Why we need better ships

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Congressional testimony by the leadership of the U.S. Navy has crystallized key issues facing the seagoing service.

In making its case for its current shipbuilding plan, a mixture of high- and low-end ships, the Navy says it is on the right course in seeking significant numbers of low-end Littoral Combat Ships (LCS). But costs have spiraled out of control. Rep. Gene Taylor, chairman of the House Armed Services sea power and expeditionary forces subcommittee, wants to place a cap on LCS costs and, if the contractors are unable to meet the cost cap, reopen the competition.

The LCS concept when it was conceived was to be a very “inexpensive stealthy” ship that would provide the larger force structure needed for the Navy to carry out its forward-deployed mission. In execution, however, LCS has become emblematic of everything wrong in our acquisition and strategic thinking.

First, it costs nearly threefold what it was intended to cost - well toward $700 million for each of the first two ships (before adding the costs of any modules that are essential for the ship’s combat capability).

In the next iteration, the ships are still estimated to cost more than twice the targeted cost - again without the modules. These mission modules are also running over cost and falling short of performance requirements. In recognition of these realities, the Navy is buying fewer modules - further increasing risks.

In addition, the first LCS hull, USS Freedom, is overweight and fragile (it cannot always travel fast enough) and has stability problems.

The high-speed fuel consumption of both designs, neither of them stealthy, will sharply limit their capacity to execute their intended operations. Other problems are surfacing - such as overworked crews - that have affected retention rates. But all these problems pale next to the real issue: survivability in combat.

Aligning a shipbuilding plan with “today’s environment” is precisely the problem. The Navy must have the depth of high-end-capable forces to prevail in any conflict. Instead, we are pursuing low-end ships that are too expensive to achieve a forward-deployed “presence” but incapable of surviving in serious combat.

Retired Vice Adm. John Morgan wrote in a May 24 letter to The Washington Times that he supports the Navy’s shipbuilding plan and praised the LCS as exactly the right kind of ship for the future Navy.

Adm. Morgan added that “presence” is the U.S. Navy’s reason for being. Hogwash! Adm. Morgan does not understand that as a major power and an “island” nation between two oceans, we must have a maritime strategy that enables us - at any time - to control sea areas vital to our core interests.

The emerging threats we face in the 30- to 40-year lifetime of the ships we build today are clear and greatly exceed the capability of a fleet of LCS ships. Our forward-deployed ships must have recognized capabilities to go in “harm’s way.” That’s the key element in deterrence. Forward presence is the beginning of the Navy’s mission, not the end.

As a result of all these problems, the LCS-class ship is the wrong program on which to spend the Navy’s limited shipbuilding funds. I think at this point, a far better alternative would be to terminate the failed experiment.

The program should return to its original target of $220 million per ship and combine with the U.S. Coast Guard to build a dual-purpose ship with a credible integral combat system that can meet limited warfare requirements. This very different ship should be built in large numbers as part of the coming Ocean Patrol Cutter Program.

Such a change would achieve huge savings for both the Navy and the Coast Guard tied to large production numbers. The funding saved from canceling the LCS could be used to procure the most capable high-end combatant ship with margins enough to allow future modernization.

If we obtain enough of them, these high-end ships will excel in the Navy’s Networked Future Force - indeed, they will transform it. Further, they will give our Navy the future capacity to meet any challenge and win - and that always has been and always will be our Navy’s real mission.

Retired U.S. Navy Adm. James Lyons was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations, and deputy chief of naval operations, where he was principal adviser on all Joint Chiefs of Staff matters.

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