How many defense contractors does it take to build a ship? More specifically, how many defense contractors does it take to build a light frigate? That doesn’t leak or corrode? I don’t know the answer but the number is higher than 14 (rough count based on Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics LCS websites). Because that’s how many companies are involved in building the two different versions of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS)—a procurement program that has so many problems on so many levels it boggles the mind.
We have written about U.S. military procurement generally and the Littoral Combat Ship program specifically before, but there’s a spanking new Congressional Research Service (CRS) report out that does an admirable job laying out the sorry state of the program today. I won’t recite everything bad said about the LCS, just highlight some of the key points in the CRS report (for another terrific take on the LCS’ problems, see this story at Danger Room):
- Cost: A good indicator of the rising cost has been the increasing unit procurement cost cap put in place by the U.S. Congress. In 2006, it was first set at $220 million per-unit, plus adjustments for inflation and other factors. After several adjustments and deferrals, the cap, taking into inflation as of December 2010, equated to $538 million per-unit. In total, the 55 LCS sea frames would cost $37.4 billion (constant FY2010 dollars), including R&D, procurement and military construction. Which puts the total per-unit cost at $680 million. Adding to the lifetime cost is operation and support (O&S), which would be $50.48 billion over 25 years (constant FY2010 dollars). Per year, each LCS O&S is estimated to be $36.6 million (constant FY2010 dollars). (these numbers are all pulled from the December 2012 Selected Acquisition Report released on March 29, 2012)
- Hull integrity: This might seem like a minor issue, yet some of the troubles are jarring in the sense that the contractors and/or the Navy are struggling with very basic things. The LCS-1 has several times experienced hull cracking and engine problems, while the LCS-2 is literally (no pun intended) rusting, suffering “aggressive galvanic corrosion.” This is perhaps the most baffling part of the LCS program, at least for a non-engineer. Cracks in a weld seam and extensive rust in brand new ships are problems more fitting of a tin pot dictatorship fleet than the world’s most powerful navy.
- Combat survivability: The LCS’ mission is not taking out cruisers or destroyers. It is designed for countering small threats, operating in shallow waters. As such, it has been given a Level I survivability (the lowest of three levels). Yet despite its relatively low expectations, there remain serious doubts about what use there is for such a fragile ship.
- Modules: The LCS has three main modules, and thus missions. Those are: Mine Countermeasures (MCM), Surface Warfare (SUW) and Antisubmarine Warfare (ASW). Put simply, none of these modules are ready and won’t be for a while. The SUW module’s capabilities have been significantly reduced (going from 21 nautical miles range weapons to 3 nautical miles), the MCM can’t see or stop mines, and the ASW was put back on the drawing board in 2011 with analysis to start in 2012 and development (hopefully) starting in 2013.
These are the main issues with the procurement program today, though not the only ones (for a good list of serious questions about the program’s development, look here).
Leaving aside all the technical and administrative issues of the LCS program, the question about mission and operational utility looms large. I have (somewhat) come around to the idea of having smaller ships fighting asymmetrical threats. Swarming tactics seem to be the next hot thing in military affairs (think Iranian navy in the Persian Gulf, though technically swarming tactics are hardly new). Anti-access/area denial (A2-AD) doctrines are on the rise in Asia—partly out of necessity (strategic vulnerability) and partly out of opportunity (cheaper arms and communications technology)—which makes it perfectly logical for the U.S. navy to build part of its fleet to counter such threats. However, it is so stereotypical, bordering on caricature, for the Pentagon to do so by building overly complicated, dysfunctional platforms at a per-unit cost well over $500 million. The U.S. armed forces have at times proven quite good at improvising and moving fast in the face of new threats (see IED jamming technology, MRAPS surge in Iraq, and remote-controlled humvee guns); why it can’t do the same at sea is just bizarre. After all, shipbuilding is hardly a new enterprise.
Development issues are quite common with U.S. military procurement programs, and the LCS might not be the worst, but the extent of them combined with the mission problem makes it an obvious target for lawmakers. A bipartisan group of senators, including John McCain, tore into the program in an open letter last summer. Given belt tightening at the Pentagon, the LCS might look like an increasingly appealing target for cuts. However, Congress wants a bigger U.S. fleet (even though the Navy does not), and there aren’t many alternatives out there to beef up the numbers (relatively) cheaply.