Cuts in military expenditures, coupled with harsh criticisms in Washington, have plagued the Littoral Combat Ship program since its inception. Recent decisions by senior officials make the future of the program even more uncertain.
In February, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced plans to halt LCS production after 32 ships, 20 less than originally planned, until further studies are conducted.
“We need to closely examine whether the LCS has the independent protection and firepower to operate and survive against a more advanced military adversary and emerging new technologies, ” Hagel said in the announcement.
The decision comes as part of massive budget proposals that could shrink the military to its smallest size since before WWII.
Cuts to the LCS program could deliver a body blow to Austal USA, one of two contractors building the new vessel. And that, in turn, would deliver a body blow to Mobile, where Austal is the biggest industrial employer by far and the newest landmark on the waterfront.
But Craig Perciavalle, president of Austal USA, believes the LCS can admirably fulfill its mission as the replacement for aging frigates and other vessels in the U.S. Navy fleet.
A TASK FORCE FOR CHANGE
The Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) established the Small Surface Combatant Task Force (SSCTF), following Hagel’s direction, to review the viability of LCS, and possible alternatives to the program.
John Burrow, Marine Corps Systems Command director, will lead the task force, made up of six Navy captains, a Navy commander, and one civilian.
According to Navy spokesman Lt. Robert Myers, the task force will report its findings to CNO by July 31 — in time for recommendations to be considered for the budget request for fiscal year 2016.
In a memo directed to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, Hagel instructed the SSCTF to evaluate three possible options as it relates to the future of LCS: continue with the existing LCS design or another ship design currently in existence; a modified design of one or both LCS variants, or procure a completely new ship design.
The Task Force will evaluate system requirements, cost, schedule and lethality for all options.
U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Alabama, suggests only one of those options is viable when considering costs and scheduling.
“We modify ships all the time, ” Byrne says. “I think modifying the existing LCS design is the most likely option.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Byrne, and Alabama Sens. Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions, as well as Perciavalle, are confident Austal can adhere to any changes the Navy decides are necessary.
“Every indication we’re getting is that future plans will veer towards using a modified version of the existing LCS sea frame, ” Perciavalle says. “The current sea frames have the capabilities the Navy asked for, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have additional capabilities if they want them.”
It’s possible the Navy could also be forced to choose between the two LCS variants — either outright due to cost factors associated with keeping both variants long term or as a result of future contract reductions in the number of ships produced per year.
The Navy has procured two sea frame variants of the LCS — the Independence-class, an aluminum trimaran, designed and built by Austal USA, and the Freedom-class, a semi-planing monohull made of steel and aluminum, built by Marinette Marine Inc., in Marinette, Wisc.
The ships are designed primarily for speed (both variants can reach speeds of 40 knots), flexibility and shallow-water, close-to-shore missions, such as mine clearing, submarine hunting and humanitarian relief.
The first block-buy contract was awarded on Dec. 29, 2010 for the construction of 10 ships each. Austal has been contracted for the even number ships in the block-buy.
“Moving forward, we’re expected to deliver two LCS per year, ” Perciavalle says. “We’re on track to be able to do that.”
Under the existing LCS contract, the company will deliver ships into 2019.
Any extensions or changes to the LCS contract as a result of the recommendations made by the SSCTF would occur after the year 2020, Perciavalle says.
Austal’s LCS 2 and 4 have been delivered. LCS 6, 8, 10, 12 and 14 are in various stages of construction at the Austal facility, and LCS 16, 18, and 20 have been funded, but construction on these ships has not yet begun.
Austal USA has a second military contract for 10 Joint High Speed Vessels (JHSV). According to Perciavalle, the company is currently the only U.S. manufacturer of that vessel.
These contracts allowed Austal USA to make significant capital investments to its facility in Mobile and increase employee count from approximately 800 in 2009 to around 4, 000 today.
Early on, the LCS program fell victim to cost increases and schedule delays that occur with any new ship construction, Perciavalle says.
Navy officials have confirmed that, today, production costs are at an all-time low.
The cost of the LCS offers an appealing option for the Navy to build its presence around the world.
“Over the past five years in particular, the program has performed remarkably well and is now considered by some experts to be a model program, ” Sessions says.
The Joint High Speed Vessel is a high-speed catamaran transport ship also built by Austal USA for the U.S. Navy.
