Return Fire on the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship

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The first two Littoral Combat Ships: the USS Freedom, rear, and the USS Independence, off the California coast. The ships primarily are designed to engage in combat close to shore.

Last week on Time’s Battleland blog there was a piece by Mr. John Sayen entitled The Navy’s New Class of Warships: Big Bucks, Little Bang.

Obviously, Mr. Sayen is not a fan of the Littoral Combat Ship. And that’s OK. We welcome the debate and the discussion. We agree with him that it’s important for the Navy to be transparent and honest about how we spend taxpayer dollars. I just wish he had reached out to me before writing his piece, because so much of his criticism was rooted in old, misconstrued or simply bad information.

Let’s take them one at a time…

SAYEN: “Since neither design had yet proven either its usefulness or functionality it seems that the Navy’s object was to make the LCS program “too big to fail” as soon as possible.”

That’s a pretty bold charge…and unfair. He’s basically saying we tried to steamroll the system to get what we want, to get so deep into a program that no lawmaker or leader would dare shut it down.

Actually, selecting both designs was the consequence of trying to encourage competition between the two builders and drive costs down. And we succeeded. We saved $2.9 billion in projected procurement costs, enough to buy five more LCSs, a DDG, and a Mobile Landing Platform.

By awarding two contracts for 10 ships each, we will be able to better analyze the two variants in fleet service, build up fleet numbers faster than expected, and save a bundle. And we always retain the option to down select to one variant should circumstances dictate.

Never did we have anything but the taxpayers’ — and our national — interests foremost in mind.

SAYEN: “It may be working: the 55-ship fleet is slated to cost more than $40 billion, giving each vessel a price tag north of $700 million, roughly double the original estimated cost.”

Yes, there has definitely been cost growth. Can’t deny that. The Navy initially established an objective cost of $250 million per ship and a threshold cost of $400 million per ship (seaframe and mission modules included). The first two seaframes of the class, which were both research and development ships of two different varients, cost $537 million (LCS 1) and $653 million (LCS 2), respectively.

But that was then. This is now. We have 20 LCSs under fixed price contracts. The average price for a fully missionized LCS (seaframe and modules) will be below the congressionally mandated cost cap of $460 million (FY10 dollars) for the seaframe only.

And the tenth ship of each production run will beat the cost cap my several tens of millions of dollars. That will allow us to inject added capabilities, if desired or required, without breaking the bank—just as we have done in the Arleigh Burke DDG program for the past 20 years.

On balance, for the LCS’s size and capability, we believe the Navy — and the taxpayers –are getting one heck of a bargain.

SAYEN: “The ASUW (anti-surface warfare) module is focused mainly on defeating speedboats and offers only two 30mm MK-46 guns and some short-ranged low payload Griffin missiles. None of these modules will even be testable until well into FY13 and none will be operational before FY16”.

Well, not really. Two surface warfare packages and two mine counter measure packages have already been delivered to us for testing. The surface package will be operational well before 2016.

In fact, we’re planning to embark it aboard USS Freedom when she deploys to Singapore next spring. The surface module weapons Mr. Sayen disparages will serve to supplement the ship’s organic 57-mm gun and an MH-60R armed helicopter, thus providing additional capability.

SAYEN: “…ballooning LCS construction costs caused the Navy to try to save money by ordering that future ships be built to commercial standards.

That’s sort of backwards. Actually, it was our going in position to design the ships to commercial standards, hoping to produce more of them faster and save money. But all that changed when we made the decision to increase survivability standards by adhering to Naval Vessel Rules.

All littoral combat ships are being built to these rules, not commercial standards.

As I readily admitted, that decision made the ships cost more … but we stand by the reasoning for it.

SAYEN: “…the LCS is rated as not survivable in a “hostile combat environment.”

Like all warships, LCS is built to fight. It’s built for combat.

