SAS12: The Navy’s happy warrior strikes back

The undersecretary of the Navy takes on critics of LCS -- again -- as the program's most vocal champion.

Undersecretary of the Navy Robert Work sounded like a human being, not a trade show rack card, in his latest impassioned defense of the littoral combat ship on Wednesday:

“It is a WAR-ship,” he said. “A WAR-ship. It is going to make every [small attack craft] out there worry about coming out to sea, because it will kick their ASS — and you can quote me on that.”

Work is the only person in the Navy Department with the expertise and passion to say such things. The few others who speak about LCS usually just rely on talking points, when they talk at all, either disconnected from or apprehensive of the vein of deep skepticism that still persists about the Navy’s signature surface warfare program.

Not Work.

“I follow all the blogs like everyone else. I’ve heard all the arguments. I know all the skeptics,” he said.

Work tried (again) to allay worry about LCS’ endurance in the Pacific — when the ships are running on their diesels at normal speed, he said, they’ll be comparable to today’s frigates. Work offered his belief that LCS’ novel crewing model, in which smaller teams of veteran sailors share hulls, can work just fine; the Australians do something similar with their patrol craft, he said. And if the Navy needs to change the crewing or other arrangements on LCS by the time it gets into the fleet, it will, ya jerks.

“We’re not stupid — we’ll make that damn change if we need to,” he said.

The fleet has already made one concession: Work said LCS is now projected for four-month deployments, as opposed to the standard six month cruises for the rest of the surface force. The whole point of the ships is that they’re flexible, so the Navy needs to get its run of 55, play with them and not be afraid because they don’t look like anything the fleet has had before, he argued.

Work said the resistance to LCS reminded him of what people said about the Navy’s plan to convert its first four Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines to carry conventional cruise missiles and large teams of SEAL special operators.

“I can’t tell you how many people told me, ‘We have too many Tomahawk hulls, that’s a waste of money, don’t buy that ship. But they didn’t understand the fleet design decision … and now the COCOMs can’t get enough of the SSGNs.”

Unlike the SSGNs, however, LCS is still years away from operational relevance, and Work’s biggest accomplishment Wednesday may have been to make its future roles so murky as to free the Navy from any actual expectations for its performance.

Navy officials have characterized LCS every way you can imagine: Sometimes it’s a low-end, “non-survivable” baby ship that will take the place of the frigates visiting sleepy African and South American ports to play patty cake with the locals. Sometimes it’s as a “WAR-ship!” as Work put it, that will screen the strike group hunting enemy subs; clear mines better than today’s minesweepers, and do who knows what other missions with its ever-growing utility belt of mission equipment.

Work said that when Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert talked about LCS not being “survivable,” he only meant it wouldn’t be survival “in the strait” — though Work didn’t say which — in a time of war.

“But it’s not going into the straits. The only thing that could survive in the straits if a war started would be a submarine.”

Then Work said LCS also would “escort combat logistics force ships.”  Those ships, the oilers and supply vessels that keep Navy strike groups fueled, fed and ready, are some of the biggest targets in the fleet. So would assigning LCSes to them make them more or less safe?

Things got even more confusing: Work said the Navy wouldn’t send a cruiser on goodwill or partnership-building missions to South America; an LCS would go instead. Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mark Ferguson said LCS would free up destroyers from having to do anti-piracy and counter-narcotics patrols. But the Navy seldom uses Aegis ships for those missions today — the frigates take them. But LCS isn’t a frigate — the Navy didn’t want a frigate. (“The National Patrol Frigate is a great ship — for the U.S. Coast Guard,” Work said Wednesday.) But Work says most of the time LCS will cruise on its diesels, not tear up the ocean at the 40 knots it was built for. So why did the Navy need LCS?

Work’s latest defense of LCS makes plain that the service has decided to make do with a program too far along to change or cancel, but which does not have clearly defined roles and missions for the future. LCS won’t make a real deployment until 2017 or beyond. That the Navy has already decided to make them four months, as opposed to six, is an early concession that the brass may already feel limited by its need to accommodate the ships it is inheriting.

Work is a true believer, though, and he said he remained confident the program would work as advertised: “We have to prove it. There are a lot of skeptics, so we have to get out to the fleet and we have to show it.”