Surface Forces: LCS And The Impossible Dream

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December 11, 2016: The United States Navy has another shipbuilding disaster on its hands. The innovative LCS (Littoral Combat Ship) doesn’t work. The navy now admits that it is more than just teething problems and largely due to over a decade of bad management. In the last year 62 percent of the LCS ships (5 of 8) had major equipment failures. The 2015 decision to reclassify the LCS as a frigate but this will escalate the per-ship cost to over a billion dollars each. The original LCS design was supposed to be a low $220 million per ship but that escalated to $480 million. The innovative use of a much smaller crew in a highly automated ship never worked, nor did the use of mission modules. The problem was the same one the navy has had with so many warships since the 1980s; poor management in design and construction. The LCS, conceived in the late 1990s as a solution to warships that were too expensive to build, became another example of what the LCS was supposed to fix.

The U.S. Navy has been increasingly unhappy 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 builders. 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.

A large part of the problem is the tendency to dismiss the lessons of the past as irrelevant. For example since the 1960s the navy has insisted on making more and more 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. At that point 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. 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.

The LCS was meant to avoid the expense of building an improved frigate as a replacement for the 71 Perry class frigates. This change has been obvious since early 2015 when the navy decided to officially call LCS vessels frigates. By mid-2016 the navy decided to go one step further and drop the use of modules in the LCS. Instead the navy would equip existing and future LCS ships like MMSC (Multi-Mission Surface Combatant) version of LCS Saudi Arabia had requested in late 2015.

This shift from LCS to frigate was not unexpected as in size and function the LCS ships were very comparable to frigates. This type of ship first appeared during World War II as “Destroyer Escorts” (or DE, versus DD for destroyer). These were basically destroyers that were slower (smaller engines), smaller (fewer weapons) and meant for escorting convoys and patrolling areas where major warships were not expected. The DEs proved more useful than expected and were retained after the war and eventually renamed as frigates (FF) type ships. During the age of sail there had been a similar smaller warship called a frigate.

The LCS was meant to be much more than a frigate and used a very innovative design. In the end there was plenty of innovation but nothing that was useful or reliable. The U.S. Navy effort to abandon the frigate and reinvent it with the quite different and very innovative LCS design was risky, and it largely failed to achieve its objectives. What many sailors really wanted was a replacement for the 4,100 ton Perrys, which were very popular with their users. Construction of Perrys lasted from 1975 to 2004 and that included a lot of upgrades and modifications. These ships had a top speed of 55 kilometers an hour and a crew of 176. There were anti-aircraft and anti-submarine sensors and weapons, plus a 76mm cannon a Phalanx anti-missile 20mm autocannon and two helicopters that could be armed with anti-submarine torpedoes or anti-ship missiles. Six foreign nations used the Perry and some substituted local weapons for American ones.

The LCS began development in 2002 and in 2012 the U.S. Navy put it into mass production. Then in 2013 one of the three LCSs in service got its first tour in a combat zone (counter-piracy duty around the Straits of Malacca). There LCSs will take turns serving six month tours of counter-piracy duty and be based in Singapore. There were lots of problems with design, reliability and crew effectiveness. At the same time costs were going up. By early 2014 the navy decided to cut the number to be built from 52 to 32. Mostly this was about shrinking budgets, but there’s also the fact that the LCS has been, for many admirals and politicians, much more troublesome than expected. This was to be expected because the LCS was a radical new warship design and these always have a lot of problems at first. For the LCS the problems never stopped. Some were fixed, other resisted solution at all and others were fixed, then broke again.

The navy originally sought to have between 50 and 60 LCSs by 2014-18, at a cost of $460 million (after the first five) each. The USS Freedom ended up costing nearly $600 million, about twice what the first ship in the class was supposed to have cost. The navy believes it has the cost down to under $500 million each as mass production begins. That did not happen. At this point cancellation of the program is becoming an attractive option. That would be easier to do than fix the fundamental problems with the management of designing and building warships. That would involve substantial changes in the American shipbuilding industry, the way Congress handles the military budget and leadership methods within the navy.

 


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