer the combatant commander the firepower to deal with the threats of the future,” McKnight writes in his book. “I think over the next few years our leadership will be confronted by the famous line from the I Love Lucy show: 'Lucy, you got some 'splainin' to do.'”

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