Wednesday, August 3, 2011

How the Navy’s Warship of the Future Ran Aground

How the Navy’s Warship of the Future Ran Aground: "

With an enormous splash and cheers from spectators, the 378-foot-long vessel Freedom slid sideways into the Menominee River in Wisconsin. It was Sept. 23, 2006, and the U.S. Navy had just launched its first brand-new warship class in nearly 20 years.

Freedom also represented a new strategy. Where previous warships had been tailored for open-ocean warfare using guns, missiles and torpedoes, Freedom — the first so-called Littoral Combat Ship, or LCS — was designed for a new kind of coastal combat. It was smaller, more maneuverable. And instead of relying on sheer firepower, it carried few of its own weapons. Instead, it would function as a mothership for super-sophisticated robots that would do most of the ship’s fighting.

Freedom was also cheaper than older ships: just $600 million, compared to more than $1 billion for most other vessels. The Navy hoped to buy as many as 55 LCSs for around $40 billion, reversing the U.S. fleet’s steady numerical decline that began in the late 1980s.

There was so much promise invested in one “small” ship. “It comes none too soon,” Adm. Mike Mullen, then chief of naval operations, said of Freedom’s arrival, “because there are tough challenges out there that only she can handle.”

But the fanfare and Mullen’s optimism masked deep problems in the LCS program. Freedom was years late and $400 million over its original cost estimate. None of its robotic systems was ready for combat. Five years later, they still weren’t ready, preventing Freedom from undertaking any real-world missions more serious than a Caribbean drug hunt.

Meanwhile, mechanical and structural problems festered inside the ship, the symptoms of a rushed design process. In 2010 and 2011, Freedom and a sister vessel would both suffer serious maintenance failures within months of each other.

The LCS’ biggest problem, however, was conceptual. Five years and billions of dollars into the LCS program, the Navy still hadn’t figured out what the coastal combatant was really for. Today, the sailing branch is no closer to an answer. “Apart from the Navy’s inability to properly forecast how fast these ships could be built, fielded and paid for, there is a similar tone-deafness to how they will be employed,” ace naval journalist Christopher Cavas wrote.

What is the Littoral Combat Ship? Is it a heavily armed brawler meant to wade into bloody coastal battles and sacrifice itself while taking out multiple enemy missile boats? Is it a mine-clearer? A sub-hunter? A low-cost patroller ideal for slowly stalking pirates, drug runners and weapons smugglers and training alongside allied navies?

Is it a small, fast amphibious ship for slipping teams of Marines, Navy SEALs and river troops into an enemy’s coastline? Is it an ultrahigh-tech mothership for carrying diving, sea-skimming and flying robots? Is it an affordable version of the Navy’s large destroyers, meant for the export market? Is it the flagship of an industrial scheme designed to revamp American shipbuilding?

The answer is … all of these things. And none of them. The LCS has attributes suited to each of the above tasks. The problem is, some of these attributes cancel each other out — and the Navy lacks the clarity and discipline to decide which missions the LCS should keep, and which should be assigned to other ships.

The confusion over the LCS’ roles has gone on so long it has created a bizarre feedback loop, with the Navy, its shipbuilders, the Pentagon and America’s regional commanders each developing plans and technologies for the LCS based on conflicting assumptions. The result is a warship theoretically capable of almost anything, and increasingly optimized for nothing.

“The Navy risks investing in a fleet of ships that does not deliver its promised capability,” warned Ronald O’Rourke from the Congressional Research Service. But O’Rourke is being altogether too kind: The LCS is already failing to deliver, today. And the damage to the Navy, and to U.S. national security, could last for decades.


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