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The Navy Just Sank Its High-Speed Future

The ship was supposed to zoom over the ocean top, 50 percent faster than its competitors. Then things changed.

The future of the Navy was supposed to be speedy, thanks to its new Littoral Combat Ships. The Navy has built two versions of the LCS, a conventional-looking single-hull ship from Lockheed Martin and a trimaran—a ship with a slender hull and two outriggers—developed by General Dynamics. Tiny by U.S. warship standards, at 3,000-plus tons, the LCS is distinguished by its 45-knot-plus top speed—50 percent faster than most warships. But now the Navy wants to rebrand the LCS as a frigate—that is to say, a real warship, capable of fighting in any circumstances alongside the rest of the fleet or performing long oceanic patrols, with revamped armament and mission equipment. The future version may sacrifice the original ships’ speed, according to Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden, commander of naval surface forces.

To understand why the speed requirement may be ditched, it helps to know why anyone thought it was needed in the first place. The Persian Gulf campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s and the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000 made the Navy worry about the threat of a swarm attack by small, fast boats. Conventional warships were at a speed disadvantage, particularly in shallow water, where their movements were restricted. The risk was that a ship’s cumbersome weapons could not destroy the attackers quickly enough to stop some of them getting through.

A few pioneers invented a fast, austere warship called Streetfighter, to protect larger ships in the littorals. But the Pentagon views fast, austere, lean concepts the way that certain French farmers view ducklings, so the Navy stuffed a funnel and tube down the Streetfighter’s throat and fattened it up into a multi-role oceanic combatant. Why? The Navy wanted to sustain a force of around 300 warships, but wanted to replace its Ticonderoga cruisers with the expensive DDG-1000, later the Zumwalt class. It therefore needed a relatively cheap ship to make up numbers.

The Navy has now decided that the LCS’s speed is unnecessary—probably because a new generation of very accurate, automated, stabilized medium-caliber gun mounts now provide an effective counter-swarm defense. Is it a good idea to saddle the fleet, to 2050 and beyond, with the burden of the original speed requirement?

There are few things more wasteful than the lifetime cost of meeting a requirement that no longer matters. Consider the space shuttle, its wing and payload bay sized to retrieve from orbit a huge spy satellite that was never built. The Joint Strike Fighter’s overall length had to fit the elevators on Britain’s now-retired Invincible-class carriers.

Both LCS designs need twice the power of a 30-knot-class ship so their hulls must accommodate big turbine engines and their large inlet and exhaust ducts. They have waterjets for high speed and shallow draught, but at cruising speeds the waterjets are less efficient than propellers. Hull forms are always a compromise between speed, weight and seakeeping, and the trades get tougher as the speed increases.

Redesigning the LCS would not mean developing a new suite of engines, weapons, and systems—they will mostly be imported in any event, because the U.S. warship industry does not make radar, sonar, weapons, combat systems, or even modern diesel engines for smaller ships.

So why not start over with a proven hull design, probably from Europe, and state-of-the-art propulsion, weapons, and systems? The best answer is a sad one, summarized in a recent report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “A modified LCS may be the Navy’s only option to meet this timeline,” the report says, noting that it takes six to nine years from construction contract to delivery for a new class. The document then adds that it will take another two years to write the requirements.

Want to see a new frigate in service in 2023? It’s already too late.

But the watchword may also be “better the devil you know” because the Navy’s track record on its new combatant designs has been consistently appalling. The Zumwalt class was cut short at three ships for a total of $12 billion, which was not enough to buy an excuse for designing a stealth ship around a 75-nm.-range gun. The Ford-class aircraft carrier was billed as a pragmatic upgrade of the Nimitz hull, using new technology to support more combat sorties, reduce crew size, and cut maintenance costs: It is late and far over budget and there are no guarantees as to when any of those advances will be delivered.

Root causes include the sheer inertia of the shipbuilding process. The service does business with a handful of shipyards that have no other customers; a hiccup in the flow of orders costs millions, and this militates against taking time to think or to produce a new design.

Warship design authority is still divided among the Navy’s designers, their hired naval architects, and shipyards that still have one foot in an era when the yards were build-to-print operations. In that system—more so than in most military acquisitions—it is hard to find the person or team who can say “You can have 45 kt., or such-and-such a radar cross-section, but this is what it will cost?” Or “With all the other new technology on this ship, is this really the time to go turbine-electric?”

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Rather than lamenting the impossibility of improvement, it would make sense to use the small surface combatant—which at least in its Block 1 version can be built entirely with off-the-shelf technology—as a prototype for a better way of doing business.