Two pieces of news about the LCS program have appeared of late which highlight just how fundamentally flawed the program was.
The first piece of news was the announcement by the Navy that they are retiring the first four LCS after just a few years of service.(2) Well, let’s be honest … it was just a few years of non-service since they never had functional modules and never conducted any useful deployments.
The second piece of news was the announcement that the USS Detroit is being towed back to port due to various mechanical failures including the problem-plagued combining gear which has sidelined almost every LCS that has put to sea.(1)
This program was so badly conceived and executed that the list of lessons are nearly endless. However, I want to focus on two closely related lessons: concurrency and prototypes. The lessons from this failed program regarding concurrency (the practice of simultaneous development and construction) and prototypes are stunning in their magnitude and simplicity and yet the Navy continues to repeatedly and fully embrace those failed practices. For those readers from Navy command levels, you can stop reading now because you’re just going to continue attempting concurrency so there’s nothing for you to learn, here. For all the rest of you, let’s continue on and learn something about the impact of concurrency and, specifically, its impact on prototyping.
As you recall, the Navy committed to a run of 55 LCS ships before the design was even complete; possibly before it was even begun! Construction of the first two – arguably – four LCS was well underway before the ship designs and construction blueprints were finalized. Every organization that has ever looked at the practice of concurrency has condemned it as extremely poor practice that inevitably results in higher costs and failed products.
For those who may not be familiar with concurrency and the problems it causes, I’ll offer the following brief description.
The problem is that as the concurrent development proceeds, changes in product design are inevitably required. Because construction has already begun and completed products have been produced, the newly identified changes have to be back-fit into the under-construction or already produced products which greatly increases costs ( building and then rebuilding - paying twice for the same product, in essence) and, in the extreme such as the F-35, the result is products that can’t be updated with the required changes or the updates are prohibitively expensive. As the concurrent development continues and the current production design drifts farther and farther from the original products, the early products are rendered ‘orphans’ – non-standard, unfixable, and unusable.
On a related note, the LCS program is hardly alone in attempting, and failing, at concurrency. The F-35 program, for example, has reportedly produced two or three hundred aircraft that are now concurrency orphans that the military has deemed too expensive or too difficult to upgrade. These aircraft will be shuffled aside and left to rot – a few, perhaps, used for training purposes. Another example is the Ford program which attempted to build a carrier while simultaneously developing new technologies such as EMALS, AAG, and weapon elevators, none of which yet work as intended. Undeterred, even now, by the lack of functioning EMALS, AAG, and elevators the Navy has already committed to more Fords!
Returning to the LCS, let’s take a look at the four LCS the Navy is throwing away. LCS-1,-2,-3,-4 are being retired after just a few years because the Navy states that they are so non-standard that upgrading them to meet the current LCS norms would be cost-prohibitive. For all practical purposes, the first four LCS were prototypes even though the Navy never referred to them as such until just now as they attempt to justify throwing away essentially brand new ships.
|Four LCS Headed for the Scrap Heap|
Now, let’s consider what a prototype is and why prototypes are built.
A prototype is a first of its kind. As such, it is expected that it will have flaws and problems. Indeed, that is the purpose of a prototype: to find and fix design and construction problems so that subsequent versions can be improved. The very concept of a prototype implies a cycle of one-off production, fixes and learning of lessons, and then feeding the changes back into the next version. Prototyping is a cyclical process: build, learn, feed lessons back into the process. The Navy, however, defied all conventional wisdom and opted not to wait for the first LCS prototype to be wrung out and debugged. Instead, the Navy plunged into full production without delay. The result was that the prototypes failed to serve their purpose. They didn’t identify problems for correction in the subsequent ships. Instead, the subsequent ships were built with the same problems as the prototypes. This is why the USS Detroit, the 7th LCS and the 4th Freedom class ship, is being towed back to port with a broken combining gear – the same broken combing gear that plagued the prototypes and every other LCS. The lessons of the failed combining gear in the prototype LCS-1 were not passed on to the rest of the production run because the run was already well along before any lessons could be learned.
What is the point of building a prototype if you don’t wait for the lessons to be learned?
The result of this incredible mismanagement is that the Navy is throwing away 4 prototypes. This is also why you don’t build two different versions of the same ship: it doubles your prototypes and doubles your wastage! It’s one thing to throw away a prototype of, say, a pump but it’s another when the prototype is a complete ship that costs nearly $800M as the first few LCS did. When the prototype is that expensive, you really, really, really, want to take full advantage of the prototype concept and learn all the lessons you can before building the next ship. Of course, the Navy did not do that and now winds up throwing away $2.4B or so of useless ships. The LCS prototypes failed to serve their purpose.
What did the rush to get LCS hulls in the water accomplish? There have been no significant deployments and certainly none with a fully functioning module. The ships have wound up sitting pier side. They accomplished nothing. There was plenty of time. The prototype process could have played out with no detrimental effects and the Navy would have gotten functioning, debugged ships – well, to the extent that an LCS can be considered functioning given that they still have no modules and have myriad inherent design and structural flaws.
The purpose of prototypes is to find and wring out the problems before the subsequent ships are built. Because of concurrency, the prototypes wound up serving no purpose.
(1)Defense News website, “Littoral combat ship Detroit is being towed into port after another engineering failure”, David B. Larter, 7-Nov-2020,
(2)Defense News website, “US Navy’s first 4 littoral combat ships to leave the fleet in 9 months”, David B. Larter, 1-Jul-2020,