Analysis: Navy Doesn’t Know What it Wants with LCS

March 25, 2013 4:59 AM - Updated: March 25, 2013 9:49 AM
USS Freedom (LCS 1) arrives at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam on March, 11 2013. US Navy Photo
USS Freedom (LCS 1) arrives at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam on March, 11 2013. US Navy Photo

Christopher P. Cavas’ much-discussed March, 18 Defense News story about the recommendations of Vice Adm. Tom Copeman revealed that even one of the Navy’s top surface warriors has become something of a littoral combat ship (LCS) skeptic, given his reported willingness to recommend a major course correction for the program.
The Navy’s LCS never has had a shortage of skeptics, but for a long time they seemed to be a minority in the surface-warfare world, on the outside looking in. Until now.

Copeman recommended to Navy leadership that the service drop much of the “modularity” that was supposed to have been the mainstay of LCS—its ability to take aboard interchangeable mission equipment, converting from sub chaser to minesweeper to pirate-fighter—as well as cutting the number of hulls or buying only one type of hull, as opposed to the two the Fleet is now pursuing.

In the LCS’s place Copeman is said to recommend a larger, up-armed ship with fixed onboard weapons, including a destroyer-style vertical launch system, to fill the gap the Navy sees in vessels below 4,000 tons—a hole left by the departing Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates.
Put a different way, the Navy would take the LCS out of LCS.

Cavas’ report isn’t just fascinating because of the Navy’s possible concession to critics, but also because even though the culture of “lessons learned” and “benchmarking best practices” are supposed to be ingrained among naval leaders, the modern service evidently can’t stop itself from repeating the same mistake over and over again.
The problem, in short, is that the modern Navy can’t seem to decide what it wants.

The service didn’t conduct one of its exhaustive reviews about roles and missions and then decide to build the LCS; instead it built them and began deciding afterward why they should exist. But it spent years pursuing next-generation combatants in its DDG-1000 and CG(X) classes, only to truncate the first and spike the second, for reasons that have never been made fully clear.
Now Copeman is evidently counseling another new direction for the surface force, suggesting that the current LCS order will not answer his needs. Also, Cavas writes, Copeman says the Navy needs a high-tech replacement for its Ticonderoga-class cruisers. That was supposed to have been next generation cruiser [CG(X)], which at one point in its fabled analysis of alternatives was said to have grown to a 25,000-ton nuclear-powered mega-dreadnought—until the Navy changed its mind.
Copeman’s recommendations may never become reality, especially because they run counter to the core principles adopted by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert, who has stressed again and again that the Navy needs “payloads, not platforms.” I can’t afford a whiz-bang fleet of new ships, Greenert has said—in so many words—what I need are new weapons, unmanned aircraft, and watercraft that can play nice with the ships and aircraft already in the arsenal. And they’ll get bonus points if they also play nice with the Air Force and Marine Corps, under the once-and-future doctrine called Air-Sea Battle.
Outsiders and LCS skeptics, however, will likely hail Copeman as speaking truth to power. The littoral combat ship is not going to work as it was advertised, the doubters say, and anyway, the Navy needs no-kidding warships that can take no-kidding missions. Critics are frustrated that, from their perspective, the Fleet must coddle the LCS and adapt to its shortcomings rather than fielding a mission-ready ship because Big Navy won’t risk the political embarrassment of canceling the LCS after all the time and money it has invested.

Still, the beauty of Copeman’s recommendation, of course, is that the Navy keeps about 24 of the littoral vessels, so both sides of the divide might get what they want. LCS partisans turn into Silicon Valley tech mavens when asked about the unanswered questions involved with the concept. That’s the beauty of it, they say, channeling Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network: “We don’t know what it is yet.” Keeping some LCSs would let the Fleet at least replace its decrepit mine countermeasures ships and at most, let talented LCS crews and commanders take up the Fleet’s free-jazz jam session and see where it leads.

The ship Big Navy today wants to thread the needle between DDG-1000 and CG(X), the planned Flight III Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, now appears to have fallen into disfavor. Per Cavas, Copeman suggests the Flight III, which the Navy wants to be like a current-model Burke with a huge new radar, would be at or past its limits with the new equipment and all the new power and cooling. So he argues that a safer bet would be to continue building Flight IIA ships and go with the new cruiser replacement that the Navy certainly will not call “CG(X).”
The long-term implications of Copeman’s report this are unclear. In the case of LCS, truncating the program could be a kiss of death. Surface warfare officers traditionally sneer at small ships, and it’s easy to imagine an orphan class of unready, undermaintained littoral combat ships just taking the place of today’s mine countermeasures ships, as opposed to transcending them. It’s also easy to imagine the Navy getting caught in another development vortex over its new surface combatants, repeating the mistakes of DDG-1000 and CG(X). Even though we so often hear that “good enough” is supposed to be good enough in today’s age of austerity, the Pentagon does not have a sterling record of actually walking that walk.

One thing that is clear is that Copeman’s recommendations, were the Navy to try to pursue them, would draw a lot of blowback from Congress. Whichever LCS constituency stood to lose its ship—either Midwesterners or Southerners—would not be pleased. More broadly, the onset of sequestration on 1 March proves the influence of defense on the Hill is decidedly in eclipse, and a spending-averse Congress might frown on an expensive new shipbuilding plan that replaces the one many observers agree was already unaffordable.

And the ultimate problem is that all this isn’t just so much enjoyable snuff for armchair admirals. The real-life Navy of today has been warning anyone who’ll listen that its Fleet is in bad shape and getting worse. The brass say its operational tempo is unsustainable and the material condition of much of the Fleet isn’t great—and it may only get worse, we’re warned, given the downward pressure on the Pentagon’s budget. So the Navy somehow needs to settle on a safe course away from these hazards. What Cavas’ report about Copeman’s recommendations shows is that there’s still no consensus about which way to point the bow.

Philip Ewing

Philip Ewing

Philip Ewing is a journalist in Washington D.C. specializing in coverage of national security and the naval services.

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