Representative Duncan D. Hunter is taking aim at the Navy’s increasingly expensive Littoral Combat Ship program. In a letter to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, the Republican from California’s 52nd district (which he took over from his father, Duncan Hunter), is demanding the Navy conduct a formal review of the program.
To give a brief-ish recap of the problems associated with the LCS, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued several reports detailing both technical problems and cost overruns. In March 2005, the GAO said that the Navy was moving too fast with its LCS program to ensure that necessary technology reached sufficient maturity. In other words, development of the platform was going ahead without making sure that the ships would function as promised.
There have also been serious doubts about whether the LCS will be able to replace existing platforms. One of the major advantages with the LCS has been its modular design, meaning the ship can be customized with modular packages to conduct a wide array of missions. In October 2007, the GAO noted that “operation of mine countermeasures systems is currently expected to exceed the personnel allowances of the ship.”
Over the past few years, there have also been large cost overruns. As Hunter notes in his letter, the cost of the ship has doubled from $220 million to $480 million per unit. The GAO has repeatedly warned against rushing the program, and as late as February 2010, the GAO criticized the Navy for lackluster cost estimates, which made it difficult for decision-makers to assess how expensive the program will become.
Despite being in development for over six years, the platform is still far from done. In August of same year, the GAO warned that the Navy was going ahead with the third and fourth LCS seaframes, despite the fact that technical issues with the first two seaframes were not yet fully resolved.
In the letter, made public by Politico, Representative Hunter says that despite this long and torturous history of technical problems and cost overruns, the program has been kept alive for political reasons:
“Instead of enacting proper oversight of this program and development of the ship design, the Navy was concerned with appeasing Congress and what has been referred to in Congressional hearings as “industrial base stabilization.” While it is important to ensure that we have a viable industrial base, we must not make hasty decisions that are not fiscally and strategically sound. Regrettably, this has led to a toxic environment where the Navy needed to contract to build more ships at a faster rate despite major technical design flaws. Furthermore, Congress was just as complicit in this failed program when it approved the dual award acquisitions strategy knowing the risks identified by the GAO.”
Knowingly or not, Representative Hunter is implicitly attacking the military-industrial complex. Showing himself to be a real conservative, Hunter goes to the heart of today’s problem with profligate military spending, namely that expensive procurement programs have become a means in and of itself. Billions of dollars are spent merely to sustain industry, and strategic needs are of secondary concern.
Because the fundamental question here is, what is the Littoral Combat Ship’s mission? Perhaps it is too obvious to mention, but the LCS’ mission is inextricably linked to its physical attributes. Because of its relatively smaller surface, it can more easily access shallow waters (i.e. parts of the sea and rivers close to the shore) than larger ships. This is useful if you want to fight smaller threats, operating close to land. As mentioned above, its modular design also makes the ship more customizable.
The main argument though, according to the Navy, is that the LCS will make the U.S. fleet more adaptable and better at handling a wide variety of threats (as opposed to the large carrier groups who are primarily built to battle peer opponents or dominate an area). It all sounds perfectly reasonable, except the stated use of the LCS does not match current and near future naval power needs. Yes, asymmetrical threats do exist, but is the potential threat so big it requires such a substantial investment (according to the most recently available Selected Acquisition Report, the entire program is currently estimated to cost just over $37 billion for a total of 55 ships, though this includes RDT&E)? That seems like an awfully high price for such a limited mission.
Another issue with the LCS is what it says, or assumes, about the U.S. Navy’s role in the world. While it might not be the on purpose, the size of the LCS program signals an intention to patrol the world, chasing down pirates and smugglers. Given the domestic political climate, this seems slightly puzzling. It is also a needless distraction from much more important strategic concerns, such as the threat of some state blocking the Sea Lines of Communication in the Indian Ocean or China and a U.S. ally coming to blows in the South China Sea over a territorial dispute. This is not to say that the United States needs, or should, maintain dominance over these waters, but it needs to maintain the capability to project force. The LCS is not capable of such tasks, except maybe in a support role such as sweeping for mines. Even then, it is still uncertain whether the LCS can take over the task of existing, specialized platforms. With so many doubts associated with the program, Representative Hunter is correct in demanding a formal review, one based on real capabilities, cost and mission-suitability, and not how many jobs it can provide in key Congressional districts.
Edit: If the problems above weren’t bad enough, one of the ships now in use appears to be disintegrating.