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20 years later, the Navy says its littoral combat ships (kind of) work

Two decades after Congress started pouring money into the Littoral Combat Ship program, it is finally “on trend to meet design requirements” established under then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the Navy told Congress in a recent report.

The staggering gap between the start of the program and the Navy finally managing to get its once-touted mission modules to work reflects 20 years of broken promises as the service continued to insist that it would get the program right, but continued to fail year after year.

The 15-page update on the troubled program, which has not been previously reported, was sent to the Hill in June and recently obtained by POLITICO.

“The LCS is on trend to meet design requirements for the [mine counter measures] and [surface warfare] missions as they were established ~20 years ago,” the report states. “At issue is the warfighting contribution those capabilities will provide in a changed strategic environment.”

The two classes of littoral combat ships, as envisioned 20 years ago, were meant to be lightly armed, shore-hugging vessels built to carry “plug-and-play” modules that could be swapped out for various missions, such as hunting mines and fighting off small boats. They were meant to be cheap — and have a small crew.

After a series of design failures, cost overruns and mission changes, now the Navy is saying that the scaled-down ambitions for the program are beginning to be met, albeit years late.

A look at the numbers shows that while the two mission packages appear to work, only the surface warfare module has actually deployed, while the minehunting module is still a work in progress but appears functional.

The Navy wants to keep just 21 littoral combat ships overall, a far cry from the 50-plus ships it planned in the early 2000s. Those surviving ships will include six Freedom-class hulls built by Fincantieri Marinette Marine in Wisconsin that will feature the surface warfare package, and 15 Independence-class ships built by Austal USA in Alabama equipped with the mine countermeasures technologies — a technology that has yet to deploy.

There is still plenty of anger on Capitol Hill over a program that promised so much and has delivered so little.

“We all know what lemon cars are. We have a fleet of lemon LCS ships,” Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing last month, while displaying a poster depicting the LCS as lemons.

“We have spent billions of dollars on this fleet when they have no capability to help us deal with what our largest threat is, which is that of China and Russia,” she said. “The only winners have been the contractors on which the Navy relies for sustaining these ships.”

It is difficult to add up all the money the Navy has spent on the LCS program, but the current ships are coming in at close to half a billion dollars each, almost double the early promises that pegged the ships at about $250 million apiece.

The issues with the LCS started at its inception, when the Navy moved so fast that it didn’t do detailed planning on what the ships should be, or how they would be employed, until after Congress began appropriating money. But the program charged ahead.

“The vendors didn’t stand up and say, ‘We can’t do it. We won’t do it,’” said Bryan Clark, a retired naval officer and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. The industry agreed to all of the Navy’s vague plans for the ship, and never said, “We’re not going to do this, we’re not going to sign up to do this because in the end you’re gonna blame us. They didn’t do that,” Clark said.

In the end, the shipbuilders followed the Navy’s demands for a new design that was revolutionary, not evolutionary, following the dictates of Rumsfeld who wanted a slew of new, untested technologies to be installed on the LCS. And he wanted them quickly.

“The Navy got the ship it asked for,” said Bob Work, the Pentagon’s No. 2 civilian in the Obama administration, where he oversaw the department’s most ambitious modernization programs, including the LCS. “The Navy got that ship, it’s just all of the other things that would make the ship operate in the fleet were never really worked out, so it just had problem after problem after problem.”

The issues the ship has faced — cracked hulls, broken equipment and technologies that simply didn’t work — follow from the Navy’s original demands for a cheap, technologically advanced ship built quickly without much testing or analysis.

The program has been hanging around so long that the world in which it was conceived — a focus on counterterrorism in the Middle East with no major competitor in the open ocean — is now gone. China has since emerged as a naval superpower, and Russia has managed to rebuild parts of its navy, in particular its submarine fleet.

“LCS has military value,” the report insists, while acknowledging that “it has less military value than other platforms if employed in a high-end fight with China, in the Pacific.”

In May, the program suffered a Nunn-McCurdy breach when its anti-submarine module was canceled in the fiscal 2023 budget submission. The breach refers to legislation that requires the Pentagon to notify Congress when a program’s cost estimates shoot higher than the predetermined baselines.

Canceling the submarine hunting module led to increased costs across the remaining two modules, making the overall cost skyrocket.

The submarine-hunting mission will instead be handled by the service’s new Constellation-class frigate program, which is slated to begin construction this year.

The surface warfare module is aimed at stopping small boats and other seaborne threats, using Longbow Hellfire missiles, several deck-mounted machine guns, drones, and a software package to help plan missions.

The mine-hunting package includes MQ-8B Firescout drones, MH-60 helicopters, and sonar systems to detect sea mines.

Overall, the Navy’s plans call for keeping a fleet of 21 littoral combat ships spread across two classes, Freedom and Independence, with 15 performing the mine-hunting mission, and six outfitted with the surface warfare module.

The Navy is trying to retire nine littoral combat ships as part of its 2023 budget submission, but Congress appears intent on blocking the early retirement of five of those ships.

There have been some improvements in the ship’s ability to defend itself. Five littoral combat ships are equipped with Naval Strike Missile launchers, giving the class a medium-range surface-to-surface strike capability. A total of 13 ships will be equipped with the weapon in the coming years.

The ships are also moving away from the contractor-based maintenance approach that has slowed down both classes’ ability to be repaired while underway, the report says. Sailors are doing about 40 percent of the preventative maintenance work while deployed, a percentage that is expected to increase to 65 percent by October.

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