LCS: History's Judgement Looms

pixie dust leavened with unicorn farts

The historical reckoning of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) that members of the Front Porch knew was coming since we started ringing the bell in 2004 is finally being written. 

New scholarship continues to come forward with a fresh look in investigating the causes of and lessons from the LCS program. 

There are firm lessons not just on how to run or not run a program, but also how perverse incentives hard wired in to our politics, acquisitions programs, and … yes … culture enabled abuse and wholesale institutional failure. 

Over at War on the Rocks, Emma Salisbury is doing exactly that. For those new to the LCS story – and there are many – Emma’s article is a great starting point;

Uncharitably dubbed the “little crappy ship” by its detractors, the program has faced cost overruns, delays, mechanical failures, and questions over the platforms’ survivability in high-intensity combat. Each of the 23 commissioned littoral combat ships cost around $500 million to build, with astronomical operating costs adding to the program’s hefty price tag. While the ships themselves are currently facing the prospect of decommissioning and replacement, and many will not be sad to see them go, the program has one saving grace — it offers some important lessons about the American defense industrial base.

Bingo. That is why we continue to bring LCS up. It must be an ongoing lesson for present and future program managers – and those who will design future acquisition laws/procedures – as to what not to do. 
(NB: the Front Porch of CDRSalamander claims 50.1% of the credit for popularizing “Little Crappy Ship.” Though it was first used in a post in early 2006, it was in use inside a few bespoke lifelines as early as FEB 2004 as evidenced by Bob Works CSBA article at the time.)

While close working relationships between the services, policymakers, and contractors can be beneficial, blunders like the littoral combat ship can undermine U.S. military capabilities while wasting resources that could be better used elsewhere.

Opportunity cost piled on top of opportunity cost. We lost almost two generations of naval development all because of the mindset that enabled this waste of taxpayer money interwoven with lost professional and institutional capital.

Network-centric warfare gave prominence to the idea of small, light, and fast “nodes” that connected together in conflict scenarios, and this meant that the U.S. Navy needed to move away from its traditional platforms — huge, complex, and multipurpose ships. Furthermore, network-centric warfare focused more on projecting power ashore, meaning that ships that could operate in coastal waters were required.

The seductive arrogance of NCW under its various names – so attractive as it would enable precise use of the 3,000NM screwdriver that has 4-stars second-guessing unit-level activity as opposed to doing their actual job – is a fragile pillar of whisper-thin alabaster that can barely be sustained in a benign peace. At war in a contested EW and space environment, its utility will be measured in hours and any system or CONOPS that requires its interface rendered useless.

…Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made clear that the U.S. military needed to improve its ability to tackle anti-access/area denial threats and project power in contested theaters. His office quietly informed U.S. Navy leaders that they needed to include a small surface combatant in any plans they put forward. The new chief of naval operations, Adm. Vern Clark, did just that.

Rumsfeld and Clark are the initiating force for all that followed with LCS. Accomplished men in some areas, here they were a toxic failure. Others who followed, most notably CNO’s Mullen and Roughead, just compounded this initial error of thought and execution.

A littoral combat ship would nominally have a core crew of 40 plus 15 to 20 extra for a given module, compared to a crew of around 200 for a similar-sized frigate, providing a much cheaper option when it came to crewing costs. Clark declared the littoral combat ship his top priority, and Rumsfeld approved the request’s inclusion in the Department of Defense’s budget submission for Fiscal Year 2003.

At the time, we and others warned that both the mission module and manning CONOPS would fail. There were zero successful examples – indeed real world experience was the opposite – that they would work as promised. It was all hope spot welded to pixie dust and leavened with unicorn farts.

In the summer of 2004, the House Armed Services Committee attempted to remove funding for the littoral combat ship from the FY2005 defense budget, citing a number of substantive concerns about the program: The committee continues to have concerns about the lack of a rigorous analysis of alternative concepts for performance of the LCS mission, the justification for the force structure sought by the Navy, and whether the program’s acquisition strategy is necessary to meet an urgent operational need. … [T]he committee is concerned about the Navy’s ability to resolve these issues before committing to the design for the LCS and beginning construction of the first ship.

There were smart people on The Hill who knew what was going on, but like the Front Parch, their argument at the time did not win the day.

…(in an effort) to tilt the downselect decision in their favor and to rally Congressional support for the littoral combat ship program as a whole. The company ran advertisements in newspapers and defense magazines touting their expertise and track record — including taglines like “Don’t just look at what we say. Look at what we do.” — and blanketed the metro stations serving Capitol Hill and the Pentagon with posters pushing for the littoral combat ship as a program, with slogans like “Littoral Dominance Assured.” Lockheed Martin also planned a trade-show style display in the Capitol, including scale mock-ups of the ship and its modules. The House’s threat caused a small showdown in Congress, as the Senate had voted to keep the littoral combat ship program fully funded. In the end, the congressional authorization conference committee report simply “note[d] the concerns” that Bartlett had expressed. The final spending authorization bill ended up fully funding the construction of the two littoral combat ship prototypes at a higher level than had been proposed by the U.S. Navy, the House, or the Senate in the original authorizations.

Marketing and spin works – even those laughable posters in the Metro. It all worked fine until, as we warned, these exquisite bastards born of vanity and hope started to displace water and try to deploy. By then however, retirements were complete, post-retirement gigs retained, political contributions gathered … and others were left to try to make something out of the mess.

…problems arise when the influence of the primes over policymakers leads to the acquisition of platforms that are unnecessary or simply do not work. This not only wastes money that could be better spent on other capabilities, but also impacts upon whether the United States can credibly face threats around the world. An expensive ship that cannot perform its mission does not bode well for the U.S. naval balance with China, or for America’s ability to project power and defend its interests in far-off and contested theaters.

Ignored and wished away. Compounded technology risk can and will result in a nation’s strategic risk.

Whether one believes the littoral combat ship to be an unmitigated failure or not, its beginnings exemplify the danger in placing too much emphasis on fears about the survival of the defense industrial base. While a lot has changed since 2001, it is easy to imagine the U.S. military making similar mistakes in future programs, and policymakers should beware of the ship’s example. The military-contract treadmill is still running.

Money. Ego. Status. When things go wrong, pull those threads. 
LCS had more to do with these, sadly, than it did building and maintaining the world’s greatest navy.

Cartoon credit to Masao Dahlgren.

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