After years of botched contracts and cost overruns, the Navy has finally signed contracts to buy a bunch of its speedy, near-shore Littoral Combat Ships — at a per-copy price nearly a third cheaper than expected. But hold the champagne. The cost-cutting that made the LCS so affordable might also doom the ships to watery graves in future conflicts.
“We have a warship design that is not expected to fight and survive in the very environment in which it was produced to do so,” one critic at the U.S. Naval Institute blog claims, describing the LCS as “poorly armed” and “poorly protected” for dangerous, crowded coastal waters.
When the LCS deals were announced last week, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus crowed that they would “provide needed ships to our fleet in a timely and extraordinarily cost-effective manner.” Instead of picking one shipbuilder, the Navy tapped rival firms Austal and Lockheed Martin to build 10 LCS apiece through 2015, each using its own distinct design.
The cost per ship? Just $450 million, at least $200 million below the cost of each of the four prototypes.
But to get those low, low prices, the ships will be built to commercial, rather than military, structural standards — meaning they’re lighter and less blast- and fire-resistant. Indeed, the Navy does not plan to subject the LCS to traditional blast-testing, “due to the damage that would be sustained by the ship,” the Congressional Research Service points out.
The LCS also optimizes speed over weaponry. Lockheed’s version has what Operations Officer Tony Hyde, from USS Freedom (the first Lockheed prototype), described as “the largest marine gas turbines in the world — essentially the engines of a 777 jetliner.”
The turbines’ 100,000 horsepower can propel the LCS at up to 50 knots, compared to 30 for most warships. But that high speed “will eat through a fuel supply in half a day,” the USNI critic scoffs.
Former Freedom commanding officer Don Gabrielson said in 2008 that high speed could help the LCS respond better to pirate attacks and assaults by small boats, such as those used by Iran. But an extra 20 knots aren’t likely to make much difference if someone’s shooting supersonic anti-ship missiles at you, whereas extra armor plating just might.
So is the LCS a tremendous bargain for a cash-strapped Navy, or an underweight death-trap for its crew? The answer could be both, with caveats.
Eric Wertheim, an independent naval analyst and author of the authoritative Combat Fleets of the World, tells Danger Room that all shipbuilding plans must take into account “political considerations, economic considerations, military considerations [and] industrial considerations.” In other words, a ship isn’t just a ship. It’s also a jobs program, an industrial subsidy and a number on a treaty document.
“As much as it seems like a simple decision of which ship is the best, politicians and military leaders are frequently forced to look at long-term implications for things like the health of the shipbuilding base,” Wertheim points out. “For example, what would happen if we don’t share work, would one of the shipyards have to close? And is that a good decision in terms of long-range national security?”
To be sure, locking in 20 ships at just $450 million apiece — compared to around $2 billion for a new Arleigh Burke-class destroyer — will keep two shipyards in business and help the Navy reverse the slow decline of its current 280-strong fleet.
This at a time when the Navy is not involved in at-sea combat, and instead spends much of its time chasing pirates and smugglers. For these “other-than-war” tasks, speed and sheer numbers of vessels both matter.
The Navy already has more than enough high-end, military-grade warships for any potential future showdown with, say, China. This force includes approximately 90 cruisers, destroyers and soon-to-debut stealth battleships.
It’s the most powerful surface fleet in the history of the world, by far, and one that’s massive overkill in anything short of World War III.
But, after retiring many of its minesweepers, patrol boats and frigates, what the Navy doesn’t have is enough low-end warships for all the mundane work of a busy, globally-deployed military. The LCS can help correct that imbalance.
Plus, there are emerging technologies that, when combined with the LCS, might revolutionize the way the Navy fights. The LCS includes a huge hangar bay for carrying Marines, manned helicopters, aerial drones and surface-skimming robots.
One oceangoing robot on the drawing board is a quiet, sonar-equipped sub-chaser, which alone has the potential to deter China’s fast-growing, carrier-threatening submarine fleet. If this bot ever makes it into service aboard the LCS, critics might forget they once hated the cheap, lightweight near-shore warship.