Small Combat Ships and the Future of the Navy: The Navy Is Wisely Preparing to Introduce a New Ship Design, but It Should Evaluate the Prototypes Comprehensively before Moving into Production

By Work, Robert O. | Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Small Combat Ships and the Future of the Navy: The Navy Is Wisely Preparing to Introduce a New Ship Design, but It Should Evaluate the Prototypes Comprehensively before Moving into Production


Work, Robert O., Issues in Science and Technology


In November 2001, the U.S. Navy announced a new family of 21st century surface warships that includes a small, focused-mission combatant called the Littoral Combat Ship, or LCS. The LCS would be a fast, stealthy warship designed specifically for operations in shallow coastal waters. It would have a modular mission payload, allowing it to take on three naval threats--diesel submarines, mines, and small "swarming" boats--but only one at a time.

Inclusion of the LCS in the Navy's future plans caught many by surprise. Just one year earlier, the Navy's 30-year shipbuilding plan pointedly excluded any mention of small, modular, focused-mission combatants. And throughout the 2001 defense program review, an effort conducted at the start of every new administration, the Navy had panned the idea of small warships. It had instead supported a future fleet comprising multimission warships, the smallest of which had a displacement of 9,000 tons. Small warships are those having a displacement of less than 3,000 tons; the LCS would displace about 2,700 to 2,900 tons.

The Navy's leadership spent little time preparing either its own officer corps or Congress for this abrupt reversal of its long-stated preference for large warships, and then it botched the explanation of its rationale. As a result, the analytical basis for the ship was immediately attacked by naval officers, defense analysts, and members of Congress. The Navy spent more than two years trying to explain its decision and make a solid case for the ship.

Supporters of the ship took heart when in May 2004 the Navy awarded two contracts for the next phase of the LCS. One, valued at $423 million, went to a team led by Lockheed Martin. This award was for a seven-month systems-design effort, with an option to construct two prototype vessels. The second award, for $536 million, was for a 16-month systems-design effort by a General Dynamics-led team. It, too, had an option to build two prototypes, but of a different design. These competing designs will vie for a production run that could number as many as 56 ships.

On the surface, it appeared as though the Navy had finally prevailed over the LCS's many skeptics. But the debate is not finished. Support for the LCS remains uncertain, especially in the House, which tried to pull money from the current defense program to delay construction. In essence, House members agreed in conference only to a "sail-off" between two designs; it is not yet clear that they have endorsed either the LCS concept or a subsequent production run. Meanwhile, within the Navy itself, the ship continues to be attacked by submariners and aviators, who see it taking resources away from their programs. Even within the surface warfare community, officers whisper that the ship will survive only so long as the current chief of naval operations, Admiral Vern Clark, remains in charge. Thus, although supporters of the program are currently riding high, its detractors may yet succeed in sinking the program before it has a chance to prove itself.

That would be as big a mistake as pursuing the program blindly. There are sound reasons why the LCS should be pursued. On the other hand, much about the ship's concept of operations remains to be proven or explored. The present plan, modified to allow for thorough operational testing of the LCS concept and design, is the proper one.

Is the carrier era ending?

The Navy consists of aircraft carriers, surface warships, submarines, amphibious ships, mine warfare ships, and support ships, plus the men and women who use them as an instrument of national power. Its combat power has traditionally been measured by counting the number of ships in its total ship battle force.

Any major change to the character of the battle force is an issue of almost religious importance to the Navy and its many supporters. Whether to include the LCS in its future plans was thus a question that would have sparked spirited debate regardless of the circumstances. …

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Small Combat Ships and the Future of the Navy: The Navy Is Wisely Preparing to Introduce a New Ship Design, but It Should Evaluate the Prototypes Comprehensively before Moving into Production
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