With the economy as the No. 1 priority for the new administration, there will probably be some form of a zero-based review of the federal budget.
Even with two ongoing wars, the Defense Department’s budget will receive close scrutiny, as it should. Key programs could be canceled, delayed or changed.
However, the U.S. pre-eminence as a world leader. The Navy’s anti-ballistic intercept capability is another key element. Even with recognition of these requirements, there has been a loss of confidence in Congress over the ever-changing Navy ship construction programs that suffer from highly publicized cost overruns.
At present, the centerpiece of the Navy’s surface ship construction program is the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). Unfortunately, this program has suffered from a lack of professional oversight that resulted in multiple change orders, culminating in the cost of the first ship more than doubling from the original estimate of $220 million. The U.S. Navy plans to construct 55 LCS ships that can operate close to shore.
The undersecretary of defense for acquisition, John Young, said recently that the Navy is likelier to buy 64 or more of these ships, which cost about $550 million each.
The threat of piracy and the war on terror are given as justifications for the need of an LCS type ship. They are indeed weak reeds. If we changed the rules of engagement for the Task Force ships engaging the pirates and destroyed the shore-based infrastructure that supports their operations, piracy would become less attractive.
For a warship to stand by and do nothing as a hijacked ship is sailed to a pirate holding area should not be an option. Moreover, it is abundantly clear that a lightly armed defensive platform is marginally useful against terrorists operating ashore.
The LCS as originally conceived was to be stealthy; have a 50-knot speed capability; be operable by a small crew; and permit reconfiguration for different type of missions by changing onboard modules, including modules for detecting and countering mines. The costs of any of these modules are yet to be determined.
The overall costs of the LCS are largely driven by the speed requirement of 50 knots. It can be safely assumed that between 30 percent and 40 percent of the current hull, mechanical and electrical (HM&E) costs are directly attributed to the speed requirement. It is not transparently clear what a 50 knot capability (as opposed to 30 knots) confers in the threat today of Mach 1-plus air and surface launched guided-stealthy missiles plus 70-plus-knot torpedoes. Furthermore, in any type of seaway, the ship will not operate at 50 knots nor will it operate at 50 knots in 20 feet of water unless the intention is to dig a trench in the seabed.
Despite the stated requirement for stealth, it is not optimized in either of the LCS prototypes. Both ships display relatively large radar targets. The mono-hull (General Dynamics) provides a radar “tunnel” to amplify the radar return from the ship when observed from certain aspects.
Moreover, both hull forms have inherent large and/or noisy acoustic signatures. Further, both prototypes will have predictability large infrared signatures when operating at higher speeds. Neither of these prototypes has anything but a very limited “point” air defense capability. In today’s expanding threat environment, any ship designed to be a 21st-century warship is fatally flawed that costs more than $550 million and does not incorporate multiple fire-control systems and a reasonable area air defense capability against stealthy cruise missiles. The argument that an air defense “umbrella” for the LCS will be provided by other air and surface platforms is suspect, if only because the LCS is touted as a precursor weapons system, intended to “sanitize” littoral waters.
In the bid to reduce weight (for speed) both designs include significant amounts of aluminum, but little or no composites in their superstructure. One is almost all aluminum. We continue to ignore the lessons drawn from the Falklands war where British ships with aluminum superstructures burned to the gunwales in a littoral sea fight with Argentine aircraft-delivered iron bombs and French short-range Exocet missiles. Perhaps we should review the logic presented in the mid-1980s when we opted for an all-steel Arleigh Burke DDG-51 destroyer.
What should be done? The current Navy leadership inherited the LCS program. With the budget constraints Navy ship acquisition programs will face, we simply cannot afford to build a class of ships with the limited capabilities of an LCS. We should step back, acknowledge the LCS shortcomings and look at alternatives currently available.
The Norwegian Aegis frigate, which is a derivative of the Spanish F-100 Aegis frigate, is a candidate that should receive careful consideration. It has a speed of 28 knots; is stealthy and is capable in terms of area AAW and ASW with its Aegis combat system, electro-optical director; hull mounted and towed array sonar, two MK82 fire-control radars, and 127MM and 76MM guns. It also has the capability to host organic manned and unmanned air and surface vehicles. The cost for this very capable warship is about $600 million. Its draft is 5 meters, which also compares favorably with the LCS.
Changing the program is the first step. To ensure proper management and oversight, the Navy must also rebuild its in-house civilian technical capability which in the past played major roles in bridging the gap between combat commanders’ stated requirements and the contract specifications given to industry in the procurement of ships, aircraft and weapon systems.
A recent study concluded that the Navy’s in-house technical capability (civilian and naval officer) has been greatly diminished and is rapidly losing capability and capacity. The disciplines involved in building a commercial ship in no way translate to building a warship. There are no short cuts.
The Navy needs to rebuild the civilian technologist community by providing a clear career path. The Navy also needs to rebuild the Engineering Duty Officer (EDO) community. The two-year Naval Architecture/Marine Engineering Master’s program at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which was canceled two years ago, should be reinstated.
There is no question that numbers of ship matter, but combat capability and survivability should be the governing criteria. The notion that somehow “little” combatants are expendable is nonsense. Certainly the crews are not, nor are the ships. Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of time to redesign a small combatant. Until we do, we should embrace the European-Norwegian Aegis-type Frigate, which was principally designed for “littoral combat.”
Joint Chiefs of Staff matters.