The recent back and forth about whether the Navy’s 52 ship buy of the LCS will be terminated early raises the question, why is the Navy so determined to keep building the LCS?
By now, even the most ardent and blind supporter of the LCS acknowledges that the LCS did not turn out the way it was hoped. The magic modules never panned out and even a bare minimum module is still years away. The ship is acknowledged by the Navy to require the protection of an Aegis ship to have any hope of survival in a combat zone. The vessel has no credible offensive capability, little defensive capability, and is not survivable in the event of a hit. I won’t go on with a litany of problems because they’re well known and that’s not the point of this post.
The question is, against the backdrop of all that evidence of a failed program, if not concept, why is the Navy still adamant about continuing to build these failures? Common sense would suggest that the Navy would use the recent “termination” memo as cover, acquiesce grudgingly (to demonstrate that they were right all along but are being forced into termination by circumstances outside their control – a PR move to save face), and eagerly move forward with the next generation of “new and improved” LCS utilizing the lessons learned. And yet, they’re not. Is this just stupidity on an almost unimaginable scale? Is it hubris beyond belief? Is it incompetence of monumental proportions?
Or, is it something else?
I have no inside information so what follows is pure speculation.
I think the answer to the previous questions is, yes, to all. Navy leadership is stupid, arrogant, and incompetent. However, I think under that layer is an actual perceived need for the LCS in two of its roles: MCM and ASW. I think the Navy recognizes that the ASuW role is pointless barring the development of some seriously improved weaponry.
ASW, on the other hand, is an existing weakness. The LCS could be a competent, though not great, ASW platform with suitable modifications. We’ve talked about some of the needs to be successful in this role: a short-tailed array, variable depth sonar, on-board torpedo launcher, ASROC, rapid response depth charge (Hedgehog-ish type or Russian RBU), dipping sonar, etc. The ship has some shortcomings that either can’t be overcome or would require extensive redesign: inability to carry hull-mounted sonar due to self-noise and lack of quieting being the main culprits. Still, the ship could be a competent ASW platform and the equipment required to achieve that level of performance are the least risky of the various pieces of equipment being developed for any of the modules.
MCM is an even more pressing need and here lies, probably, the main rationale for continued production. The Navy bet all-in on the LCS as the MCM platform of the future, allowing the existing MCM ships to degrade and retire. The only other option at this point is to start over on a new MCM platform. On the plus side, the LCS is fairly well suited for MCM, assuming the various off-board, remote vehicles eventually pan out. The ship itself is fairly well designed to launch and recover vehicles although the actual launch/recovery equipment seems to have been designed as a pre-school class project. That, however, is a fairly easy fix. The LCS also offers the possibility of being able to provide at least a small amount of self-defense during the MCM activity which is a key requirement. MCM work is going to take place in contested waters and a minimum level of self-defense will come in very handy.
I think even the Navy realizes that all the other lofty claims for the LCS are dead but the MCM, and to a lesser degree, the ASW versions offer a valid, if less than optimal, use for the LCS. Of course, if this is the case, we should see an accompanying shift in the planned module procurement quantities to emphasize the MCM and ASW modules and eliminate or de-emphasize the ASuW. Further, it would make more sense to stop building the LCS as modular and shift to dedicated vessels with a single function, either the MCM or ASW, and allow the ships to be optimized to the degree possible.
Also troubling is the realization that, regardless of the rationale, the LCS is someday going to make up a third of the combat fleet if the full 52 vessel buy is pursued to completion. When a third of the battle fleet is MCM and ASW vessels, you’ve got a problem.
As I said, the preceding was pure (though quite logical) speculation on my part. At least this line of thought offers some valid rationale for the Navy’s continued pursuit of the LCS. Is this what the Navy is actually thinking? I don’t know but the alternative is incompetence beyond belief.