The LCS that we produced looked nothing like its original war game lessons form. Instead, it developed into a hodgepodge of almost random characteristics and capabilities with no clear cut mission. Why did this happen? It was due to the lack of a Concept of Operations (CONOPS). Even the Navy eventually admitted that they didn’t have a fully developed CONOPS for the LCS when they designed it. This begs the obvious question, how can you design something that you have no concept of operations for? Well, the answer, as we saw, was that you can’t. You inevitably wind up with a product that has no purpose and isn’t an optimum fit for whatever purpose you ultimately give it.
CONOPS … This is an incredibly important point so keep it firmly in mind as you read the rest of this post.
It was no surprise, then, that the LCS was met with an avalanche of justified criticism. The Navy was relentlessly mocked and criticized. LCS detractors loudly and continually shouted about all the supposedly wonderful frigate designs in the world that we could have had instead of the LCS.
What was the Navy’s response to the failures of the program and the incessant criticism?
Was it to shut the program down? No.
Was it to conduct a thorough study of fleet needs as defined by our military strategy? No.
Was it to develop a CONOPS? No.
The Navy’s response, in 2014, was to propose a “frigate” version of the LCS to appease the critics. Again, the idea of a “frigate” LCS was born without a supporting CONOPS or analysis of needs and alternatives. Well, the Navy would claim they formed a study task force and did an analysis of alternatives but it was a pre-ordained public relations exercise which, to no one’s surprise, recommended the LCS as the basis for a new “frigate”.
Again, the mockery and criticism poured in as it became clear that the “frigate” LCS was just a slightly upgunned LCS. Congress and some high ranking military civilian leaders began to seriously question the Navy’s decision.
As all this was going on, the Navy also experienced systematic failures with the new Zumwalt and Ford programs due to the attempt to incorporate non-existent technologies. Again, to no one’s surprise but the Navy, the attempts failed and we witnessed the embarrassing spectacle of a Zumwalt with no gun and a carrier that couldn’t launch or recover aircraft and couldn’t move munitions because it was commissioned with no weapon elevators.
The Navy was becoming increasingly gun shy about new programs and new technology but were desperate to keep their budget slice intact and construction funds flowing. Their solution? Their solution was to appease critics by reopening the frigate issue once again only this time they would require that the frigate designs be based on an existing, operational ship. This, the Navy believed, would silence critics since they would, at long last, be getting the frigate they’d been clamoring for and would eliminate risk by only using existing technology. Of course, notable for its absence is any mention of a CONOPS for the new frigate or a rigorous analysis of alternatives to define what capability gaps exist and whether a frigate is even the best way to address those gaps. See, the CRS report for a summary of the issues. (1)
Clearly, the frigate’s real “mission” is to appease critics.
We see, then, that the new frigate is a knee-jerk reaction to the failure of the LCS program rather than a carefully thought out, needs-driven, CONOPS-backed, analytically based, addition to the fleet.
That brings us to today.
Setting aside the appeasement mission, what is the new frigate going to do for the Navy?
Well, it won’t gain us large numbers of cheap ASW vessels – ASW being the main role of modern frigates. Even the Navy’s cost estimates are around $1B and when was the last time a Navy cost estimate wasn’t seriously underestimated? The new frigate will most likely cost $1.5B+. This ensures that only a fairly limited number will be built.
It won’t gain us any significant improvement in AAW. We already have all the AAW we need, and then some, plus our inventory of VLS cells already far exceeds our inventory of weapons. We have nothing to put in all these new cells unless we short cells elsewhere!
This is a classic example, once again, of building a ship without a CONOPS. We have no idea what the new frigate will do or how it will contribute to the fleet’s warfighting capability. It will be a ship looking for a mission.
And, hanging over the entire issue is the likely (ComNavOps believes, certain) specter of the LCS being chosen as the basis for the new frigate, as the Navy previously did in 2014, with all the attendant and inherent flaws that the LCS brings with it. Navy leadership wanted a LCS frigate in 2014 and nothing has changed so why would the decision change?
We see, then, that ultimately the new frigate is the result of not having a CONOPS for the original LCS. Incredibly, the Navy is repeating their original mistake by failing to have a CONOPS for this ship!!!! I wonder what misguided, knee-jerk abomination will eventually be born out of this failure?
(1)Congressional Research Service, “Navy Frigate (FFG[X]) Program: Background and Issues for Congress”, Ronald O’Rourke, Oct 2018