Plagued with every flaw a warship could face, it is difficult to see how the Littoral combat ship was supposed to redefine the US naval standoff with China.
Once hailed as ships of the future, the supposedly inexpensive littoral combat ship (LCS) marks one of the greatest failures of US military spending in the last two decades, far eclipsing the costly F-35 stealth fighter which still works as intended.
Initially, the Navy budget estimated that each ship would only cost $220 million per unit. Today, the ship costs $600 million to produce. But even that pales next to its annual $70 million operating cost. To put that into perspective, the lightly armed 3,400 metric ton surface combatant costs nearly as much to operate as a heavily armed 9,400 metric ton destroyer.
Featuring a novel catamaran design intended to lift out of the water and let it navigate shallow waters, the littoral combat ship was supposed to usher in a revolution in military affairs.
*insert picture of China A2/AD defences*
As China and other nations of the world invested in Anti-Area Access Denial (A2/AD), the United States found that its considerable naval forces were being shuttered out of being able to establish beachheads by the strategy.
Called ‘A2/AD bubbles’ in military jargon, less technologically advanced countries figured out that a slow-moving large target of a ship was still vulnerable to massed cheap firepower.
It fell on special forces and elite units to be able to slip through these overlapping bubbles of sensors and firepower, to make landfall. Once there, they would carry out operations to degrade their opponents A2/AD capability, and prepare for a larger invasion landing.
The calculus became asymmetrical. Missiles at a fraction of the cost of a multi-million dollar naval ship suddenly offered good odds of victory. The ensuing counter strategy was to build a state of the art ship that could gracefully navigate shallow littoral zones.
Armed to the teeth
It was meant to usher in the future.
It was supposed to be lethal, adaptable, and mission tailored. More than one third of its hull was open to welcome modular installations catering to its specific mission. Bristling with cutting-edge technology, the ship could deploy mines, carry out anti-submarine hunts, and send out both manned and unmanned aerial and or naval drones.
The LCS was heavy on automation too. Designed to need only 8 officers and 32 seamen, private contractors took up the majority of the other tasks. That’s a far cry below the retinue on board other naval vessels of the same weight class.
But as matters were coming to a head in the South China Sea, the US made a surprising move and announced the retirement of four littoral combat ships in February 2020. For ships scarcely 12 years old at most, and 6 years old at least, the retirement of these ships was an admission of failure. Normally, ships have a service lifetime ranging from 30 to 40 years.
The decision to retire effectively brand new ships wasn’t taken lightly, and was only deemed necessary after realising that fixing the ships into something remotely sea-worthy would have cost $2 billion over a period of five years.
The LCS never achieved the breakthroughs expected of it. The results of a congressional inquiry released on February 26, 2021, list grave concerns about the littoral combat ship. In the report, crucial questions were raised, including whether the Navy’s plan was moving too fast, and whether the technology used in the ship was mature enough for dependable use.
The inquiry however, only comes after nearly two decades of failed development and billions of dollars in cost overruns.
Jerry Hendrix, a military historian argues that the ship was developed in the absence of threats, making change for change’s sake the navy’s strategy. In other words, the stakes were low. For countries like China, the underdog competing with American primacy of the seas, the stakes were much higher.
The naval flops aren’t limited to the LCS. The US’s latest Ford class supercarrier and its DDG-1000 Zumwalt Destroyers have all faced expensive setbacks that can be traced back to serious conceptual flaws. In essence, this makes the case that the issue isn’t with the LCS, but with the US Navy’s procurement, planning and execution process.
In what’s become a humorous note of satire for US service members and adversary navies alike, the 100,000 metric ton US Navy USS Ford supercarrier, costing nearly $13 billion per unit and $37 billion in development, also has a toilet problem.
Instead of using a regular sewage system, the US Navy wanted to use a new toilet system similar to those found on commercial airplanes. The US Government Accountability Office reports it faced “unexpected and frequent clogging.” The solution? A regular acid flush of the entire sewage system that costs $400,000 each time.
What was so wrong with the LCS however, that tens of billions of dollars of investment were effectively written off?
For one, a dangerous lack of uniformity. The LCS was designed by two different competing companies, namely Lockheed Martin and Austal. The plot twist? The US Navy never chose one, instead purchasing two incompatible, radically different ships to fulfil the same role.
Both designs fell drastically short of the pressures of reality. For instance, the trimaran Austal-designed USS Independence was made out of aluminium, a subpar metal for a naval warship. In July 2020, this was recognised after the USS Bonhomme Richard caught fire, with its aluminium roof melting off. Repairing the ship would cost an additional $250 million.
Both variants were also curiously vulnerable, lacking the standard distributed and redundant systems found in modern warships to act as back ups in case anything is damaged. In a 2017 testing report, the Pentagon found that vital systems and parts were packed close together, meaning a single strike could cripple the boat.
The Pentagon’s findings were unequivocal. Both variants were not “survivable in high intensity combat.” For the Pentagon, the littoral combat ship was supposed to redefine modern naval warfare, specifically along the Chinese east coast, often described as the most heavily defended and entrenched land in the world.
After spending nearly $7.6 billion to fix its problems, the Navy would abandon the modular design that defined the ship. What if the novel approach had worked? The LCS would have been able to trade off offensive, defensive and support roles with ease.
To add insult to injury, the littoral combat ships see low rates of deployment compared to the rest of the fleet or even its adversaries. When deployed, they often encounter terrible breakdowns and even longer periods of time in repair yards.
In 2015 and 2016, 4 out of a total of 6 littoral combat ships suffered major system or engine breakdowns within 9 months. Two ships failed weeks apart. The reason? Shavings and debris got into their combining gear, a transmission box that connects the ships’ gas turbines and diesel engines. One ship with a failed gearbox had to be towed into port. Another ship failed when seawater leaked into its diesel engine. Yet another broke down when its engine failed due to defective parts.
The solution? Active littoral combat ships would have to get used to sailing without the use of the combining gear, until the issue could be resolved. That comes at a cost, reducing overall speed to 10 knots or 18.2 kilometres per hour, far under its intended speed of 40 knots, or 74 kilometres per hour.
In 2017, a broken steering cable marooned an LCS in Montreal, Canada three months after it was commissioned amid fanfare. Once the cable was fixed, the ship got stuck again due to winter weather conditions. The spate of breakdowns was so devastating that the ships were not deployed in 2018 altogether. In 2020, another LCS lost electrical power on its return from Latin America. It had to be towed home.
Mechanical failures were only one worry defence planners had to contend with in the LCS. Initially intended to boast a state of the art sensors package, the ship would face incredibly slow sensor development times.
Flawed at heart
In spite of its ambitious goals, the story of the littoral combat ship has come to serve as a modern cautionary tale for navies worldwide.
The lessons are simple. Don’t try to pack your naval warships with every new technology you can think of. Don’t begin construction of a ship until you’ve already developed and finalised its systems and technology.
The alternative? Sky-high cost overruns and delays. There’s a deeper issue at hand too, and it stems from the US Department of Defense. In one word: concurrency.
Concurrency is a common practice carried out by procurement bodies where systems, ships or weapons are purchased before they’re complete. This often leads to further costly adaptation, as the design itself is changed to address problems discovered after the final product is complete. Concurrency is the equivalent of buying a car based on the specifications printed on a flyer, without a test drive.
To make up for the debacle, the US Navy plans to buy 20 new Italian-designed frigates, with a contract granted to Lockheed Martin to outfit them with the latest in weapon and sensor technology. The price tag for each frigate? $940 million.
The announcement has lawmakers and taxpayers alike wondering, why didn’t they do that in the first place?