Meet the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). The Navy’s ship of the future costs over 200% more than it was supposed to, struggles to perform routine missions, and lacks the weapons or durability to survive combat. How do American taxpayers end up paying $34 billion for a warship that can’t go to war? Through a combination of extravagant Navy requirements, spineless Congressional oversight and willful contractor subterfuge. After a decade of these problems, in February 2014, Secretary of Defense Hagel cut the planned purchase of LCS from 52 to 32 and authorized the Department of the Navy to identify more “capable and lethal small surface combatant” alternatives. This is a positive step, but not the promise to cancel the LCS that the US Navy needs and American taxpayers deserve.
How We Got Here
The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) was envisioned as the “low end backbone of the future US surface combat fleet,” in a triad of new surface combatants that included heavily armed destroyers and missile defense frigates. As cost overruns gutted those companion programs, the LCS’s purpose changed. By 2007, it was being sold as a cost effective, flexible means of maintaining naval surface strength in the face of rising costs and retiring ships. The source of this flexibility is the LCS’ interchangeable mission modules, which can be swapped in and out to suit the needs of such wide ranging missions as mine sweeping, intelligence gathering, anti-submarine activities, and special operations support. The current budgetary landscape requires fewer ships to perform more functions at less cost and in theory, the LCS does that. On paper it gives the US Navy one close-to-shore ship capable of carrying out many close-to-shore functions while also increasing the number of available surface ships.
In reality, the LCS does none of these things well, contributes little to real Navy surface strength, and costs around $500 million more per-ship than anticipated. Ongoing design defects and associated cost overruns mean the LCS is not as affordable as originally promised. At the same time, cancellation of complimentary warships has led to expectations far beyond what the ship was designed for, or is capable of doing. Because the LCS has been designed to perform a number of tasks adequately, it does few things well. It was designed for interchangeable weapons packages (aka mission modules) that could be rapidly exchanged in port. For the most part these remain over budget and behind schedule and those that are complete take much longer to exchange than anticipated. When it comes to combat, the LCS is so amazingly under gunned and lightly armored that it is not expected to survive a fight with anything more dangerous than a pirate skiff. Even under the best circumstances of working modules and heavier payloads, the LCS still operates at the margins of hull strength and crew size—any combat damage takes the ship out of action.
There are numerous alternatives to the LCS on the world market that provide comparable capabilities, increase firepower and greater survivability, all at less cost. The details are beyond the scope of this blog, but it’s clear that the Navy clung tight to the fanciful expectations of the LCS when viable, cost effective, strategically sound options were, and continue to be, available.
What Can We Learn?
The LCS saga effectively captures Congress’s negligent appropriations culture and the Pentagon’s irresponsible acquisition gamesmanship. There are, for no discernable reason other than legislative pork, two different models of the LCS. Each version has their own contractor and subcontractor networks and together the legislators from those districts form a caucus able to protect the LCS program. But when legislators use defense contracts as home-district stimulus, the American people and the American military both lose. Congress insists on funding weapons for a land war with the Soviet Union, even as the Department of Defense needs to capitalize for the maritime capacities for a pivot to the East. Instead of wasting money on weapons the military doesn’t want, Congress should compensate home districts with education, healthcare, and infrastructure and appropriate the defense funds to the programs that need them. When individual weapons programs are asked to compensate for bad planning on the strategic level, the results are burdensome requirements, low performance, and ultimately waste like the kind seen with LCS. The Pentagon is itself responsible for closing this vicious circle because it seems it finds the notion of oversight anathema. In boom cycles, it insists on contracts with requirements it doesn’t need; in leaner years, it hedges preparedness by defending bad programs rather than risk having Congress and contractors deliver even less the next time around.
Fortunately, the Navy seems to be reconsidering the wisdom of the LCS. In a press conference last February, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced that he had directed the department to develop proposals for modifications and replacements to the LCS. “Given continued fiscal restraints, we must direct shipbuilding resources toward platforms that can operate in every region and along the full spectrum of conflict,” Mabus told the Pentagon press corps.The Department of Defense may be on the wrong end of a decommissioning and surface force timeline, but even the Secretary of the Navy doesn’t think that justifies doubling down yet again on the LCS. The sunk cost of the program and the Navy’s need for a new frigate don’t justify the LCS past the point that more capable replacements can be acquired and modified. Taxpayers and the Pentagon need a ship that fits our military’s needs and our citizen’s budget—it is up to Congress to ensure they get it.