Littoral Combat Ships- How not to buy ships


Lots of LCS news going around the last couple days. First, Undersecretary of the Navy Bob Work released a summary of the development of the program in a Naval War College report:

CDR Salamander takes his usual poke at the bear.

I don’t think one can hang this on Rumsfeld if that is part of this angle; I don’t think it is, but it can be read as such. So, in a word; no.
LCS was and is a product of senior leadership from Admirals Clark, Mullen, and especially Roughead. Without their full-throated advocacy and willing smoke screens, LCS would not have survived – for good or bad.
I enjoy this next bit as, for those who missed it, it catches perfectly the “we are smarter than everyone who came before … all is new, and don’t question by beautiful vision…” vibe that resonated throughout the Chain of Command at the time[,]

And I think he’s right. Go read his whole post, and the comments, especially the one  comment about the perils of thinking outside the box.

A fundamental conceptual flaw in the modern construct of “transformation” is its emptiness. Any idiot can “think out of the box,” as many idiots tend to be serial practitioners. But, to achieve useful out-of-box thoughts, one has to thoroughly understand ones “box” in the first place. Historically transformation thinkers, like Mahon, were professionals who had deeply studied, practiced and achieved high levels of expertise. They tend to have thoroughly decomposed and analyzed their profession and craft though broader lenses, so that possibilities were understood in context with real world constraints…

Galrahn at Information Dissemination has a scalding piece on just what  a dogs breakfast the development of the LCS program has been.

The OPNAV Report put together by Rear Admiral Samuel Perez was completed early last year and is so brutally honest about the Littoral Combat Ship the Navy can’t even release a declassified version for public consumption because it would, legitimately, be too embarrassing and likely damage the non-existent credibility of the LCS program. The OPNAV Report was exactly what the Navy asked for, an honest assessment of what is needed to fix the Littoral Combat Ship, and it turned out that honesty was also brutally ugly. God bless Rear Admiral Perez for doing a wonderful job that legitimately may actually save the Littoral Combat Ship program. Noteworthy, Rear Admiral Perez got promoted for his good work before he was sent off to the State Department where his career will likely end and no one will ever hear from him for the rest of his career. I’d love to be wrong on that last point, but historically when a Flag Officer gets sent to the State Department, it is like the Russians sending a General to command a remote barracks in Siberia.

Much to my surprise, even as he writes such a devastating post, he still comes to the conclusion that LCS is the way forward. It ain’t, but that’s an argument for another day.

USS Freedom LCS-1

There has been both a historical model for development of ships for the Navy, (cue QM’s rally cry for the return of the General Board) and a current programmatic program, under the DoD 5000 series regulations, for program management.

Prior to the advent of Robert McNamara as SecDef, for the most part, each service pursued its own procurement strategies. If the Army wanted a tank, it designed a tank (or contracted someone to do it for them). The Air Force didn’t feel the need to consult the Army or the Navy when laying out the specifications for a new bomber.  And of course, the Navy thought it best knew what characteristics any new ship should have.

McNamara is famous for forcing the services to find commonality across platforms with checkered success. Nudging the Air Force to buy the F-4 Phantom and the A-7 Corsair worked out pretty well. But trying to cram two entirely different mission sets into the TFX led to the F-111 fiasco.

But more than just forcing the services to cooperate on particular platforms, he effectively rescinded service authority to manage weapons systems procurement. If the Air Force wanted to buy a new plane, it had to justify to the Office of SecDef (OSD) the role and mission of the plane, and explain why that role and mission should be an Air Force role. For a notional example, should the Air Force have bought the A-10 as a close air support platform, or would that money have been better spent on tube and rocket artillery or other weapons for the Army?  The point being, before any major procurement program began, the services had to explain what role or mission they needed to fulfill, what were the best alternatives to fulfilling that role, what was the best platform needed to fulfill that role, and explain how they intended to do so.  Oversight from OSD was there to provide some rationality, and to avoid duplication of effort, and theoretically impose some joint interoperability at the same time. Over the years, this process has been codified into law.

While this leads to a good deal of bureaucratic complexity, it’s not an unalloyed evil, either. The process tends to keep some semblance of rationality in the process. Benchmarks for capability and cost can be reasonably forecast and thus provide feedback on the health of the program.

Sadly, in the case of the Littoral Combat Ship, all this went out the window. Read the embedded article by Under Secretary Work, and you’ll see that the LCS outside the mainstream process took place with little outside “red teaming” of the concept.  Originally the LCS concept was sold as almost a technology demonstrator. It was, as such, a very high risk program. Virtually every part of the program was untried. New hull forms, construction standards and techniques, new combat systems, new manning and deployment concepts, new “mission modules” that are being developed concurrently (every one of which appears to be in utter disarray).  And yet, somehow, a technology demonstration program suddenly became the centerpiece of the next generation of small(ish) surface combatants.

At the same time, the US Navy is facing block obsolescence of several platforms. The FFG-7 OHP frigates are tired and due for replacement. The Navy’s small (and shrinking) fleet of mine countermeasure ships is increasingly unable to support the needs of the fleet. The small number of Navy PC class ships, designed to support special operations forces, are worn out, and overworked.  And so the LCS, which were sold as a new concept in fleet operations, evolved into the replacement for these ships. And it isn’t even a jack of all trades, let alone master of none. It’s more like the 3 of clubs.

CDR Salamander above says not to lay the blame at Rumsfeld’s feet. Well, to be honest, I do, for once, “Blame Bush!”  With the Bush Administration focused on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, he and Rumsfeld paid scant attention to the Navy’s shipbuilding program. They gave a generous amount to the Navy’s Shipbuilding Construction and Repair budget, and pretty much left the Navy up to its own devices after that. Little strategic guidance about what fleet numbers, composition, roles, and missions should be. Even less oversight was given to ship characteristics.  With little oversight from the normal DoD 5000 process, successive senior uniformed leadership, particularly CNOs, had excessive influence on the development of the LCS program, and were able to shout down complaints and concerns from other folks, particularly the end users of the eventual LCS ships.

Galrahn wants to look forward with the LCS program. And to some extent, yeah, the Navy better figure out what they’ll do with LCS, because like it or not, it’s coming.

But we also need to look back to see how this mess happened to avoid repeating the mistaken process that brought the Navy to this point.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Littoral Combat Ships- How not to buy ships

  1. Bring back the General Board!

    Happy now?

    I think you’re right to blame Booooosh on the little crappy ship. Not properly supervising Mullen and Bonehead led to this nonsense (can we require them to write a military letter on failure to supervise? hey, it worked in Warrant Ossifer Flight when the TACs wanted to gig us for something). IN the end, I’m not sure it’s going to matter. We aren’t going to have the money to buy them in the near future, or deploy them.

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