Photo by Todd Douglas
PLAGUED BY CRITICISM
Naysayers of the LCS program point to the problems associated with cost and design in early versions of the ship, and argue continuing with the current LCS program would leave the U.S. Navy pigeon-holed and under-armed against other world navies.
“With defense dollars — investment dollars in particular — growing scarcer, it is all the more of an imperative for defense leaders to make strategically sound choices when it comes to the military’s modernization portfolio, ” Acting Deputy Defense Secretary Christine Fox said in her speech at the U.S. Naval Institute’s West 2014 conference in San Diego in February. “We simply can’t afford to build a navy tailored for one region and one kind of fight… Niche platforms that can conduct a certain mission in a permissive environment have a valuable place in the Navy’s inventory. Yet, we need more ships with the protection and firepower to survive against a more advanced military adversary.”
Republican Sen. John McCain has been a tireless critic of the LCS program from the beginning, and has, in the past, cited skyrocketing costs and the unlikeliness those costs will remain at current levels to be an “irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars.”
In April, McCain proposed cutting the program back to 24 ships, or the number currently funded or delivered.
“In today’s fiscal world, spending money as we’ve done in LCS is not just reckless, not just wasteful — it’s dangerous. It actually weakens our national defense, ” McCain said in a statement to the Senate.
McCain also joined other critics in pointing out the scheduling delays and weaknesses in the production of the LCS mission packages designed to give LCS its flexibility and edge.
According to McCain’s statements, all of the current mission packages need significant further testing and will need to overcome integration challenges, which will likely drive up costs for the LCS program as well.
The contract for future Mission Package Integration has been awarded to Northrop Grumman in Los Angeles.
If the Navy fulfilled its initial plan of 52 LCS variants, one in every six active duty vessels in the future 300-ship Navy fleet would be an LCS, a fast lightweight vessel, but one that is less armed and, perhaps less likely to survive a hit, than some vessels they will replace.
High-ranking members of the Navy continue to publically praise the capabilities of the LCS, despite criticisms.
“The great thing that a ship like LCS brings is that, as technology changes, as missions change, because it’s modular you don’t have to change the whole ship, you just change the weapons system, ” said Navy Secretary Mabus at a military funding hearing for fiscal year 2015.
“Winning over the Navy has never been the issue, ” Byrne says. “The Navy seems very pleased with the two variants.”
The Navy recently conducted a war game to explore ways both LCS variants could be used against a national enemy.
“What we saw was a significant increase in capabilities when the ships were paired with surface combatants in the battle group. The analysis of the war game will influence the concept of operations for LCS, ” Navy spokesman Myers says.
Rear Adm. Thomas Rowden, the director of surface warfare and chief of naval operations, echoed the Navy’s approval of these ships in a March 25 interview with AL.com reporter Brendan Kirby.
In response to the survivability of the LCS, Christopher Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington D.C., is critical of LCS in some regards, but survivability isn’t the biggest issue, he says. “In any hypothetical situation, certain U.S. Navy ships are going to match up to certain foreign navy ships better than others. It’s very speculative. The frigate the LCS is said to replace, the Perry FFG-7, was also not believed to be the strongest in terms of survivability, and yet, it did OK, operationally, in the very few instances it did (take a hit).”
Byrne agrees, saying no ship in the fleet is without vulnerability, but the speed and maneuverability of these ships can add to the likelihood of survivability in a full-on attack.
The LCS is built to a survivability standard higher than traditional coastal mining ships but lower than frigates.
Despite its aluminum construction, the Independence LCS has to meet the same survivability standards as a comparable steel hull, Perciavalle says.
Both variants of the LCS are equipped with core combat systems that can provide some defense, but are also designed to accommodate a variety of individual warfare mission modules that can be designed and assembled into interchangeable mission packages depending on the deployment.
“I’m confident that these ships, equipped with proper mission packages, can be deployed in a variety of military situations, ” Byrne says.
Perciavalle is also confident that Austal USA will be able to assist in the future of the LCS program, regardless of the recommendations made by the Small Surface Combatant Taskforce.
That could be in terms of ongoing service and support for already commissioned vessels or new designs for surface combatants the Navy wants.
“Our focus right now is supporting the extension of both of these programs, ” Perciavalle says of the LCS and JHSV. “We bring affordable innovation and state-of-the-art capabilities, and we have an unbelievably talented workforce delivering high quality products to the customer. That’s attractive.”
Alysha Schertz is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Mobile.
Text by Alysha Schertz