Earlier, we looked at places where the Army could shave some program dollars out of its pie. Maybe I’m biased, but I think with FCS dead, the Army is in the best shape procurement wise. That is, I don’t see a lot of huge boondoggle, gold plated programs that should be axed. If I’m wrong, let me know.
Sadly, that’s not the case with the Navy. I can really only think of one major Navy shipbuilding program that’s even close to being well run- the Virginia class SSN’s. And I’m aghast that I can look at a program that is putting the cheap follow-on to the SSN-21 class into the water at $2 billion a pop, and call it a good deal.
But that’s about the only bright spot in the Navy combatant shipbuilding picture. The poster-child for failed shipbuilding programs is the LCS (or as it is widely derided as, “Little Crappy Ship”). What was originally conceived as a small, disposable $100 million dollar ship to fight swarms of small boats in places like the Arabian Gulf has become a bloated monstrosity at 3000 tons. It’s proponents swear it isn’t a frigate, but it is being bought in suspiciously frigate like numbers, while the current FFG-7 frigates are being retired. It is supposed to be a relatively affordable ship, but it can’t quite ever seem to come in on budget (about $604 million). Instead of buying one new type of ship, the Navy has instead decided to buy two different models of the LCS. There is absolutely no commonality between the two types. Both ships use new untested combat systems, the proposed main battery of Non-Line-Of-Sight missiles has been cancelled by the Army and its development by the Navy is uncertain. Each ship is supposedly able to be tailored for various mission by the use of plug and play modules for the Anti-Surface, Anti-Mine, and Anti-Submarine warfare roles. But none of the modules is currently ready for deployment, and the development of the modules is of course, behind schedule and over budget. That’s before we even look at the suitability of the concept of operations. What happens when you have ships deployed with the anti-surface warfare modules, but run into a minefield?
The LCS is also “optimally manned” which means they have a ridiculously small crew of 40 or so people permanently assigned, to be augmented by small teams of sailors to operate whatever modules and aviation assets are assigned. With such small crews, roughly a third the size of a normal crew for a ship this size, the routine maintenance of all the ships systems just will not get done. Several folks have done the math and found that to do the maintenance, training, and personnel qualifications needed, each crewman has to work around 28 hours a day. And since the crew is so small, the Navy’s concept is to “hand pick” the crew for these ships. The problem there is the rest of the Navy is heading to an “optimally manned” model, so everyone needs highly trained crewmen, but no one wants to take on board the basic seaman right out of the training pipeline.
When the original concept was conceived, for a much smaller $100 million ship, high speed was specified- about a 50kt top speed. That may have made some sense for a small 500 to 700 ton ship. It’s ridiculous for a 3000 ton frigate. But the requirement for ultrahigh speed has driven every other facet of the design of both models of the LCS. It has lead to the choice of hull-forms, construction materials, and powerplants. Both designs are either currently faced with powerplant and hull problems, or very shortly will be. And the huge powerplants needed to propel these ships suck up fuel at enormous rates, sharply decreasing the ships ability to stay on station. At top speed, you have less than a day’s fuel.
The Navy was so frustrated with the poor progress of the program, they said they were going to downselect from two designs to one, and then buy ten of the winner. Lo and behold, the selection team came out of their meetings and magically changed their collective mind to buying ten of each, but they pinkie swear they’re gonna get costs under control.
The other major Navy surface combatant program was so expensive and such a boondoggle that it was cut short at three ships before the first one was even started. The DDG-1000 program was initially conceived as the follow-on to the hugely successful DDG-51 Arliegh Burke class of destroyers. It turned into such a nightmare, the Navy has started DDG-51 production again just to have some ships, any ships, coming down the ways. The DDG-1000 program simply tried to have too many new technologies come to maturity all at the same time in one new program. It is going to have an entirely new hull-form, entirely new powerplant design, entirely new radar system, entirely new missile launcher system, entirely new computer and networking architecture, and entirely new gun system. All at the same price that a late model DDG-51 would cost. Sure. That’s going to happen. Oh, and did I mention it’s going to be a stealth ship? At about 14,000 tons and 700 feet long, it is feasible to actually minimize its visibility to radars. But the ship is optimized for land attack from the littoral region 50 miles off shore. How do you hide a ship that big from the thousands upon thousands of fishing vessels that are out every day and night? You can’t. All it takes to locate the ship is an eyeball and a radio.
The LPD-17 program is also a deeply flawed program. The LPD-17 class is an amphibious transport designed to put Marines ashore. Traditionally amphibious ships have been relatively cheap vessels. The LPD-17s are about a billion dollars apiece. That’s pretty damn expensive, but would be almost bearable if the damn things worked. But between an overly complex design (a titanium fire main? really?), execrable quality control during construction, and abysmal training (and “optimal manning!”) for the crews, the ships have a history of engineering failures.
While neither the Bush nor the Obama administrations have been particularly generous to Navy shipbuilding, they haven’t been especially parsimonious, either. But while successive administrations have been willing to provide sufficient funds, the Navy has squandered money, time, and trust by pursuing fatally flawed shipbuilding programs. This failure on the Navy’s part will impact our national security, and some poor sailors will pay the price with their lives.
So what should be done? Well, the problem is, all three of these programs are “too big to fail” and to keep the fleet from shrinking even further, the Navy needs ships under construction yesterday. But doubling down on stupid is a recipe for disaster. My recommendations are as follows:
LCS Replacement- Build a modernized FFG-7 class, replacing the (now removed) Mk-13/SM-1 missile system with a vertical launch Evolved Sea Sparrow System. Build 75 new hulls.
DDG-1000- Build two, use as testbeds for the next generation destroyer/cruiser program, begin design of a next generation DDG/CG program to be evolutionary, not revolutionary.
LPD-17- Cancel and replace with a modified LSD-41 platform. Make it a bare-bones platform. The LHA is the centerpiece of the Amphibious Ready Group, so minimize the duplication of capabilities as much as possible.
What are your thoughts?