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An American Tragedy
by James Dunnigan
March 1, 2008

Discussion Board on this DLS topic

A year ago, the U.S. Navy admitted it was having problems with its Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program, and fired the naval officer (a captain), who was the program manager. These ships were originally touted as costing $220 million each, plus perhaps a $100 million more for the "mission packages" that would be installed as needed. Currently, the ships alone are expected to cost about $640 million, and the program is still in trouble.

In general, the navy is not happy with the performance of American ship builders, and the LCS problems are just another reminder. 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 the navy insisting on making numerous changes to the ship design as they are built. This drives up costs. During World War II, the shipyards were given a design, and then left alone until they delivered the ship. Then the navy issued another contract for all the changes it wanted. Warships undergo numerous minor (and sometimes major) changes during their 20-30 year service life. But it's most expensive to do it while you are building the ship. Well, it is the way U.S. naval shipyards operate. Navy ship designers believe it should be cheaper to make changes while under construction.

That raises another problem, the decades old contractor practice of deliberately making an unreasonably low estimate of cost when proposing a design. The navy goes along with this, in the interest of getting Congress to approve the money. Since Congress has a short memory, the navy does not take much heat for this never ending "low ball" planning process. Actually, it's poor planning in general that causes most of the high costs. It's bad planning by the navy, when coming up with the initial design, and bad planning on the part of the few shipyards that have a monopoly on building warships. Monopolies do not encourage efficiency. The LCS is just the latest example of all these bad habits at work. Don't expect any of this to change anytime soon. It's the way things have worked in the navy for a long time. Many admirals, members of Congress, and even a few shipbuilding executives, have called for reform. But it just doesn't happen.

There are actually two different LCS designs. One is a conventional 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 will probably not begin before 2008, when initial design flaws will have been worked out. One of the two designs may be selected for the rest of the LCS class, or, perhaps, there will be two sub-types. Ultimately, the Navy hopes to have between 50 and 60 LCSs by the middle of the next decade.

The LCS is sort of replacing the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates. These are 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 300 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 is to displace about 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.

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