The Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship, or LCS, program was dealt a death blow last month when the Pentagon advised the Navy to purchase only 32 of the small, fast and much maligned ships that were originally designed to combat three distinct threats — submarines, mines and groups of small boats.
This was absolutely the right move for at least three reasons.
The first, and most glaring, deficiency of the LCS is that, as a recent Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation report states, the “LCS is not expected to be survivable in high-intensity combat.” While the Pentagon has used similar language in previous reports, the level of detail explaining why the boat wouldn’t survive a real fight is unprecedented.
The report indicates the ship’s vulnerability is inherent in its design. In dry Pentagonese, the LCS does “not require the inclusion of survivability features necessary to conduct sustained combat operations in a major conflict as expected for the Navy’s other surface combatants.” Thus, despite having “combat” in its name, the LCS is pretty lousy at fighting enemies.
A second problem is the LCS can focus only on a single threat at a time, even though it might have to fight surface enemies, submarines or mines at the same time. This leaves the LCS highly vulnerable to whichever two threats it isn’t specifically focused on. For example, without the “surface warfare package,” LCS ships are “lightly armed for ships of this size and possess no significant offensive capability,” and when outfitted to combat surface threats, LCS ships “have no systems designed to detect torpedo attacks or mines,” according to the report. Regardless of how the LCS is outfitted, then, it will be highly vulnerable to attack by at least two different threats.
Third, the LCS is a “one-size-fits all” weapons platform which, like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, has a tendency to become “one-size-fits-none.” Having a single weapons platform perform multiple, radically distinct missions means the weapon will have to compromise its ability to do one job well in order to do multiple jobs poorly. This “Swiss Army knife” approach provides weapons that will be mediocre at a lot of things; and while mediocrity is not typically a mortal sin, it can be fatal in 21st century warfare.
But while the LCS’s many problems meant axing the program, the trouble for America is that the missions the LCS was intended to perform won’t disappear with it. Curtailing the LCS program did, however, free up money to purchase ships that can effectively perform these missions.
One possibility is the Navy’s new DDG-1000. These Zumwalt destroyers are an oddity in Navy acquisitions — and not just because the first ship was delivered on time and on budget. The Zumwalt has serious firepower, is bigger and better-equipped than older destroyers, is designed to operate in the littorals, and can do many of the jobs the LCS was supposed to do.
There’s one little problem, however: The DDG-1000 program was cancelled after just three ships because of cost concerns (each ship costs roughly $2.5 billion to build). But with the truncation of the LCS program and the budgetary room it frees up, America should seriously reconsider opening up the Zumwalt line.
The LCS was certainly created with good intentions. But we
should never compromise on whether Navy “combat” ship will survive combat. We
owe our men and women in uniform the best we have, and the LCS, unfortunately,
fell far short of that mark. Hopefully the Zumwalt can do better.