The LCS ‘snowball’ may now be unstoppable

The New York Times discovers LCS and finds that despite its hurdles and weaknesses, the program is probably here to stay.

Millions of Americans learned about the Navy’s littoral combat ship program for the first time Friday, when the New York Times featured it in its occasional toe-dip into the defense game, “The Next War.”

These moments are always bittersweet for trade hacks and others inside the defense bubble, who feel a combination of joy that something from their arcane world has escaped into the wider consciousness, but also frustration that there isn’t more depth, more detail or more context.

Still, the Times has magical powers. Back in the day, even though others had reported before on the problems with the Coast Guard’s “Deepwater” modernization program, the Times’ coverage suddenly brought an avalanche of attention and oversight. The same lawmakers who had been nodding sleepily at whatever the Coast Guard wanted suddenly went into full “Clear and Present Danger,” pounding their fists and demanding ANSWERS, admiral!

It’s too soon to tell whether Friday’s story will have that same effect, but even if it does, the report itself makes clear that LCS is probably here to stay. (Much as the Coast Guard wound up keeping much of its modernization portfolio.) As we’ve observed before, the Navy’s parallel ship strategy guarantees two semi-overlapping constituencies in Congress that keep half an eye on each other’s back as they also defend their own turf. But for as much as the LCS Caucus cares about the ships, it apparently isn’t nearly as interested in the mission modules, and they are the next big hurdle for the Navy realizing its onetime vision.

The Times’ Elisabeth Bumiller writes that the littoral combat ship USS Independence has been testing mine-hunting equipment that sometimes mistakes flashes of light on the surface for mines underwater. And although she mentions the USS Freedom is supposed to “deploy” next year to Singapore, she does not mention that that Navy wanted it to take a “demonstration module,” because its actual equipment isn’t ready. The Navy may not be able to field actual mission equipment — and thus may not be able to do an actual LCS deployment — until 2017.

That is approximately when the Avenger-class minesweepers are slated to leave the fleet, theoretically making it all the more important that LCS be ready to assume the surface force’s mine countermeasures role. What will actually happen, however, is probably up in the air, as the dates for operational capability and deployments in numbers remain fuzzy.

(Bumiller writes that the Independence “could be ready by 2014,” even though it was commissioned in January 2010 and has been on “trials” of various kinds since before that.)

The bottom line is that despite all the delays and overruns and griping, LCS is happening. The Navy believes in its ship 110 percent and it is going to persevere. It’s a critical piece of the fleet’s goal to reach 313 300 ships, which is important because Quantity Has A Quality All Its Own.

Wrote Bumiller:

“It’s one of those things that once the snowball goes down the hill, it just keeps rolling,” said Representative Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who has been one of the ship’s biggest critics but said he was bowing to the inevitable. “The Navy likes it. There’s no way I’m going to stop it.”

That’s in spite of opponents’ objections, as she partly describes here:

As for the ship’s ability to survive in a combat environment, missiles could more easily penetrate its hull and do more damage than to a larger, more powerful ship. It also has fewer and far less sophisticated defenses. Still, the Navy argues that it will be heavily armed with guns and missiles and will operate in hostile waters, like the Persian Gulf, only with larger ships nearby.

“If you use smart tactics, techniques and procedures, we believe the ship is survivable,” [Undersecretary of the Navy Robert] Work said, making an argument that Mr. Hunter, the congressman, finds specious.

If seven Iranian attack boats should come at the new ship, Mr. Hunter said, “it backs away, it can’t take any major hits.” In short, he said, “it’s not going to stand there and trade punches with anybody.”

The absurdity in this exchange is delicious: Hunter has said he wants to replace LCS with M-Ship’s M80 Stiletto, a much smaller carbon fiber vessel the Navy has experimented with. It’s 60 tons, as compared to LCS’ roughly 3,000 tons. Hunter’s argument is that Stiletto is “stealthier,” but in terms of the combat power he says he values here, the Stiletto makes LCS look like the battleship Yamato by comparison.

Moreover, did you notice how Work said that if an LCS commander followed the right TTPs, her ship would be “survivable?” Not “successful;” not “victorious” — just that it might remain afloat.  He’s certainly right, as far as it goes, and there’s a case to be made that it’s unfair to put an LCS into theoretical combat scenarios for which it wasn’t designed — no one argues an Air Force C-17 should be able to out-duel a MiG 29. The Navy, however, has only itself to blame: It persists with “combat” in the name, and long said it would be an antidote to the small boat threat. As of now, that only applies to small boats that can’t fight back.

LCS has an F-35-style perception problem: It needs to do something — anything — to show it can succeed as a naval warship and move past being a bad acquisitions story. The problem is that even though the Navy’s LCS crews comprise some of the smartest, best-qualified and most senior sailors in the surface force, they may have to languish for many more years before they can answer all the talk about their ships with action.