Officials with the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the US Navy have been battling over how many littoral combat ships to build. (US Navy)
WASHINGTON — The contentious question of how many littoral combat ships to build has been batted back and forth this year between the US Navy’s top leadership and senior Pentagon leaders. By the end of the day on Jan. 17, a certain kind of standoff appears to have been reached, foregoing — for the moment — a final decision.
The result could be a compromise. Reportedly, LCS is being put on something of a probation: The buy would be limited to 26 or 28 ships — the exact number couldn’t be confirmed by press time — but the ship will need to pass evaluation by the Pentagon’s Office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) before further ship buys can proceed, according to multiple Pentagon sources, who stressed that no final decisions have been reached.
The first salvo of the year was fired Jan. 6 by Christine Fox, acting deputy defense secretary, when, in a classified memo, she directed the Navy to halt LCS production after 32 ships and begin development of a “more capable surface combatant.”
Navy officials have strenuously defended the service’s plan to build a total of 52 of the small, fast and adaptable ships. Three are in service, with a fourth set to join the fleet in April. Another 20 ships are under construction or on order.
Navy leaders fought back almost immediately. Service staff members argued with the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) to keep the status quo of 52 ships.
Fox is one of the key people within OSD urging a severe cutback of the LCS program, if not outright cancellation. She often questioned the combat effectiveness of the program in her previous position as director of the Pentagon’s Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation.
A Jan. 15 Defense News web story detailing the decision to cap the ships at 32 set off a renewed round of events inside the Pentagon last week. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus personally argued his case before Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Fox that evening, urging the program’s continuation, Pentagon sources confirmed.
A similar probation was issued in January 2011 by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates regarding the F-35B version of the joint strike fighter. The probation was lifted in January 2012 — short of the two years Gates initially declared — after program performance improved.
Neither the Navy nor OSD would confirm an agreement by close of business on Jan. 17.
DOT&E routinely criticizes the LCS program, irked in particular by the Navy’s 2010 decision to take the first ship out of the normal testing cycle and instead send it to sea. As the first of a new ship class, the service was anxious to get underway time rather than keep it in a rigorous testing cycle.
The 2012 DOT&E report noted concerns about the ship’s survivability, writing that “it is not expected to maintain mission capability after taking a significant hit in a hostile combat environment.” There was no discussion of a comparable 3,200-ton ship that could meet that requirement, and DOT&E did not differentiate between the two LCS designs, which are considerably different.
Neither LCS design has undergone Navy survivability tests, which are performed on all new ship classes.
A New Approach?
If the LCS fails the tests, it is not clear what the next step would be. But whether the LCS is cut short or built out to 52 ships, the service already has been thinking about what a follow-on small combatant would look like.
Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, routinely champions LCS, but already has directed the surface warfare community to begin thinking about a follow-on.
“We need to look and think about what the next small combatant is,” said Capt. Danny Hernandez, the CNO’s spokesman. “Regardless of what the number is going to be, there’s going to be something after LCS, and we need to look at our options. It’s also the prudent and responsible thing to do.”
One concept being thought about as an LCS alternative or follow-on has been a small frigate, able to defend several ships and provide escort services for merchant convoys, amphibious ships or support ships.
A capability gap already has been identified for an escort ship, said Bryan Clark, a naval analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. Until last year, Clark also was a special assistant to Greenert, where he led the development of Navy strategy.
“The real need is for an escort to accompany convoys, logistic ships, even parts of the battle fleet. Analysis shows that as a gap. But LCS cannot provide air defense to ships it’s escorting — it only has self-defense,” Clark said.
“The Aegis destroyer is more than what is necessary for this mission. So this escort mission is one that cries out for a solution. That’s what a frigate can do,” he noted.
A frigate of about 4,100 tons, he said, would be a ship less capable than a 9,200-ton Aegis destroyer, but larger than the LCS.
“A frigate study would need to focus on designs that currently exist, that could be rapidly implemented at a US yard. And they’d probably include designs based on the LCS as well,” he said. “The study could include existing designs as well as starting from scratch. Foreign designs would be part of the mix — just as LCS is a derivative of foreign designs.”
Both LCS design teams, led by Lockheed Martin and Austal USA, have produced versions of their ships aimed at foreign sales, heavily loaded with permanently installed combat systems. Lockheed in particular is offering larger versions of its Freedom-class LCS, as well as smaller models.
“The Navy doesn’t really have an escort vessel that can do this mission. If you get into a large conflict you need to protect ships,” Clark said.
Key to that is effective anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and anti-air combat systems. The ASW mission package under development for LCS is getting early rave reviews from surface warfare officers, but the ships are too small to install Mark 41 vertical missile launchers needed for Standard anti-air missiles. An effective anti-air system also needs search and fire control radars, along with an expanded combat system.
“That’ll be the toughest part of the frigate study, trying to figure how to handle the air defense mission in a way that doesn’t involve the start of a new design,” Clark said.
Work on a new frigate is not being driven by OSD’s current efforts to cut back the LCS, Clark said, although it would provide a basis for a new ship should the LCS fail.
Work on future surface combat ships already is underway at the Pentagon by the director of surface warfare, and under the direction of the surface warfare commander in San Diego, but neither of those efforts is focused on a frigate. A new study, Clark said, would be aimed at a ship that could be developed within only a few years.
Regardless of the LCS debate, “this need was starting to emerge anyway,” he said. ■