WASHINGTON — The past year was one of great anticipation in naval circles as the US Navy considered how to up-gun, lethalize, improve, expound or expand on its littoral combat ship concept. Not that the service wanted to do it — the effort was directed by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, reacting to critics who derided the LCS as an under-armed, short-legged, non-survivable, overpriced folly.
In February, Hagel told the Navy to develop "a capable and lethal small surface combatant [SSC], generally consistent with the capabilities of a frigate." The service was to consider new and existing designs and versions of the LCS. The defense secretary also told the Navy to issue no more LCS contracts after the 32nd ship — short of the total buy of 52 ships.
The directives set off nearly a full year of speculation. The Navy itself said next to nothing — other than a press briefing in April by the head of the SSC task force describing the process. Officials and anyone remotely close to the SSC effort were sworn to secrecy, many forced to sign non-disclosure agreements.
A cone of silence descended around the work — extending, in many cases, to the LCS itself, where no one wanted to be accused of openly discussing concepts or systems that might be part of the SSC effort.
That left industry, critics and gadflies to expound on what could be done for the SSC. Industry teams from the two LCS producers — Lockheed Martin and Austal USA —talked at length about how their designs could incorporate sophisticated combat systems, even Aegis, along with vertical launch systems and bigger guns.
Huntington Ingalls rolled out its patrol frigate with similar features. Veterans of previous administrations talked about new versions of the Reagan-era Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided-missile frigate. Proponents of powerful foreign designs, such as Denmark's Iver Huitfeldt-class frigates and Norway's Spanish-built Fridtjof Nansen-class Aegis frigates, talked about how cheaply a powerful small ship could be produced. Virtually everyone thought the new ships would have some capability to launch Standard missiles, have a significantly better combat system and, at the very least, a 76mm gun. The Navy, in its silence, did little to dissuade those views.
So it was with some surprise that the Navy's choices, revealed Dec. 11, to move forward with limited updates of both LCS designs have met largely with a big, collective "meh."
"They hardly changed anything," one observer said. "Where are the missiles?" said another.
"It's as if they're afraid to make changes for fear of being seen as admitting there were faults with the original design," said one former naval officer.
To be sure, the "modified LCS" — the Navy is not using the formal SSC term — shows a number of changes from the Flight 0 hulls.
The newer ships will have an improved air surveillance radar, be fitted with an over-the-horizon surface-to-surface missile, carry improved defensive systems and some additional armor, and operate the multi-function towed array, an active and passive sonar system. There will be less modularity compared with the LCS, but the modified ship will retain some of those capabilities. Two 25mm guns — weapons carried by most ships to handle close-in targets — will be added.
But many observers were expecting more. There is no vertical launch system — a key system that could be adapted for a variety of weapons, compared with single-purpose external launchers. There is no area air defense missile. There is no discussion of extending the ships' range —a drawback in the Freedom-class variant. At the very least, most onlookers expected the SSC to carry a 76mm gun with heavier hitting power and longer range, but the modified ships retain the 57mm of the LCS.
There was also no downselect to a single design — something the Navy did not say it was going to do, but that many observers thought was possible. Rather, the service will continue with both designs for the modified ships.
The changes being made for the modified ships are not unusual nor illogical. Rather, they are logical mid-course changes that could be expected in a 52-ship production run. The changes do not radically change the capabilities of the ships — they should, in fact, constitute a Flight 1 variant of the LCS program.
Along with the surprising dearth of major changes made by the Navy, it's also interesting to note the muted responses of LCS critics to the lack of real innovation in the modified ships.
One of the program's chief antagonists, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. McCain, a longtime critic known for scathing comments about LCS, issues streams of press releases criticizing and commenting on any number of issues. His office was silent about the issue in December, and he's been anything but direct in the new Congress.
"It is a program that has been in trouble from its beginning, and had significant cost overruns," McCain told Defense News Jan. 7. "And it will be the subject of significant scrutiny and oversight in the coming year."
This is nothing new — the program has been the subject of significant scrutiny and oversight in Congress since its inception more than a decade ago.
Michael Gilmore, another longtime critic who, as director of the Pentagon's Office of Operational Test and Evaluation, has focused on LCS survivability issues, is less than impressed with the new ships, telling Bloomberg News, "notwithstanding reductions to its susceptibility … the minor modifications to the LCS will not yield a ship that is significantly more survivable."
But Gilmore sat next to Hagel last year when the Navy presented its modified LCS proposals. He would have been able to make his concerns known and, if he protested, he didn't protest that much.
In the end, the Navy seems to have held off its strongest LCS critics and survived. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus staked his reputation on the ship a year ago when, after then-acting Defense Deputy Secretary Christine Fox tried to kill off the program, he personally fought to keep it.
Mabus' former deputy, Bob Work, made defending the LCS a hallmark of his term as Navy undersecretary. Ironically, Fox made her move to kill the ship while Work was out of the Pentagon but was expected to return and become Hagel's deputy — something he did in late April.
Now, with the Navy's choice of barely-modified LCS hulls to fulfill Hagel's directives, and the secretary's acceptance of those intentions — and coupled with the less-than-strident comments from many long-time critics — Mabus, Work and all the other LCS proponents seem to have been vindicated.
Whatever name the Navy decides to call it — whether an LCS, a modified LCS, a SSC or some other — the small combatant is here to stay.
John T. Bennett contributed to this report.