A new Congressional report suggests the Pentagon may face further scrutiny over its direction to issue no new contracts for the controversial Littoral Combat Ship program beyond 32 ships.
The August report questions whether the Pentagon did the proper analysis before making the decision to truncate the Navy’s planned buy of 52 ships down to 32.
The LCS vessels are currently being procured under a 2010, 10-ship deal with each of the two contractors — the Lockheed design is a steel semi-planing monohull and the General Dynamics/Austal USA design is an all-aluminum trimaran hull.
Designed for shallow-water multi-mission assignments such as countermine warfare, surface warfare and anti-submarine warfare, the LCS has been criticized for not being sufficiently survivable to meet current and future threats.
Advocates have countered that the ships high-tech “mission-packages” or groups of technologies and 40-knot speed will enable it so succeed in a variety of high-threat scenarios. Furthermore, officials maintain that the ship is not intended to function like an open water or deep water destroyer in terms of survivability but rather serve in littoral areas with different kinds of near-shore threats.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced this past February that the Pentagon would offer no new contracts for the LCS platform beyond 32 ships. The report seems to ask for analytical justification for this decision.
“Has DOD conducted a formal analysis to show that the Navy now needs only 32 LCSs to provide sufficient capacity for fully addressing the fleet’s requirements in these three mission areas? What are the potential operational implications of attempting to perform these missions with a Navy that includes 32 rather than 52 LCSs?” the report asks.
In response to Hagel’s directive, the Navy has formed a special Small Surface Combatant Task Force designed to examine the needed requirements and available technologies sufficient for a new ship to replace the last 20-planned LCS vessels. Navy officials said the task force has completed the first segment of its work but has yet to announce any findings regarding what their deliberations might mean for the development of a new ship.
In addition, the report mentions Hagel’s announcement directing the Navy to examine potential alternatives for a new small surface combatant generally consistent with the characteristics of a frigate. The report asks about whether there is an existing requirement for such a ship in light of anticipated mission needs.
“Has DOD performed a new analysis of mission needs to identify what capability gaps the Navy might need to address through a new shipbuilding program? If not, then how can DOD know that it needs a new ship generally consistent with the capabilities of a frigate? Where is the properly validated requirement for such a ship?” the report asks.
The report questions the rationale informing why the Pentagon said the new ship would need to be generally consistent with a Frigate and wonders if there is sufficient analysis to inform the decision.
Overall, the report says that the LCS program could have benefitted from more rigorous analysis on specific mission needs at its inception prior to 2001 and highlights a handful of strengths and weaknesses of the platform.
The report criticizes the cost growth of the LCS sea frames, saying they have turned out to be much more expensive to procure than the original target of $220 million each in constant
fiscal year 2005 dollars. Some of the LCS missions could be successfully performed in a more cost-effective manner by other platforms such as Joint High Speed Vessels, amphibious ships, cruisers, destroyers and attack submarines, the report says.
“There are alternative and potentially more cost effective ways to perform the LCSs’ three primary missions of countering mines, small boats, and diesel-electric submarines, particularly in littoral waters,” the report states. “Possibilities include extending the service lives of existing mine warfare ships and mine warfare helicopters, equipping cruisers and destroyers — and their embarked helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles — with small anti-ship weapons for countering small boats and using anti-submarine aircraft as well as attack submarines.”
The report also echoes some of the survivability concerns expressed by critics of the LCS platform, claiming that the LCS does not compare well against frigate and corvette designs used by other navies.
While the report does say the LCS anti-submarine warfare package is potentially well-suited to counter diesel-electric submarines far from shore and in littoral waters, it criticizes the platform for not being optimized to address Chinese maritime threats such as anti-ship cruise missiles and larger surface ships.
The high-speed surface warfare and anti-submarine warfare capabilities of the LCS mission packages’ technology could prove effective, to some extent, against Iran’s small boat, mine and submarine threat, the report adds. The LCS is also likely to be effective in anti-piracy operations, the report claims.
The report also questions the Navy’s fiscal year 2015 budget decision to purchase three ships for the year instead of four.
On this question, the report wonders how will the Navy decide which of the two contractors’ respective designs – Lockheed or General Dynamics/Austal USA – to use for a two-ship buy instead of sticking with the previous plan to purchase two ships of each model in the year 2015.