Surface Forces: Speed Kills

May 1, 2008: The rapid cost escalation of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program largely stems from insistence that the ship have high speed (90 kilometers an hour, which is 50 percent faster than similar size destroyers). This required a huge power plant, and then the navy kept adding and removing other features, while the two shipbuilders were building their prototypes. The LCS was supposed to cost about $200 million per ship. But this rapidly escalated to more than twice that. There were numerous problems, not the least of which trying to keep the LCS (which was originally supposed to be a 1,000 ton ship) small.

There are actually two different LCS designs. One is a semi-planning monohull from Lockheed-Martin. The other is a trimaran from General Dynamics. LCS 2 was laid down in late 2005. These are essentially prototypes, and serial procurement was not expected to begin before 2008, when initial design flaws should have been worked out. Ultimately, the Navy hoped to have between 50 and 60 LCSs by the middle of the next decade.

The LCS is sort of replacing the 1970s era Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates (4,100 ton ships that would cost about $100 million to build today). The big difference between the frigates and LCS is the greater use of automation in the LCS (reducing crew size to 75, versus 176 in the frigates) and larger engines (giving the LCS a speed of about 90 kilometers an hour, versus 50 for the frigates.) The LCS also has a large "cargo hold" designed to hold different "mission packages" of equipment and weapons.

The Littoral Combat Ship is, simultaneously, revolutionary, and a throwback. The final LCS design will displace at least 3,000 tons, with a full load draft of under ten feet, permitting access to very shallow coastal waters, as well as rivers. This is where most naval operations have taken place in the past generation. Max range is 2,700 kilometers. Built using commercial "smartship" technologies, which greatly reduce personnel requirements, the LCS is expected to require a crew of about 50 in basic configuration, but will have accommodations for about 75 personnel. The ship is designed for a variety of interchangeable modules, which will allow the ships to be quickly reconfigured for various specialized missions. Crews will also be modularized, so that specialized teams can be swapped in to operate specific modules.

The navy is not happy with the performance of American ship builders. Costs are rising sharply, quality is down and the admirals can't get satisfactory answers from the manufacturers. For example, the new class of destroyers, the DDG-1000 class destroyers have also faced ballooning costs, up to as much as $3 billion per ship, as opposed to planned costs of $800 million. The current Arleigh Burke-class destroyers only cost $1 billion each. Part of the problem is mismanagement by the shipbuilders, but a lot of the blame belongs to the navy, and the non-military officials in the Department of Defense, politicians in Congress, who get involved. No one is in charge, no one is responsible, and everyone is surprised that the system doesn't work.

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