Nobody ever said this ship can — and no engineer can ever design a ship to — withstand every conceivable threat on the sea. But the LCS is significantly more capable than the older mine counter measure ships and patrol craft it was designed to replaces, and stands up well to the frigates now serving in the fleet.

It is fast, maneuverable, and has low radar, infrared, and magnetic signatures. Its core self-defense suite is designed to defeat a surprise salvo of one or two anti-ship cruise missiles when the ship is operating independently, or leakers that get through fleet area and short-range air defenses when operating with naval task forces.

Its 57mm gun is more than capable of taking out small boats and craft. Its armed helicopter gives the LCS an over-the-horizon attack capability and is lethal against submarines. LCS will stand outside of minefields and sweep them with little danger to its crew—and be able to defend itself while doing so. The ship has extensive automated firefighting systems and can remain afloat after considerable flooding damage.

We’re more than comfortable that the ship can fight and defend itself in a combat environment, especially when acting in concert with larger multi-mission cruisers and destroyers, exactly as we designed it to do.

SAYEN: “…the Navy has admitted that, unlike the foreign systems they were modeled on, LCS modules will not be swappable within day or two as originally envisaged. Instead, the process can take weeks.”

Each LCS will deploy with the Mission Package (MP) required to accomplish directed missions. If a commander directs a mission package swap, equipment staging and personnel movement will be planned and coordinated in advance.

The physical swap of mission package equipment can occur, as advertised, in less than 96 hours … just like we “originally envisaged.” Getting the ship ready for a new mission may take a little longer. But the fact is this ship is more flexible than any in the fleet.

Consider this: with three crews assigned to every two LCS hulls, the Navy will keep 50% of the entire LCS fleet deployed or ready for tasking. That means up to 27 ships might be “out and about” at any given time, with a mix of anti-submarine, anti-surface, and counter mine mission packages already aboard. With the LCS’s high speed, this force will be able to quickly concentrate in any theater with exactly the right packages needed for the job. When coupled with the ability to change out modules in theater, you have an extremely agile force.

SAYEN: “Its MIW (mine warfare) and ASW (antisubmarine warfare) capabilities are only those of the aircraft it carries.”

Not so.

The LCS Mine Countermeasures package will be capable of conducting the full gambit of mine operations — hunting, sweeping, and neutralization — against a wide variety of threats. And it’s going to do that using both organic AND embarked systems.

SAYEN: “Its RIM-116 lacks the range to protect other ships. Its 57mm gun is short-ranged and cannot support troops ashore.”

OK … but the LCS was never designed to protect other ships or to support troops ashore.  That’s not its job.

Its job is to protect the sea base and high value naval units from swarming boats, hunt down and sink diesel submarines, and clear mines in littoral waters. And it will do these jobs extremely well. It will be the best swarm killer in the surface fleet. It will have a better anti-submarine capability than the frigate it replaces. And it will be superior to the mine warfare vessels it replaces.

I thank Mr. Sayen for his interest. I really do. And I hope we can have a conversation with him moving forward. I don’t mind the criticism. I just want the opportunity to help inform it.

Look, we know the ship has hit some rough waters. We know it’s controversial in some quarters. And we know that there have been both cost and requirement challenges. Some of that is just intrinsic to the work of developing and building a new class of ship.

But we also believe that the decisions we’ve made with respect to capabilities, while costly and perhaps even time-consuming, will in the end put to sea a faster, more powerful and more agile warship.

Let’s not forget that we’ve been doing something almost unheard of in the shipbuilding business. In relatively short order — and far faster than the 12-15 years it takes with a destroyer — we designed a new ship class…we commissioned three of them, with nine more in various phases of construction…and now we’re going to deploy one to the Western Pacific.

I don’t expect the LCS debate to cease anytime soon. As I said, I welcome it. It’s healthy for us and for the country. But I do expect the criticism to be based on facts — current, relevant facts.

Let’s try to have that discussion.

Rear Admiral John Kirby is the Navy’s chief of information.