GAME CHANGE

Navy’s Ships of the Future, Sunk

The Littoral Combat Ship was supposed to represent the future of small, fast, and flexible warships. Instead it was beset by significant flaws and questions of reliability.

12.21.15 6:00 AM ET

After years of work costing billions of dollars, the U.S. Navy is scaling back its controversial effort to build a fleet of small, speedy, flexible warships for near-shore patrols—a fleet plagued by design flaws, mismanagement and technical malfunctions.

But the Navy’s not cutting the fleet by choice—and not everyone is happy with the change. The decision to reduce the Littoral Combat Ship program from 52 ships to 40, while also building them all at one shipyard, reflects an ongoing conflict inside the Pentagon over America’s military strategy.

On one side are the advocates of what defense planners call “presence”—that is, stationing lots of inexpensive troops, planes and ships near potential hotspots in order to reassure America’s allies and ward off its enemies, theoretically preventing war without anyone firing a shot.

On the opposite side are “capability” proponents who prefer concentrating smaller numbers of more sophisticated, and thus more expensive, forces in the United States and at America’s main overseas bases, holding back these troops and weapons until an actual shooting war breaks out and the U.S. military must decisively intervene.

The ship cut is a win for the capabilities crowd—and signals a continued shift in U.S. strategy away from long-term, large-scale military deployments toward a more reserved, arguably more cautious approach to warfare.

The order to reduce the Littoral Combat Ship program came from Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, a champion of capability, in a Dec. 14 memo to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, a presence advocate.

Carter told Mabus that the sailing branch won’t be getting all of the Littoral Combat Ships it wants. “This plan reduces, somewhat, the number of LCS available for presence operations,” Carter wrote.

Instead, the Pentagon boss directed the Navy chief to take some of the roughly $5 billion the extra dozen ships would have cost and spend it on fighter jets, missiles and drones—weaponry that Carter argued would “have the necessary capabilities and posture to defeat even our most advanced potential adversaries.”

The Navy had been counting on the full 52-ship production run of small, nimble and fast Littoral Combat Ships, each crewed by a relatively small contingent of just 75 sailors, to boost the fleet’s ability to sail in shallow coastal waters, save on manpower costs and grow the fleet from today’s 282 frontline warships to a goal of more than 300 ships starting in 2019. Cutting some Littoral Combat Ships will slightly reduce the fleet’s rate of growth.

In any event, changes to the program have been a long time coming. Conceived in the 1990s, a decade of extraordinary—some would say foolish—technological ambition among military planners, the Littoral Combat Ship initiative has suffered more than its share of scandal, failure, and embarrassment.

Early on, the per-ship price doubled to around $500 million. Designing the warships took years longer than planners had predicted. And rather than selecting just one shipbuilder to actually manufacture the vessels, the Pentagon tapped two—Lockheed Martin and Austal, each producing its own, unique version of the Littoral Combat Ship. This dual construction strategy resulted in two totally different ship types each requiring their own supply chains and crew-training programs, an arguably wasteful redundancy.

Worse, when the roughly 400-foot-long ships finally began entering service in 2008, the Navy discovered serious technical shortfalls. The early ships rusted too quickly. Their main guns vibrated so much that they couldn’t shoot straight. The Navy wanted to build a bunch of plug-and-play “module” kits including different combinations of sensors and weapons, each tailored for different kinds of combat against submarines, undersea mines or other ships. But seven years after LCS 1, the Lockheed-built USS Freedom arrived at her home base in San Diego without any war-ready modules.

And even with the modules, the Littoral Combat Ships are lightly armed, each with a single 57-millimeter gun and a few short-range missiles. This spring the Navy rolled out a plan to add more missiles to some Littoral Combat Ships, but they’ll still be toothless compared to the Navy’s larger destroyers and cruisers, all of which boast a 127-millimeter gun and around a hundred long-range missiles.

The new warships are also unreliable. Today the Navy has six Littoral Combat Ships in commission. But between them, the vessels have completed just two overseas deployments in seven years. Based on recent averages, six Navy warships of any other class should, as a group, be able to complete a dozen deployments in that span of time.

The latest embarrassment occurred on Dec. 11 when USS Milwaukee, the brand-new LCS 6, broke down while sailing from Lockheed’s Wisconsin shipyard to Florida. A tugboat hauled the powerless vessel to a Navy base in Virginia for potentially weeks of repairs.

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Just three days later Carter canceled a dozen of the ships and warned that either Lockheed or Austal would be removed from the program—although, to be fair, the defense secretary’s decision was months in the making and wasn’t a specific reaction to Milwaukee’s stranding. Carter’s memo sparked a fresh round of debate between the Pentagon’s capabilities crowd and their presence rivals.

“Shocking” is how retired Navy captain Jerry Hendrix, now an analyst with the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington, D.C., described Carter’s memo. Hendrix’s articles in professional journals over the years have helped advance the presence cause.

Cutting Littoral Combat Ships “relegates the maritime mission to the back seat,” Hendrix told The Daily Beast, adding that the reduction is “very much in line with Ash Carter’s technological approach to defense—that science is now going to come forward and magically change defense and we won’t need ships to service forward presence.”

But Norman Polmar, an author and naval expert who has been aboard two Littoral Combat Ships, said the changes to the troubled program are good for America and the Navy. “Numbers are important,” Polmar said, “but you also have to have hardcore combat capability.”

Having canceled a dozen Littoral Combat Ships and freed up potentially billions of dollars and hundreds of sailors, the Navy should hurry up and design a tougher, more heavily-armed and more reliable small warship, Polmar said. “That memo should have been written five years ago.”